History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

According to the answer of this question, Columbus was pretty much unique in his belief that the world was small enough and Asia was big enough to make sailing west to Asia possible. Everyone else expected (correctly) that it was WAY too far away to be a practical option.

Of course, it ended up being moot, because there was a completely new landmass in between Europe and Asia: the Americas. Columbus landed there instead, and the rest was history.

But if the Europeans had anything even approaching an accurate idea of how far away Asia was to the west, they must have realized that that would be a COLOSSAL ocean. (About 11,000 miles, we can now estimate.) Did anyone propose the idea that there was more than water out there? That an ocean that big might hold a whole new continent, or even more than one, before you got back around to "India"?

Especially given the Viking discoveries of America (and of Iceland and Greenland), were there rumors or discussions of other lands to the West? Or did the European powers just assume it was empty ocean all the way to Asia, right up until they discovered an enormous landmass blocking their way?

share|improve this question
up vote 19 down vote accepted

As fate would have it, the first known globe of the Earth was created in 1492, the same year as Columbus' voyage. As such, it is also the only known globe to depict the area between Western Europe and East Asia prior to the discovery of the New World. None of the earlier flat maps I could find made any kind of legitimate effort at depicting this area.

enter image description here

The author was working for the King of Portugal at the time. Given this as the state of the art of European cartographical knowledge in 1492, we can see that the intervening ocean was thought to contain numerous small islands. The Azores and Canaries and Cape Verde islands were known and depicted. In the East, Japan (Cipangu), Java and other "spice" islands of the SE Asian archipelago are depicted.

There are some interesting "unknown" islands. There are several placed up in the arctic circle, perhaps as a nod to Iceland and its legends. There was also one island roughly the size of England smack dab in the middle of the ocean named "Saint Brandan". Likely this is a reference to the story of the Irish monk St. Brendon, who was said to have traversed the ocean and found an island paradise. The interesting thing about this is that it appears that this rather tall tale was apparently given much more credence in mainstream European thought than the Icelandic discoveries.

Even there though, it was clearly just thought to be a large island, not an entire new continent. So it seems fair to say the folks in the best position to speculate, the Portugese navigational community, didn't think there was anything in the middle but islands.

share|improve this answer
Very nice, and well-researched! – Nerrolken Jan 13 '14 at 22:05
One interesting aside I should add is that, while the Americas weren't predicted prior to discovery, the southern continents of Australia and Antartica were predicted. – T.E.D. Jan 15 '14 at 13:32

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.