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A widespread knowledge is that Columbus died without knowing he reached a new continent.

But:

  1. In Columbus Journal of the Third Voyage (1498) it is written:

"I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown. I am greatly supported in this view by reason of this great river, and by this sea which is fresh."

  1. Moreover the idea of a new continent was not unknown to other Spanish crown navigators as during the lifetime of Columbus (who died in 1506), Amerigo Vespucci wrote in 1501:

"We knew that land to be a continent, and not an island, from its long beaches extending without trending round, the infinite number of inhabitants, the numerous tribes and peoples, the numerous kinds of wild animals unknown in our country, and many others never seen before by us, touching which it would take long to make reference."

My question is:

  • Do we agree that at least Columbus was aware of the hypothesis that the land mass he hit was of a new continent?
  • From his third Journal, can we conclude he admitted he reached a new continent and if so the sentence from Wikipedia's Columbus page:

"Never admitting that he had reached a continent previously unknown to Europeans rather than the East Indies he had set out for, [...]"

is incorrect?

3 Answers 3

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I think this question is conflating two things: whether Columbus thought he had found the Indies, and whether he thought he might have also discovered a new continent.

  1. Did Columbus think for the rest of his life he had sailed to the Indies1?

Yes he did.

Columbus appears to have been one of those people who believes things that they want to be true, and then go out looking for facts to back them up. What has sometimes been called The Unscientific Method. In his case, he wanted to believe the (East) Indies were nearby, so he went out and found the largest estimate of the size of Asia, paired it with his own personal miscalculated small estimate of the size of the Earth2, and came up with a "scientifically backed" figure of 3,700 km to Japan. The true distance is more than 3 times that.

Even in the 15th Century, this was considered shaky logic, and he was laughed out of every nautical capital in Europe. It was only the news of Dias having discovered the way around Africa in 1488 that persuaded the neighboring Spaniards to take a chance on the nutjob.

So if Columbus had been the kind of guy who could get diverted from this belief by little things like the preponderance of evidence, or everyone else thinking otherwise, he would never have made his first voyage.

  1. Did Columbus think he had found a new continent?

Quite possibly. The area south and west of the Indies was not well explored (by Europeans), and it was thought by many that there ought to be an other continent down there because there was so much more land known north of the Equator. Many people for the next couple of centuries even speculatively put it on their maps.

So in Columbus' world view, another continent West of "the Indies" could easily be explained as Terra Australis. Later European explorers who really did go to the East Indies and found landmasses in that region assumed exactly that. This is how Australia got its name.

Here's one such map from about 50 years later. Notice that just about all of the unexplored area in the South of the projection was filled with land rather than sea.

enter image description here

1 - This is the area we today call "Indonesia", although he mistakenly thought Japan was down there too. Because that would have made them even closer.

2 - He took an Arab Astronomer's estimate of the size of the earth, but applied shorter Roman miles to it rather than the Arab miles the Astronomer was using. This error was likely pointed out to Columbus on multiple occasions (eg: the occasions he was rejected).

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    Thanks for your answer. But isn't the phrase (did he really wrote it?) from his journal "I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown. I am greatly supported in this view by reason of this great river, and by this sea which is fresh." a strong evidence that he actually thought he reached a new continent? Or do we have other evidences that show he has another stance in public?
    – Polk
    Nov 23, 2015 at 9:50
  • @Polk - Yes, but it doesn't say that he realized he wasn't in the Indies. It just says he thinks he found a new continent out there.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 29, 2015 at 22:30
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    "but it doesn't say that he realized he wasn't in the Indies". He says: "I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown". For me "hitherto unknown" means it cannot be a continent we were already aware of, so it cannot be the Indies, no?
    – Polk
    Dec 3, 2015 at 16:26
  • @Polk - Sure it can. Perhaps there was a continent in the Indies that nobody knew about before. That (later) map I showed depicts a continent existing in "The Indies". So clearly contemporaries found the idea plausible.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 3, 2015 at 16:29
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That Columbus died thinking he hadn't reached a "New World" is one of the most widespread of myths....In 1492 he might've thought he reached Asia, but in 1498--during the Third Voyage--he recorded in his Journal what is quoted at the top of this page--that "I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown."

He was talking of South America; he was at the mouth of the Orinoco River, today Venezuela.

Columbus also began referring to this continent as OTRO MUNDO--"other world" in Spanish. He couldn't have been alluding to Asia, which is part of the Eurasian landmass and known to Europeans for thousands of years.

ALSO, in records of his lawsuit with the Spanish Crown (through which he attempted to get a bigger cut of the wealth produced by his exploration), he says that he deserves more because before his voyages no one even knew of the lands he'd reached. Therefore he was NOT talking of Asia, of which again Europe long knew and to which Europeans had long gone overland: e.g., the Venetian Marco Polo and his father and uncle. Even the ancient Romans seem to have sent an embassy to China, in the reign of the Philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, 161-180 CE. The said court records concerning Columbus are the "Book of Privileges," and his reference to the new lands is in Document 43.

Moreover, Columbus coined the name "Indias Occidentales"--"West Indies." He knew of the East Indies (lands which had long been known to Europe, and which the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama reached in 1498 by sailing in the opposite direction--eastward); he simply had realized that HIS Indies were in a different part of the world.

For sources, see Kirkpatrick Sale's THE CONQUEST OF PARADISE, 1992 (written for the 500th Anniversary of the First Voyage). No better book on Columbus.

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    "I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown." Did you note that the OP has already mentioned this in his question? Mar 12, 2022 at 6:49
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    I assume you are replying to me, Lucius Vanini, Lars. In any case, YES, of course I saw that. Well? Mar 15, 2022 at 15:46
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His round-trip routes were suspiciously perfect. For him to think it was actually India would have been a gross miscalculation of the planet's diameter. He must have at the very least allowed for the possibility that the land he discovered was, in fact, a separate continent: he did have an imagination.

As for him refusing stubbornly to admit it, he must have had pretty good reasons. He had a contract of sorts with his superiors to deliver a new route to India. Delivering something else may have been tantamount to voiding the agreement and everything that came with it: privileges, money, status, etc. He may not have wished to provide them with the loophole. What others said, and what his employers thought was not his concern: he stuck to his guns in order to force them to honor the deal.

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  • But the phrase I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown doesn't say he was refusing stubbornly to admit it, rather the opposite, no?
    – Polk
    Nov 18, 2015 at 12:03
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    Very good argument; the answer would be stronger with sources.
    – MCW
    Nov 18, 2015 at 12:13
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    History is the construction of narratives using sources; if you don't include sources you're not performing history. Might be fiction, might be rhetoric, might be pub conversation, might be monologue, but it isn't history.
    – MCW
    Nov 18, 2015 at 12:17
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    Whoa - let's de-escalate this. I complimented the argument you made, but pointed out that it would be a better argument if it included sources. I'm relatively sure that no history faculty in the free world would accept a paper based on logic rather than research; I'm not saying your conclusion is wrong (i said it looked good), I'm saying that answers supported by a combination of logic and research are superior.
    – MCW
    Nov 18, 2015 at 13:15
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    The first half of this looks "suspiciously" like a conspiracy theory I've heard before (plus, "India" != "The Indies").
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 18, 2015 at 14:07

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