Columbus Day: Ten Minutes with Nicolás Wey Gómez

For Columbus Day, we thought we’d ask Nicolás Wey Gómez, author of The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies, to share with us some thoughts on “the Discoverer.”

What is the biggest misconception or myth about Columbus? Or what are some misguided assumptions about the significance of Columbus?

The most persistent misconception about Columbus may be that he proved to his contemporaries in Europe that the earth was round. 

To be sure, there was no such thing as a globe, in the eyes of Columbus and his immediate contemporaries; at least not in the modern sense of a ‘planet’ revolving around the sun. But pre-Columbian Europeans did visualize the cosmos as a series of concentric spheres, celestial and elemental. Humans were supposed to stand at the center of that cosmos, within the region of the elements – itself a series of spheres arranged from ‘heaviest’ at the center of the universe to ‘lightest’ away from that center: respectively, earth, water, air, and fire. Given this arrangement, it was certainly possible to imagine, as some had done since antiquity, that, by rounding the central ‘body’ formed by earth and water, one might eventually find oneself standing upside-down in relation to where one had once stood. 

The problem, for Europeans, was not whether the world was flat or round. The problem was explaining the presence of ‘dry land’ – continents and islands – above the water surface. Aristotle had formulated a paradox by theorizing that the ‘heavier’ and solid, sphere of earth tended to ‘sink’ below the ‘lighter,’ fluid sphere of water. Well, then, should not the watery sphere have covered the earthy sphere on all sides?

Columbus’s learned opponents during the years he lobbied for support in Castile proposed an elegant solution to this problem. They began by assuming that the volume ratio of earth to water was pathetically low, perhaps as low as 1 to 10. Given this ratio, the watery sphere would have had to be slightly ‘eccentric’, or displaced, with respect to the earthy sphere – such that Africa, Asia, and Europe would have formed a relatively insignificant, unrepeatable ‘island’ surrounded by the abyss of the waters. This geocentric model made it impossible to conceive of reaching ‘the East by way of the West’, as Columbus would later describe his feat.

Columbus and his supporters, on the contrary, assumed that the volume ratio of earth to water was exceedingly high, perhaps as high as 6 to 1. Given this ratio, it was possible to preserve Aristotle’s claim that earth and water tended to sink towards the same ‘center’ – that they were ‘concentric’ with each other. ‘Dry land’ could be imagined to be the result of irregularities on the earth’s sphere that, in theory, were to be found all around the body formed by earth and water. As Columbus did not fail to understand, the fact that the Portuguese had by then found so much continental land stretching south towards today’s Cape of Good Hope strongly suggested that this geocentric model was the correct one. By finding the Bahamas and Caribbean islands at such a great distance from the known continental masses, Columbus would, in 1492, definitely prove that it was possible to find ‘dry land’ anywhere around the globe. Even though this was not Asia, as he had hoped, Columbus had confirmed, once and for all, that Asia, Africa, Europe, and surrounding islands were not the only landmasses to be found in the region of the elements.

In your book, you note that Columbus didn’t just sail west to reach the East, but that he sailed west and south to reach the East. What is important about this distinction?

There is no question that Columbus’s voyages entailed sailing generally due ‘west’ across the Atlantic. As the discoverer himself famously put it in a document that introduced the contents of the journal to his first voyage, his intention was to reach ‘the East by way of the West.’ So, it is with good reason that the notion of longitude – the east-west separation in degrees between any given point on the globe and a prime meridian, like Greenwich today – should have played a fundamental role in shaping our understanding of Columbus’s attempt to reach a vast region of the globe he identified as ‘India,’ But longitude only tells part of the story of Columbus’s Indies enterprise.

Indeed, Columbus also sailed south to the Indies: his four voyages generally trace a rather bold descent towards the globe’s lower latitudes – into the vast horizontal belt of the tropics. This was no mere ‘accident’ forced upon Columbus by the direction of the trade winds in the north- and mid-Atlantic. Surely, it made sailing sense to catch the trade winds out of the Canaries – Castile’s only colonial possessions in the Atlantic at the time Columbus formulated his enterprise. But why did Columbus, having found land on the other side of the Atlantic in 1492, then persist in conducting this and all subsequent explorations of the Indies below the east-west parallel that he (erroneously) thought passed through the Canarian island of El Hierro and the landfall site he called San Salvador?

As it turns out, the Canaries and the African mainland cape then known as Bojador (Cape Juby) had once marked world’s end, so to speak, for European ships venturing out into the Atlantic: they had formed an ominous threshold to the allegedly scorched, uninhabitable latitudes of the ‘torrid zone.’ It was thanks to the scholar-prince Henry ‘the Navigator’, that, starting in 1434, the Portuguese had found a vast, fertile, and populous world beyond the coastal fringes of the Sahara desert. And, by the time Columbus left Portugal in order to lobby for support in Castile (1485), the Portuguese had managed to bypass Muslim mediation of the trans-Saharan trade, establishing a prosperous traffic in gold, ivory, Malagueta pepper and ‘black’ slaves in the fort of São Jorge da Mina, on the equatorial coast of Guinea.

In 1492, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Elizabeth of Castile forbade Columbus, by reason of treaty with Portugal, from treading south beyond the Canaries and towards ‘Guinea’, the tropical domain Portugal now reserved for itself by virtue of Prince Henry’s excursions beyond the Canaries and Bojador. But nothing prevented Columbus from using the Canaries as a stepping-stone to cross the Atlantic due west in search of ‘India.’

Columbus’s ‘India’ was not just the subcontinent we call by that name today. Largely borrowing from Marco Polo, Columbus visualized the Indies as a vast geographical complex joined by the great highway of the ocean. It was a ‘maritime’ India ultimately gravitating towards the distinctly tropical accident we know today as the Indian Ocean. Columbus’s ‘India’ extended all the way from Japan’s archipelago, which contemporary maps located in the lower latitudes of the South China Sea, to the shores and islands of Southern China, Indochina, the Malaysian Peninsula, and Indonesia, and to the inner shores and islands of the Indian Ocean – including Africa’s coast all the way to the islands of Zanzibar and Madagascar. 

Europeans had, since Antiquity, drawn significant analogies between ‘Ethiopia’ (as Greeks had called sub-Saharan Africa) and the extended basin of the Indian Ocean, precisely because both regions shared the same general, ‘tropical’ latitudes of the globe. Not surprisingly, Columbus’s experience of the Bahamas and Caribbean Basin would be tinted by millenarian perceptions of the Afro-Indian tropics.

When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he appears to have reckoned that he was somewhere off the coast of mainland China. He proceeded to identify Cuba’s outer shores as part of ‘Mangi’, the name Marco Polo had given to southern China. On Cuba’s northeastern coast, Columbus fancied that, were he to continue to climb Cuba’s coastline, it would soon slope to the north all the way to ‘Cathay’, the name Marco Polo had used for the seat of the Great Khan in northern China. But failing to sight Mangi’s famous cities or merchant ships – and, most likely, relieved not to have found any traces of Mongol penetration – Columbus decided to follow Cuba’s coastline due southwest, skipping over to Hispaniola, which he thereafter insisted on identifying as Marco Polo’s fabulous ‘Çipango,’ or Japan.

We may never know whether Columbus ever realized that he had failed to reach Asia – though one might easily suspect that he did. An apocryphal tradition among Americanists even maintains that he never really intended to reach Asia, but rather lands about which he had some prior knowledge. Whatever the case may be, Columbus never admitted but that he had reached ‘India.’ And he devoted his every effort to exploring the latitudes that fell below the site of his famous landfall in the Bahamas, searching for every sign of the valuable resources that Europeans now believed they could find in abundance, or exclusively, within the belt of the tropics: gold, spices, and, last but not least, ‘black’ slaves.

Part of what made Columbus such a brilliant navigator is the fact that he was keen observer of the elements around him. And even though he was not formally schooled, Columbus’s copious annotations to the books we know he read reveal an extremely savvy consumer of the geographical ideas that circulated in Europe in his time. What is more, his extensive testimony of the Indies shows that there was method to his thought and actions in the Indies – well beyond what critics of his role in history might be willing to admit.

Indeed, Columbus participated, no matter how imperfectly, in a scientific and technical tradition that linked terrestrial latitude to temperature, temperature to the nature of places, and the nature of places to the nature of the peoples, animals, plants, and minerals proper to those places. This principle is pervasive in Columbus’s writing about the Bahamas and Caribbean Basin, and it sheds light on the Indies enterprise that generations of scholars fixated upon Columbus’s attempt to reach ‘the East by way of the West’ have tended to miss.

By ‘southing’ his way to the Indies, Columbus was not just aiming for the fabulously vast booty Europeans now clearly associated with the globe’s lower latitudes. His attention to latitude enabled Columbus to make sense, for himself and for others, of the ‘India’ he had set out to reach. Not surprisingly, Columbus drew a fundamental distinction between the higher, cooler latitudes of Mediterranean Europe, and the lower, hotter latitudes of the Bahamas and Caribbean Basin. This latitudinal distinction enabled him to believe not only that his ‘India’ would yield all the fabulous riches Europeans were demanding of the tropics, but that the Indians themselves possessed a nature – ranging from ‘childish’ to ‘monstrous’ – that seemed to justify rendering them Castile’s subjects or slaves.

Columbus had, no doubt, planned to clone Portugal’s hideous harvesting of human labor in Guinea on the opposite side of the Atlantic. And, as his diary and letters suggest, he was vexed to learn that, even as he found himself southing his way farther and farther into his ‘India’, the Indians themselves failed to display the dark skin hues that Europeans had come to associate sub-Saharan slaves. The long-standing somatic association between ‘blackness’ and ‘slavishness’ was so entrenched among Europeans, that Columbus no doubt had hoped to engage in an all-out Indian slave trade without anyone batting an eye back in Europe. But, as I attempt to show in The Tropics of Empire, he attempted to bypass this inconvenience by consciously drawing upon a commentary tradition that reached back to Aristotle’s discussion of natural slavery in the influential Politics. Columbus’s annotations to his favorite book, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly’s Ymago mundi, severally point to a passage in the Politics where Aristotle construed those ‘barbarians’ who inhabited the hotter regions of the world as humans capable of ‘reason’, but also as humans lacking the ‘courage’ or will power to govern themselves like the Greeks. We do not know whether Columbus annotated these passages in preparation for his momentous crossing of the Atlantic, or after the fact, as a way of justifying the slave raids he had already conducted in the Indies. But Columbus’s repeated insistence on the ‘ingenuity’, yet ‘cowardice’ of the Indians no doubt echoed an established prejudice in Mediterranean Europe concerning the peoples that inhabited the fringes of the known inhabited world.

This characterization of the Indians was aimed at providing critical legitimacy to a process of territorial and political expansion that was increasingly being construed by Columbus’s contemporaries as the discovery of a vast and unexpectedly productive and populous ‘torrid zone.’

In sum, the discovery of America forms part of a broader canvas rarely considered by readers trained upon Columbus’s attempt to reach ‘the East by way of the West.’ This broader canvas is the story of Europe’s gradual and problematic awakening to the natural and human resources of the tropics, and it stands, to my mind, as a brief but pivotal chapter in the history of globalization. One might go so far as to suggest that the geopolitical paradigm Columbus and his European contemporaries inherited from classical antiquity remains alive and well in the West. To the extent that five hundred years after Columbus’s death we continue to wrestle with the divide between the ‘developed’ nations of the north and the ‘developing’ nations of the south, we too are heirs to a resilient tradition whose precepts surrounding ‘latitude’ served to pave the way for global empire.

In your research for the book, what was the most interesting or surprising fact you discovered about Columbus and/or his voyages?

The true surprise in my research for The Tropics of Empire was realizing how crucial ‘latitude’ was to Columbus’s Indies enterprise. So mighty is the gravitational pull of a 500-year-old tradition that has construed the Columbian saga as an attempt to reach ‘the East by way of the West’, that it took me years of being, so to speak, hit on the head by the evidence before me to realize that Columbus’s ‘southing’ could yield any significant insight beyond his ‘westing’ on the meaning and implications of his Indies enterprise. Once I surrendered to this tantalizing possibility, I found myself re-reading the monumental documentary corpus on the discovery as if I had never read it before. Something that had remained invisible to me was now suddenly rendered so patently obvious, that I wondered how I could have missed it upon beginning my journey with Columbus years before. Talk about how constrictive it can be to be trained to think within the box of a particular field of study – and how liberating it can be when, by sheer luck or effort, we find ourselves standing outside of that box, and of ourselves, to look at the world anew.

What do you see as Columbus’s proper place in history?

What single perspective could ever show us Columbus’s, or any other figure’s, proper place in history? On the sunny side of things, he was a brilliant, skilled, and audacious navigator who proved it was possible to reach land on the other side of the Atlantic, but who also misidentified the lands he had discovered as part of Asia. As Alexander von Humboldt once observed, Columbus was a keen naturalist, with an uncanny ability to observe and interpret physical phenomena – so keen that, upon probing the fresh and salt waters ‘fighting’ each other near the mouth of the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela, he not only understood that he had stumbled upon one of the world’s mightiest rivers, but also that such a river could only have flowed from a continental landmass he mindfully described as ‘infinite land to the south.’ Although he was not formally schooled, Columbus also was a savvy annotator and commentator of texts, and he who knew how to collate the information he had culled from sacred and secular literature with his experiences at sea and on land. His dilettantism as a reader both illuminated and obscured his numinous intuitions about the New World: in his angst to prove to his enemies at home that South America was part of Asia, he claimed that the Orinoco was one of the four rivers that flowed from Paradise, and that South America was the location of the original garden hexameral writers had located somewhere at the end of Orient. On the darker side of things, Columbus also was, by today’s standards, a religious zealot who believed that he had been chosen by God to carry Christ’s message across the ocean, and that his Indies enterprise was part of God’s master plan to offer the possibility of salvation to heathen nations before the end of the world. He was also a hypocrite who tried to divert attention from the abysmal material failures of his enterprise by invoking the spiritual mission he had allegedly accepted as his burden. Last but not least, Columbus was also a ruthless colonizer: he introduced massive slave raids and compulsory tribute to the Caribbean Basin. He also wrought cruel punishment on natives who failed, or refused to comply with the impossible demands of the new colonial order. And he established the aberrant ‘repartimiento’ – the system of forced peonage that would come to sustain agricultural and mining production throughout Spain’s overseas possessions. In sum Columbus’s legacy is complex: it ranges from his having definitively reacquainted Europe and the Americas, changing the face of the world and the course of history all the way to his having reopened Pandora’s box, inaugurating one of the darkest chapters in the history of biological and cultural genocide. 

Where do you place The Tropics of Empire in the vast canon of Columbus studies?

I suppose those who first come across the subtitle to this book, Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies, are supposed to think: “Well that cannot be right!” But titles are often allowed the oversimplifications one should never tolerate in the books they announce. My aim with The Tropics of Empire has been to try to imagine the multiple ways in which Columbus’s attention to ‘latitude’ might come to enrich our understanding of his consequential attempt to reach ‘the East by way of the West.’