The Real Reason Why Columbus Sailed West

One of the greatest explorer stories of all time is the westward travel of Christopher Columbus. But why did Christopher Columbus sail west? Why didn`t he take the well-established trade routes that went through the Middle East to India?

Columbus wanted to find a new seaway to India because the two well-established trade routes to India through the Middle East had fallen under Muslim Control. And while the Portuguese explored new routes by sailing around the African continent, Columbus believed that sailing west was a much faster way to get to India (he miscalculated the distance between Spain and Asia to be little more than 4000 miles).

Finding a new route to India and its spices would have made Columbus extremely wealthy. The potential financial gain of his expedition was actually one of the reasons why the Spanish crown eventually agreed to finance the Italian Christopher Columbus (who had been turned down several times).

But let`s now take a closer look at why Columbus wanted to sail west!

Ever since Antiquity, there had been two main trade routes on which spices were brought from India to Europe. And make no mistake, even during Roman times spices like pepper were imported in large quantities.

The first trade route on which spices were imported from India to Europe led from India along the Red Sea to Alexandria from where (Venician) merchant ships brought the spices to Europe. The second route led from India through the Persian Gulf and the Tigris-Euphrates river system to the coast of Asia Minor from where – once again – merchant ships brought the Spices to the European harbors.

However, over the years both routes had fallen under Muslim control. The fact that Muslims now controlled the amount and price of the spices Europe craved led the European powers to look for alternative routes with which the Muslim monopoly on the spice trade could be broken.

There were basically two ideas on how to get to India in alternative ways.

The Portuguese chose to sail along the African coastline until they could sail around the continent and eventually reach India on that way. Needless to say that sailing around the entire African continent and from there on to India was not exactly a short route.

So Christopher Columbus developed another idea. It is unclear when exactly Columbus came up with the idea to sail west to get to India but it took him decades to eventually find somebody willing to finance his expedition. And even that would have almost failed at the last minute. But that is a story for another time.

Now public opinion often believes that Columbus was the first to bring up the idea of reaching India by using the spherical shape of the Earth and that everybody in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth. But that is actually not the case. The spherical shape of the Earth was scientific consensus in the Middle Ages and was even accepted by the church!

But not only that. Other events motivated Columbus in his belief that Asia could easily be reached by sailing west. Bamboo with non-European carvings that were stranded on the Canary Islands as well as stranded bodies of men who resembled Asians (but were actually lapplanders) reinforced Columbus’s belief that Asia could be reached by sailing west.

However, Christopher Columbus drastically miscalculated the distance between Spain and Asia when going west. Columbus believed that the westward distance between Spain and the Chinese city of Quinsay (the destiny location of his first travel) was somewhat around 4000 miles. In reality, the distance between Quinsay (the modern-day Hangzhou) and Spain is more than 10,000 miles. It was pure luck for him and his crew (and pretty bad luck for the natives) that there was a big mass of land right between Spain and Asia…

But the colonization of this land mass is a story for another time.

Do you want to find out more about why Christopher Columbus as an Italian would sail for Spain and not for Italy? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


John S. Collis: Christopher Columbus.*

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