How "necessary" was Columbus?

Or to put it another way, is Christopher Columbus over-rated? Around the end of the 15th century, given the growth of European seafaring abilities, the incentives of trade, and the extremely regular Spanish and Portugese voyages to India around the Cape of Good Hope, was it not more or less inevitable that someone would have hit on something as big as the Americas?

First of all, consider that Brazil was “discovered” (a racist term that denies aboriginal rights, but let’s use it anyway) by a Portugese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who seems to have been blown off course in a trip that was orginally destined to round Africa and go to India. And what year was this? Why, 1500, only 8 years after Columbus reached San Salvador (indeed, Columbus was still alive then).

Why was Cabral blown to Brazil? Because the prevailing winds blew him in a south-westerly direction. This is perfectly normal, because in the northern hemisphere, the prevailing winds that blow between 30 degrees N. (roughly the latitude of northern Florida or southern Morocco) and the equator are the NE trade winds, so named because they blow from the north-east, towards the south-west.

In other words, the prevailing winds between Spain/Portugal/North-West Africa and Florida to Northern Brazil in the New World are just naturally disposed to blow ships on a westerly route.

Indeed, the westerly trade winds ar so strong that Columbus himself recorded that he was happy when, on his first voyage, a contrary eastward wind blew up for a day or two on September 22, 1492. “I needed such a wind”, wrote Columbus," because the crew now believed that there were winds in those seas by which we might pass to Spain." (See Columbus by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto).

In other words, having left the Canary Islands on September 6, 1492, by September 22, Columbus’ crew were actually starting to wonder if the wind in that part of the world could even blow in any direction but westwards!

Consider also that the Americas stretch in an unbroken land almost from the arctic to the antarctic.

I still admire Columbus, and I am something of a Columbus freak, although he was in fact wrong in his calculations, and the people in Spain who shot down his theories and recommended against his voyage were perfectly correct.

But given the state of winds, exploration and geography in the late 1400s, was it not pretty much inevitable that Europeans would have reached the New World with or without Columbus? Maybe not the same year, but around that time?

I doubt there’s much to debate. If Columbus hadn’t done it, someone else clearly would have, probably not much later.

Yeah, I think it was going to happen at or around that time, as you say. But isn’t it controversial whether or not Cabral was blown off course? I don’t know too much about it, but it was my impression that we really aren’t sure. What’s your cite that he was?

Nevertheless, Columbus was a key figure in history. Without his enterprise and persistence, Spain might never have established any claims in the New World – Portugal would have had it all.

First of all, Spain was in a position to compete with Portugal even w/o Columbus. But so what if they didn’t? Is Spanish Latin America any better off because it is was colonized by Spain rather that Portugal?

Well, if you google him or look in Wikipedia here it seems to be saying that he was trying to avoid doldrums around the Coast of Guinea. The article does not say in so many words that he did not intend to go that far west, but later in the article it says he resumed his journey by going back to Africa, etc.

He also seems to have thought Brazil was an island. But surely a day or two of sailing up and down the coast, or the volume of rivers entering the sea, would have convinced him that this was SOME ISLAND!!! It seems strange that he would just send someone back to Portugal with the news and then keep going back to Africa if that was not his original itinerary.

I admit the Wiki article is (perhaps on purpose???) unclear about his intentions. He may have said “Well shoot, if the winds are blowing us south-west, let’s just go in that direction a while and see if there is anything out there.”

But in a sense, his intentions are unimportant. The fact remains that the strong, prevailing trade winds were there to blow him from the Cape Verde Islands to the coast of Brazil. I don’t know what his actual crossing time was. The article says he left LISBON on March 9 and sighted Brazil on April 22. The article does not say how long he took to cross from the CV Islands to Brazil.

But it is interesting to note that the distance from the CV Islands to the coast of Brazil is about HALF the distance Columbus travelled from the Canaries to reach San Salvador.

Once again, it seems to me that Europeans were BOUND tro trip over America at any time in that era.

Not to mention that some scholars are convinced that Columbus (and, presumably, other Europeans) knew of the Viking voyages to Vinland. The Europeans were pushing out and expanding trade networks, so “discovering” America was bound to happen early in the 16th century.

A person can be an important influence in history without being an influence for the better or worse.

Sure. But what makes you think Spain would’ve been left out w/o Columbus? France and England got in rather later, and didn’t too badly in the land grab.

So who was Cabral’s navigator? Westerners might be living in North and South Pastafazoolica had Columbus never sailed.

Erm, I don’t know about that, John Mace. The Spanish got lands full of gold and silver. The English got, up in New England anyway, rocks. Lots of rocks.
Long-term, them New Englanders did a bit better, as did Britain. But I believe the King of England might have rather had Peru than, say, Virginia.

One thing to remember is that nobody - including Columbus - was trying to go to America. They were all trying to find a route to East Asia in order to buy spices and make money. The main plan was to try to sail south around Africa which was accomplished in 1488 and which was used as a route to India in 1497. The idea of sailing west across the Ocean Sea was considered a longshot back-up plan. (I believe there were also some attempts to sail to Asia via a northern route above Siberia - these obviously failed.)

Columbus was sailing right around the end of the brief period when anybody thought there was a reason to sail west. In another twenty or so years, the African route would have been established and nobody would have been willing to throw away money financing an attempt to look for an alternative route. Especially because it was a really bad plan - Columbus was completely wrong about how long a distance it was to sail west from Europe to Asia. As merchants created regular trade routes with Asia via the African route, they would have grown more familiar with the size of the globe and would have lost any doubts about the possibility of a western route.

My guess is that what would have happened was that the Europeans would have used the effort they historically spent on colonizing the Americas and put it into colonizing Africa instead. Cortes and Pizarro would have pillaged the wealth of the Congo and South Africa rather than Mexico and Peru. Sailors traveling south would occasionally make landfall on various “islands” like Cabral did but like him wouldn’t really see any reason to follow through. Within a century or two, one or two European countries would probably have established themselves as the premiere powers in Africa. At that point, it’s possible that some of the other powers that got left out of the picture might decide to retry the western route, using the otherwise useless “islands” as bases to make the voyage possible. And that’s when Europe would discover the Americas.

I’m no historian but I think you’re wrong here. Columbus wanted to go west because the African route already was established, and monopolized, by the Portuguese (and of course the land route was monopolized and guarded by the Italians). In fact, I think the reason that Portugal ended up having such a relatively minor influence in the Americas is precisely because early on they spent all their time and effort into exploring and guarding the eastern African route to the Indies. If Columbus hadn’t gone west, Portugal certainly wasn’t letting anybody just waltz around the Cape of Good Hope easily, so somebody else would’ve thought of going west for all those spices sooner or later. Certainly in no case would it have taken centuries.

Whether it was Columbus or not, the fact remained that someone of that period would have needed to raise enough money to crew and provision a ship or ships for a voyage of uncertain length.

If the journey was too long, then it would add to the cost and it wouldn’t be economical to use a westward route.


Columbus was trying to raise money and like any good salesman he bent the truth to convince his possible financial backers.

He was a great salesman.


I agree-I’ve always been fascinated by this. the fact is, Columbus knew a lot about the Viking voyages-he himslef had made a voyage to iceland, sometime ca. 1477. i am convinced that while in Reykjavik, he spoke with local historians, who told him about “Vinland”. there is even evidence that a few of the Norse colonies in greenland still existed at this time-these settlements were on the verge of disappeareance, because their climate was deteriorating, and they were being raided by english pirates. We should not forget-Columbus was an educated man-he corresponded with the leading geographers of the day, including Martin Behaime (of Cologne)-the man who made the first globes.

Discovering the New World: meh, he wasn’t really first, and wouldn’t have been the last.

Discovering cigars: introducing tobacco to nicotine-starved Europe should be Columbus’s defining accomplishment. :wink:

What about a Brit or Scandanavian explorer?

I’m confused, because that doesn’t address my point. I never said that Spain would have had the same influence/stake in the New World w/o Columbus. I just said they wouldn’t have been left out altogether, which is what **BG **seem to be asserting in post #4.

That’s fine. I was just trying to point out that, from the POV of the countries at that time, Spain did very well indeed, so that while from our vantage point of today looking back, France and England (and the Dutch, who did take a piece of the East before the British came along to snatch it away, and managed to hang on to a piece of the Caribbean isles) look like they did OK, from their contemporaneous POV they were playing catch-up with Spain, and would have been very happy indeed to come across as large a quantity of the precious metals as Spain stumbled on.

Isn’t the Viking proved voyages, (and for that matter the proposed - almost certainly in most cases fantasy - voyages of Basque/English/Catalan fishermen, Sir Henry Sinclair, St. Brendan and blown off course Romans/Phoenicians/Egyptians) the very reason Columbus was important?

Because from the time of his Voyage on the Western Hemisphere was open for European Business and regardless of what happened before, his voyage was the event that had a real impact on the World.

I can see - especially the Portuguese - discovering the New World and keeping it secret for decades - retarding settlement and rapaciousness and slavery. Columbus’ impact wasn’t the discovery which for sure had happened by Europeans (perhaps more than once) before and would have happened later - it was his push to immediately exploit to the fullest extent possible the new lands - and a Court that was very much in agreement with that and that had the resources and motivation to make it happen. That piece didn’t need to happen, when it happened and if it happened differently or later things may have been different.

If How necessary was Columbus=The Discovery: not necessary.
If How necessary was Columbus=Our World looking more or less like it does today : Impossible to know for sure – but my WAG is very, very necessary