When did Christopher Columbus realize he was in a New World rather than the Far East?

From what I remember of the story, Christopher Columbus intended to find a sailing route to the Far East, the Indies, and initially thought he HAD sailed all the way across the world – hence why Native Americans got to be known as “Indians.”

But when did Columbus or anybody connected to his expedition realize they were NOT in the Far East, and had actually discovered a previously unknown (to the western world) continent?

IIRC, never.

He must have had a suspicion when there wasn’t a vast rich civilization to trade with.

Once he started colonizing and as Governor of any lands conquered for Spain set up rule, I imagine he knew.

There were more advanced cultures in China and Japan. Many of the Spice Islands were tiny and did not hold advanced cultures.

As far as we know he never openly admitted to it. For the record he claimed to remain under the impression he had arrived at some hitherto unknown islands off the Asian rim, and if he could just make it a bit further he could find the real paydirt. Which if he had made it to Mexico, he would have, and also have proven it was NOT Southeast Asia. Sort of as if, in our world, he had wound up in the Melanesia/Micronesia/Australia region.

One thing to remember is that, while Columbus knew the world is round, he had the impression that it was much smaller than it is. He bumped into land exactly when he thought he would, not realizing there was a continent and a rather wide ocean to go before he reached Asia.

Columbus went back and forth on this. Many of the things he found, including people, places, and natural resources seemed similar to what he expected to find in the East Indies. Remember that European knowledge of the far east was still pretty thin at this time. European traders were just then beginning to explore that area and accurate charts were simply nonexistent. The first Europeans had only even reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and another voyage reached India only in 1497.

Edit: I remember there was another thread on this not too long ago. I believe one Doper here argued that Columbus should have known it wasn’t the East Indies based on certain geographical information… which wasn’t known at the time anyway.

Columbus never went “back and forth” on the subject. He was adamant that he had discovered part of Asia his entire life. He interpreted everything he saw, as much as possible, as evidence that he was in the Far East. He had an overwhelming tendency to confirmation bias on the question.

It was left to others to realize that the lands that were discovered were actually a new unknown continent rather than part of Asia. This realization took about a decade. Amerigo Vespucci was the first to publish this idea in a letter known as *Mundus Novus * (New World) around 1502-1503, which is why the new lands ended up being named after him rather than Columbus.

Here’s a recent thread on the subject

Circa when did the word Indian came be used for native populations ?
Here’s an earlier thread from 2009:

Did Columbus ever realise he hadn’t reached India?

The size of the earth had been known since the days of the ancient Greeks. It seems unlikely that Columbus was not aware of Eratosthenes calculation.

Knowing the true size of the Earth would be little help if you couldn’t measure longitude accurately.

Columbus knew about that calculation - but disagreed with it. Otherwise he would have never gotten funding.


“Columbus had an estimate of his own. Some historians have proposed that he used an argument like Strabo’s, but Dr. Fischer found his claim to be based on incorrect units of distance. Columbus used an erroneous estimate by Ptolemy (whom we meet again), who based it on a later definition of the stadium, and in estimating the size of the settled world he confused the Arab mile, used by El Ma’mun, with the Roman mile on which our own mile is based. All the same, his final estimate of the distance to India was close to Strabo’s.”

" But we do know that if the American continent had not existed, the experts would have been vindicated: Coumbus with his tiny ships could never have crossed an ocean as wide as the Atlantic and Pacific combined. "

When a bunch of Vikings came over an said ‘beat ya!’

He did try to use the local timing of a lunar eclipse to do precisely that; but, unfortunately (perhaps misguided by his presumption), he made an error in his calculation by two and a half hours.

I mean, technically, let’s suppose you were journeying to the Rich Land of America and you ended up somewhere in Mexico. And it’s a day long before maps, and you came in from the opposite coast where travelers usually go. And you do find the Holy McDonalds and Starbucks, just not as many as you were expecting. And they have this strange food you’ve never heard of any of the West Coast traders encountering.

I could see you believing you’d found your destination. Certainly, you found somewhere.

He didn’t find nutmeg, mace, cloves or pepper, which were what he was looking for. He did “discover” the chili pepper, and convinced himself that was the source of black pepper. In any event, the islands he landed on had nothing resembling the civilizations he was looking for.

He had bucked the conventional wisdom of 2,000 years and bet his life and the life of his entire crew on his calculations. If he was wrong he was committing suicide by starvation. He probably had dozens of people of the finest scholars of his day tell him he was wrong. When he found land in the exact place his calculations had predicted it was such a huge vindication that he never could believe that it was just a coincidence.

Yes - Columbus used an alternate calculation from antiquity, which said the earth was 5,000 miles diameter not 8,000. Then as mentioned, he confused units to come up with about 4500 miles or less diameter, or 12,000 to 13,500 miles circumference. he subtracted his estimates of the distance to China going east from Marco Polo’s writings, and concluded that it was only 3,000 miles o China west by sea.

Most educated people of the day believed the correct version of the earth’s size, and this is why Columbus had trouble getting financing for his voyage.

Also remember that although Europeans had not gotten to India yet by ocean, they certainly talked to people who talked to people etc. who knew that there was India, and going east-southeast from there, a large mixture of “spice islands” whose inhabitants no doubt occasionally showed up in Mecca when they weren’t sailing into Indian or middle east ports with loads of spice. IIRC even Marco Polo sailed south then west from China to India via the spice islands. No doubt the very (very!) rough layout of the target area of Asia was known, even if precise latitudes, longitudes, extent and relative sizes were not.

As I remarked in one of the other threads, Magellan had the same experience when he actually succeeded in reaching the Far East by sailing west. He first encountered the less advanced cultures of the Marianas and the Philippines (where he was killed in a scuffle with the locals), which weren’t far off the level of development of the peoples of the West Indies (although they had metal weapons). By local inquiry, his surviving crew under El Cano eventually made their way to the Spice Islands in the Moluccas.

Columbus constantly asked the locals about where he could find rich cities and gold. Not surprisingly, they told him “over there somewhere” (no doubt wanting to get rid of him.:wink: Of course, since Columbus didn’t understand their language most of this was based on his fanciful interpretation of hand gestures.) He always convinced himself that Japan must be just a few islands over.

On his fourth disastrous voyage, on which he discovered the coasts of Central America, he followed the coast south in the expectation that it would lead him to the Golden Chersonese (his name for the Malayan Peninsula) and the Straits of Malacca by which he could finally reach India. He was bitterly disappointed when the coast continued to trend east in Panama and he had to give up.

The point is, if he’d known (or rather believed) the true size of the Earth, he would never have set out on his trip. He would have known that it was too far, regardless of whether he could accurately measure longitude during the trip itself.

And Al-Biruni did it too, even more accurately, about a thousand years ago.