The "Silk Road" to India
The mysterious lands of China Japan, and India had since the time of Marco Polo (1254-1324) been the source of many goods which were highly prized in the world of Western Europe. The fine fabric of silk, exotic spices, as well as medicinal opiates were all quite valuable. The land route to these regions had been controlled and kept open by the Mongol Empire, but with the fall of Constantinople (the main city linking the European continent with Asia) to the Ottoman Turks in 1454, this "Silk Road" became much more perilous. Navigators therefore sought another route to all of these profitable goodies.
Columbus Steps Forward
Christopher Columbus (1451 -1506) of the Italian city of Geneoa was one such navigator. It is a myth that everyone thought that the world was flat and that Columbus alone understood that it was round and set out to circumnavigate the globe and come up to India from the other
side. This account was popu- larized by the writer Wash- ington Irving in his biography of Coulmbus in 1828. Actually, it was widely accepted by most educated Europeans that the earth was in fact spherical. But Columbus differed from most established authority in his estimation of the size of the earth. In this respect he followed the calculations of the Florentine physician Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli. In the estimation of Columbus, following Toscanelli (whose map is pictured above), Japan was about 3700 kilometers from the Canary Islands (off the northwest coast of Africa), when in fact the correct figure is about 19.600 km.
Small wonder then, that when on today's date in 1492 Columbus touched land on what was likely the island of San Salvador that he thought that he was meeting the native peoples of India. He thus referred to them as "indios", Spanish for "Indians".
From his journal of Oct. 12:
"At two hours after midnight appeared the land, at a distance of two leagues. They handed all sails and set the mainsail and lay to waiting for daylight Friday, when they arrived at an island... that was called in the Indian's tongue Guanahani. Presently they saw naked people, and the Admiral went ashore in his barge... Once ashore they saw very green trees, many streams, and fruits of different kinds. The Admiral called to the two captains and to the others who jumped ashore...that they should bear faith and witness how he before them all was taking...possession of the said island for the King and Queen...Presently there gathered many people of the island.... 'I' says he, 'in order that they might develop a very friendly disposition towards us, because I knew that they were a people who could better be freed and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force, gave to some of them red caps and to others glass beads, and many other things of slight value, in which they took much pleasure. They remained so much our friends that it was a marvel...'"
So went that first day for Europeans in "the new world" as recorded in the journal of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus as translated by Samuel Eliot Morison.
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JOURNALS AND OTHER DOCUMENTS On the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus Easton Press