It's Columbus Day again here in the United States, which means of course that this very polarizing figure is celebrated in some circles, reviled in others, and more than likely completely misunderstood by both. That there were many terrors visited upon the aboriginal peoples during his governorship of the islands he landed upon is tragic enough, and while there is ample evidence to support that he was implicit, the truth is probably more complicated.
But my interest in Columbus lay not in his skill as a governor, for clearly, he was awful, but in his skill as a navigator, his vessels, and most importantly, how he managed to sail across one of the widest points in the Atlantic, why he chose that path, even in the face of skepticism.
Many scholars were convinced that he and his crew would probably die at sea. It must be remembered that the old knowledge that the Norse (and perhaps earlier) voyagers had about the lands to the west was all but forgotten, and where it was remembered, was assumed to only point towards strange lands in the north, possibly a large island. What most scholars assumed was that there was no land here at all.
There were many stories about lost islands in the Atlantic, but Columbus wasn't looking for just islands; he was looking for a path to the Orient.
Take a globe. In this map, we'll include some of the areas of North America that are believed to have been known by the Norse.
Now, imagine that there is no North or South America, just that large group of islands the Norse discovered.. What you have now is a truly vast ocean, the Ocean Sea, and it stretches for many thousands of miles, and depending upon the route you choose, you might not see land again until you reach the east coast of Africa.
If we look at the sea route for his first voyage, it must have seemed like certain death indeed for those cartographers and philosophers who didn't buy Columbus' ideas.
So why did he take that route? Why those corrections? It was very well known at that time that China was further north than that, though the position of Zipangu (Japan) was mostly speculated.
One possibility is that another European had found the islands before Columbus.
This is not beyond the realm of possibility. On the 4th of November, 1493, during his second voyage, his crew found a sternpost on the shores of the island of Guadalupe. There is also a tale of an iron pan being found later. It is possible that the sternpost might be accounted for by currents, though this is doubtful. The iron pot, though, is a mystery altogether.
Perhaps it was the Portuguese. If anyone could have accomplished a voyage like this, the Portuguese are the most likely suspects. They also kept many of their voyages secret. We can only speculate.
Regardless, the route he took flew in the face of what was known and agreed upon in most of Europe at the time. If there had not been a continent there, he might have indeed ended up sailing on, lost in a seemingly endless sea, to vanish from its surface and from history as well.