Finders, Seekers

No matter how lightly you pack for a trip, there’s one item neither you, nor I, nor anyone who has ever set forth on a journey leaves home without: expectations.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that people tend to experience the same things on their travels that they do in their day-to-day lives. If they usually find the world interesting, they find interesting things wherever they go. If nothing ever quite lives up to expectations at home, disappointment is their contrail.

Psychologists call this “confirmation bias”, a mental error we’re all subject to, to a certain extent. It’s just more comfy to maintain our own worldview, and disregard evidence to the contrary. But like all comforts, this sometimes comes at great cost.

The history of travel is replete with stories of confirmation bias, but it seems to me that no one was more afflicted than Christopher Columbus. His Spanish title was Admiral of the Ocean Sea, but I think of Columbus as the traveler most blinkered by his own expectations in the history of the world.

Painting of Christopher Columbus

Every school child knows that Columbus “discovered the New World in 1492”*, and that it was an accident since he was really trying to find an eastward sea route to the spice-laden Indies. When he set off on his first voyage in 1492, he brought along an Asian interpreter, because he thought he was going to first make landfall in an island chain called Cipango off of the mainland of Cathay—that is to say, he was aiming for Japan, off of China. He estimated that the distance from the Canary Island to Cipango was just 2,400 nautical miles.**

We also know that he was convinced he’d succeeded, which is why we have all these misnomers in our lexicon, like “Indians” for America’s native population, and “pepper” for capsicum.

In many ways, it’s easy to understand why Columbus thought the way he did: after all, no one he knew or had ever heard of had been to the places he dropped anchor. And it also makes sense that in order to effectively sell his royal patrons on his trip, he had to be more than persuaded himself by the idea that the Atlantic Ocean was much narrower than was popularly supposed, and also that Asia was of such a north-south length that any decent mariner traveling West from Europe could not help but bump right into it.

But what is less well known, and also harder to understand, is how long he clung to his belief that he’d found Asia for his entire life, in spite of very strong evidence to the contrary.  Indeed, his strong belief that he’d reached Asia— which I think we can now safely call a delusion— stopped him from actually finding a sea route to Asia.


We all believe our own bullshit to a certain extent, but there’s no historical indication that Columbus lost faith in this belief even as things quickly went hinky. The first journey took longer than he expected, of course, given his underestimate of the distant. He quickly started lying to his crew, low-balling the distance that they’d traveled. (This in order to forestall a mutinous demand to turn home.) When the islands of Japan failed to materialize even by his privately revised estimations, he decided they’d somehow missed Cipango and were nearing the coast of Cathay. When they did find land nothing matched up to previous reports of Asia, he discounted it. When he managed to communicate with the Taino people he encountered (and with no help from his Asian interpreter, obviously) he decided that the island they referred to as Colba (that’d be Cuba), was Cipango. When he got there and it turned out that Cuba was not Japan, he moved on.

On his second voyage to these waters, he became convinced that Cuba was actually the mainland of China, since no one had ever heard of an island with a coast as long as Cuba’s. At that stage, though, shallow waters made the trip vexing, and so rather than continuing onward he sent his secretary to take depositions from the crew “declaring that Cuba was the Asian continent; any man who later might gainsay his declaration would receive a hefty fine and have his tongue cut out.”***

And so it went, on and on and on, throughout Columbus’ four voyages to the Caribbean, Central and South America. In fact, when he came across the landmass that would prove to be South America, he was so entrenched in his own beliefs that he didn’t recognize the ample evidence of a continent versus a small island (the size of rivers for one thing). And when he was anchored in a lagoon in Panama, and learned about a great body of water that was not far from his location, he ignored it—he was in the Malay Peninsula as far as he was concerned.

And so thanks to his unshaken faith in his own beliefs and his stubborn adherence to his expectations, Columbus missed out on being the first European to discover the great body of water known as the Pacific Ocean, which is to say, the actual sea route to the Indies, his entire life’s mission. This fact was left to be revealed to the European world by another explorer who would eventually lend his name to the continent— a Columbus contemporary, Amerigo Vespucci.

*Please read the quotation marks sarcastically: Columbus wasn’t the first European to discover these lands, and the land was hardly new to its millions of inhabitants. I’ve been studying the history of the spice route and find little to recommend any of its heroes as human beings—Columbus is no exception.

**I’m not sure how long the distance actually is, but flying east from the Canaries to Japan is more than 6,000 nautical miles, so Columbus’ estimate was a major understatement.

***Columbus in the Americas, by William Least Heat-Moon, a slim but very valuable volume on this subject.

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