Enough of this bashing of poor old Chris Columbus! He was not, as Matt Dunlap states in his Oct. 11 opinion piece (“Maine Voices: Let’s declare Indian wars over”), “a failure as a navigator.”

Columbus was a master navigator whose geography was a little weak. He was the first mariner to realize that the easterly trade winds in the tropics and the westerly winds in the higher latitudes could be utilized to complete trans-Atlantic voyages. This was in the late Middle Ages, when European ships were lumbering, square-rigged tubs that had virtually no ability to sail to windward.

Columbus had a reasonably accurate idea of the Earth’s circumference, which was known since the time of the ancient Greeks, but believed that Asia extended much farther to the east than it actually does. Estimates of Asia’s size varied wildly among European geographers in the late 15th century.

In addition, Columbus faced the same problem that was to vex mariners for another 250 years – the problem of longitude. He could make a good estimate of his latitude, the position in a north-south direction, but had no reliable method for determining his position in an east-west direction.

Combine this uncertainty about longitude with a mistaken estimate of the size of Asia, and you get a long, desperate voyage ending in what he concluded were the islands of east Asia, the Indies.

Only a few years after Columbus’ last voyage, another Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, realized that Columbus had encountered a vast continent, unknown to the rest of the world save for some semi-legendary accounts of the Vikings.

Columbus could never give up the idea that he had sailed to the Asian mainland, so we honor his courage and determination on Columbus Day, but we call the continent “America.”

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