Ever since the election of Barack Hussain Obama as President, many myths have circulated as to his origins. While most reasonable observers have rejected the "birthers" phenomenon, some ideologically disposed people along with some Congressional leaders, have adopted some of this defamatory mythology. Mythologies about famous personalities are nothing new. In fact, mythologies of statesman and politicians are to be expected in partisan rhetoric. But mythologies of famous historical figures can have a life of their own if not checked and challenged. Recently, I asked my students, all college undergraduates, whether they were taught in grammar and middle school that Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean to prove that the earth was flat. To my astonishment, about half of my students raised their hands. Thankfully, some of them were also taught the actual explanations for Columbus' famous voyage.
Indeed, I too recall being taught in the public schools the same absurd mythology that Columbus sailed the Atlantic in order to disprove the earth was flat. Thankfully, when I studied philosophy in college and later in graduate school, I discovered that as early as ancient Greece, most educated and civilized peoples already knew the earth was a sphere. In fact, it was during the Islamic "golden age" that astronomical science had reached its peak in Baghdad, Spain, and Istanbul, and where Muslim scientists and theologians led the effort in scientific and astronomical discoveries.
This knowledge did not remain solely in the hands of the Muslim intellectual elite however. With Latin translations of many Islamic texts and ancient Greek texts from Arabic in the 12th century and onward, Christian Europe soon acquired the crucial knowledge of science and philosophy, ultimately heralding the famous Renaissance movement of Medieval Europe. Hence, by the late 15th century, most educated Europeans, including Christian clergy, were clearly aware of the spherical dimensions of the earth as well as scientific methods.
In addition to the flat earth nonsense is the assumption that European sailors, travelers, and others had some innate curiosity gene which led to the unparalleled growth of exploratory missions from Europe to Asia and the Americas. In other words, we still find a view that while the rest of the African and Asian people sat idly by, it was the Europeans who strived for adventure, wealth, and scientific curiosity. But this view is also questionable in light of history.
So why was the theory of the flat earth as the main basis for the Columbus voyage promulgated by American educators upon their students and within the educated American public? Given that we are once again witnessing the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the Americas; it is worth considering how this myth and legend grew out of the reality of our founding as a nation.
But first, it is important to understand the historical context of what became known in the European lexicon, as the Age of Exploration or the Age of Discovery. In 1453, the Turkish Muslim Empire known as the Ottoman Empire, after many decades of attempts and effort, finally conquered the capital of Eastern Christianity, Constantinople. With the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople, the thousand-year reign of mighty Byzantium came to an end. The collapse of Byzantium sent shivers and panic throughout Western Europe. Many European Kings, princes, as well as Christian clergy believed that Rome and the remaining parts of Europe would eventually collapse in domino fashion as a result of the Ottoman victory over Byzantium. The Ottomans not only took Constantinople, but within a few years, dominated the crucial sea links and trade routes in and around the Mediterranean. In effect, the Ottomans along with the rest of the Muslim world now effectively controlled all trade on land (such as the silk road) as well as on sea between Europe and Asia (i.e. China, Japan, and India, and Cathay), as well as Africa. Hence, a "Cold-War" like panic took hold of Western Christendom.
Despite the Ottoman victories and imminent threats, there was one place that Christianity did not yield territories and in fact made territorial gains over the Muslim world: Catholic Spain. In 1474, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile opened up a new period in the Iberian peninsula, and paved the way for the Age of Discovery. While both monarchs were Catholic, Queen Isabella was ideologically predisposed toward the promulgation of the Catholic faith in the Iberian Peninsula. Whereas Spain under Moorish Islam provided an environment of inter-religious cooperation and tolerance for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, continuing a tradition dating as far as 9th century Baghdad, under the Abbasid Dynasty, the new Spain of Isabella and Ferdinand, was to establish a new restrictive world order. Spain, under its Catholic monarchs would reject inter-religious cooperation, and further eradicate centuries of North African Moorish culture which it had previously adopted and exhibited. Analogically, one can view Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain as the ideological ancestors of the American conservative movement in the United States led by Reagan and seen in its extreme form in the neo-conservative movement epitomized by Bush/Cheney.
Hence, in 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand conquered the last vestiges of Islam in Granada, Spain. Also in 1492, the expulsion of Spanish Jews began. Spanish Jews were forced to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. About half converted while the rest found new homelands in North Africa and the rest of the Ottoman Empire. But for most Americans, 1492 is most famous for the commission granted to Christopher Columbus by Isabella and Ferdinand to search for an alternative sea route to the East, eventually leading to the discovery of Hispaniola.
Given the new aggressive religious policy promulgated by Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, along with Europe's utter dependence upon the Ottomans and the rest of the Muslim world for access to trade and goods such as spices, textiles, and other valuable commodities, the mission to find an alternative sea route to Asia became even more dire for Western Europe. Hence, Portugal, along with Spain, directed a navigational policy in order to break the trade monopoly of the Ottoman and the Muslim world. Indeed, a few years after Columbus' discovery of the Caribbean Islands, the Portuguese reached India via a circuitous oceanic route around Africa in 1498. Therefore, the actual reasons for the so-called voyages of discovery/exploration were due to practical economic realities, but equally important as a result of religious zealotry. In fact, they had nothing to do with astronomical debates about the earth's being flat.
Unfortunately, this historical reality was elided under a more popular version of historical fiction at the hands of Washington Irving, the brilliant writer and essayist of the 19th century (1783-1859). In his 1828 book titled, "History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus", Irving includes a fictitious discussion between Columbus and a religious council ridiculing him for traveling westward on the seas lest he be dropped into the caverns of hell. But Irving alone cannot be blamed for the perpetuation of this myth. Historians such as Daniel Boorstin also repeated the myth in his 1983 book "The Discoverers", along with the founder of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, who discussed the flat earth myth in his ideological battles against the medieval church. In other words, both perpetuated the Irving story for their own purposes. Hence, the popular flat earth mythology endured in the minds of most Americans, and unfortunately was adopted as history by American educators, due to Irving's attempt to create a hero out of Christopher Columbus, and due to the ideological battles between religion and science in the 19th century.
As educators and those residing in one of the most literate societies in history, it is our task to expose all myths for what they are, whether they relate to Christopher Columbus or to the origins of a sitting U.S. President. As we reflect upon another October 12, perhaps it is time for us to also reflect on the real causes of Columbus' journey and abandon age-old myths that do not serve the cause of history or inter-religious understanding.