Many of us might recall learning in school that when Christopher Columbus reached the New World, he believed that he had reached India. For that reason, Native Americans are often called Indians.

However, Wikipedia claims he actually knew where he had arrived:

Never admitting that he had reached a continent previously unknown to Europeans, rather than the East Indies he had set out for, Columbus called the inhabitants of the lands he visited indios (Spanish for "Indians").

Unfortunately, the only sources are books so I can't check up on them. Did Columbus know he had reached a new continent? If so, why would he lie to the Spanish government?


2 Answers 2


Michael Shermer covers this in The Believing Brain, stating that Columbus held this belief until his death.

Vartec's link also supports this from an EDU site.

Columbus, who, to his death, clung to the idea that he had found the shores of Asia

In Shermer's book, he talks about finding data that is totally unexpected, so that you can't accept the new information, and thus integrate it with your already held notions. That is in essence what Columbus did. Columbus had no reason to "lie" since he was convinced by his own brain that he had found Asia, and he was going to stick to that story. He even had incentive to say he found new lands according to the wikipage you cited:

According to the contract that Columbus made with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, if Columbus discovered any new islands or mainland, he would receive many high rewards.

He didn't, although he did take on governorship of the islands he believed to be the Indies, and acted "poorly" as said governor.

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    I think the linked reference in your example is a very good one, but I don't think "published on an EDU site" is a useful metric of validity. Although there is some implicit quality filter, such sites aren't peer reviewed or necessarily written by academics. Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 3:02
  • I believe Columbus realized he was not in the Indies at some point in his life. Pretty sure I read a passage about this in "The History of the American people" by Morison. I'll look for it, but that gonna take some time.
    – Jori
    Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 16:05

What Spain was really interested in was to find a sea route to the orient (Asia) and principally India. At that time, all the various spices, silk and many other items came from Asia and were extremely valuable. The existing trade route was by land and it was long, arduous and dangerous. Spain wanted to compete with other European countries in this highly profitable market (Abernethy, David (2000). The Dynamics of Global Dominance, European Overseas Empires 1415–1980. Yale University Press).

At that time Portugal had asserted itself as a dominant sea power so Columbus first approached the Portuguese monarch suggesting that he could reach India by sailing west rather than southeast (around Africa) as was the Portuguese plan. The Portuguese already knew that there were other lands that could be found by sailing west - they had already begun colonization of the Azores archipelago in the North Atlantic and there were reports of other lands much further out west by fisherman and other Portuguese explorers (Boxer, Charles Ralph (1969). The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415–1825. Hutchinson).

The Portuguese were excellent sailors and cartographers and were skeptical that these lands were any part of Asia so they were dismissive of Columbus plan -The king submitted Columbus's proposal to his experts, who rejected it. It was their considered opinion that Columbus's estimation of a travel distance of 2,400 miles (3,860 km) was, in fact, far too low (Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: The Life of Christopher Columbus,(Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1942). Reissued by the Morison Press, 2007).

In 1488, Columbus appealed to the court of Portugal once again, and once again, John II invited him to an audience. That meeting also proved unsuccessful, in part because not long afterwards Bartolomeu Dias returned to Portugal with news of his successful rounding of the southern tip of Africa (near the Cape of Good Hope). With an eastern sea route to Asia apparently at hand, King John was no longer interested in Columbus's far-fetched project, but offered him a captain-ship in their fleet. Columbus declined and approached Spain with his proposal and plan which after much deliberation was eventually accepted. Columbus sailed west and reached the Caribbean Islands and thought that he had landed in some islands off the coast of Asia. He held to this belief until the day he died. ( Davidson, Miles H. (1997), Columbus then and now: a life reexamined, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press).

He simply underestimated the size of the earth. In theory he was right. By heading west from Spain all around the globe he could have reached India, but he would have to have crossed all of the Atlantic and all of the Pacific Ocean and would have perished at sea. Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. By 1498 the Portuguese had already arrived in India following their planned route by sailing southeast. Over time they established several colonies in Asia and overwhelmingly dominated the trade route with Asia for over one hundred years >(Russell-Wood, A.J.R. (1998). The Portuguese Empire 1415–1808. Johns Hopkins University Press).

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    Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims. Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 16:11
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    Please provide me with some feedback as to why this response does not seem to be helpful (3 negative votes - I just don't get it !?) Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 17:03
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    I would guess it /was/ down-voted, because it didn't include references (for details see this also Meta-topics discussing 'references'). It's better now, because you added references. To make it really good you should also use 'quote' formatting (using the > character in your markup) to indicate which of the sentences in your answer are direct quotes from the sources.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 17:37
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    The theory behind Skeptics.SE is that readers will want to see and understand the evidence for what you write. That means, for example, that they will want to be able to read the quotes and references which you cite, so that they can evaluate for themselves the reliability of that evidence.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 18:38
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    @dmvianna References to books and academic journals definitely count. However it's also better to include, in your answer, some direct quotes of specific sentences or paragraphs from the source. For example, to double-check the references given above which don't include direct quotes, a skeptic might need to read the entire book in order to see/decide whether the book actually says anywhere what Luis is alleging it says.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 4, 2013 at 7:42

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