5 Interesting Facts You Didn’t Know About Christopher Columbus

In 1972, Richard Nixon declared Columbus Day a time to “celebrate the memorable achievements of the great navigator and explorer whose vision and daring led to much of the permanent settlement of the Americas by the peoples of Europe.”

However, many of the facts you may have learned about Columbus in school—for instance, that he proved the Earth is round and that he explored North America—are myths.

Here are five things you may not have known about Christopher Columbus:

1. Christopher Columbus wasn’t his given name
‘Christopher Columbus’ is an Anglicized version of the explorer’s Italian name, Cristoforo Colombo. Columbus, who was born in Genoa in either 1450 or 1451, went by Cristóbal Colón in Spanish and Kristoffer Kolumbus in Swedish.

2. He didn’t discover that the earth is round
It’s a common misconception that when Columbus set sail for the Americas, some people were afraid he would fall off the edge of the ocean because they thought the earth was flat. However, even in the sixth century B.C., scholars referred to the earth as a sphere, and educated Europeans during Columbus’s time did not believe the earth was flat. “There never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars,” writes historian and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. “Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

Related: Indigenous Peoples' Day: Everything to Know About the Holiday Largely Replacing Columbus Day

3. He never set foot in North America
Columbus made four trips between Spain and the Americas between 1492 and 1503, and he never once set foot in North America. Rather, he explored various Caribbean islands, including what is now Cuba and the Bahamas, as well as the island of Hispaniola, now home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and parts of Central and South America.

Here are the routes Columbus took during his four voyages:

4. He was convinced he had landed in Asia
Columbus never meant to ‘discover’ a new continent on his voyages; he had intended to find a westward route to the East Indies with the hopes of giving Spain the upper hand in the lucrative Asian spice trade. Thinking he had landed in Asia, he called the Caribbean natives he encountered ‘Indians,’ a misnomer that continues to this day. By the end of his life, many of his contemporaries were skeptical he had in fact reached Asia, but according to many accounts, Columbus never acknowledged the possibility that he had encountered another continent entirely.

Related: 25 Inspiring Indigenous American Activist Accounts to Follow to Learn About Indigenous People, Issues and Life 

5. Columbus was sent back to Spain in chains and stripped of his governorship
During Columbus’s third stint in the Americas, Spanish authorities caught wind of Columbus’s brutal treatment of the natives. A report from Spanish governor Francisco de Bobadilla recounted Columbus’s (and his men’s) use of torture to subjugate the people they encountered in the Americas, describing their actions as “tyrannical.” Bobadilla was instructed to imprison Columbus and his two brothers, and they were sent back to Spain in shackles. They spent around six weeks in jail until King Ferdinand released them and eventually pardoned them. Christopher Columbus, however, was stripped of his title of governor of Hispaniola.

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