Opinion

Fake Facts About Christopher Columbus and the Flat-Earth Myth

Cristopher Columbus is back in the news. Unfortunately for him, Columbus Day is in jeopardy. But when liberals want to use Columbus, they often use him to bash people they claim are “anti-science.”

Fake history has a long history. This is especially true when it comes to Christopher Columbus. For many years, elementary school students were taught that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 to prove the earth was round because the scientists of the day believed it was flat. This is fake history.The thing of it is, there was almost no one who believed the earth was flat. Washington Irving started the fake flat-earth history story in his three-volume History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). Samuel Eliot Morison, a noted Columbus biographer, describes the story by Irving as “misleading and mischievous nonsense, . . . one of the most popular Columbian myths.”1

Irving’s fictionalized account of Columbus describes him as being “assailed with citations from the Bible and the Testament: the book of Genesis, the psalms of David, the orations of the Prophets, the epistles of the apostles, and the gospels of the Evangelists. To these were added expositions of various saints and reverend Commentators. . . . Such are specimens of the errors and prejudices, the mingled ignorance and erudition, and the pedantic bigotry, with which Columbus had to contend.”2 These tales of opposition never happened.

The dispute with Columbus in the 15th century was over how big around the earth was not whether the earth was round or flat. Columbus was wrong about the circumference of the earth; the cartographers were right.

For decades, the flat-earth slam has become standard historical mythology that was written into our nation’s textbooks and is pulled out as an ideological hammer every time some liberal lie is questioned.

In the eleven-volume Our Wonder World, first published in 1914, the editors offered the following undocumented claims: “All the ancient peoples thought the earth was flat, or, if not perfectly flat, a great slightly curving surface,” and “Columbus was trying to convince people that the earth was round.”

Even the Encyclopedia Britannica perpetuated the myth of a round-earth solution for Columbus’s voyages as late as 1961: “Before Columbus proved the world was round, people thought the horizon marked its edge. Today we know better.” The people knew better in Columbus’s day.

“As early as the sixth century B.C., Pythagoras—and later Aristotle and Euclid—wrote about the Earth as a sphere. Ptolemy wrote ‘Geography’ at the height of the Roman Empire, 1,300 years before Columbus sailed, and considered the idea of a round planet as fact.

“‘Geography’ became a standard reference, and Columbus himself owned a copy.” (Washington Post)

A 1983 textbook for fifth-graders reported that Columbus “felt he would eventually reach the Indies in the East. Many Europeans still believed that the world was flat. Columbus, they thought, would fall off the earth.” A 1982 text for eighth-graders said that Europeans “believed . . . that a ship could sail out to sea just so far before it fell off the edge of the sea. . . . The people of Europe a thousand years ago knew little about the world.”

Prominent scholars like John D. Bernal (1901-1971), in his four-volume Science in History (1954), and Daniel J. Boorstin (1914-2004), prize-winning author and Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, propagated the myth without any historical substantiation. Boorstin spills a great deal of ink inventing a history of flat-earth beliefs that he traces to an obscure sixth-century monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes, who, according to medieval scholar Jeffrey Russell, “had no followers whatever: his works were ignored or dismissed with derision throughout the Middle Ages.”

Earlier attempts to present Columbus as a scientific iconoclast can be found in two standard nineteenth-century anti-Christian works pitting science against religion. John William Draper, author of History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), claimed that Christians had no concern for scientific discovery. Instead, “they originated in commercial rivalries, and the question of the shape of the earth was finally settled by three sailors, Columbus, De Gama, and, above all, by Ferdinand Magellan.” While Columbus and other informed sailors who regularly sailed beyond the horizon believed in “the globular figure of the earth,” Draper wrote, “such an idea was, “as might be expected . . . received with disfavor by theologians.” A similar argument appears in Andrew D. White’s The Warfare of Science with Theology published in 1896, a work that is still cited as an authority on the history of science.

“Historian of science David Lindberg summarizes the medieval understanding of the earth and cosmos in his book The Beginnings of Western Science: ‘At the center of everything is the sphere of the earth. Every Medieval scholar of the period agreed on its sphericity, and ancient estimates of its circumference (about 252,000 stades) were widely known and accepted’ (p. 253). . . . No Christian authority of any consequence ever taught that the earth was flat.” (Huffington Post)

Boorstin asserts that from A.D. 300 to at least 1300, Europe suffered under what he describes as “scholarly amnesia” due to the rise of “Christian faith and dogma [that] suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.” Fake history at its worst.

Bede (673-735), monk of Jarow and “the Father of English history,” maintained “that the earth is a globe that can be called a perfect sphere because the surface irregularities of mountains and valleys are so small in comparison to its vast size.” He specifies that the “earth is ‘round’ not in the sense of ‘circular’ but in the sense of a ball.”3

Matt J. Rossano’s comments on the fake flat-earth history have a modern-day application that helps explain the modus operandi of today’s intelligentsia who believe everyone but them is an intellectual rube:

“Facts only confuse a good story. The narrative was bold, simple, and eagerly embraced by the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, who asserted that today, as always, religion subverts knowledge and progress. It was a classic fight of good vs. evil, progress vs. regress, ignorance vs. enlightenment — just what the papers needed to sell copy.” (Huffington Post)

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Liberals love to print the legend of the flat earth myth.  For example, “People who deny the science of climate change are like people who believed the earth was flat.”

  1. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1942), 89. []
  2. Quoted in Jeffrey Burton Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger, 1991), 53. []
  3. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth, 20. []
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