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Christopher Columbus And The Replacement-Level Historical Figure

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It's easy to tell Columbus's story as one of a determined innovator, triumphing over the backwardness and ignorance of medieval Europe to usher in a new era of global exploration, trade, colonization, and conquest through sheer grit and clarity of vision. That is all absolute nonsense, but it is a very easy story to tell.
Sometime in 1484 or 1485, the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus pitched King João II of Portugal on his scheme for a westward voyage of exploration across the Atlantic to Asia. It would be a voyage of around 2,400 nautical miles, Columbus argued, and he'd be happy to undertake it on João's behalf in return for some frankly outlandish rights to land claims and revenues on the other side of his voyage.

João was nobody's fool, especially when it came to backing speculative long-distance ventures at sea, but he was willing to entertain Columbus's plan. Profits were profits, after all. Portuguese caravels had already been making the long trip down the west coast of Africa for decades, edging further and further south. The revenues from these trips—in the form of gold, ivory, and enslaved men and women—provided much of the king's wealth. By 1488, one of his subordinates, Bartholomeu Dias, would round the Cape of Good Hope and enter the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.

The king submitted Columbus's proposal to a panel of experienced geographers and navigators he kept on his payroll, people with deep theoretical and practical knowledge of the sea. The panel of experts laughed Columbus out of the room. This wasn't because Columbus believed the world was round and they didn't, or because they were hidebound traditionalists who couldn't see the brilliance of his plan and the destiny waiting just over the horizon on the other side of the Atlantic. It was because Columbus was drastically mistaken about the size of the world.

Columbus was utterly convinced that the planet was about a third smaller than it actually is. João's navigational experts, who had correctly calculated the size of the Earth, knew that he was wrong about this simple, foundational fact. And if Columbus was wrong about it, then he and his ships would run out of food and water at sea long before they ever reached the East Indies. Any investment would be wasted.

On top of that, João (and…
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