Christopher Columbus did not really know what he was doing when he landed in todays Bahamas, on October 12, 1492.

This feat of seamanship was made possible by a much lesser known – but equally impressive – feat of salesmanship. Columbus spent 10 years trying to convince various European monarchs to finance his crazy plan to sail to India across the Atlantic from the West.

The Portuguese, who were the premier naval power of the time, turned Columbus down three times. The reason for their refusal was not as silly as Washington Irving argued in his 1828 biography of Columbus: it wasn’t because the Portuguese thought the earth was flat. In fact, every sailor by then knew the earth was round. The Portuguese could see that Columbus’ calculations were dead wrong: India could not possibly be only 4000 km east of Portugal, as Columbus had imagined. It had to be 10 to 12 000 km away – an impossible distance for a mere caravel to travel.

Not taking no for an answer, Columbus approached the Castilian Monarchs. They decided they had nothing to lose by letting him sail to “India.” Queen Isabel didn’t really expect Columbus to return, so she added some phenomenal perks to the deal. She promised him he would be called Admiral of the Ocean Sea and that he will get a 10% cut of anything he found in India.

It was a great stroke of luck that allowed Columbus to land exactly where he (wrongly) expected to find India. For the next 10 years, he continued to believe that he was in India, against mounting evidence to the contrary.

520 years later, we know that Columbus’ inadvertent discovery triggered a number of firsts, the main was a biological shockwave on a scale that made the Black Plague look like a common cold. New World inhabitants, who had been isolated from European diseases for 12 000 years, had no immunity to European common diseases like measles and smallpox. This biological shockwave was far more efficient than the cruelty and technological advantage of the conquistadores  (conquerors), and it wiped out almost an entire continent, killing 95% of an estimated 100 million people in a matter of a century.

In the United States, Columbus Day is celebrated on the second Monday of the month of October, to give everyone a long weekend. In most Hispanic countries, October 12th is known by various names – Día del Descubrimiento, de la Hispanidad (Hispanity) or de la Raza (race). The latter two emphasize that the human tragedy of the “discovery” – really a clash – created an entirely new people and culture.

It is one of the great ironies of history that this land, discovered by mistake, owes its name to yet another mistake. A different explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, captured the public’s imagination with his account of his travels claiming he was in an entirely “New World.” And soon after, in 1507, cartographer Martin WaldenseeMüller, of Saint-Dié, France, published a world map showing the surprisingly detailed contour of a vast new continent he called America – in honor of Amerigo Vespucci.

And this is why America is not called Columbia.


The Story of Spanish

More stories on Spanish in the Americas can be found in our new book, The Story of Spanish, to be released in April 2013 (St. Martin’s Press).