The late 1400s was a time of emerging western imperialism and economic competition among the various European Kingdoms. At the time, these kingdoms were seeking trade routes to the to the Orient and colonizing various parts of the globe, while constantly worrying about sailing off the edge of the flat world. Christopher (Colon) or Columbus, as he became known, had a speculative proposal to reach the East Indies by sailing westward, an extremely innovative idea at the time. Since it could lead to a valuable new trade route, he eventually received support from the Spanish monarch, Queen Isabella. While other kingdoms were looking the other way, it was typical of Isabella’s political vision that she agreed to finance the expedition of Columbus which, of course, brought the New World and wealth to Spain. If it weren’t for Isabella, Columbus would never been able to set sail. She saw a chance to gain the upper hand over rival powers in the contest for the lucrative spice trade with Asia. While there was some debate as to the world being flat, the real issue in the 1490s was not the shape of the earth, but, as pointed out by Washington Irving’s book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, the size of the earth and the position of the east coast of Asia.
Columbus, of course, never did find a new trade routs to the Orient; instead he found the New World. Columbus had mistakenly used a much shorter estimate for distance, substituting the shorter 1480-meter Italian “mile” for the longer 2177-m Arabic “mile,” which made his estimate of the earth’s circumference about 75% less than what it really was. Using those erroneous measures he had estimated the distance to Japan to be only about 5,000 km (which, in reality, was the distance to the eastern edge of the Caribbean), while the true figure was about 20,000 km.
Spanish scholars may not have known the exact distance to the east coast of Asia, but they believed that it was significantly further than Columbus projected, and this was why some mariners and academics in Spain and Portugal were critical of the proposed voyage. During his first voyage in 1492, instead of reaching Japan as he had intended, Columbus landed in the Bahamas archipelago, at a locale he named San Salvador. The Discovery of America has been attributed to others and some argue that Asians migrating across the Bering Strait to North America in prehistoric times (between 12,000 and 42,000 years ago) were the first to discover America. Others point to Leif Ericson and the Vikings who established a
short-lived settlement in Newfoundland circa 1000.
While Columbus was possibly not the first European to voyage to the New World and did not really reach the mainland until his third voyage in 1498, his discovery led to the widespread knowledge of the existence of a new continent for the first time in history. The breakthrough in geographical science led to the colonization of the New World by major European sea powers and is usually cited as the start of the Modern Era.
Spain, Portugal and other European kingdoms sent expeditions and established colonies throughout the New World, converted the native inhabitants to Christianity and built large trade networks across the Atlantic, which introduced new plants, animals, and food crops in both continents. The discovery of America only interrupted the search for a westward route to Asia, which continued in 1513 when Nuñez de Balboa crossed Central America and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. The search was completed in 1521, when the Spanish Magellan-Elcano expedition sailed across the Pacific and reached Southeast Asia.
There is no record that Christopher Columbus had a hearing loss, nor that Queen Isabella or others instrumental in the discovery of America did. However, sailing to new continents inevitably produces a risk that the sailors will bring new diseases to the population of the newly discovered territory. Conversely, there is a risk that they will bring back new diseases when they return home. While Columbus brought back many riches from the New world, there was something that he and his men acquired on their trip that would change the face of Europe for a century …..and become a common cause of hearing loss. That is the topic of the NEXT Hearing International.