Columbus Before the Council of Salamanca (1487)


"Columbus displays a chart in an unsuccessful endeavor to convince the Council appointed by King Ferdinand to support his theory of a new route to India. On either side of the panel are the statuettes of Juan Perez de Marchena (inscribed 'Paraz'), prior of the Convent of La Rabida and friend of Columbus, and Henry VII of England, a patron of navigation, who agreed with Columbus' theory."

The traditional story of Columbus and the Council is one of innovation in the face of illiberality and ignorance, the hero as underdog. According to the legend, fostered by Washington Irving's work on Columbus, the Council gave short shrift to Columbus' proposal, holding on to ideas of a flat earth and prejudiced against the obvious poverty of the supplicant. Columbus is rejected yet, through patience and tenacity, his plan is eventually accepted and he sails west and finds a New World. John Noble Wilford, in his The Mysterious History of Christopher Columbus challenges this myth. The commissioners were not the wholly intransigent group Irving and others portray; while Irving "has them saying that the 'rotundity of the earth was as yet a matter of mere speculation'", they actually "generally accepted the early-Greek idea of a spherical earth." (88)

Noble points out, "Irving notwithstanding, the central issue was the size of the earth and the width of the ocean. The learned experts were right on this, and Columbus wrong." (88) However, it was not the facts of history that were important to myth-builders like Irving; it was the symbolism. Columbus, the little guy with the big idea, coming face to face with ignorance and indifference at the top, was a favorite American trope and became an important factor in the Columbus myth.

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