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The Earth of Columbus

p. 208

IT IS ONE OF THE LITTLE IRONIES of life that the man who more than any other popularised the notion that the Earth was "shaped like a ball," himself believed it was shaped like a pear. Privately Columbus affirmed that the Earth was pear-shaped. We find this in his letters, and in the writings of his contemporaries. One of these latter, Pietro Martire, who accompanied Columbus on the voyage

FIGURE 89. <i>The pear-shaped Earth of Columbus</i>.<br> (From <i>Paradise Found</i>; William Fairfield Warren, 1885.)
FIGURE 89. The pear-shaped Earth of Columbus.
(From Paradise Found; William Fairfield Warren, 1885.)

of 1498, in his Decades of the newe worlde published in 1555, said that "the Admirall" declared such things, "the which because they seeme contrarye to the oppinions of all the Astronomers, I wyll touche them but with a drye foote as sayeth the proverbe. . . . For he sayeth, that he . . . conjectured, that the earth is not perfectly rownde; But that when it was created, there was a certeyne heape reysed theron, much hygher than the other partes of the same. So that (as he saith), it is not rownde after the form of an apple or a bal (as others thynke) but rather lyke a peare as it hangeth on the tree. And that Paria is


the Region which possesseth the super-eminente or hyghest parte thereof nerest unto heaven. In soo muche that he earnestly contendeth, the earthly Paradise to bee situate in the toppes of those three hylles, which wee sayde before, that the watche man sawe owte of the toppe castell of the shippe: And that the outragious streames of the freshe waters which soo violently issewe out of the sayde goulfes and stryve soo with the salte water, faule head-longe from the toppes of the sayde mountaynes."

Columbus himself, in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella regarding his third voyage, wrote: 1

"I have always read that the world comprising the land and water was spherical, and the recorded experiences of Ptolemy and all the others have proved this by the eclipses of the moon and other observations made from East to West, as well as the elevation of the Pole from North to South. But as I have already described, I have now seen so much irregularity that I have come to another conclusion respecting the Earth, namely, that it is not round, as they describe, but of the form of a pear, which is very round except where the stalk grows, at which part it is most prominent; or like a round ball, upon part of which is a prominence like a woman's nipple, this protrusion being the highest and nearest the sky, situated under the equinoctial line, and at the eastern extremity of this sea. [He is in the Gulf of Paria, to the north or the north-west of the mouth of the Orinoco.] . . . Ptolemy and the other philosophers who have written upon the globe

p. 210

thought that it was spherical; . . . but this western half of the world, I maintain, is like half a very round pear, having a raised projection for the stalk, as I have already described."

When Columbus wrote this letter to his royal helpers, he supposed himself to be in Asia's easternmost waters, but he was really in the northern part of South America, which he himself went on to describe as the Paradise of the Earth or the Mountain of the World. But the World Mountain of Columbus had dropped from its northern quarter to the western.


208:1 Select Letters of Columbus: Hakluyt Soc. Pub., and ed. pp. 134-138.

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