Was Christopher Columbus in Greenland 15 years before he discovered America?


Christopher Columbus wrote that he sailed in February 1477 to an island a hundred miles beyond Tile (Iceland). This trip, which would have led him to Greenland according to the distance he mentioned, was questioned many times in the 20th century. Ar­guments against accepting his claim have been that ice and snow would not have allowed him to make an expedition to the North in winter, and that the details he had given about the size of the tides (26 braccia) were far too overstated to be taken seriously. Taking into consideration new research concerning the change of climate at the end of the Middle Ages, Columbus' statement must be re­considered in our days. It seems to be consistent not only with the climatic facts at that time, including extremely high and low tides, but also with the historical sources documenting the competition among European countries with regard to Greenland as a base for further advances to Newfoundland and Canada. This short essay shows, that there are substantive historical and climatic arguments supporting Christopher Columbus' claims.

Commenting on the five earthly zones and their habitability as de­scribed by Isidore of Seville in his treatises Etymologiae and De Natura Rerum, Columbus wrote in one of the rare records of his early seafaring time: In the month of February, 1477, I sailed a hundred leghe (miles) beyond Tile (Iceland), to an island, of which the south part is at a distance of 73 degrees from the equator, and not 63, as some say; and it does not lie within Ptolemy's western boundary, but much farther west. And to this island, which is as big as England, the English, especially those from Bristol, go with their wares. When I was there, the sea was not frozen, although there were very big tides, which in some places rose and fell twenty-six braccia (cubit).[1] Unfortunately, the original document containing these words is lost. However, it is available in two reliable contemporary transcriptions, one by Her­nando Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, and the other by Bartolomé de las Casas, fighter for the rights of the native Indians.

Sailing a distance of a hundred miles beyond Iceland one is lead either to the island of Jan Mayen or to Greenland. Jan Mayen is rather unlikely as Columbus' destination, because of its small size (not to be compared with England). Moreover, Christopher Columbus wrote that the place he went to was located further west than the line Ptolemy had described to be the edge of the western hemisphere, and Jan Mayen is located in the North. In Considering Greenland as a possible destination, there is only one inaccuracy in the text, that the island's south part had a distance of 73 degrees from the Equator. Did Columbus confuse the East-, with the South coast of Greenland, or are there other reasons, which may account for this mistaken detail?

First of all, one has to be aware, that in the 15th century it was generally very difficult to determine a ship's exact position. To measure latitude Columbus still used the Quadrant: a quarter cir­cle cut from wood or brass.[2] In addition, Alexander Humboldt – himself an experienced explorer – pointed out that the diffuse sunlight in the North, especially in winter, made it very difficult to obtain precise readings.[3]

But it isn't just the possibility of a wrong measurement leading to the questionable statement of latitude. Columbus' error could also be the result of an inaccurate statement of Ptolemy. The ancient geographer, with whom Columbus was familiar, gave the latitude of the northwest coast of Ireland – corner point of Colum­bus' departure across the open sea – as 61 instead of 55 ? degrees North.[4] In this context, it cannot be ruled out that Columbus reached a place at a distance of about 73 degrees north of the Equator. If he participated in an expedition to Greenland that winter, he might have made his own investigations about the habitability of one of the earthly zones and, taking advantage of the East Greenland current, made an expedition to the bays north of Soorebysund. He might even have rounded the spit of land later called James Land.

Apart from this error in the measurement of latitude, Co­lumbus' statements are clearly referring to Greenland. As the source itself has never been doubted, it is astonishing that Christo­pher Columbus' notes have not been taken seriously in historiog­raphy and why this trip of his is still unknown. Ignoring the fact that there is a genuine text in the handwriting of Columbus de­scribing his stay in Galway (Ireland)[5], some historians even refuse to accept that Columbus went as far as England. Looking at some of the statements of the Columbus research literature in the 20th century, one gets the impression, that the influence of positivist thinking in historical research, combined with nationalistic goals, led to a hypercritical view towards Columbus' own writings. After the debate concerning the possible impact on the discoverer of America by the expeditions of the Vikings initiated by Scandina­vian scientists in the 19th century and continuing until the second half of the 20th century[6], it was generally agreed that Columbus sailed at least as far as Iceland. But since the thirties, Italian histo­riograpghy, especially the so-called Genoese School, started to dis­count the sourcepassage, arguing that such a trip would not have been in the interests of a Genoese merchant[7]. According to one of the most recent essays about the subject by the British historian Ruddock, Columbus invented his trip to the North, after having listened to the narratives of British sailors.[8] But what are the con­crete arguments brought up against taking the quotation of Chris­topher Columbus at face value?

The most important argument advanced during the last century is concerning the time of the year (February), which would seem to make a trip even to Iceland impossible because of ice and snow. However nowadays, this objection may not be valid any­more. It is now known that in the 15th century the climate was much warmer than in following centuries.[9] According to a contempo­rary chronicle, the winter of 1477 was extraordinarily mild: even the northern part of Iceland was without any snow until March and the South coast without any ice (sniolans jör).[10] There­fore, Columbus' statement, that the sea wasn’t frozen during the time he was there[11] must be reasonable.

A second argument against the trip has been Columbus' ob­servation of strong tidal movements. He wrote that he witnessed great mareas (tides), leading twice daily to a difference of about 25 brazas in the levels between low and high tide.[12] Ruddock, while acknowledging a warm winter in 1477 and contemporary excur­sions to Greenland, nevertheless concludes that Columbus never went there because of this crucial question of the implausibly ex­treme tides.[13] According to her, 25 brazas means nearly fifty feet, an unacceptably high tidal rise indeed; therefore it must have been impossible for anybody to have actually witnessed the event. Rud­dock didn't, however, take into consideration the essay of Graefe, who reasoned, that Columbus' braccia probably meant a covid (0.4886 m), an Arabic yardstick still used in Spain at that time: This would reduce the tidal movement to an acceptable 12 meters (39.37 feet).[14] Furthermore, new arguments have arisen in favor of Columbus' observation concerning the tides. Recent studies about the Earth's climate and the warming due to the greenhouse effect show that the changes in climate, especially at the beginning of the "little ice age" from 1450 on, have caused extreme tidal move­ments, which might have led to the abandoning of the Viking do­minions in Greenland at that time.[15] If the tides had got stronger in that region, why shouldn't Columbus have drawn attention to that fact?

Apart from the climatic arguments, there is another state­ment by Columbus which should be discussed, namely, that the English, especially those from Bristol, went to the mentioned is­land with their wares. It is known, that the British went regularly to Iceland, especially during the cod-fishing season, which lasted from January through March[16], but there are no documents offi­cially confirming that these sailors also went to Greenland. Despite the political situation of that period in England, one nevertheless gets some hints that trips to Greenland on the part of the British took place. According to the sources quoted by the Norwegian his­torian Tornoë, the Danish-Norwegian kings made several treaties with the English trying to ban them from Iceland and Greenland; and because of the harm especially wrought by the "pirates" from Bristol, war broke out between Denmark-Norway and England in 1467.[17] King Alfonso V. of Portugal, an ally of the Scandinavian crown, first initiated in the 1470s a long lasting co-expedition to Greenland with the admirals Pining-Pothorst and João Vaz Corte Real. It is known, that the sailors had to build big landmarks not only in Snäffelsjökull (Iceland), but also in Huitserk (Greenland), in order to make clear that the land was still in the possession of the Danish king Christian I.[18] This co-expedition, which is also documented by the chronicler Gaspar Fructuosa (1520-1590) [19], corresponds somewhat with Columbus' remarks about the sailors of Bristol going there with their wares. The latter were considered by the Danish as competitors and rivals, trying to force their way into the richer fishing and hunting fields on the Canadian Atlantic coast.[20] The Portuguese-Danish expedition in the 1470s was there­fore part of a military intervention against the commercial activi­ties of the English, especially those from Bristol (also mentioned by Christopher Columbus). In 1480, men from Bristol launched a highly equipped expedition in search of a legendary island called Brasylle, later identified by Williamson and Quinn as the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia[21]. The expedition failed, mainly because they tried to reach it directly from Ireland. In my opinion, these facts – that there was an interest in the region laying further West than Iceland, especially in Greenland as a base for further expeditions, are founded on solid evidence. The arguments against the passage are not strong enough to disprove Columbus' state­ments.

In 1477, the future discoverer of America had already arrived in Portugal and married a Portuguese noblewoman. Why could he not have sailed with the Portuguese, who were exhorted by papal decrees since 1455 to discover the (is)lands of the Atlantic? The Portuguese king Alfonso V, allied to the Danish-Norwegian king­dom by family ties[22], initiated the mentioned expedition to the Arc­tic in the early '70s. In 1476, another large expedition with several captains and ships was sent out under the command of admiral Jan Scolvus, and it is well known that this trip led at least as far as the East coast of Greenland.[23] Starting out in 1476, the Jan Scolvus expedition reached Iceland and Greenland not earlier than winter 1477. Christopher Columbus could have joined this particular ex­pedition in Iceland, after having made a stay in Galway, which was the main harbor on the way.[24] Why should this trip, which seems to have followed the tracks of the Vikings, not have inspired Christopher Columbus? Even if he didn't accompany the Jan Scol­vus expedition to the very end – according to Tornoë, Scolvus al­most rounded Baffin Island – the trip must have made an impact on him, strengthening his will to continue his exploration of the Atlantic Sea.

The critical reader might ask at least, why Columbus didn't mention his trip to the North in any subsequent text. To answer this question, one has to take into consideration two facts: First, that all of his documents concerning the time before 1492 have disappeared, and second, that Christopher Columbus was obvi­ously not interested in clearing up this part of his biography in later years. It seems, that he hesitated publicly to remember the seafaring experiences he made in the decades before arriving in Spain – especially after his deprivation of power in the year 1500. The Spanish government, according to Bartolomé de las Casas, had suspected him and his brothers of being guilty of high treason and it would have been for him negligent to draw attention to expedi­tions that he had made for other kingdoms, some of them hostile to Spain.

[1] COLOMBO F. 1571 (Venetia, Francesco de' Franceschi Sanese), p 9: Io nauigai l'anno M CCCC LXXVII nel mese di Febraio oltra Tile isola cento leghe, la cui parte Australe è lontana dall' Equinottiale settanta­tre gradi, & non sessantatre, come alcuni vogliono: ne giace dentro della linea, che include l'Occidente di Tolomeo, ma è molto più Occi­dentale. Et a quest'isola, che è tanto grande, come l' Inghliterra, vanno gl'Inglesi con le loro mercatantie, specialmente quelli di Bristol. Et al tiempo, che io vi andai, non era congelato il mare, quantunque vi fossero si grosse maree, che in alcuni luoghi ascendeua ventisei brac­cia, & discendeua altretanti in altezza. See also in Spanish: DE LAS CASAS, B., 1994 Obras completas, Historia de Las Indias I, (Madrid: Alianza Editorial), p. 363.
[2] The Quadrant was a clumsy instrument requiring two people for its use. It had to be held up vertically by one person, who lined up the sun or a star through the sights along an edge. A second person then had to obtain the actual reading
[3] HUMBOLDT, A. von, 1852 Kritische Untersuchungen über die his­torische Entwicklung der geographischen Kenntnisse von der Neuen Welt, Vol. 1. (Berlin), p. 366.
[4] STORM, G. 1893 'Columbus pa Island og vore forfaedres opdagelser i det nordvestlige Atlanterhav' 'Norske geogr. Selskap Aarb. 4, p. 71. In 1500, Columbus believed more in ancient authors than in his own navi­gational experiences, e.g. in the details given by Esdras (apocrypha fourth book) and the Arab Astronomer Alfraganus.
[5] See VARELA C. (ed.) 1982 Cr. Colon, Textos y documentos completos (Madrid), p. 9. It is an annotation in Eneas Sivio Piccolominis "Historia rerumque ubique gestarum", 2v.
[6] See: MAGNUSEN, F. 1833, as well as: STORM, G. 1893 'Columbus pa Island og vore forfaedres opdagelser i det nordvestlige Atlanterhav' 'Norske geogr. Selskap Aarb. 4., and: TORNOë, J. Kr. 1965 Columbus in the Arctic and the Vineland literature (Oslo).
[7] CADDEO, R. (ed.) 1930 Le Historie della vita e dei fatti di Cristoforo Colombo per D.Fernando Colombo, suo figlio (Milano) Apendix D, 333: Questa navigazione è inammissibile (...) Egli era imbarcato, come agente di commercio, ... . As the Italian seafaring companies were barred from selling their merchandise at the West coast of England during the Wars of the Roses, a stay there could have shown, that the discoverer wasn't in his home town's service at all at that time. See: HEERS, J. 1961 Gênes au XVe siècle, Activité économique et problèmes sociaux, S. 410: Le trafic génois en Angleterre s'exerce par une étroite façace, entre Southampton et Sandwich.
[8] See RUDDOCK A.A. 1970, 'Columbus and Iceland: new light on an old problem' The Geographical Journal, Vol. 136, 2. According to R., the men of the Trinity of Bristol inspired Columbus during their stay in Huelva, South of Spain. But at that time of their stay (early 1480) Co­lumbus was still living in Portugal.
[9] LAMB, H.H. 1989 Klima und Kulturgeschichte, der Einfluss des Wet­ters auf den Gang der Geschichte (Hamburg), 208, 210.
[10] MAGNUSEN, F. 1833 Om de Engelskes Handel pea Islan. In: Nordisk Tidskrift for Oldkyndighed (Copenhagen), 129, 1.
[11] COLOMBO, F., p. 9.
[12] IBIDEM.
[13] RUDDOCK A.A., p. 188 and 178: The height of these tides plays an important part in the clarification of Columbus' alleged voyage to Ice­land.
[14] GRAEFE, H. 1955 'Die Islandfahrt des Columbus vom Jahre 1477' Erd­kunde, Archiv für wissenschaftliche Geographie, Vol. IX, Heft 1/4 (Bonn), p. 154.
[15] SHAW, R., 2000 'Ocean tides found to influence climate' (Enviromen­tal News Network). S. refers to Charles Keeling, Timothy Whorf and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California.
[16] RUDDOCK A.A. 1970, 183f.
[17] IBID., p. 57. See also: BRÖGGER, A. W. , 1937 Vinlandsferdene (Oslo), P. 147.
[18] TORNOË, J. Kr. 1965 Columbus in the Arctic and the Vineland litera­ture (Oslo), p. 59. See also: BOBÉ, L (ed.) 1909 'Aktstykker om Gronlands Besejling 1521-1607 ' Danske Magazin, 5. Raekke. 7.Vol. (Co­penhagen), p. 310.
[19] IBID., p. 59. Frucuoso writes, that João Vaz Cortereal and Alvaro Mar­tins Homem were sent out by the Portuguese king to discover lands.
[20] IBID., p. 51 and 56f. According to T., the settlement in Eastern Greenland was still alive in the 15th cent. (in 1448 Icelandic Annals re­port nine churches and congregations), although many Greenlanders had already emigrated to Canada because of better living conditions there. Greenland continued in the 15th century the trading with "Vine­land", which had, according to bills, delivered products like Elk, black bear, ermine, glutton lynx, otter, sable and wolf (animals which were hunted in Newfoundland or Canada).
[21] SCHMITT, E. (ed.), 1984 Dokumente zur Geschichte der europäischen Expansion, vol. 2 (München: Beck), 96. See also: WILLIAMSON, J. A., 1962 The Cabot voyages and the Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (Hakluyt Society, 2nd ser. Vol. 120) (Cambridge), and: QUINN, D. B. 1974 England and the discovery of America, 1481-1820 (London).
[22] King Erik of Scandinavia was married to the cousin of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal.
[23] SCHMITT, E. (ed.), 95.
[24] According to Tornoë, Greenland became a base of operations for the search of the Northwest Passage to Asia in those years, and the Jan Scol­vus expedition was dedicated to this goal. An English document from about 1575 says that Jan Scolus, a pilot of Denmarke, was in the north side of the passage from the North Sea (the Arctic Ocean) to the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean); this passage was called the Narrowe Sea or Streicte of the three Brethren and at no time in the year ice would be found there, because of the swift running down of sea into sea, T. iden­tified this Streicte as Jones Sound or Lancaster Sound because of a globe, made by Gemma Frisius and Gerhard Mercator (1537), showing a Fretum trium fratrum.