Christopher Columbus, of course, thought he had arrived in the “Indies,” the medieval name for Asia. Using Marco Polo's Travels among other sources, Columbus calculated that his voyage would lead him to Cathay (China), Cipango (Japan), the Spice Islands (the Mollucas), and India.
A Slow Boat to China
After landing on a small island on Oct. 12, 1492, in what he believed were the Indies, Columbus sailed along the coast of Cuba, certain that he had finally reached the continent of Cathay. He searched in vain for the magnificent cities Marco Polo had described, hoping to deliver a letter from the Spanish monarchs to “the great Khan,” the Chinese emperor. “Afterwards,” Columbus wrote on Oct. 21, “I shall set sail for another very large island which I believe to be Cipango, according to the indications I receive from the Indians on board.” Columbus's Japan proved to be the island of Hispaniola.
Refusing to Ask for Directions
Three voyages later, Columbus still resolutely maintained that he had reached Asia despite growing contrary evidence. Amerigo Vespucci's 150l voyage along the coast of South America convinced most explorers and their patrons that a huge unexplored continent existed across the Atlantic—what Vespucci called Mundus Novus, the New World. Columbus, however, died in 1506 still insisting that he had found a new route to Asia.