The World Before and After Columbus

Section I: Unfolding Geographic Concepts of the New World
It has been said that when Columbus set out on his epic voyage he didn’t know where he was going, that when he arrived he didn’t know where he was, and that after his return he didn’t know where he had been. This satirical statement is true in the sense that Columbus was seeking the East Indies and Asia, was convinced that he had reached those regions, and stubbornly clung to that belief. When subsequent explorations demonstrated that the newly discovered lands constituted a previously unsuspected fourth continent, the impact on the European mind was substantial and varied. Some received the news with consternation, viewing the new lands as a barrier in the way of the hoped-for easy access to the spice islands and the riches of Cathay. Others speculated optimistically about new commercial opportunities – fish, furs, timber, gems, precious metals — and slaves.

For the intellectuals of the time, both religious and lay, the new discoveries came as a shock, since neither science nor scriptural revelations predicted them. The result was a seminal change in the European attitude toward the unknown. The traditional view that unknown regions of the world were filled with horrors to be avoided by reasonable men was replaced by a new spirit of inquiry and systematic exploration. The religious prohibition against probing into matters not revealed by the word of God gave way to the missionary impulse.

Thus began the period of intensive exploration known as the Age of Discovery, during which a new understanding of the configuration of the earth emerged. The maps on display here illustrate the progressive improvement in geographic concepts with particular emphasis on the New World.
Section II: Regional Geography
As maritime exploration and discovery gave way to settlement and conquest, details of the coast and the vast interior areas of the New World were gradually uncovered. Continuing surveys were motivated by desire for conquest, potential economic gain from the land and its resources, compulsion to convert the heathen savages, or pure intellectual curiosity.    Whatever the reason, the result was increasing knowledge of the land. Detailed regional maps were produced to document and disseminate this knowledge, to advance territorial claims, and to promote settlement and development.