Looking back at this day in 1493 the Portuguese-born discoverer Christopher Columbus mistook manatees for mermaids when he sailed near the Dominican Republic. He reports seeing three “mermaids” and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” In the history of the discovery of new lands, there can be seen a pattern of discoverers mistaking species for those only that they have heard of. Within Europe, there were numerous tales of creatures that were believed to exist in foreign lands not well-known to Europeans. The manatee itself was a slow-moving aquatic mammal with human-like eyes and paddle-like tails and became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting.
Western medieval Christianity can take some responsibility for the perceptions and made-up animals that ordinary people and explorers believed were real, and saw as evil and unworldly. The most barbaric was the three-headed dog that was written about and taught to have lived in the eastern world. Because of this association with barbaric creatures that often lived in this continent, Europeans already had the sense that they were more supreme in humanity than those who lived in the East. This medieval mode of thought was essential to later discoveries and the reactions to them by Europeans, and there was in fact a shift in the reactions of Europeans to discoveries as time went on.
One of the reactions that developed out of medieval thought and existed in the early modern period was the idea that the indigenous populations that were discovered by European explorers could be conquered, controlled and dominated to whatever means they wished. It was this idea that led to the construction and workings of the sugar plantations and the slave trade. This idea is interesting, considering that medieval Europeans would have admired the newly discovered indigenous populations, but because of the development of Europe into independent nation-states, they were more power-hungry, seeking individual gains, and possessed a very different mentality. This went so far to the extent that Columbus and his men arrived in the New World’s and spread European diseases to kill, decrease and weaken them. These communities were not immune to European diseases and so were easily wiped out by illnesses that would not have killed a European as easily or at all. The Age of Discovery became a competition for profit and territory that occurred between “civilised” European nations, becoming brutal and immoral to become the wealthiest and most powerful nation.
As many historians have already examined, the credit given to Columbus for the discovery of the Americas is not deserved in the respect that he, of course, did not know the whole continent existed before stumbling upon it. He can, however, be credited with the fact that he was the individual who discovered it first, in the early modern period, since it was technically discovered by another individual before this. Furthermore, Columbus’ aim of finding a faster route to the East is in itself admirable due to the bravery and ability of it being able to succeed. His mistake of thinking of a manatee to be a mythical creature needs to be considered with the time and the beliefs it held. We can laugh about it but it needs to be remembered that these discoverers only knew what they knew, and in fact opened a whole new world so that we can now see that his sighting of a mermaid was a mistake.