The 20 Greatest Historical Myths – Part 5

Here is the last of a series listing the 20 most common historical myths. These are facts that everyone seems to know, which have only one problem: they’re not actually true. The following four historical “facts” were probably taught to you at school. As you can see, they weren’t as accurate as your teacher might have thought.

4. Columbus proved that the Earth was round

It was American author Washington Irving, some 500 years after Columbus sailed to America, who first portrayed the Italian explorer as launching on his voyage to prove that the Earth was round, defying the common, flat-earther belief of the time. In fact, most educated Europeans in Columbus’s day knew that the world was round. Since the fourth century BC, almost nobody has believed that the Earth is flat. Even if that wasn’t the case, Columbus would never have set out to prove that the Earth was round… simply because he didn’t believe it himself! Columbus thought that the Earth was pear-shaped. He set sail to prove something else: that Asia was much closer than anyone thought. Even in this, he was wrong. To further besmirch his memory, it should also be noted that he never set foot on mainland America. The closest he came was the Bahamas. Pear-shaped, indeed!

3. Gandhi liberated India

To westerners, Mahatma Gandhi is easily the most famous leader of India’s independence movement. He deserves credit for promoting the ancient ideals of ahimsa (non-violence). However, most historians agree that Indian independence was inevitable. Gandhi was just one of several independence leaders. The Indian National Congress was founded as early as 1885, when he was only 16. Gandhi’s much-publicised civil disobedience was only a small part in the movement, and some historians even suggest that India would have achieved independence sooner if they had focused on the more forceful methods that they had used 50 years earlier, and which were still advocated by other independence leaders, such as Gandhi’s rival Netaji Chandra Bose (who is also revered in India).

2. Jesus was born on December 25

Christmas is meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but there is no evidence whatsoever, biblical or otherwise, that He was actually born on that day. Nor is there anything to suggest that He was born in a manger, or that there were three wise men (although, as any nativity play will remind you, three gifts were mentioned). There are differing views as to why December 25 was chosen as Christmas day, but one of the most interesting is that the day was already celebrated by followers of Mithras, the central god of a Hellenistic cult that developed in the Eastern Mediterranean around 100 BC. The followers of this faith believed that Mithras was born of a virgin on 25 December, and that his birth was attended by shepherds…

Which brings us to the number one historical myth – something that is drilled into the heads of nearly all American schoolchildren…

1. George Washington was America’s first President

Everyone “knows” that Washington was the first of the (so far) 43 Presidents of the US. However, this isn’t strictly the case. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress (or the ‘United States in Congress Assembled’) chose Peyton Randolph as the first President. Under Randolph, one of their first moves was to create the Continental Army (in defence against Britain), appointing General Washington as its commander. Randolph was succeeded in 1781 by John Hancock, who presided over independence from Great Britain (see myth #6). After Washington defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown, Hancock sent him a note of congratulations. Washington’s reply was addressed to “The President of the United States”. Eight years later, as a revered war hero, Washington himself became America’s first popularly elected President – but strictly speaking, the FIFTEENTH President!