Columbus’s real achievement was managing to cross the ocean successfully in both directions. Though an accomplished enough mariner, he was not terribly good at a great deal else, especially geography, the skill that would seem most vital in an explorer. It would be hard to name any figure in history who has achieved more lasting fame with less competence. He spent large parts of eight years bouncing around Caribbean islands and coastal South America convinced that he was in the heart of the Orient and that Japan and China were at the edge of every sunset. He never worked out that Cuba is an island and never once set foot on, or even suspected the existence of, the land mass to the north that everyone thinks he discovered: the United States. He filled his holds with valueless iron pyrite thinking it was gold and with what he confidently believed to be cinnamon and pepper. The first was actually a worthless tree bark and the second were not true peppers but chilli peppers – excellent when you have grasped the general idea of them, but a little eye-wateringly astonishing on first hearty chomp.
Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010