Christopher Columbus! What Do You Think of That?

Christopher ColumbusI had intended to write about Belshazzar, who, on Monday, October 12, 539 BC, heard a noise, sent his guards to investigate, only to be overwhelmed by the Medes and Persians. History records that Gradatas and his men found him on his feet, his scimitar in his hand. There Belshazzar died as the city of Babylon fell with little resistance, as the entire city was in a huge drunken party. Why he was waiting with a sword even some of own men were drunk is told in the Book of Daniel, and explains why he wasn’t drunk as well.

Instead, it was a chance remark besmirching Christopher Columbus that got under my skin. Trashing Christopher Columbus is trendy among those ignorant of history, as ignorant as the trendy notion of another era that his sailors feared sailing off the edge of the earth. And the assertion that Columbus and Europeans were monsters begs the question, “Compared to what?”

Imagine, if you will, the world of 1492. The Old Word has had sporadic contact with the New for thousands of years, but the information was either lost or unknown. So while some Egyptian mummies have traces of cocaine, which only comes from a New World plant, Roman amphorae have been found in Brazil, and the Chinese visited during their age of exploration, this wasn’t generally known in the place and time of Columbus. Not even the Viking settlements. And while the Basques were regularly fishing off the North American coast, they weren’t about to share this information with just anyone. As far as most people knew, there was nothing west of the Azores until you got to the Indies.

Europeans knew the world was round long before Columbus. It was apparent to any sailor, who could see masts appear on the horizon before the ship itself, or to anyone who’s walked toward a mountain or observed a lunar eclipse. The Greeks has made a surprisingly accurate calculation of the size of the earth, so even without an accurate way of determining longitude, Europeans had a good idea of the western distance to the orient, and it wasn’t a short jaunt. Try about 18 thousand miles. But then the bodies of two Indians washed ashore, some, including Columbus, thought that they came from the orient, and that would mean the earth was smaller than commonly thought.

Meanwhile, in the Americas, things weren’t exactly the happy land ethnic studies would have us to believe. North America was recovering from the collapse of the Mound Builder culture, which coincided with the onset of the Little Ice Age. The result was a post-apocalypse with famine, indigenous disease, and warring factions. Conquest and slavery were well known long before the Europeans arrived to stay. This is how the Carib came to dominate the region that bears their name: by wiping out the indigenous people. And some, like the Carib, weren’t above munching on their neighbors. Things were not better further south, where, if you weren’t careful, you could really leave your heart in Tenochtitian, or wind up the blue plate special.

So while Columbus was coming up with his own calculations of the diameter of the earth, the mostly European free Americas were recovering from a stone age Mad Max, with things going pretty much how you’d expect in that situation.

When Columbus advanced his proposal to sail directly to the orient to obtain spices, mariners and geographers took one look at his calculations and said “Bunk.” Columbus thought the distance west was only about a quarter of what it actually was, and the knowledgeable opinion of the time was that such an expedition would starve or die of thirst long before seeing the Indies. They were right, too. It was grumbling over dwindling supplies that had Columbus telling his sailors they were traveling less than they actually were, for if they realized his calculations on the size of the earth were way off, that was going to be the end of it. On Wednesday, October 10, 1492, Columbus faced down a mutiny as sailors were concerned they were heading to their deaths, not over the edge of the world, but by hunger and thirst.

Fortunately for the expedition, on Friday, October 12, 1492, they sighted land. Columbus returned, thinking he’d discovered a route to the Indies. He would make three more voyages, setting up a long-term European presence in the Americas. Just seven years later, Vasco de Gama would finally make it to the Indies, sailing east around Africa.

Of course, today it’s this permanent European presence that is loathed by the Usual Suspects, who rail that the Europeans killed and enslaved Indians, but are apparently okay with Indians doing the same. The only difference between the two were technology, disease, and the Europeans didn’t add the vanquished to the menu. You will hear much of how the Europeans wiped out the Taino; not much of how the Carib were doing the same, and more.

Yeah, that’s not a pretty image. Neither is much of history. Anyone who knows history knows Europeans were no saints. Neither was anyone else. And some things going on in pre-Columbian America are downright stomach turning.

All of which is sort of swept under the rug. Frankly I wonder if ethnic studies professors have talked to anyone in the archaeology department. If not, they should. Archaeologists know where the bodies are buried.

So it is, on Columbus Day, we have the spectacle of Americans of European descent bemoaning that their ancestors ever arrived, joined by Americans of every other descent, with both embracing a culture that came from Europe. The many ways this is hypocritical is left as an exercise to the reader.

As to Columbus, after overplaying his hand he was removed as Governor of the Indies. He died, while not in poverty, without his titles or knowing he had never reached the Indies. And yet Columbus, who had no way to accurately calculate longitude, still had more of a clue than the Usual Suspects, who are convinced the Americas were wonderful until he showed up.

Kind of ironic, that.

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