Look, people… If it makes you happy, Columbus was wrong, the Bugs Bunny version notwithstanding.
Yeah, the Earth was round, as every educated person of his day knew. Only low-information types thought otherwise. But the scholars of the day also knew how big the Earth was, and why Columbus’ idea of sailing west to get to the East Indies was a pipe dream.
But because he was dumb enough to insist on proving his point, he accidentally discovered the New World — and almost no other development in human history has had such wide-reaching consequences, for good or ill.
Consequently, I consider efforts to downplay his “discovery” of the New World a bit on the silly side. Such as this reference in an interesting piece by the NYT’s Brent Staples:
It also tied Italian-Americans closely to the paternalistic assertion, still heard today, that Columbus “discovered” a continent that was already inhabited by Native Americans….
Allow me to make a “paternalistic assertion.” Yep, he did discover America. And everything that has happened since arises from that fact.
Right now, I’m reading the book Guns, Germs and Steel, and it’s fascinating. Basically, it attempts to determine the underlying factors that caused certain parts of the world to be “discovered,” and ultimately dominated by, people from other parts of the world.
The whole book aims to answer a question posed to the author by a New Guinean politician named Yali back in the ’70s. When Europeans “discovered” New Guinea a couple of centuries back, the people there were technologically still in the Stone Age. The local people were blown away by the physical artifacts of a modern society — ranging from steel axes to soft drinks — which they referred to collectively as “cargo.” Yali asked the author:
“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
Jared Diamond’s attempts to answer the question are deeply fascinating.
The book spends considerable time on one incident in particular, back in 1532. You may know the story of how Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro took the Incan emperor prisoner, accepted a ransom from the Incas of a vast amount of gold, and then killed the emperor anyway. Aside from dwelling on some “woke” aspect of this encounter, such as the obvious fact that these Spaniards were a__holes, Diamond asked why it happened this way. In other words, why didn’t Incan emperor Atahuallpa go to Spain, take King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, prisoner and hold him for ransom? A variation of Yali’s question.
And no, the answer isn’t that Atahuallpa was a nicer guy, or for that matter that American Indians were on the whole nicer than white guys (although again, Pizarro and crew didn’t exactly create a great first impression for the rest of us white guys).
Nor is Diamond satisfied with, the Spaniards had guns and steel swords and horses. The book aims to understand why people from Europe had guns and steel swords and horses. For that, he goes back to when homo sapiens first spread out over the Earth, and in certain places gave up hunting and gathering for farming, and different kinds of farming in different places, and the effects that had on the development of technology an complex political structures, and so on.
I highly recommend the book.
But my point is that, whether you personally see it as a good thing or a bad thing, Columbus’ discovery of America was definitely a thing, and one of the most consequential pivot points of history. If you want to explore just how consequential, I recommend another book, which I’ve recommended before: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.
What happened on Oct. 12, 1492, was monumental, and certainly worth marking with a special observance. It changed the world as almost nothing else that has ever happened did. Where people get all bollixed up is when they try to assign moral value to the event.
I don’t know why people do that. Discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a good guy. It doesn’t really make him a bad guy, either. Some other stuff he did after he got here makes him look pretty bad — especially to someone with a 2019 worldview. But like him or hate him, the thing he did, what he stumbled onto, has enormous global significance. He did something amazing, but it doesn’t make him a hero. Or the devil.
The arrival of Europeans, with their relative immunity to certain diseases like smallpox, had horrific consequences for the native population of this hemisphere. What happened was so horrible that it staggers the imagination: 95 percent of the population died out.
But just as discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a hero (to me at least he was not), he can’t really be blamed for everything that happened to the people who lived here, however badly he may have treated the natives he encountered. (Which was pretty damned badly.) He didn’t say, “Hey, let’s go to China (where he thought he was headed) and infect the local people so they all die out.” In fact, most of the people of this hemisphere died over the next few decades long before they came into contact with whites — the germs spread across these continents much faster than people did. People of European descent didn’t even realize on what scale this happened until quite recently (and to learn more about that, read Mann’s prequel, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.)
Of course, people can play games with the word “discovered.” They can say, those Asian people who crossed the land bridge 15,000 years ago “discovered” America, or even say the first Europeans to discover America were actually the Vikings. Or St. Brendan the Navigator. But none of those events opened this side of the world to the other side, mainly because the world wasn’t technologically prepared to bring that about.
So, as a historic event with repercussions for the entire planet, the moment that America got discovered — in the sense of the planet learning of its existence and being affected by it — well, that happened 527 years ago this week.
Feel about it any way you like, but that’s the way things unfolded….