Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus is a fake!

For hundreds of years, Christopher Columbus has had a special place in the history of the New World. Traditionally, history textbooks have painted him as a kind of daring, enlightened explorer who single handedly pulled Europe out of the superstition of the Dark Ages. The ever increasing controversy surrounding annual Columbus Day celebrations, however, indicates that the traditional treatment of Columbus is largely inaccurate.

Most opposition to Columbus Day centers on the way Columbus and those who followed him treated Native Americans. After all, 1492 marked the beginning of the end for the native inhabitants of North America. Most of those who did not die from the diseases Europeans brought with them to the New World were killed outright, forced into slavery, or expelled from their homes. The gains Europeans made in the New World were at the expense of the native population.

Recent archaeological evidence has also shown that Columbus was not even the first European to reach North America. That honor goes to a Viking by the name of Leif Erikson who visited what we know call Newfoundland almost 500 years before Columbus reached Hispaniola. Unfortunately, hard evidence of the Erikson's exploits was not uncovered until the mid 20th century, so Columbus could not have known about them.

Although Erikson was the first European to reach North America, few would argue that this makes him a more important figure in world history than Columbus. Say what you will about Columbus, but you must admit that he was the one who opened up the New World for European colonization.

Although he has been presented to generations of American schoolchildren as a voice for reason in an age of superstition, the opposite is closer to the truth. No educated person in Europe in the 15th century actually believed that the Earth was flat. Further, Columbus himself had a much less accurate understanding of the earth than most intelectuals of his time. Columbus believed that the earth was pear shaped and made gross miscalculations about the size of the earth and the distance between Europe and Asia.

Ironically, it was his ignorance that was Columbus' greatest asset. The first time Columbus went to Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his voyage, she declined on the recommendation of an advisory panel which, on the basis of accurate calculations about the size of the earth, determined that Asia was too far from Europe to make such a voyage practical. If Columbus had believed what they knew, he probably never would have attempted to reach the Indies. Fortunately, he was ignorant about the size of the earth, so he was willing to attempt what no one else would. Luckily for him, he accidentally ran into a new landmass!

Every schoolchild knows that Columbus called the natives of Hispaniola "Indians" because he thought he had arrived at the East Indies. While it is easy to see why he would have been confused in 1492, it is worth noting that he never accepted the truth that he had discovered a new landmass. 14 years and three more voyages after first setting foot on North America, he went to his grave thinking he had made it to Asia.

Columbus' ignorance is all the more astonishing when you realize that since ancient times, Europeans and Asians have had some limited contact. After all, the reason Columbus departed from Spain in the first place was to find a Western trade route to Asia. Did he never ask himself why he had not seen any of the teas and silks for which he was searching? One would think that after visiting much of the Caribbean and some of South America without ever encountering one sign of Chinese culture, he would have realized that he was not in the Indies after all. For whatever reason, however, he either refused or was incapable of seeing the truth.

It is very interesting just how wrong the traditional view of Columbus is about almost every aspect of his life.

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