Columbus

Almost nobody really knows very much about Columbus, but almost everybody knows that they admire or hate him – until a few years ago it was mostly admiration; today it is mostly hate. Until a few decades ago, Columbus was venerated. We sang songs about him in grade school – “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue …” and lots of things, cities and whole countries were named for him.

These days, Columbus is seen as a racist, imperialist and … well you know the litany. He didn’t deserve all the admiration and most of it was based on myth. He also doesn’t deserve all the opprobrium, also mostly based on myth, or rather base on how people feel today about lots of other issues.

The story we learned about the heroic & iconoclastic Columbus was wrong. In school (and maybe more from popular cartoons) we learned that people back then thought the world was flat; this is flat wrong. Educated people in Europe knew the world was round. The Greeks had estimated the size of the globe in the 3rd Century BC and they were very close. The way that Columbus differed from this consensus was that he thought the world was smaller and that he could cross the western sea and get to the east.

Had Columbus not discovered America in 1492, somebody else would have soon done it. The time was ripe. A word about discovery. Vikings had been to America hundreds of years earlier and there is speculation that Basque fishermen made more of less regular visits to the coasts, searching for cod. Of course, people were living in America for 12,000 years. They knew they were somewhere.

What Columbus did was put America on a world map. Well, he didn’t, but it soon was, and his voyages connected the old and the new worlds permanently. This is why he was admired and now is hated. Columbus’ voyage marked the birth of the modern world and the first globalization.

There is no evidence that space aliens have ever visited earth and I think there is a good chance that none every will. Even assuming alien life exists, distances are too great and the laws of physics too strict to allow the travel. And I am glad of this. If aliens ever get to earth, we humans are finished. If they get here, it implies a superior technology, and likely superior military capacity. Whenever people with higher technology have encountered those with lower levels, it has not gone well for the ones behind. This is not merely the lesson of humanity. It is also the basis of natural evolution. We can hope that aliens would be different but that would be the triumph of hope over experience.

This was the lesson from America, but it was a lesson for human encounters since the invention of … anything. Farmers displaced hunters; they could breed faster. People with bronze weapons displaced those with stone and were subsequently replaced by those who mastered iron working. People who could use horses and invented chariots conquered those who ran on human legs.

Pre-Columbian American had been fighting and displacing each other for millennia. Incas had conquered nearby people and formed an effective empire and the Aztecs were running what was essentially a predatory terror state, but Europeans with their guns, germs, steel, horses and more complicated organizations were a quantum leap. In the course of only a few generations, everything changed, and I mean everything – people, plants, animals, even microbes, insects and earthworms.

Blame Columbus

The Spanish still revere Columbus and in Seville is a monument to him and the cathedral features Columbus’s putative burial place. I add the adjective because there is some dispute about Columbus’ final resting place. The most plausible contender beyond Seville is the Dominican Republic. They had remains that they say are Columbus. The Seville remains have been checked for DNA. These remains are related to Columbus’s father and son, so I think we can give good odds that at least part of Columbus is contained in that coffin you see in the picture. The Dominican Columbus has not been tested for DNA. It is possible that part of Columbus might be there too.

They had the macabre habit in those days of revering parts of famous or saintly people. It was the old idea of relics. I think it bad manners to revere parts of somebody. Many churches had pieces of the “true cross” or milk from Mary. How they would have obtained the original is a question nobody answered or even usually asked. One skeptical historian quipped that if you assembled all the wood from the true cross held in all the churches in Christendom, you could build the Royal Navy and if you pooled all the milk of Mary, you could float it.

My opinion of Columbus? He was a visionary man of his times, i.e. the late middle ages. He acted much like people of his times were expected to act. I am glad that he “discovered” America, because I am glad I live here. The world is a lot better now than it was during his time. I don’t praise or blame him for that.

First picture is the Columbus memorial in Madrid. Next is his tomb. His mortal remains are in that stone sarcophagus.

Picture # 3 is an upside down map of the Mediterranean. It has south on the top because it is meant to show where the Spanish fleet set out to defeat fight the Turks. The Spanish and allies from Venice and Naples defeated the Turks at the battle of Lepanto in the biggest navel engagement since classical times. It was one of history’s key battles, but I bet most Americans never heard of it.

Penultimate picture is a Seville street scene. I don’t know what the last picture is. I just thought it a cool picture.

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