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1492: Columbus—A Very Ignorant & Very Desperate Explorer—Lands In The New World

September 10, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

October 12: Columbus lands in the New World.

Christopher Columbus’ arrival at the Caribbean islands (it’s still not entirely clear which one he and his crew first landed on) in late 1492, and just as importantly, his successful return with at least some evidence of potentially commercially exploitable resources, “established the most practical and most exploitable routes back and forth across the Atlantic, linking the densely populated belt of the Old World, which stretched from China cross southern and southwestern Asia to span the Mediterranean, with the threshold of the richest and most populous regions of the New World.” (p. 200)

Felipe Fernández-Armesto nearly summarizes the incremental technological advancements in shipmaking and sailing that helped make Columbus’ voyage possible. Then he carefully and quickly demolishes virtually every argument made by European historians “appealing to something special about Europe—something Europeans had that others lacked, which would explain why the world-girdling routes…were discovered by European enterprise and not by that of explorers from other cultures.” (p. 201)

“If technology cannot explain what happened, then most of the cultural features commonly adduced remain unhelpful, either because they were not unique to the western European seaboard, because they are phony, or because they were not around at the right time. The political culture of a competitive state system was shared with Southeast Asia and with parts of Europe that contributed nothing to exploration. The explorers of the modern world operated among expanding states and emulous competitors in every continent. Christianity was less conducive to commerce than Islam or Judaism, among other religions that value the merchant life as a means to virtue. The tradition of scientific curiosity and empirical method was at least as strong in Islam and China in what we think of as the late Middle Ages…. Missionary zeal is a widespread vice or virtue, and—though most of our histories ignore the fact—Islam and Buddhism both experienced extraordinary expansion into new territories and among new congregations, at the same time as Christianity, in what we think of as the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Imperialism and aggression are not exclusively white vices. We have seen evidence of only one feature of European culture that did make the region peculiarly conducive to breeding explorers. They were steeped in the idealization of adventure. Many of them shared or strove to embody the great aristocratic ethos of their day—the ‘code’ of chivalry.” (p. 203)

Hispaniola, which Columbus didn’t stumble upon until Dec. 4, “was the most important island he was ever to find. In the first place, it first produced fair quantities of old. This was the making of Columbus’s mission; without it, he would almost certainly have returned home to ridicule and obscurity. Second, the island housed an indigenous culture of sufficient wealth and prowess to impress the Spaniards.” (p. 195)

One additional note:

“One of the extraordinary facts about the history of maritime exploration is that most of it has been done against the wind. To modern sailors it seems so strange as to be counterintuitive, but it made perfect sense for most of the past—simply because explorers of the unknown needed to be sure of their route home. An adverse wind on the outer journey promised a passage home. To break the mold and sail outward with the wind, an explorer would need to be very ignorant or very desperate.

Christopher Columbus was both.” (pp. 179-80)

Other posts in this series:



From → Books, History

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