Columbus discovered America.
Make that statement and you’re likely to get a reaction, especially in a city like Seattle Washington. In recent news, the city has decided to create an Indigenous People’s Day to start taking place on Columbus Day. It doesn’t bother me if anyone takes a swipe at the holiday. When the Catholic fraternity The Knights of Columbus led the effort to persuade the U.S. government to create the federal holiday in 1934, I think it was highly sectarian, and not an appropriate choice for an American holiday. Columbus never even set foot in the lands that became The United States, though he is known to have landed in Puerto Rico (U.S. territory).
What I’m more concerned with is the politicizing of the English language. What does it mean to say someone has discovered something? If I cleared out some blackberry briars here in Washington State and found a fully intact Zeppelin from the first world war, complete with the skeletal remains of twenty invaders sent by the German Kaiser, it would be hailed as a great discovery. No one would be angrily pointing out the Germans who already knew of it, yet this is what happens when the awesome event that is the discovery of the Americas is discussed objectively. The event is diminished in its importance, and offence is taken at the idea that it was a great discovery when it truly was.
While the isolation of the Americas prior to 1492 A.D. wasn’t perfect, it was fairly close. Technology like the wheel and ironworking were nonexistent. Bronze metalworking was also almost nonexistent, though it was practiced by the Incas to some extent. Despite these shortcomings, the Natives had some surprising innovations. Inca masonry was quite advanced, while Aztec lake-farming and astronomy had advantages over anything else in the world. In North America, early European explorers and trappers coveted the native’s birch bark canoes. The lack of horses and the terrible vulnerability the natives had to alien diseases adds further to a scenario of a world cut-off from the outside.
While it’s generally accepted that Norse explorers reached North America in the 11th century, the accounts of it were vague afterword and more in lines with rumor or myth among a learned few than something that had widespread recognition. Leif Erickson’s account of a place southwest of Greenland called Vinland where grapes naturally grew by themselves certainly struck the imagination of some. In modern times, the remains of a Norse settlement were discovered in Newfoundland.
I am familiar with theories that Welsh or Chinese sailors may have reached America before Columbus, but I don’t think there is strong evidence. I’m more of a fan of the idea that a small number of Polynesians may have reached the Pacific coast of America, considering they made it to remote places like New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. I do think though, that they would likely never leave after finding such a place of relative space and plenty.
When all is considered; if something is to be trivialized, it has to be the Norse voyages along with any of the other possibilities. In 1492, a chain of events was set into motion that heralded change on a level and speed that is rivaled by little else in history. Columbus never sighted any mainland of America until his third voyage in 1498. While he’s known for several inaccurate estimations; including that he had landed near Asia, he did correctly guess that the great freshwater outpouring of the Orinoco river indicated a land of continental proportions (South America). He also explored some of the coast of Central America.
Before this third voyage even took place however, Amerigo Vespucci is reputed to have sighted present day Venezuela before Columbus in 1497. The document linking Vespucci to this event is disputed though. One voyage that is accepted by historians is the 1497 voyage of John Cabot who sailed for England though he was an Italian like Columbus. He is believed to have landed in Newfoundland, and began the process of claiming parts of North America for England. He reported the existence of the Grand Banks, which quickly led to the first Frenchmen sailing to the New World looking for the prime fishing waters. The Beothuk of Newfoundland were the first Native Americas in North America to be driven from their lands by Europeans.
Only a few years before Columbus’ first voyage, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to sail around the Southern tip of Africa in 1488. The Portuguese crown had found its trade route to Asia and began using it. In 1500, Portugal’s second India Armada also diverted west in its journey around Africa and laid claim to coastal areas of Brazil for Portugal. If knowledge of the discovery of new lands to the west wasn't spreading quickly enough, this was remedied when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller mass-printed his famous world map of 1507, in which the edges of the discovered continents were already depicted. In time; the Dutch, Swedes and Russians would also start their own colonies in America.
Word of a New World was out to places even beyond Europe. The Ottoman Empire knew of the discoveries, but made no serious attempts to start a colony. The Spanish in any case didn’t allow their advantage of being first to slip away. They quickly established colonies on the larger islands in the Caribbean, and set out to conquer as much as possible. Columbus himself was the first Spanish governor of the Indies, but was removed from power in 1499 and investigated for his alleged tyranny and cruelty. Of course, the Spaniards didn’t suddenly become gentlemen after this. Atrocites, slavery and disease almost completely wiped out the Taíno natives of the large Caribbean islands by 1548.
In 1507, the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the narrow Isthmus of Panama and reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean. For many decades to come, the Spanish would be the only Europeans to settle on the Pacific side. In 1521, Spanish conquistadores completed their conquest of the Aztecs. In 1532, 168 men under Francisco Pizarro invaded the Inca Empire and soon conquered Cuzco and murdered the Inca emperor. They eventually chose Manco to serve as a puppet emperor in 1533. The conquest of the Incas took decades to fully complete, especially with a massive Inca revolt under Manco slowing the process. The speed of the conquistadores was incredible though. In less than fifty years after Columbus first sighted the new lands, the two greatest Native American civilizations had for the most part fallen to them.
It wasn’t just the New World that changed. The discoveries of the Americas would do much to empower Europeans, who themselves had been victims of invasions from Mongols; Moors, Turks and others during much of the Middle Ages. With access to tropical and subtropical lands, crops like tobacco, sugar and cotton would eventually make Europeans the most powerful people in the world. Even raw natural resources like gold, silver and lumber would add fuel to emerging European empires. Slavery would be a big part of it, as new trade routes to Asia just happened to wind around the African continent. Even Native American crops like potatoes; corn, and chocolate would become popular in Europe.
So what’s my point? It’s just that when someone says “Columbus discovered America,” it in no way reflects the person’s ignorance on the subject. It also doesn’t imply that Christopher Columbus was a fine human being, or someone who should be hailed as a great hero of Western Civilization. Columbus did discover America. He did so because of the hordes of people who followed in his footsteps and changed the world. I’m quite comfortable with Columbus being looked on as a villain, and won’t even flinch when we finally scrap the ridiculous holiday being noted today. What I can’t get on board with as I wrote earlier is the politicizing of the English language, and the assumption of ignorance based on faulty reason.