Sailing Into History

Good morning, it’s Thursday, October 12, 2017. Here in the nation’s capital, baseball fans are nervously awaiting Game 5 of the playoff series between the Washington Nationals and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubbies, as most sentient Americans know, are world champs. The Nats, by contrast, haven’t advanced past the first round in postseason play since opening shop in D.C. in 2005. Game time is 8 p.m.

Once upon a time, October 12 was celebrated as Columbus Day, the 1492 date when the famous European seafarer “discovered” America. Since the Americas were already here, and populated by human beings — and because he was trying to find China anyhow — a segment of progressive thought balks at lionizing Columbus. This is a not a new sentiment, although in our highly roiled current political environment, the anti-Columbus movement may have attained critical mass. Personally, I have no problem with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or some variant thereof, but in a moment I’ll revisit the life of Christopher Columbus, and explain why he’s a significant historic figure.

Little is known about the early life of the man credited with discovering the New World. We know him as Christopher Columbus, and in Spain, the nation that financed his wanderings, he’s called Cristóbal Colón. In his native Italy he’s Cristoforo Colombo.

In U.S. elementary schools when I was a kid, we learned that Columbus believed the Earth to be flat. This assertion seems to have its origins in an 1828 biography of the man by Washington Irving. It’s absurd. A seasoned sailor, Columbus certainly knew the world was round, as did all successful 15th century seafarers. Yet, Columbus did have one monumental misconception about our planet, and it was a common one at the time: He had no idea of how large it was.

This was a fateful miscalculation. Assuming that the riches of Asia were less than 4,000 kilometers from Europe emboldened Columbus to sail his small three-ship armada westward. If he’d known his destination was really 20,000 kilometers away, he might not have convinced the Spanish crown to fund the venture: No ship at that time could carry enough food and water to make a voyage that far.

Or maybe the man would have figured out a way. He’d first gone to sea at age 10, and had proven his resourcefulness many times. After surviving a shipwreck off southwestern Portugal in 1476, Columbus looked around and saw a business opportunity, hanging out a shingle in Lisbon as a map maker and collector of ocean charts and books. He bought sugar in Madeira, and traded in ports as far away as Iceland and Tunis. He plied the waters of the Aegean Sea, taught himself Latin and Spanish, and studied the powerful ocean currents en route to the Canary Islands.

Somewhere along the line, Columbus got the idea that those currents could carry him to Cathay, as China was called, and the supposed riches of the Orient — known as the Indies.

He failed to sell his plan to the court in Portugal, but after the Spanish victory over the Moors at Granada, Christopher Columbus’ vision took root in the heart of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. He certainly had the right first name for the mission, as the rivalry between Islam and Christendom was an underlying subtext of the great voyage of 1492.

Not knowing of the existence of North America or South America — or of the Pacific Ocean, for that matter — was not a minor drawback. Perhaps if he had spoken the local language when he visited Iceland, Columbus could have picked up oral histories (accurate, as it turns out) claiming that some five centuries earlier, a Norwegian sailor from Iceland named Leif Erikson had explored a continent on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.

But he didn’t, and so in the first week of August, this Genoese native left the village of Palos de la Frontera, Spain. With a good working knowledge of ocean currents and his wildly inaccurate maps, Christopher Columbus boarded his flagship, the Santa Maria and set sail on his rendezvous with history.

It was on this date in 1492 some 525 years ago that he and his men first went ashore. They weren’t in the Indies, of course, they were in the Bahamas, probably a place now known as Watling’s Island, which Columbus promptly named San Salvador. A couple of weeks later, he found a larger land mass that he thought was China. He was actually looking at Cuba.

“This is,” he said upon going ashore, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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