Cheap Seats 2020
Called It! - 07/29
By Rich Trzupek
It’s been three quick years since I wrote my last book, but I think the following passage might be of some interest given the course of recent events:
Before we leave this earliest phase of American history and our perception of it, we should probably take a moment to discuss the first of the Europeans to make landfall in the Americas, or very least the first to do so in such a way that the rest of his contemporaneous world would become privy to that knowledge: Christopher Columbus.
Rarely has the reputation of any historical figure taken such a beating in such a relatively short period of time. In the course of my fifty-some years on earth, Columbus has been transformed and not in a good way. As a youth my contemporaries and I were taught that the Italian admiral was a brave, heroic young man whose dogged perseverance through overwhelming odds led him to complete successfully, a daring voyage of discovery that was step one in establishing the greatest country on earth.
Some states still celebrate a holiday in his memory, but it is a dwindling number. The modern view of Columbus makes him out to be a thief, an enslaver, a torturer, even a pimp. The most revisionist views hold that Columbus was a delusional opportunist who is hardly worth remembering with anything but contempt, if at all.
Columbus was a divisive figure during his lifetime and, following a brief historical hiatus during which he basked in the glow of respectability, he is again a divisive figure. The truth lies somewhere in between the heroic and monstrous stereotypes, especially when we put his actions and decisions in the appropriate historical context, something increasingly difficult for Americans to do today.
One of Columbus’ supposed achievements that Americans recognized was that, by virtue of his courage and perseverance, he destroyed the commonly held conviction that the Earth is flat. Perhaps some of the uneducated hands on the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria thought the world was flat in 1492, but one would have a very difficult time finding any educated person who agreed. The ancient Greek philosophers, watching a ship gradually sink from view as the distance between it and observers on shore increased, along with dozens of other clues, quickly realized the planet Earth was a sphere and nothing that happened in the millennia and a half plus that followed dissuaded the learned from that belief.
Columbus broke with conventional geographical wisdom on two important points that we now know he was entirely in error about: 1) Columbus believed that the Eurasian land mass extended considerably farther west than it in fact does, and 2) he believed that the earth was a bit smaller than we know it to be. Having no knowledge of America’s existence or the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the combination of these two assumptions led Columbus to believe that the journey from Spain to China would be a relatively short jaunt.
With the benefit of more than 500 years of experience and research, it is easy to snigger at Columbus’ errors and ridicule his basis for wanting to make his voyage at all. Had the North American continent and its Caribbean islands not been there to stop him, Columbus would have faced some 12,000 miles of sailing before he reached eastern Asia, a distance far greater than the 3,000 or so miles he had prepared for and that he in fact enjoyed. It’s not likely that any of his little ships or their crews would have survived the longer trip.
One cannot deny that luck played a huge role in Columbus’ voyages to the new world, especially the first. Yet audentes fortuna iuvat is a maxim of history. The Romans were not the only people to understand that fortune and audacity are eternally intertwined, but they understood the relationship better than most.
Even Columbus’ severest critics acknowledge that he was an expert mariner. Anyone who sailed two small caravels and a slightly larger carrack of total displacement less than 250 tons across the stormy Atlantic would have to be an extraordinary sailor, or extraordinarily lucky. Columbus qualified on both counts.
He was undoubtedly an accomplished, and stubborn, self-promoter, but this can hardly be counted against a 15th-century Italian attempting to convince a newly re-established Spanish monarchy to part with a portion of their treasury in order to fund an improbable journey without any known precedent.
Columbus’ record during his brief time as royal administrator of Hispanola is harder to defend. Even some of his contemporaries, living in a time where cruelty was common, found Columbus’ treatment of the natives and colonists during his term as governor reprehensible. And history records that he did not last long in that office, being removed among allegations of incompetence and tyranny and jailed upon returning to Spain, albeit it briefly, after his third voyage.
Yet, as we look back, we should distinguish Columbus the mariner – the role he was successful in filling – from Columbus the cartographer and Columbus the bureaucrat. He was suited for neither subsequent role by experience, education or temperament.
So although the American view of Columbus justly has become more jaded, I cannot help but hope that our perception of the admiral shifts back, at least a bit, in years to come. He was hero, albeit a flawed hero, but few heroes can long endure half a millennia of close examination without finding at least some clay on their feet.