Happy real Columbus Day

OK, I need to run to a meeting, but I can’t let today pass without acknowledging Columbus Day. Partly to defy political correctness… earlier this week, Kathryn said “Celebrating Columbus is a bit like flying the Confederate flag,” and martin sort of disputed her, and I responded:

Indeed. It’s foolish to get mad at Columbus. If he hadn’t been the one, it would have been the next doofus who thought the world was that much smaller than it was (or perhaps, some Portuguese captain who got blown off course on the way down the coast of Africa, which, if you’re out far enough to start with, can easily carry you to the coast of Brazil)…

Somebody was going to make the voyage that changed the world more profoundly than any other voyage in the history of the world. The one that started the continuous travel between Europe and America, as opposed to the Vikings and St. Brendan and the like. It just happened to be Columbus, because he was so stubborn about his wrong idea, and managed to persuade Isabela to part with some dough.

But there’s another reason. I’m very much looking forward to reading 1493, by Charles C. Mann. I got it for my birthday. And though I have not read it yet, I’m familiar with his thesis, because he summed it up in this remarkable piece in the WSJ recently. An excerpt:

Some 250 million years ago, the Earth contained a single landmass known as Pangaea. Geological forces broke up this vast expanse, forever splitting Eurasia and the Americas. Over time the two halves of Pangaea developed wildly different suites of plants and animals.

Before Columbus sailed the Atlantic, only a few venturesome land creatures, mostly insects and birds, had crossed the oceans and established themselves. Otherwise, the world was sliced into separate ecological domains. Columbus’s signal accomplishment was, in the phrase of the historian Alfred W. Crosby, to reknit the seams of Pangaea.

And he means that culturally, certainly. And politically, a concept we’re all familiar with. But also horticulturally, zoologically, economically, genetically, and just about any other way you want to look at it, with the exception of geologically.

Before Columbus, the world was one way. After, it was another way, in realm after realm of human, animal and plant life. The more you dig into it, the more astounding it is.

So… it doesn’t matter whether Columbus was a nice guy, or beastly to the native peoples, or a lousy geographer, or whatever. At least, no matter which of those things is true, the achievement is singular and world-shaking. That one voyage changed the world more than any other voyage, ever. Certainly infinitely more than the previous aborted connections between the continents, by Vikings, and possibly Polynesians, Africans, and Chinese. Because the connection he made was not severed, but followed up on — by quite a host of rather appalling opportunists in many cases, but as I say, this is not about the moral judgments.

It’s about what a big deal this was. And worth marking every year. (Although maybe not worth the Post Office getting a day off when I don’t.)

By the way, Mann is not about shortchanging the Indians. I’m now reading his prequel, 1491, which is about the millennia before Columbus came here. In short, it’s about all the recent research that tells us that there were many more people here than we supposed for most of our history, that they were here far longer, and that their societies were more sophisticated than even the greatest denouncers of eurocentrism would suppose. And other fascinating stuff.

A passage that sort of illustrates the paradigm-busting approach of this book (and, I assume, the new one):

Next year geologists may decide the ice-free corridor was passable, after all. Or more hunting sites could turn up. What seems unlikely to be undone is the awareness that Native Americans may have been in the Americas for twenty thousand or even thirty thousand years. Given that the Ice Age made Europe north of the Loire Valley uninhabitable until some eighteen thousand years ago, the Western Hemisphere should perhaps no longer be described as the “New World.” Britain, home of my ancestor Billington, was empty until about 12,500 B.C., because it was still covered by glaciers. If Monte Verde is correct, as most believe, people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.

Worth reading.

4 thoughts on “Happy real Columbus Day

  1. Juan Caruso

    Christopher Columbus probably represents the lowest-hanging fruit of modern academics intent on stealing some of a decedent’s fame by claiming it has been unjustified. Balderdash!

    There probably exists no spot on Earth where someone else cannot be traced earlier, and earlier, etc. Missing, of course, is any enduring significance to such earlier appearances.

    If results of earlier habitations or migrations peoples or cultures that never amounted to more endurance than the discovery of ingrown toenails on their own feet versus civilization that improved the lot of the average human, the result can be summarized simply as: So what if (fill in the blank) indians, Chinese. Aleuts, Vikings, bands of South Americans, etc. treaded the same ground earlier _____ ?

  2. Lynn T

    Yes, claims of who-was-wherever-first (including those in the Near East) break down in any rational analysis. I do, nevertheless, enjoy my Native American friends’ postings on Facebook of encouragement to “Celebrate Columbus Day! Go to a neighbor’s house and tell him it is yours now!”

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