Southern Man

Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus Day

In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue...
...and then went back to Europe and held press conferences, thus establishing his everlasting fame as "discoverer" of the New World.

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519. There are no known authentic portraits of Columbus.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian sailer and navigator. He was largely self-taught, mastering Latin, Portuguese, and Castilian, and well read in astronomy, geography, and history, including the works of Claudius Ptolemy, Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly's Imago Mundi, the travels of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, Pliny's Natural History, and Pope Pius II's Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum. As historian Edmund Morgan put it,
Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied these books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, the kind of ideas that the self-educated person gains from independent reading and clings to in defiance of what anyone else tries to tell him.
Columbus was convinced that he could reach the Orient by sailing to the west for three reasons, all incorrect and all at odds with the scholarly concensus of the day: his low estimate for the size of the Earth (which had been known to be spherical since the time of Aristotle and accurately measured as long ago as Eratosthenes), his high estimate of the east-west extent of the European land mass (Columbus was swayed by Marinus of Tyre, who put the Eurasian landmass as spanning 225o rather than the better-accepted 180o proposed by Plolemy), and his conviction that Japan lay far to the east of China. These notions, coupled with his misuse of the Italian mile and his likely misreading of Alfraganus (which had led him to view the Earth as considerably smaller than the prevailing view) and rumors of land reported by sailers who had sailed far into the western Atlantic to take advantage of the trade winds, convinced Columbus that the voyage was possible. His proposal was rejected by many possible sponsors who believed his estimate of the length of the voyage was unrealistically short. However, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, a politically-astute couple whose marriage had united several smaller principalities into what would eventually become the modern nation of Spain, eventually agreed to finance about half of the expenses with the remainder coming from Italian investors. The rest, as they say, is history.

The New World was already populated, perhaps for as long as 20,000 years, from the northeast (Europeans traveling across the edge of a sea ice shelf during the last ice age), from the northwest (Asians crossing the Bering Strait, possibly on a land bridge), and from the southwest by Pacific Islanders. These early cultures (such as the Clovis) were overwhelmed and/or assimilated by successive waves of immigration so little or nothing remains of the first humans in the New World. Among the first modern Europeans to travel to the New World were Norsemen who established a few colonies that eventually failed. However, the four voyages of Columbus sparked an immense wave of exploration and colonization that would displace (and, by way of Old World diseases for which there was no native immunity, largely eliminate) the existing population, thus leading to some reluctance to celebrate this holiday.

Columbus was the last hero of Old Europe and ushered in the new age. As historian Samuel Morrison writes in his biography of Columbus:
At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past. . . .

Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Niña scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”

Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: Expansion.
Southern Man salutes Columbus, a courageous man who risked death for what he believed in and who in no small way created the world in which we live. Happy Columbus Day!

The Niña, Pinta, and flagship Santa Maria. The largest was smaller than a modern harbor tug. And Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in them.

Some text and both illustrations are from Wikipedia; the Morison quote was copied from Instapundit.


At Tuesday, October 15, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw a very interesting documentary exploring the possibility that Columbus was actually Spanish. They make a very convincing case. Turns out that his family was on the wrong side of the recent Spanish civil war, and so the ruse. GP


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