Posts Tagged With: Columbus

The Enigma of Columbus

“Columbus has been alternately venerated and vilified…he became a lightning rod for controversy…[some] saw him as the visionary that led the way [to the Americas]. Others, preferring to believe that Columbus’s discoveries begat genocide against the New Worlds peaceful indigenous people, uniformly vilify him — as if he had orchestrated the atrocities himself or as if the indigenous tribes hadn’t already been waging war on one another…Still others invest themselves in the pointless argument that Columbus was not the New World’s discoverer…Columbus’s claim to fame isn’t that he got there first, it’s that he stayed.

“…History does not know what to make of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea without passions of one kind or another intruding. The explorer will always remain something of an enigma…He was a man of great charisma whose passion sometimes turned others against him…His advocates marveled at his daring and tenaciousness…His detractors thought him brutal and weak. The only certainty about Columbus is that, for better or worse, he chose to live a bold life rather than settle for mediocrity.” – Martin Dugard writing in The Last Voyage of Columbus.

Every Columbus Day people come out of the woodwork to correct what we were taught about Columbus. Then people correct them, and others correct them. It’s clear few of them have bothered to study the history of they day in any depth. So the quote above is meant to impart that actual history is far too complex to be learned from drive-by memes, or history lessons given by people with agendas.

If you want to speak about a person from our past, you should actually step into his world and follow him around. That’s why the study of history is like time travel. Step on in and give it a try.

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1492

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

That little rhyme was once taught to all kids. Now, the name Columbus isn’t uttered much, and people just know the mail isn’t delivered today, the banks are closed, and they might have they day off.

However, for a historical perspective on the man who rediscovered America, check out my post from last year.

And, perhaps, we can look forward to the day that mankind rediscovers its spirit of exploration.

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What the Vikings Can Teach Us

We’re all taught that Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492, with the caveat that the Vikings arrived centuries earlier circa 1000 A.D. This is always added as a bit of a footnote, as if it’s not all that important. Sure, it didn’t have the impact of the Spanish-backed Columbus voyages, but the Viking voyages have always been begrudgingly admitted to existing. Even before ruins were found in the 1960s, the Viking Sagas and other accounts were largely written off as myth. Even after the finds, the story went like this, “Yes, they came here, probably over a couple centuries, but these infamous explorers never did much of anything.” Doesn’t really make much sense, does it? Why the reluctance to give the Vikings their due? In light of the discovery of a new Viking site in Canada, perhaps our prejudices in studying our own history need re-examined. Continue reading

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Discovering Columbus

Last year I asked, Should Columbus be Celebrated? It is a controversial question, since that day in 1492 meant the eventual end of many cultures in the Western Hemisphere. The other side of the sword is that new cultures arose from those escaping the Old World. In all likelihood, using Columbus as the poster child for all that did go wrong is not fair.

One has to dig deep into many studies of the man to even begin to unravel his mind. He was secretive, put himself in the middle of politics and was the target of his enemies. All of this, and the distance of time, have made any study of the explorer a difficult one.

As Carol Delaney argues in Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, acquiring wealth for the Spanish crown was not his primary goal. He sought allies and money for one more Crusade to the Holy Lands. Religious motivation has been suggested before, but by writers couching everything in esoteric conspiracies. It has also been suggested he knew the New World existed. As plausible as that is, most of what we know seems to point elsewhere. Beyond that:

…Delaney depicts her subject as a thoughtful interpreter of the native cultures that he and his men encountered, and tells the tragic story of how his initial attempts to establish good relations with the natives turned badly sour. Showing Columbus in the context of his times rather than through the prism of present-day perspectives on colonial conquests reveals a man who was neither a greedy imperialist nor a quixotic adventurer, but a man driven by an abiding religious passion.

Contrast this to the later Conquistadors who were made up of mercenaries and those looking to set up their own little kingdoms of wealth. In Kim MacQuarrie’s The Last Days of the Incas, we get the distinct impression that most of these men cared little about religion other than some unconvincing attempts to use it to justify their actions.

Columbus’ life didn’t begin and end on his first voyage to the new world. It was his fourth that would unfold like an epic film and perhaps best give insight into his motivations. Martin Dugard’s The Last Voyage chronicles mutiny, shipwreck, storms and war. A far different tale than the simple one told in schools. Only by going beyond the simple tales, do we actually begin to peel away the misconceptions and mystery. That curtain will probably never be completely pulled away and certainly Columbus is imperfect and flawed like us all. And maybe that’s the lesson this Columbus Day.

Anyone can change the world, for better, or for worse.

colum

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The Fire of Exploration

Exploring the final frontier has never been easy. For decades, in fits an spurts, we have explored the Solar System and established manned outposts in orbit. We even reached the Moon, which has been so long ago now, that it seems a dream.  We can probably blame the tortoise pace of space exploration on it being largely controlled by the government and their ever changing, and short-sighted, whims. In recent years, private companies have taken up the torch. As witnessed by this week’s crash of the spacecraft Galactic, exploration on the edge of frontiers is still fraught with danger.

It always has been and always will be.

When the New World was being rediscovered by Europeans from 1492 on, it was much the same. Driven by politics, economics and the innate desire of humans to explore, not all went well. The early voyages were often about finding wealth and conquering lands. Later, though, it would be about building a better life, improving the human condition. The powerful desire to improve the existence of one’s family and future descendents has long been entwined with that frontier spirit. It’s often difficult to tell them apart. Interestingly enough, we would later learn that 1492 wasn’t the first rediscovery of what would later be named the Americas.

In 1000 A.D., the Vikings arrived in North America. It seemed almost inevitable that these quintessential seafarers and explorers would do just that. For centuries the sagas and rumors attesting to their arrival was largely discarded as myth. Then archaeological remains of a settlement were found in Canada in 1960.  Still, the idea of pre-Columbus explorers was seen as unlikely and supposed accounts quickly dismissed.

This was for two reasons: One, the level of required verified evidence is high. Is it too high? The Viking sagas told of exploring America, but were dismissed as legend. Even now, the extent of their exploration is unknown, but it is admitted that they voyaged to the coast for decades, if not longer. Only one settlement? These legendary warriors never ventured far from the beaches?

Two, early attempts to dismiss all natives as not much more than primitive cavemen saw many people ascribe anything of sophistication to foreign visitors. We now know the New World was replete with civilization and we know they arrived here longer ago than originally thought, through multiple paths. That paradigm shift has led many to wonder: Is it reasonable to think that people here for so long remained isolated from the rest world? A world that had many accomplished seafarers?  After all, didn’t the natives make it here at one point? Does any civilization live in isolation for over 10,000 years?

Of course, there are those who consider any suggestion of diffusion racist. They are driven by those who have, or still do, see natives as inferior. The other side of the coin are those who believe it did happen, repeatedly, and assert that it’s racist to say it couldn’t have happened.

So much for academic inquiry.

To be certain, the field has been full of fringe writers pushing many a bizarre theory or those motivated by ideology. Not all are so driven. Many are simply looking for the facts, some of which have always hidden in plain sight.

Sometimes it was intention, other times apparent chance, but in either case exploration burned in the souls of many men and women. What resulted wasn’t always good, but the overall condition of man usually improved. Does the fire of exploration still kindle? Are we too busy to see past tomorrow, buried in our televisions and self-created busyness?

Time will tell if humans will quit ignoring the calls to be something greater than what is pushed upon them. Modern steps into space are part of a long legacy that reaches back millennia. The crash of the Galactic won’t extinguish the flame.

It reminds us there are still those in which the fire still burns.

naex spcex

Categories: Ancient America, Ancient Sites, Books, History, Native Americans | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Did the Chinese Beat Columbus?

A few years back the book 1421 created a bit of a controversy in that it suggested the Chinese had discovered North America before Columbus. While people were arguing over the book’s details, others asked a simple question. Is it so hard to believe that an advanced empire with established seafaring skills couldn’t end up in the Americas? Many came out and supported the theory with their own evidences. It was almost like a taboo subject that scholars secretly pondered until 1421 changed things. Still, most don’t think it’s a slam-dunk case for Chinese visitors. Is it simply the resistance to new ideas? Or is the evidence not strong enough? In either case, another fascinating book on the subject is The Island of Seven Cities. It puts forth the case for a Chinese settlement in Canada. Perhaps there was.

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1491

There’s a pervasive belief that the Indians were primitive or only a few steps above the cave man. Neither were true. From the metropolis at Cahokia (modern-day St. Louis), to the irrigation systems of the southwest to the teeming civilizations of Mesoamerica, the cave man was no where to be found. Had Columbus arrived a few decades later, or diseases not wiped out as much or more than 90% of the population, history in the Western Hemisphere may have unfolded a bit differently. One of the best books on the subject is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. A must read on a lost world far different, and far more advanced, than many realize.

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