Category Archives: Christopher Columbus

History’s Greatest Wrong Turn

This coming Monday (8 October 2012) is officially Columbus Day. That, even though the Admiral, whose origins are obscure, landed on San Salvador, an island of uncertain identification, on the 12th. At some point in the future, I intend to take on the question of which is the actual point of discovery, but for now, here are some thoughts related to the event.

I went sailing on the 500th anniversary of the landing. I was in college at the time and was required to take a P.E. class. Since I’ve long been fascinated by the sea and since golf strikes me as a funny way to waste time (and a good rifle range, as others have observed), I signed up for a basic sailing course. The teacher wanted to be on the water on the big day and invited any of the students to go with him who wanted–I being the only one, it turned out. We took to the whale road–well, it was Chickamauga Lake, near Chattanooga, but we went with what we could get–and celebrated a noted explorer.

Yes, I know the history of what happened since the 12th of October 1492. The man was an incompetent administrator, and he opened the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. But because of him, we also have the United States of America, a nation that needed a new world to be created. We should also note that in the cases of the Aztec and Incan Empires, the change was in many ways merely a lateral move, not a decline.

He was also something of a charlatan. He took the largest estimate for the distance from China to the west coast of Europe. He took the smallest estimate for the circumference of the Earth. He then inflated the former and shrunk the latter. The scholars at the University of Salamanca said that the voyage would be a failure, and they were right.

Except that they were also wrong. Columbus is one of history’s luckiest persons, too. That is also in question, since it’s at least possible that he travelled to Iceland in 1477. He certainly sailed to Bristol, England and to Ireland in that year. He could have met people with knowledge of lands to the west–perhaps even some who had seen Greenland, Markland, and Vinland. He would have heard accounts of islands across the water. To be sure, the Norse people had little notion of what they’d actually discovered. See this for more on that subject.

The point here is that Columbus had a vision. It makes no difference that he was wrong in his facts. The story that he spun in his mind was the right one. And that’s the message of this article. It’s the essence of humanity to look out at an open expanse and want to cross it, to find what’s on the other side. It’s human nature to attempt to do the impossible. As with anything that we do, there has been a mixture of good and ill, but we celebrate Columbus because he did something that changed the world. The net effect remains to be seen. That’s true about any significant action. We, the descendants of his act, are here to carry it into the future.

And so it is with hope that I say, Happy Columbus Day.