Category Archives: European Exploration and Colonization

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.

A Viking America?

Over the holidays, when I wasn’t watching movies with family (I saw A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time), I read books and articles about the Norse exploration of North America, and this got me wondering why they weren’t the ones to open up the New World to Europe. The world had to wait another several hundred years for Spain to get around to doing it. My answer may be surprising, but it does raise important points to consider about our future.

For review, let’s go over what is known about which Europeans got here first. We know for a certainty that Eric the Red colonized Greenland. His son, Leif Ericsson, spent time exploring the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland and possibly some members of his party got as far south as Cape Cod or Long Island. The Norse settlers stayed in Greenland for almost five hundred years, starting in the late tenth century and disappearing sometime after 1408. So why didn’t the Vikings conquer America?

First, look at the level of technology of the various peoples involved. The Norse had iron weapons, but those were only a slight advantage over the stone projectiles that the Native tribes used. A stone arrowhead is just as dangerous as an iron one. The Viking swords were good tools, but a sword is a contact weapon, and a band of archers can do a lot of damage, especially when they’re shooting from their home soil.

By contrast, the Spaniards had ships, horses, and firearms. Yes, the Norse had horses, but they were smaller than the southern varieties, and the Vikings preferred to fight on their feet. The Vikings also had sailing vessels. Those longships looked like Native canoes, though, only bigger. The Spanish ships were significantly different in design as to appear to be from the gods.

The Spaniards also had guns. We today realize that their firearms were inefficient and could have been defeated by determined Aztec archers, but the peoples of the Americas didn’t have centuries of hindsight to use. They saw men in shining metal using rods that brought lightning and thunder down to the ground. This was devastating to the morale of the Natives.

Another point that favored the Spaniards was global climate. The Little Ice Age started in the early fourteenth century, making Greenland untenable. Greenland has grassy fields growing on its southwestern shores, but the climate in 1000 was warmer than in 1350. The colder Earth also enabled the spread of the Black Death, a plague that limited European contact with the Norse colonies. Columbus, on the other hand, chose a southerly route to the New World, and the first Spanish colonies were founded in the tropics. While the climate in the north was still cold, the Caribbean was unaffected.

But the most important reason is the difference in cultures. Norse society had always been tribal–small communities led by a chief, but with the consensus of the free members. (One point to note is that the consolidation of power under the king of Norway in the thirteenth century weakened general European ties to Greenland and may have contributed to the demise of the colonies.) The Vikings–not the whole of the Norse peoples–were merchants and pirates. The point here is that Norse trade, exploration, and colonization were usually the work of small groups, not the whole state.

Spain was the opposite. The Spanish monarchy had finally expelled the Moors from the Iberian peninsula and unified the Spanish peoples under one flag. Columbus was acting as an agent of the King and Queen, not under his own initiative. The colonies had the backing of the state, unlike the free farmers in Greenland.

And thus it was that the Spaniards, not the Vikings, conquered the New World. In thinking about this, I found it to be a depressing thought, since I favor the Norse model over the Spanish when it comes to social structures and governments, but then I realized that what seems to be the conclusion is not necessarily so.

Here’s the good news: The Vikings did conquer the New World, at least a major part of it. How? Remember that England was conquered by William, a Norman. In other words, a Norseman or Viking. Large parts of England were also ruled by Vikings in the Danelaw before his arrival. English society has been shaped by Norse ways of thinking (along with Celtic and Germanic traditions, which share a lot of the same values).

Compare the English colonies and their successor nations, the United States and Canada, with the areas that were under Spanish control. The economies of the Spanish colonies were based, with the limited exception of some agriculture, on the mining of precious metals. Spain pulled so much silver and gold out of the New World that it caused massive inflation at home and has never really recovered from it. The English colonies were blessed by not having one dominate natural resource and were thus forced into economic diversity.

The Englishmen also valued individual liberties. The Puritans were an aberration, not the norm, while the Inquisition was typical of the monolithic Spanish culture. The English people always pushed back when their rulers got oppressive. Their colonies were expressions of the values of their cultural ancestors. When feudal and aristocratic Europe wouldn’t accept small merchants and farmers taking the economy into their own hands, the adventurous members of the working classes moved to America.

The message here is that while the Norse model of society may not be as efficient in the short term, it is ultimately the better culture, if we value individual liberty and development.