1493: The True Importance of Christopher Columbus
“Christopher Columbus sailed in from the blue. American history books present Columbus pretty much without precedent, and they portray him as
America’s first great hero. In so canonizing him, they reflect our national culture…. Columbus is one of only two people the United States honors by name in a national holiday. The one date that every schoolchild remembers is 1492, and sure enough, all twelve textbooks I surveyed include it. But they leave out virtually everything that is important to know about Columbus and the European exploration of the
Americas. Meanwhile, they make up all kinds of details to tell a better story and to humanize Columbus so that readers will identify with him.”
“The textbooks’ first mistake is to underplay previous explorers.
People from other continents had reached the Americas many times before
1492. Even if Columbus had never sailed, other Europeans would have soon reached the Americas. Indeed, Europeans may already have been fishing off Newfoundland in the 1480s. In a sense Columbus’s voyage was not the first but the last “discovery” of the Americas. It was epoch-making because of the way in which Europe responded. Columbus’s importance is therefore primarily attributable to changing conditions in Europe, not to his having reached a “new” continent.”
“In any case, humanism can hardly explain Columbus, since he and his royal sponsors were devout orthodox Catholics, not humanists. The
American Way tells us, nonetheless, that Columbus ““had the humanist’s belief that people could do anything if they knew enough and tried hard enough.”” This is Columbus as the Little Engine That Could!”
“Some teachers still teach what their predecessors taught me forty years ago: that Europe needed spices to disguise the taste of bad meat, but the bad Turks cut off the spice trade. Three books-The American
Tradition, Land of Promise, and The American Way-repeat this falsehood.
In the words of Land of Promise, ““Then after 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, trade with the East all but stopped.”” But A.H.
Lybyer disproved this statement in 1915! Turkey had nothing to do with the development of new routines to the Indies. On the contrary, the
Turks had every reason to keep the old Eastern Mediterranean route open, since they made money from it.”
“The changes in Europe not only prompted Columbus’s voyages and the probable contemporaneous trips to America by Portuguese, Basque, and
Bristol fishermen, but they also paved the way for Europe’s domination of the world for the next five hundred years. Except for the intervention of agriculture, this was probably the most consequential development in human history. Our history books ought to discuss seriously what happened and why, instead of supplying vague, nearly circular pronouncements such as this, from The American Tradition:
““Interest in practical matters and the world outside Europe led to advances in shipbuilding and navigation.””
“Perhaps foremost among the significant factors the textbooks leave out are advances in military technology. Around 1400, European rulers began to commission ever bigger guns and learned to mount them on ships.
Europe’s incessant wars gave rise tot his arms race, which also ushered in refinements in archery, drill, and siege warfare. China, the Ottoman
Empire, and other nations in Asia and Africa now fell prey to European arms, and in 1493 the Americans began to succumb as well. We live with this arms race still…. Western nations continue to try to keep non-Western nations disadvantaged in military technology. Just as the thirteen British colonies tried to outlaw the sale of guns to Native
Americans, the United States now tries to outlaw the sale of nuclear technology to Third World countries…. The Western…