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Impearls: 2004-10-10 Archive

Earthdate 2004-10-12

200th (hex) anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America

Today is the 512th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of America, a nice round power of two which can be expressed as the number 200 hexadecimal (base 16).  Nowadays Columbus's achievement has been heavily clouded by anachronistic moralizing and hackneyed “multicultural” reasoning, with the result that many people today end up quite confused as to whether Columbus achieved anything significant, or maybe was a monster to boot.

It should be clear, however, that one cannot sensibly judge other eras strictly by modern standards.  That turns history into a desert, with us oh-so moral moderns suddenly leaping into ethical existence whole-cloth, as it were, out of nowhere, rather than undergoing the organic, painful accumulative growth to the modern sensibility that actually occurred.

Beyond that, people are often mystified how it's possible to “discover” a place where there are people already living.  It kind of turns their heads around, thinking about it.  As an American of native ancestry expressed it, writing on a private mailing list:

I don't see how any country can say they discovered America… when the Indians (different tribes) were already here.  […].  This land was discovered by Indians many years before Europeans put their feet here.

The answer to this logical riddle is that prior to Columbus the human world was divided into disjoint systems of internally communicating civilizations that externally knew nothing about each other.  In the Old World, the “known world” of the pre-Modern age is sometimes termed the “Oikoumene,” 1 a Greek word which basically means “inhabited universe” (it's the root from which the English “ecumenical” derives).  The Old World Oikoumene as a practical matter knew zilch of the New World, neither the presence of the physical continents of America nor its vigorous native system of civilizations and peoples.  Similarly, the New World's civilizations and peoples knew basically nothing of the Old.  (Yes, a trickle of Siberian cultural influences reached the Eskimos of the Bering Strait, as well as their slight cultural contact with the Vikings of Greenland during that phase.)

Columbus's great achievement was to introduce the Old and New World civilizational systems to each other, “discovering America” as far as the Old World Oikoumene (known world) was concerned (attaching the two continents of America and its peoples to the formerly known world), and for the native Americans he discovered Europe-Africa-Asia (and everything within it) for them!  Fundamentally, Columbus opened up the road across the Oceans, so thoroughly and completely that (unlike the formidable but transient deeds of the Vikings) the way could never be closed up again.

As if that weren't enough, not only was Columbus a master seaman — historian Samuel Eliot Morison put it, “As a master mariner and navigator, no one in the generation prior to Magellan could touch Columbus” — but he was personally responsible for the discovery of more territory (miles of land and coastline explored and surveyed) than any other explorer, including such giants as Magellan and Captain James Cook, in history.

Samuel Eliot Morison, a formidable sailor himself as well as renowned scholar, actually followed the course of Columbus's explorations in his own sailing ship.  He describes Columbus's tremendous achievement in a fascinating dual-volume work The European Discovery of America: 2, 3

A glance at a map of the Caribbean may remind you of what he accomplished: discovery of the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola on the First Voyage; discovery of the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the south coast of Cuba on the Second, as well as founding a permanent European colony; discovery of Trinidad and the Spanish Main, on his Third; and on the Fourth Voyage, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia.  No navigator in history, not even Magellan, discovered so much territory hitherto unknown to Europeans.  None other so effectively translated his north-south experience under the Portuguese flag to the first east-west voyage, across the Atlantic.  None other started so many things from which stem the history of the United States, of Canada, and of a score of American republics.

And do not forget that sailing west to the Orient was his idea, pursued relentlessly for six years before he had the means to try it.  As a popular jingle of the 400th anniversary put it:

What if wise men as far back as Ptolemy
Judged that the earth like an orange was round,
None of them ever said, “Come along, follow me,
Sail to the West and the East will be found.”

Columbus had his faults, but they were largely the defects of the qualities that made him great.  These were an unbreakable faith in God and his own destiny as the bearer of the Word to lands beyond the seas; an indomitable will and stubborn persistence despite neglect, poverty, and ridicule.  But there was no flaw, no dark side to the most outstanding and essential of all his qualities — seamanship.  As a master mariner and navigator, no one in the generation prior to Magellan could touch Columbus.  Never was a title more justly bestowed than the one which he most jealously guarded — Almirante del Mar Oceano — Admiral of the Ocean Sea.


1 Arnold Toynbee, Chapter 4: “The Oikoumenê,” Mankind and Mother Earth: A Narrative History of the World, 1976, Oxford University Press, New York; pp. 27-37 (and elsewhere in the volume).

2 Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages 1492-1616, 1974, Oxford University Press, New York; p. 267.

3 Check out Aristotle's setting the philosophical stage for Columbus's voyages across the Atlantic nearly two millennia before, which you can read about here.


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