Christopher Columbus And The Replacement-Level Historical FigureRoundup
tags: historiography, sports, genocide, Christopher Columbus
Patrick Wyman is the host of the Tides of History podcast, which is currently covering prehistory from the dawn of humanity to the Bronze Age. Prior to that, he was the host of the Fall of Rome podcast, which you might remember from Deadspin back in the day, where he also contributed pieces on mixed martial arts. In previous lives, he wrote about MMA for Bleacher Report and the Washington Post, and completed a PhD in History at the University of Southern California.
Sometime in 1484 or 1485, the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus pitched King João II of Portugal on his scheme for a westward voyage of exploration across the Atlantic to Asia. It would be a voyage of around 2400 nautical miles, Columbus argued, and he’d be happy to undertake it on João’s behalf in return for some frankly outlandish rights to land claims and revenues on the other side of his voyage.
João was nobody’s fool, especially when it came to backing speculative long-distance ventures at sea, but he was willing to entertain Columbus’s plan. Profits were profits, after all. Portuguese caravels had already been making the long trip down the west coast of Africa for decades, edging further and further south. The revenues from these trips—in the form of gold, ivory, and enslaved men and women—provided much of the king’s wealth. By 1488, one of his subordinates, Bartholomeu Dias, would round the Cape of Good Hope and enter the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
The king submitted Columbus’s proposal to a panel of experienced geographers and navigators he kept on his payroll, people with deep theoretical and practical knowledge of the sea. The panel of experts laughed Columbus out of the room. This wasn’t because Columbus believed the world was round and they didn’t, or because they were hidebound traditionalists who couldn’t see the brilliance of his plan and the destiny waiting just over the horizon on the other side of the Atlantic. It was because Columbus was drastically mistaken about the size of the world.
Columbus was utterly convinced that the planet was about a third smaller than it actually is. João’s navigational experts, who had correctly calculated the size of the Earth, knew that he was wrong about this simple, foundational fact. And if Columbus was wrong about it, then he and his ships would run out of food and water at sea long before they ever reached the East Indies. Any investment would be wasted.
On top of that, João (and practically everyone else who came into contact with him) found Columbus abrasive and ignorant, wholly unaware of what he didn’t know, a walking late medieval example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Portuguese sent Columbus packing, and he spent the next half-decade desperately trying to scrounge up funding for his harebrained scheme. Through a relentless dedication to social climbing and networking, he eventually found the necessary money in 1492 at the court of the Spanish monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.
The rest, as they say, is history. Columbus landed in the islands of the Caribbean, did some sailing around, and returned home, utterly convinced that he had sailed all the way to the fringes of Asia. His letters announcing his discoveries made their way to the Spanish court and to the print-shops, where they were copied and disseminated by the thousands. Columbus was famous, the money for subsequent expeditions poured in, and the future course was set.
It’s easy to tell Columbus’s story as one of a determined innovator, triumphing over the backwardness and ignorance of medieval Europe to usher in a new era of global exploration, trade, colonization, and conquest through sheer grit and clarity of vision. That is all absolute nonsense, but it is a very easy story to tell.
Columbus’s crimes are, by now, well known: One of his first observations about the people of the New World was that they would be easy to conquer and enslave, and although some thousands of them might die in transport to their destinations, enough would still be left over to make a profit. Worse—much worse—followed, and he set the tone for the next several centuries of Spanish colonial domination of the Americas and beyond. He is not a hero, and might more easily and convincingly be cast as a villain; after all, the fact remains that it was Columbus who was there lobbying at the Spanish court, who was on the deck of the Santa Maria as it sailed west, and who reaped (at least initially) the rewards.
I have an alternative suggestion. Rather than casting Columbus as either the hero or the villain in an epic story about the emergence of a recognizably modern world, we should understand him as a replacement-level historical figure: not among the elite, a Clayton Kershaw or prime Carmelo Anthony; not in the mid-to-upper tier of his profession, like Nelson Cruz, Joe Flacco, or CJ McCollum. He was a notable step below that.