Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Goodbye, Columbus

Christopher Columbus had one of the coolest job titles ever: Admiral of the Ocean Sea, bestowed upon him by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the monarchs who bankrolled and green-lighted his great westward journey.

Outside of Spain and his native Italy, Columbus has fallen out of favor, as he is often now seen as a symbol of conquest and imperialism. But Columbus Day is still celebrated in North America, and on this Columbus Day, it is well to remember that whatever cultural baggage he may have carried, the intrepid Italian was one of the boldest and most adventurous travelers of all time.

Consider: he made a trip that now takes hours in three tiny wooden ships over a period of months. Most of his contemporaries were convinced the world was flat, and as he sailed off in the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, many flat-earthers were no doubt chortling "Goodbye, Columbus,'' thinking "That's the last we'll ever see of him.'' But Columbus had the last laugh, visiting what Europeans soon called the New World several times and launching what became the West's Age of Discovery and the planet's first major wave of globalization.

True, Columbus was looking for India and didn't find it. And, true, he didn't "discover'' America; millions of indigenous people were already living there. Besides, Viking seafarers and fishermen from Portugal and the Basque region of Spain reached North America before Columbus ever set foot in the West Indies and mistakenly called the locals "Indians.'' Some think the Chinese may have reached South America in an earlier era, too.

None of that negates what Columbus achieved. Eurocentric and insensitive he may have been, and late he was, but once he "discovered'' America, it stayed discovered, which wasn't the case with his predecessors. He changed the world, and not many travelers can say that.

Flat-earthers are, of course, still among us. Forty years ago, they refused to believe the Apollo moon landings were real; staged on a studio backlot and filmed for TV, they insisted. These days, they mostly go into politics.

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