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David Bouchier: Goodbye, Columbus

Courtesy of Pexels

It seems that we can never have enough living space. Even back in 1492 when the planet was, by modern standards, virtually uninhabited, every king, princeling and adventurer was engaged in a passionate search for new territory. Columbus, of course, won the jackpot – although he never knew it. Seven million square miles of real estate, not even counting South America, and entirely empty, except for the people who happened to be living here.

Christopher Columbus didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t even know where he arrived. His assignment was to find a westward passage to India – a semi-mythical land of fabulous wealth. In this he totally failed. The maps of his time omitted to show that there was a great big continent blocking the way from Europe to Asia, and Columbus ran right into it. On his various voyages he landed in Cuba, Haiti, Honduras and Panama. To his dying day he believed that he had in fact discovered a passage to India. That’s what happens when you don’t have a GPS or a decent map.

All the great explorers of the past – Captain Cook, David Livingstone, Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark, ventured into the unknown just as Columbus did. It is hard to imagine what that must have been like, with no map much better than a rumor, no clue about what animals or human cultures they might find out there, no guide to restaurants and motels, but only an insatiable desire to move forward, and to discover. Such courage! Such madness! Now the history of discovery on this planet is, literally, history. For today’s explorers, apart from the depths of the ocean, there are no surprises to be expected, and certainly no new continents. We can go anywhere on Earth without much danger of getting lost, or of finding any place that hasn’t been found a million times before. 

This lack of geographical mysteries is both reassuring and disturbing. Predictability means safety, but it also means boredom. No wonder we hunger for something different and look for discoveries in the most unlikely places. Even the remote Galapagos Islands are jammed to suffocation with tourists, so the unique wild life is in danger of dying out. 

All the more reason to stand in awe of the great explorers of the past, like Señor Columbus who really did travel, as it were, without a net, and really did find strange new worlds and new civilizations. Now our world has shrunk. We are on a small and all-too-familiar planet, overloaded with restless people, and we need a new Columbus to move us onward and outward to the next level – into deep space.

Where can we look for such a leader? It would have to be a man like Columbus, with boundless self-confidence, no scruples, a consuming interest in real estate, and a hazy idea of celestial geography. If only we could find such a leader, it would be worth any price to provide him with a comfortable, gold-plated spaceship, and send him out on a great voyage of discovery, light years away.  

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.