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Blind ambition

Alan Levine

Christopher Columbus, whose bold and erratic voyages we are expected to celebrate on Monday, began his career as a trader and business agent.

He knew the value of money, and he knew how hard it was to persuade people to part with it. His business plan, based on a study of unreliable old maps and books, was to find a direct sea route from Europe to the far east, where fabulous riches were believed to be had for the taking. As we now know, he was misinformed. A huge continent blocked the way between Europe and Asia, and Columbus sailed right into it.

History is strange. We call Columbus the Great Navigator, the discoverer of the New World, even though he never set foot on mainland America, not even on Long Island which is hard to miss. And, of course, the continent had been discovered thousands of years before by the people who were living there when he arrived, and again four hundred years before his voyage by a gang of blond Vikings in funny hats, who decided it was an unpromising place and went home.

Columbus was a visionary, and when you have an unlikely and expensive scheme like his, it’s not easy to get financial support. His voyages were the 15th century equivalent of a Silicon Valley startup, promising vast returns on a big investment, based on nothing more than a grandiose idea. During his time, big investments were more or less the monopoly of the European monarchs who, like our modern oligarchs, had managed to corner the market in money. Nobody else had much. So he went where the financial support was.

Columbus first presented his visionary business plan to King John II of Portugal in 1485 and again in 1488, and was rejected as a fantasist. He tried his proposition on the courts of Genoa and Venice, and even on Henry VII of England, with absolutely no success. Finally he took his scheme to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who after two years of negotiation, finally gave him a contract to explore the far side of the western ocean, with the promise of all kinds of rewards if he succeeded. Columbus was on his way. He sailed without fear of plagues or epidemics, because he took his own plagues and epidemics with him, causing devastation wherever he landed.

In this he was typical of the explorers of his age. What Columbus brought to the New World was war, disease, despotism, racism, slavery, and religious persecution — all the things that had made Europe such an interesting place for the previous thousand years.

Even Columbus himself was not a winner in the end. He got little profit out of his dangerous voyages. He was appointed Governor General of his newly discovered islands. But he acted with such brutality that he was recalled by Queen Isabella and died in poverty and obscurity. Because of this sad record, thirteen states no longer celebrate Columbus Day at all, but instead have recreated the federal holiday as Indigenous People’s Day or Native American Day.

Of course, once we start re-labelling famous people and events from the past there’s no knowing where it might end. In our own time heroic statues have been pulled down, schools and other institutions renamed, and history books revised. If we’re not careful, we may soon be forced to see our past exactly as it was.

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.