Columbus and the Age of Exploration

Article excerpt

European global exploration manifested the empirical spirit in action. It tested ancient authority against experience, making the world one knowable reality.

Christopher Columbus is an unlikely figure to be considered the discoverer of America and the leading symbol of European exploration overseas. When he made landfall somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, he was not the first mariner to have made the crossing from Europe. There are legends of Celtic and Phoenician seafarers making the Atlantic crossing, perhaps blown off course by storms, centuries before Christ. The Navigation of St. Brendan, a tenth-century chronicle recounting the sea journeys of the sixth-century Irish monk in the skin-covered open boats known as curraghs, has him reaching the "land of Promise." Described as vast and temperate, it has been identified speculatively with Florida.

None of this is certain and probably never will be. What is certain now is that the Vikings, whose longboats bore the raiding parties from Scandinavia that terrorized Christian Europe, reached Newfoundland and established a settlement there toward the end of the tenth century. Their land-hopping wanderings took them from Norway to the Faeroe Islands, thence to Iceland, and to Green land, establishing settlements.

Around the year 1000 Leif Eriksson took a party west and south from Greenland, made landfall in a place they called Vinland, and established a short-lived settlement there. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of Norse longhouses near the northern tip of Newfoundland. The story of the settlement is recorded in the Norse sagas, but that was the only record of their arrival in North America. It was little known beyond Norse society and changed no one's view of the world. Eriksson and his Viking companions had, in other words, no sense of what they had discovered.

By contrast, Columbus was a self-conscious explorer driven by the desire for discovery. He knew what he was looking for--a sea passage that would carry him to the fabled wealth of China by sailing west from Europe. This is not what he found. The irony of his life is that, until the end of his days, he refused to recognize that he had not reached the Orient but had stumbled upon vast lands totally new to the European mind. It was left to others--much later--to appreciate the full significance of the discoveries that he had inadvertently set in motion, and it is not insignificant that the new lands were eventually named America (after a later explorer) rather than Columbia.


In fact, Columbus and his voyages received little attention from historians for some three hundred years. Since 1792, however, he has been resurrected in a number of guises to serve a variety of causes. For the youthful American republic, he was the lone pioneer who broke with tradition to explore new pathways. That he was not Anglo-Saxon added to his stature as a symbol of American independence.

By 1992 Columbus was reviled as much as he was lauded. Accused of genocide and ecocide, he was labeled the guilty symbol of the excesses, real and imagined, of European conquest and colonization. This Columbus is more myth than history, molded and remolded to reflect the positions of various parties in contemporary cultural debate. Such a depiction has little to do with the Columbus of 1492, who was quintessentially a man of his era.

In hindsight it is clear that the Europe of his time was on the verge of breaking out in new directions. Rivers and seas played a vital role in the earliest civilizations. Egypt was built along the Nile and Babylon between the Tigris and Euphrates. Later, Greek and then Roman civilization centered on the Mediterranean. After the Roman Empire collapsed in the west, the center of gravity shifted north, as Roman Christianity reached out to the Germanic tribes, creating the seed of the future Europe. …