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What Happened 500 Years Ago That Impressed Joe Biden?

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As most of you know, Vice President Joe Biden made news this week when he offered this praise to the mission to raid Osama bin Laden's Abbotabad hideout: "You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan."

Now, not to diminish the mission to take out bin Laden, but this is clearly going a wee bit overboard. Tim Mak at Politico has done the essential work of grading other historical events for "audacity." One thousand people were surveyed, top 10 answers on the board...name a military expedition more audacious than the capture of bin Laden! (As you might expect, the "D-Day" invasion is the number one answer.)

But as interesting as that is as a historical exercise (or, as some might say, "an historical exercise"), I'm more intrigued by the time frame that Biden uses to frame his remark, "You can go back 500 years." This seems awfully specific to me. Of course, one can argue that Biden was just being arbitrary in suggesting that the bin Laden mission was the greatest and most audacious plan in the past five centuries. But was it arbitrary? In for a penny, in for a pound, right? If your aim is arbitrary, why not say 700 years? Or a thousand years? It's not like anyone is going to check to see what happened in 1511 that might have been the more audacious event.

Well, I checked to see what happened in 1511 that might have been the more audacious event. Here, to my mind, are the contenders:

Portuguese Admiral Alfonso d'Albuquerque captures the city of Malacca.

Seeking to seize control of spice trade routes in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese Empire dispatched a fleet of warships to attack the city of Malacca, in what is now known as Malaysia. Most of the action involved capturing a bridge. As went that bridge, so went Malacca! D'Albuquerque's first attempt to capture said bridge failed. But that second attempt? Total game changer. The Portuguese cleared the bridge, held it, laid siege to Malacca and finally sacked it on August 24, 1511.

Was it audacious?

Yes. Steven Drakeley, in his History of Indonesia, says that the siege of Malacca was done in "pursuit of [the Portuguese's] audacious objective." However, Portugal's larger goal of controlling the spice trade did not pan out.

The Treaty of Westminster signed.

In 1511, the War of the League of Cambrai had entered its third year, with no end in sight! (It ended in 1516, which means it was still shorter than the war in Afghanistan.) It was one of those great European conflicts where everyone seemed to start out on one side, only to end up on another, probably because it was ultimately very difficult for all these European people to tell each other apart. The year 1511 found King Henry VIII teaming up with Ferdinand II of Aragon in an alliance to defeat the French and the Venetians that was consecrated by the Treaty of Westminster.

Was it audacious?

Not really. The French and Venetians eventually won, and the Treaty of Westminster signed in 1511 suffers somewhat from the fact that there have been, like, six other Treaties of Westminster.

Hernán Cortés and Diego Velázquez conquer Cuba.

Cuba sees famous Spanish conquistador team rollin', they hatin'. But Cortés and Velázquez successfully conquer Cuba. Velázquez ends up governor, Cortés end up as his secretary, and later, the alcade, or magistrate, of Santiago.

Was it audacious?

Sure! But it was somewhat dwarfed by Cortés' solo career as conquistador (He was basically the Paul Simon to Velázquez's Art Garfunkel.), which featured him conquering "the mighty Aztec Empire" with just a "tiny band of adventurers."

Ferdinand II says something racist.

"One black can do the work of four Indians," said Ferdinand II.

Was it audacious?

Actually, in a way it was, because it was sentiments like Ferdinand's that inspired the slave trade, the subjugation of a people, and all of the attendant miseries and immoralities that followed. And it wasn't until centuries later that "complimenting" black people in this fashion would be a career-ending gaffe. (Clearly Ferdinand II should have been putting more effort into winning the War of the League of Cambrai.)

Erasmus publishes In Praise Of Folly.

From Amazon: "Praise of Folly, written to amuse his friend Sir Thomas More, is Erasmus's best-known work. Its dazzling mixture of fantasy and satire is narrated by a personification of Folly, dressed as a jester, who celebrates youth, pleasure, drunkenness and sexual desire, and goes on to lambast human pretensions, foibles and frailties, to mock theologians and monks and to praise the folly' of simple Christian piety. Erasmus's wit, wordplay and wisdom made the book an instant success, but it also attracted what may have been sales-boosting criticism."

Was it audacious?

It seems so. "The author of In Praise of Folly, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (Erasmus of Rotterdam to his friends), perhaps said it best when he wrote, 'Fortune favours the fool, the audacious and those who are not afraid to say the die has been cast. Wisdom, on the contrary, makes men timid.'" So begins Gabriel Gelinas' review of the 2010 Porsche Panamera.

So, which event might Biden have had mind? I'm probably most impressed with the conquest of Cuba, though the inclusion of Erasmus' famous book, celebrating folly, seems oddly appropriate in this instance.

(The least audacious thing that happened in 1511 was the birth of Henry, Duke of Cornwall, who lived for only 53 days and put the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon on the road to annulment.)

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