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Columbus: Blundering into Immortality

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Four sculpted kings bear his tomb in the cathedral at Seville. Pompous marble proclaims his titles: Admiral of the Ocean, Governor of the New World. The man who, today in 1492, spotted the faint green sliver of the Bahamas on the horizon now rests in a style appropriate to his self-belief.

It is as well that Christopher Columbus was so sure of himself, because he was in many respects staggeringly incompetent. The very basis of his journey to the New World was a miscalculation. For, despite the schoolroom myth, contemporary navigators knew perfectly well that the world was round - and what's more, knew exactly how big it was. They judged, correctly, that Europe, Asia, and Africa covered roughly one-half the globe's circumference; to reach the East by sailing West would involve a journey far beyond the range at which a ship's supplies would run out. Columbus, less experienced but more widely read, chose to believe the (incorrect) Marinus of Tyre, who postulated a bigger proportion for the known continents - and then compounded Marinus' error by assuming his sources referred to Italian miles (a little over a kilometer) when they actually meant Arabic miles, which are half again as long. Put together, these errors made Columbus believe that Japan would be nearer to Western Europe than North America actually is; he was proposing to circumnavigate, not a planet, but a pumpkin. Only a country desperate for recognition, as Spain then was, would bankroll such a crank. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella granted Columbus vast powers over any discoveries and an equally vast share of any profits - but that was on the plausible assumption that he wasn't coming back.

The three ships departed into the unknown, their Admiral sneakily falsifying the logbook so that the sailors would not know how far they were from home and optimistically spotting signs of nearby land when they were scarce halfway across. When at length they came to those golden sands, though, he remained essentially at sea. He'd set sail for the Spice Islands, but Columbus didn't know what spice plants looked like, nor had he any idea which of the many unfamiliar trees and fruits he found might be valuable. It was with great relief that he recognized and gathered some aloes - that at least was something. He was sure that he was in Asia, and thus decided that Cuba must be the island of Zipangu (Japan) - so he sailed thither in search of someone important to whom he could deliver the letter from Their Most Catholic Majesties. Finding no cities and no officials, he sent one of his sailors into the hinterland - a converted Jew who usefully spoke Hebrew and Aramaic - but to no avail. There was no Great Khan, no pepper groves, no gold mines ... nothing.

There were people, though: the peaceful, welcoming Taíno (the word itself means "good"), whose round houses dotted the islands. Columbus could not make up his mind about them; on the one hand, he said, "in all the world there can be no better people ... they love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing." On the other, he calmly proposed to enslave them all. When he later returned as governor of Hispaniola, his ways with the natives were so vicious that the Spanish noblemen in his service, not normally a soft-hearted bunch, had him removed. In fifteen years, nine-tenths of the Indian population was wiped out - by disease, starvation, overwork, suicide, and that hallmark of newly empowered little men, wanton, pointless cruelty.

So on this day, whether you are in Columbia, South Carolina or Columbus, Ohio - on the banks of the Columbia or at Columbia University - you might do well to forget the man whom all the fuss is about and remember instead those friendly graceful copper-colored people who welcomed him as a god and left us only their land and the memory of a terrible injustice. Oh, and some words particularly appropriate to a holiday weekend: canoe; hammock; tobacco; barbecue... and, more ominously, hurricane.

If you enjoy such sketches of human fallibility, you will find a new one every day at my sister site, Bozo Sapiens. See you there.