Victor Nuovo: Discovering America, history re-written

All of us once learned in school that Christopher Columbus discovered America on October 12, 1492. But now we all know this is not true. Columbus was not the first person, nor even the first European to discover America. Norseman beat him to it by approximately half a millennium.
But millennia before the Norseman, other peoples crossed over from Asia, by land or sea, to America and settled here, so that what Columbus discovered, when he discovered America, was not just land, but people, and not just people, but mankind, which is to say, he discovered the diversity of our species, a truth that every generation must learn anew. Here, I follow David Abulafia, a historian at the University of Cambridge, who has written a wonderfully readable and informative book about Columbus’ discoveries, which he has aptly entitled, The Discovery of Mankind.
The land, of course, was not yet called America, and the people whom Columbus first encountered were not uncivilized savages as has been mistakenly supposed. They were Arawaks—the name refers to a linguistic family, and to a people now virtually extinct, but whose customs and language, and, more generally, whose culture has survived.
The people made a favorable impression on Columbus. He described them in his logbook: “They were well built with fine bodies and handsome faces,” “they have very straight legs and no bellies, but well-formed bodies.” He noted their hair was coarse “like that of a horse’s tail,” which they wear short, except long at the back.
They painted themselves, but wore no clothes. Their bodies bore wound scars, indicating that they had engaged in warfare to defend their settlements, yet they carried no weapons. They were friendly and eager to trade and gave the Europeans what seemed the best of the bargain, most fateful, pieces of gold, to which many Europeans had become addicted, for European greed would be their undoing.
Yet, Columbus did not remark them as equals. He imagined rather that the natives would make good servants for he observed “that they soon repeat anything that is said to them” and he went on remark “that they would easily be made Christians for they appeared to me to have no religion.”
He kidnapped a half dozen of them, samples to take back to Spain to display to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who funded his voyage. He supposed that in this way, they would learn the language and be more useful in this new subservient role.
There is no doubt that Columbus thought that these natives were human and worthy of being converted to Christianity, also possessed of intelligence and an immortal soul. Thus, by converting them to Christianity, he believed that he was providing for their happiness in another world to come after death. But in this world. at least, they were to his mind only part of the riches of America, the bounty claimed by him and by the many European adventurers who followed him. Perhaps a level above merchandise.
In The Discovery of Mankind, David Abulafia tells about the discussion at home that was caused by Columbus’ discoveries, and the many that followed. Who were these people? Were they all descendants of Adam, or did God create mankind more than once? And if so, were these different versions of mankind equal. And if they were truly human, how was it that they had no religion, and that only now, fifteen hundred years after Christ they were to receive the advantage of conversion to Christianity?
And since most of those who reflected on these questions believed in God and divine providence, they wondered what God’s purpose was in this long delay in bringing them salvation?
But there was no doubt that they made good servants, for they were teachable. Unfortunately, nature didn’t cooperate with these plans. The adventurers who followed Columbus in search of wealth and cheap labor enslaved the natives and put them to work under the harshest conditions in gold mines. What followed was “massive mortality,” genecide, not deliberate perhaps, but the effect of cruel bondage for the Europeans needed workers “to extract gold, and later sugar.”
The labor shortage that followed led to “the massive importation of black African labor,” which was the beginning of American slavery, which would continue for three and one-half centuries.
Columbus was an adventurer. In this respect, he was typical of his age: the Renaissance. The leading personages of this age regarded themselves as discoverers, not only of new lands, where they might find gold and other commodities to enrich them, but also of forgotten knowledge, that was buried in the past in Greek and Roman literature.
Two centuries would pass before the European horizon expanded to include the universe. The way was opened by Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and decisively by Galileo, who had the advantage of the telescope. But the path to this vast panorama of nature was already prepared.
In 1417, Poggio Bracciolini, a Renaissance scholar in search of forgotten classics, discovered a copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura [On the nature of things] in a monastic library in Italy. In his work, Lucretius depicted an infinite universe containing worlds without number, coming to be and passing away, all under the direction of an indifferent nature, whose only principles were chance and necessity, diversions of matter at play. The first printed edition of De rerum natura was produced in 1473, nearly two decades before Columbus discovery of America.
But to return to America, it is curious that this new continent was not named Columbia. Perhaps this was because Columbus did not suppose he had discovered a new continent. Nor did Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine, a cartographer and ethnographer, he was more interested in the land and the peoples than in gold.
In 1508, he was appointed chief navigator of Spain. After several voyages, he concluded that South America was, if not a continent, a great landmass, separate from Europe, Asia and Africa. A noted German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, fashioned a world map, and named this landmass America, after its presumed discoverer. There are other derivations of the name. One of them, a Mayan name Ammerique, signifying a group of mountains in Nicaragua. Another, attributed the name to Richard Ameryk, a wealthy Englishman who underwrote the voyages of John Cabot.

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