By John Di Leo -
On August 3, 1492, Cristoforo Colombo (yes, you non-Italians spell it Christopher Columbus) set sail from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, with three ships – the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria – headed for Asia.
And he might have made it, too, eventually… if the Western Hemisphere hadn’t been in the way. As it was, he gets the credit for discovering the Americas (even if a clever cartographer named Amerigo Vespucci grabbed up the naming rights first).
Would some other European eventually have had the same idea, twenty, fifty or a hundred years later? Certainly. Eventually, the Europeans were bound to land in the Americas. But the fact that it was Columbus, working for Spain, who set a number of dominoes falling in a specific way, one that has changed history forever.
Every American knows the basics: that by the end of the 15th century, European nations were climbing over each other for a chance to develop prosperous trade routes with Asia, and had been for years and years. And while all educated souls “knew” that the earth was round, and had known for 2000 years, virtually nobody dared sail so far west as they knew it would take to get to Asia that way. Reasonable people believed that the risks of such a long ocean voyage would be so great, it simply wasn’t worth trying.
Columbus’ difference was that he wasn’t afraid of such risks. He wasn’t afraid of getting lost (if the stars turned out to be strange), or of running out of supplies on the long trip, or even of the fictional sea monsters or very real icebergs and tropical storms that could be fatal to a project like this.
Columbus had a special extra advantage: he had made a couple of very big mistakes. A good deal of his misplaced overconfidence was due to the miscalculation that the distance westward to Asia was much shorter than it really was (by a factor of five!). If the Americas hadn’t been in the way, the trip would have been so long, his crews would surely have mutinied, or died of starvation enroute.
But he did luck out, unknowingly discovering the Americas and settling several places on behalf of his sponsor, Spain. But how did Spain come to be the sponsor of this Italian explorer? And how would history have developed, if his sponsor had been someone else? These are the tantalizing questions that cannot help but come to mind, when we read Columbus’ story.
Legend has it that he went to sea at ten, and spent his early career at sea the same way that other sailors of his time did: lots of short hops hugging the European coast, sometimes going farther out in the North Atlantic (he may have visited Iceland), plus a few years trading along the West African coast.
He believed that the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was about a fifth of what it really is, and he eventually decided that somebody ought to give that westward route a try. If not him, then who?
Throughout the 1480s, Christopher Columbus and his brothers attempted to find backers for such a voyage west.
They pitched their proposal – based on this errant math – to King John II of Portugal. King John’s advisors said his math was wrong, and advised against it.
Then they pitched the idea to the Italian city-states of Genoa and Venice. As good Italians, they might be welcomed back at home, perhaps? No such luck. Both his native Genoa and the maritime capital of Venice were uninterested in the fanciful scheme.
Columbus sent his brother Bartholomew, a mapmaker by trade, all the way to England to pitch the idea to King Henry VII. The British monarch took his time with the question, giving the Columbus brothers no reason for optimism.
They attempted to convince the Spaniards, where Queen Isabella referred the subject to a committee. The committee strongly advised against; they said his math was wrong. In the end, Isabella decided against and sent away Columbus for good in 1492… but her husband, King Ferdinand, thought better of it and called him back before he got far.
Just in time, too, because eventually Columbus would have learned that Henry VII of England had finally decided to hire him. Alas, by the time word came of that decision, Columbus was under contract to the Spanish crown.
We know what happened. In January of 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella selected the seafaring village of Palos de la Frontera to be his launching base; they commissioned three ships for him and ordered the town to outfit his project.
Columbus sailed out of Palos de la Frontera on August 3, 1492, and arrived in the Bahamas in October, claiming everything in sight for Spain.
When the English finally got around to joining this bandwagon, they took the north, and ended up colonizing much of North America. This may have seemed like the only likely scenario – England is north, and concentrated on North America; Spain is south, and concentrated on South America – but that’s not the case. Columbus would likely have wound up in the Bahamas on his first voyage no matter who he represented, because that’s where he thought he would find Asia, by heading due west from the Canary Islands, no matter where he started out.
Imagine a Central America, and even South America, settled by the English. Imagine the Portuguese and Spanish having come to it late, and making do with North America instead. How might history have progressed?
For all of Great Britain’s faults – no country is perfect – it is undeniable that the British were amazingly successful at colonization. The lands that Britain settled did, for the most part, wind up successful over the centuries. The USA, Canada, Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, Australia, New Zealand… The British proved remarkably good at putting the foundations in place for successful governments to arise. The many lands settled by other countries, particularly Spain and Portugal? Not so much.
Imagine if the nations of South America – Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, etc. – had been settled by the British instead. Might they have become more like Canada and the United States? Might our North American territory have become the economic basketcases and tyrannical kleptocracies that most of South America became? The northern and hemispheres flipped, as it were?
We will never know, but it is fascinating to imagine. Tropical paradises like Venezuela and Brazil, the wine country of Argentina, the natural resources of unlimited petroleum and equally unlimited lumber and seafood… combine all that opportunity with the wise governance of a 17th and 18th century British colonial government, and the result might have been magical.
It is entirely possible that the world would have developed very differently, had North America been the economic mess and South America the growth engine of the centuries instead.
How might developments like the spread and eventual abolition of slavery in the Americas have been different? How might the technology of the Industrial Age of the 19th century have developed differently? When Europe had its many multi-party wars, especially those in the 1800s and 1900s… how might alliances have differed? If Columbus had settled North America and Ponce de Leon the South, where would these very different nations have lined up in a 20th century conflict between the fascists of Italy and Germany and the republicans of Great Britain and France?
How much of history turns on such little things.
But it happened as it did. Three ships sailed out of a small seaport in Spain on this day in 1492, and those ships changed the world.
And now, a bit of Illinois trivia for this anniversary:
A descendent of one of the sailors from Palos de la Frontera was to lead the effort to rename the Chicago suburb of Trenton for this Spanish village, hundreds of years later, in 1850.
The captain of the ship we know of as the Nina was Pedro Alonso Nino; it is said that the ship he sailed for Columbus was nicknamed the Nina in his honor. His 19th century descendent was M.S. Powell, postmaster of Trenton, Illinois; the Chicago suburban township of Palos, along with the communities of Palos Heights, Palos Park and Palos Hills, are all therefore named after this small Spanish village, the point of departure of the voyage that brought European colonization to the Americas.
Did the Spanish know what was coming, the massive transformation of the world that was to result from their backing of this Italian explorer’s wild idea? Probably not. The Portuguese were on the verge of dominating the Asian trade lane with their mastery of the route around South Africa, and King Ferdinand was most likely just grasping at straws, figuring the upside if Columbus’ voyage worked out was worth the potential downside of it failing.
But he certainly knew it had been a good call once Columbus reported back in after his discovery. Ferdinand was to spend the rest of his life boasting of the foresight he had in giving the benefit of the doubt to this crazy idea.
For it is from crazy ideas, sometimes at least, that history is made.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, actor and writer. His columns are found regularly in Illinois Review.