Dear Dr. Boli: I was having an argument with this friend of mine. He said Columbus discovered America, and I said no, he didn’t, because it was already discovered by the Norse, and it wasn’t their fault if southern Europeans were totally ignorant of the basic facts of geography. But he wouldn’t stop arguing with me, so I slugged him. What do you think? —Sincerely, Sarah Bjornson, Mrs. Post’s Eighth-Grade World Cultures Class.
Dear Miss: Dr. Boli is not sure that he agrees with either of you, although he is quite certain that he does not wish to be slugged.
No matter how thoroughly established it is that the Norse came to America first, they did very little with the place. Apart from establishing a sickly colony on Greenland that straggled on for a few centuries before winking out with a whisper, they made no permanent impression on the Americas at all. It was Columbus who opened the way for the round of conquests and exterminations that marked the first truly successful European discovery of America.
There are, however, those who say that perhaps Columbus gets a little too much credit for discovering America. He did, after all, set out toward the Indies by going west from Europe. Under those circumstances, it would have been a much greater feat to miss America. In years to come, one explorer after another, looking for the fabled Northwest Passage, would attempt to miss America and fail completely. Sooner or later, no matter how hard they tried, they all ran smack into America. So it would really have been something if Columbus had failed to discover America. The place is just always underfoot.
On the other hand, Columbus would never have come to America if he had not set out for the Indies; and he would not have set out for the Indies if he had not made the pigheaded assumption that he knew the size of the earth better than the best scientific minds of his day. Columbus does deserve that much credit: he was a stubborn old coot, and his stubbornness made him immortal.
What Dr. Boli wonders is why no one gives credit to the anonymous Asians who first discovered America by stumbling drunkenly across the Bering land bridge. Their descendants built sprawling cities, caused environmental catastrophes, hunted whole species to extinction, and did all the other things we normally expect from truly successful discoverers of a new world. Why do we not give them the credit they deserve, or at least a holiday with a parade?