CHAPTER 22.—EUROPEANS DISCOVER AMERICA; AMERICANS DISCOVER EUROPEANS.
In 1453, the Roman Empire in the East finally winked out. The Romans, which is to say the Greeks, had conquered it back from the Latins, which is to say the French and allied Westerners who grabbed it in the Fourth Crusade; but what they got back was a wreck, with graffiti and beer cans everywhere. For the next two centuries the mighty Roman Empire consisted mostly of Constantinople and a couple of suburban office parks. Yet it served a vital purpose: as long as the Turks were dreaming of conquering the legendarily impregnable Constantinople, they didn’t pay as much attention to points west as they might have done. Now that Constantinople was theirs, Turks kept seeping into Europe every time it rained.
Meanwhile, the Roman Empire in the West, which is to say the loosely associated kingdoms, principalities, duchies, electorates, and other constantly bickering units of the Holy Roman Empire, was not much good for anything. After Luther, the Holy Roman Empire was too busy with internal religious wars to worry the Turks very much.
What the world (meaning western Europe) wanted was a new magnificent empire, since the old one was all worn out. Since the time was not yet ripe for the British Empire to take over the world, some other empire would have to fill in the gap.
It turned out that all the ingredients for a magnificent empire were brewing in a very unlikely place.
Back in the Dark Ages, you may remember, the wicked Muslims conquered Spain, and wickedly proceeded to turn it into an island of civilization and enlightenment in the surrounding darkness. Only in the mountains of the north did a few grubby Christian warlords remain, launching occasional terrorist attacks from their inaccessible refuges.
At first these Christian terrorists were more pesky than truly annoying. But they were persistent. They had an idea that they were going to reconquer the whole Iberian peninsula, and they were willing to take a long-term view. As it turned out, in less than eight centuries, they accomplished their objective. Meanwhile, of course, they had been fighting each other as well, because that is one of the things that always happen to terrorists; so by the time the last Muslim city fell before the conquering Spanish, a good number of them had retreated to the western part of the peninsula and isolated themselves so effectively from their neighbors that their funny accent evolved into a separate language of its own.
The Portuguese, as these splitters were called, lived on the coast of the Atlantic, in a land that seemed designed by nature to encourage maritime enterprise. Taking nature’s cue, the Portuguese sent their ships out in all directions, and they were really quite successful as sailors. There are those who argue that they discovered America before Columbus. The argument goes like this:
1. The Portuguese were very secretive about their explorations. If they had discovered America, there would be no extant record of the discovery.
2. There is no extant record of the Portuguese discovery of America.
In this history, however, we shall ignore the Portuguese for this chapter, then come back to them and see how terribly important they really were. Meanwhile, it is time for Columbus to discover America, so let’s rouse him from his hammock and set him to work.
Christopher Columbus was a sailor from Genoa (unless he was from somewhere else, a disclaimer we insert to appease the crackpot demographic), one of those Italian republics where the Renaissance was going great guns. Like many another Renaissance man, he had developed a wide range of intellectual interests. Unlike many of those other Renaissance intellectuals, however, he was not unduly weighted down with brains. He was one of those inveterate cranks who keep sending letters to the editor about how the government is still covering up the existence of the planet Narbo, until the editor is finally provoked to write a letter back saying, “We regret that the News-Journal-Independent will not be able to accept any more of your letters, and if you write again I will kill you.”
Columbus’ pet theory was that everyone else in the world had got the size of the earth wrong. Now, the size of the earth had been pretty well figured out since classical times. It was true that, during the Dark Ages, most people probably thought the earth was a pancake the size of Rhode Island; but the people of the high Middle Ages had outgrown that kind of nonsense. If you wanted to know how big the earth was, your local bookstore would be happy to sell you one of those new printed compendia of all geographical knowledge that were all the rage in the late 1400s.
Well, Columbus saw through that malarkey. All those size-of-the-earth data were just a conspiracy by Big Science to… um… well, it didn’t matter why all the scientists were lying to us. The important thing was that they were wrong. The earth was much smaller than they said it was. Why? It was in the Bible—well, in 2 Esdras, which isn’t technically in the Catholic Bible, but lives in a kind of supplementary limbo at the end.
Now, if the earth was as small as Columbus thought it was, then it should be possible to get to the East—the land of spices, silks, and piles of silver and gold—by going west.
Everybody knew that was theoretically possible, of course. That geography book in your local bookstore probably came with a helpful woodcut illustrating how, if you could walk all the way around the world, you’d end up back where you started. Everyone knows that it’s theoretically possible to get from Los Angeles to New York by way of Honolulu, Vladivostok, Ulaanbaatar, Moscow, Paris, Dublin, Reykjavik, and St. John’s. But not many people do it, because it’s shorter the other way.
Columbus shopped this notion around from court to court for years. They laughed in his face in Portugal, Genoa, England, Venice, and Spain, where Queen Isabella’s experts told her the same story the experts in all those other courts had told: Columbus will never make it to Asia, because the stupid old coot has got the size of the earth all wrong. Columbus was persistent, however; and it so happened that, in a lucky moment in 1492, he caught King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in a very good mood. They had just conquered the last Muslim stronghold in Iberia, finally completing the 800-year Reconquista. What could it hurt to give the crazy old sailor a couple of ships?
Thus Columbus set out for the Indies with his three ridiculously little ships; and he and all his men would certainly have died long before they reached Asia, except that America happened to be in the way.
At last Columbus landed in the Bahamas, where he stopped and asked for directions. “Which way to your spices and silks and inexhaustible stores of gold and silver?” he asked. The people on the beach looked at each other and shrugged, wishing they had taken Spanish in high school after all.
Columbus, of course, thought he had reached the Indies, and called the people he met Indians. We still call the islands of the Caribbean the West Indies today, because “West Indies” sounds better than “Wrong Indies.” Columbus kidnapped a few of the people he met to take back to Spain and paste in his album, and he left a small group of his men behind with instructions to build a colony out of Popsicle sticks.
This was the famous discovery of America by Columbus, and it seems only fair to give him credit for it. Of course, there are those who insist that America was already discovered, as evidenced by the fact that Columbus found people there. Even if we exempt the original American discoverers of America, there are those who claim that others from the Old World discovered America long before Columbus. Besides the Norse, some theorists (now, isn’t that a polite term?) claim that America was discovered by the Portuguese (as we have mentioned), the Irish, various other Celts, the Basques, the Phoenicians, the Polynesians, the Chinese, the Egyptians, and of course the Mormons.
We dismiss these claims, not because we are certain that they are false, but because they make little difference even if they were true. Assuming for the moment that all these different groups did “discover” America, their discovery was of the same sort as Leif Ericsson’s discovery of Vinland: it made a good story, but it had little permanent effect. After their supposed visits, America was still full of Americans speaking thousands of different American languages. After Columbus, America turned into the sort of place where almost everyone speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese, or French. Genocide and assimilation are the marks of a truly successful discovery of a new world; therefore, Columbus gets the credit.
There are 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.
Although Columbus was supposed to retain enough of an interest in any lands he happened to discover to make him richer than anybody on earth, the king and queen decided to throw him away like an old chewing-gum wrapper instead, merely because he had tortured and massacred both “Indians” and European colonists indiscriminately. If one is to be held accountable for such things, what is the point of being a viceroy? Columbus’ heirs pursued the case in Spanish courts, which were not known for their speed; it was finally resolved—this is absolutely true, and you can look it up—in 1790.
At any rate, we shall not bother to pursue Columbus’ adventures after his first voyage of discovery. They are tragic and boring, and in the end he died still convinced that he had been to the Indies, and that he had been right about the size of the earth all along.
It was ten years before Amerigo Vespucci alerted the world to the fact that America was not the same thing as Asia, which caused a German mapmaker to name the whole place after him. You write one letter, and you get two continents named after you. But, on the other hand, did Amerigo Vespucci get a fairly large city in Ohio named after him? Huh? Did he? Guess Columbus showed him.
Spanish settlers, as we mentioned, began to infest the New World with Columbus’ first voyage. Now, it is usually a pretty fair bet that a voyage into the unknown with a very high probability of lingering death does not attract the highest class of intellectuals. “Desperate” would be a better description of most of the men who went with Columbus. Thus we should not be surprised if the first Spanish colonists fell a little short of our own moral standards. They did not have our refined and sophisticated attitude toward massacre, torture, and rape, which in their minds were simply tools to be used in extracting the riches God had left in the custody of the Indians until such time as the Spanish should come to claim them. And to be scrupulously fair to them, we cannot attribute the complete depopulation of formerly populous islands solely to the deliberate action of the Spanish. The colonists brought their diseases with them; and, although the Spanish were more resistant to smallpox, they weren’t exactly fond of it.
We should mention also that there were some among the Spanish who objected to the slavery and abuse inflicted on the Americans for the crime of being there. Bartolomé de las Casas wrote a furiously angry treatise “On the Destruction of the Indies,” in which he pointed out that, morally speaking, the Spanish thugs made the Americans look like saints and angels. He almost had to invent the concept of Adolf Hitler four hundred years early just to describe how awful the Spanish encomienderos were. His words made the colonists’ consciences ache, so they tried to kill Las Casas to get rid of the pain. He got away and wrote more stuff. Remember, when you feel like hating the Spanish for their atrocities, that we know about many of their atrocities only because a Spanish writer told us about them. It would be so much more convenient if the Spanish were a race of villains, but they vex us by being as varied and complex as any other kind of people.
Meanwhile, it was becoming clear to the Spanish adventurers that they had only pricked the surface of this great New World. They kept hearing rumors of a vast empire with untold wealth on the mainland, and of course untold wealth was just the kind of wealth they liked.
Here the Spanish conquistadores (a Spanish word meaning “conquistadors”) had a really swell bit of luck. It turned out that the empire in question, the Aztec empire, was evil. That made little difference to the consciences of the Spanish, who considered its mere existence justification enough for conquering it. But it made an enormous amount of difference in their chance of success, because it meant that millions of the Aztecs’ subjects were just itching for the first chance to throw off their evil overlords.
The Aztec emperor at the time was Montezuma, or Moctezuma II, who was a little like Nero and a little like Attila the Hun, but crazy. After a weekend with Montezuma, you would feel very sorry for ever having said such nasty things about that nice Mr. Hitler.
This is not, by the way, some hopelessly prejudiced Eurocentric view. Actually, the conquistadors thought Montezuma was a swell guy. It was his American subjects who thought he was evil and bonkers, and we are only doing them the courtesy of taking their word for it. As soon as Hernando Cortez (who spelled his name Hernán Cortés, but you can’t please everybody) showed up with a few dozen Spanish adventurers, millions of the Aztecs’ subjects joined him. “This Spanish guy is evil and bonkers,” they said, “but we like him way better than Montezuma.”
The conquest of Mexico is a thrilling story, which we largely skip because it’s just more massacres. In the end, Montezuma died, and—although the case has been reopened now and then by historians—the best information seems to indicate that he was killed by Mexicans themselves throwing rocks at him, while the Spanish did their best to protect him. You see how hard it is to sort out the moral ambiguities here, and you can hardly blame Dr. Boli for shirking the task. Cortez, the worthless Spanish adventurer, became richer than God, and every other worthless Spanish adventurer dreamed of finding another empire to plunder. And there happened to be one just waiting for them, way down south in Peru.
Peru was ruled by the Incas, who are often compared with the Romans because of their genius for conquest, their efficient administration of a vast empire, and their habit of building roads everywhere. However, unlike the Romans, who pretty much left the provincials to themselves as long as the taxes kept rolling in, the Incas were compulsive organizers. “A place for everyone, and everyone in his place”—that was the Inca motto. The imperial administration carried totalitarianism to its logical conclusion: Pol Pot could only dream of such thoroughness. And on the whole it worked, because, unlike Pol Pot, the Incas were fairly intelligent. They could manage a planned economy.
It worked, at any rate, until the crazy Spaniard Francisco Pizarro showed up. Then the story of Mexico was repeated. The Inca empire could handle anything but chaos, and Pizarro was chaos distilled and reduced to its essence.
The conquest of Peru gave the grubby conquistadors more gold than it was possible for their limited imaginations to conceive, although of course that did not stop them from looking for even more gold in the legendary city of El Dorado—a legend the Peruvians told every time they wanted to get rid of a few conquistadors by losing them irretrievably in the jungle. Fleets of treasure ships sailed back to Spain in an almost unbroken chain, making the Spanish king Charles the greatest potentate in Europe. By an amusing little historical coincidence, Charles had also been elected Holy Roman Emperor, uniting the old empire and the new, and ruling over more European territory than anyone had ruled since Charlemagne. Now he ruled an unimaginably vast empire in the New World as well. In a very short time, Spain had gained the greatest empire in the history of the planet—and it kept getting bigger as more and more Spaniards discovered that all you had to do to get stinking rich was hop in a ship, find some peaceable natives living in a tropical paradise, and kill them. All those people who had given Columbus the raspberry sure were kicking themselves now.
Oddly, though, his American dominions didn’t interest Charles all that much. It was great to have limitless funds, but the thing that really interested him was religion. Specifically, the thing that really interested him was stamping out the wrong religion.
The chapters previously published:
FROM THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE TO THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION.
THE DEFINITION AND CHARACTER OF CIVILIZATION.
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, FURNISHING AND DECORATING THE AFTERLIFE SINCE 3150 B.C.
THE LESS MARKETABLE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS.
THE ISRAELITES DISCOVER MONOTHEISM AND SPEND MOST OF THE REST OF THEIR HISTORY TRYING TO BACK OUT OF IT.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS LIVE THE EXAMINED LIFE.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS INVENT HISTORY.
ALEXANDER RUNS OUT OF WORLDS TO CONQUER.
WHILE ROME CONQUERS THE WORLD, GREECE CONQUERS ROME.
CHRISTIANITY RUINS EVERYTHING.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE DECLINES AND FALLS FOR 1500 YEARS STRAIGHT.
CIVILIZATION DESTROYS CIVILIZATION.
NOTHING HAPPENS IN THE DARK AGES.
CHARLEMAGNE TURNS ON THE LIGHTS.
MORE FUN WITH BARBARIANS.
WHAT THE MIDDLE AGES WERE IN THE MIDDLE OF.
THE CRUSADES ARE WHOLESOME FUN FOR EVERYONE.
FRANCE CONQUERS ENGLAND; OR, ENGLAND CONQUERS FRANCE.
EUROPE PRESSES THE RESET BUTTON.
THE REFORMATION ELIMINATES EVIL FROM THE WORLD.