The Achievement of Columbus

12 October 2020


Christopher Columbus (31 October 1451 – 20 May 1506)

There is a list on Wikipedia of seventy European and American voyages of scientific exploration from the French Geodesic Mission of 1735-1739 to the Valdivia mission of 1898-1899. This list does not include the voyages of exploration during the Age of Discovery, but these voyages of exploration, while not organized for strictly scientific purposes, did constitute, among other things, a form of scientific research. One could say that exploration is a form of experimentation, or one could say that experimentation is a form of exploration; in a sense, the two activities are mutually convertible.

Late medieval and early modern voyages of discovery were undertaken with mixed motives. Among these motives were the motives to explore and to discover and to understand, but there were also motives to win new lands for Christendom and to convert any peoples discovered to Christianity, to find riches (mainly gold and spices), to obtain titles of nobility, and to seize political power. Columbus sought all of these things, but it is notable that, while he did open up the New World to Christian conversion, economic exploitation, and the unending quest for power, he achieved virtually none of these things for himself or for his heirs, despite his intentions and his efforts. Columbus’ lasting contribution was to navigation and discovery and cartography, while others exploited the discoveries of Columbus to receive riches, glory, and titles.

Although I can attempt to assimilate the voyages of Columbus to the scientific revolution, there is no question that Columbus conceptualized his own life and his voyages in providential terms, and his motives were only incidentally scientific if scientific at all. Certainly Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and others also had mixed motives, and indeed a mixed mindset arising from the collision of a medieval conceptual framework with early modern discoveries that added to this conceptual framework while challenging it, and eventually destroying it. Of these early modern pioneers, Columbus had the greatest sense of mission — the idea that he was a man of a great destiny — and perhaps it was this sense of mission that prompted him to extract such spectacular concessions from the Spanish crown: the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor General of islands discovered and these titles to be inherited in perpetuity by his heirs. If Columbus’ plan had unfolded according to his design, the entirety of the Americas today would still be ruled by the descendants of Columbus.

The Age of Discovery was part of the Scientific Revolution, the leading edge of the scientific revolution, as it were, thus part of the origins story of a still-nascent scientific civilization. Today we still fall far short of being a properly scientific civilization, and how much further the European civilization of the time of Columbus fell short of this is obvious when we read Columbus’ own account of his explorations and discoveries, in which he insists that he found the route to India and China, and he insists equally on the large amount of gold that he found, when he had, in fact, discovered very little gold. Despite this, Columbus is, or deserves to be, one of the culture heroes of a scientific-civilization-yet-to-be no matter how completely he failed to understand what he accomplished.

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To celebrate Columbus Day I visited one of my favorite beaches on the Oregon coast, Cape Meares. While yesterday, Sunday, was stormy all day, with strong winds and heavy rain, today was beautiful — warm with no wind, a blue sky, and even the ocean was not as cold as I expected when I walked in the surf. When I arrived there were only three people on the beach besides myself; when I left, there were about ten people on the beach.

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Happy Columbus Day!

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One Response to “The Achievement of Columbus”

  1. […] The achievement of Columbus Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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