Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus Day 2011

Happy Columbus Day!

Map of Columbus' 1492 voyage. Image from Wikipedia
Christopher Columbus was a bad geographer.  His theory on the rounded Earth's circumfrance was dead wrong (it was way too short).  The first country he approached, Portugal, told him never to contact them again because the Portugese geographers correctly knew that the distance between Europe and East Asia was far larger than Columbus' claims.

However, by his mistake and Spanish support, Columbus opened the New World.  Besides proving St. Augustine's geography wrong he also helped give Nicolaus Copernicus the idea to rethink the universe.  His opening of the age of exploration also added greatly to the geographic knowledge of the world.  He also saved the world

First, he saved Europe.  A few years ago I wrote in 1491 that Europe was slightly ahead of the Islamic world.  Wrong.  The authors of Nuremberg Chronicle thought the world was going to end soon because things were going so poorly.  Italian Franciscan monks switched sides and became Islamic pirates, thousands upon thousands of people were captured into slavery in raids all along the Mediterranean by Islamic pirates, and the great Roman Empire fell in 1453 to the Ottomans.


 The great book Admiral of the Ocean Sea : A Life of Christopher Columbus by Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison describes the situation pre and post-Columbus in Europe as so

At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past. . . .
Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Nina scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”
Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: Expansion.

Most importantly he ensured Western European ideals, specifically and ironically English-ideals, survived.  Ideals of a separation between religion and State (the Catholic states had this compared to Islamic Caliphate and Sultanates where secular and religious offices were one in the same), the rights of individuals apart from being property of the state, and check-and-balances in governments were threatened by the Ottoman horde.  Fortuantely, New World gold supplied the Hapsburg Empire with enough money to build an army and navy which could stop the Ottomans.  Trade of New World goods destroyed the Ottoman's economy which was based on controlling the old trade routes.  The stopping of the Ottomans and appeal of New World resources encouraged France, the English, and others to colonize.  These colonies brought ideas of freedom to the New World.

Columbus' drive led to the opening of the New World.  Western ideals of limited government and personal freedoms grew in the New World.  While New World governments have not been perfect, sometimes failing miserably, in putting these ideals into practice, there is a constant drive to make a more perfect system.  The New World also led the charge for the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Meanwhile, the former Ottoman world suffers somewhere between troubled democracy and dictatorship.

Columbus was not perfect.  Spanish and other colonial rules had horrible defects.  However, history has shown how the New World made the whole world better.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that the lands colonized by the Spain are that much better than those that were formerly Ottoman domains. Certianly in sheer number of dead through genocide, constant warfare, deictatorships, and racism Latin America has the rest of the world beat.

Anonymous said...

"Columbus' drive led to the opening of the New World. Western ideals of limited government and personal freedoms grew in the New World. While New World governments have not been perfect, sometimes failing miserably, in putting these ideals into practice, there is a constant drive to make a more perfect system. The New World also led the charge for the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meanwhile, the former Ottoman world suffers somewhere between troubled democracy and dictatorship."

wow, dude, your version of history is pretty skewed. 'opening' - for whom? certainly not for native people! to connect columbus to the UN declaration of human rights in 1948 is a HUGE leap.

regarding the "Ideals of a separation between religion and State", first i'd note that rather than "ideals" these are "ideas". second, i'd note that these are ideas that emerged in the enlightenment - most notably through john locke. again, it's a stretch to draw connections between these ideas and columbus.

it's also incredibly arrogant to claim a "constant drive to make a more perfect system" as an explicitly western value. incredibly arrogant.

Catholicgauze said...

First Anonymous,
Seriously? Latin America is much better off and the 2000s have been very kind to the continent compared to the 1980s and before.

Second Anonymous,
The exportation of the West to the New World and its support in defending Europe from the Ottomans allowed Western ideals (yes, ideas can be ideals and vice versa) to survive.
A government by the people, for the people, and of the people which strives for improvement and renewal is a Western-made goal. Nowhere else has that goal been natively born.

Jason Pickart said...

There's a lot of things wrong with this post, but I'll just focus on a few.

First, the "Western ideals" that you speak of are really English ideals that sprang out of the Enlightment that came far after Columbus. Case in point would be Locke, whose phrase "Life, liberty, and property" would later be co-opted by Jefferson as "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Secondly, your depiction of the Ottomans as a horde of barbarians is somewhat funny, considering that much of the success that the Ottoman Empire had was brought through the high level of religious tolerance that they maintained throughout their empire. Meanwhile, the kingdom that funded Columbus' journey would provide history with one of the paramount examples of religious discrimination in the Inquisition.

And Of course, the New World did not make the whole world "better", it made Western Europe better. If you want to say that's all that matters that's one way to look at it, but to say it made the whole world better is just silly.

By the way, if you're trying to say that Democracy is somehow a Western only thing, you're pretty badly mistaken. Greece is a famous example of early democracy (specifically Athens), and the Iroquois Confederacy also had a democratic government, to name a couple easy examples.

Catholicgauze said...

Jason,
Thank you for your comment.
Working backwards:
1. Ancient Greece is a Western culture and consider a founder of Western culture. As for the Iroquois being a democracy myth, I recommend you check out the work of Dr. Elizabeth Tooker of Temple University. Summing it up really quickly, chiefs were hereditary and there were no elections for councils. An oligarchy is a better understanding of the Confederacy.
2. The New World did make Western Europe better and therefore helped make the world better. Western ideas including those from the Enlightenment were given time to survive or be born. They probably would not have survived under the Ottomans or others. Show me a Chinese or Arab or African tradition of human rights showing people independent of the state.
3. Ottomans had "high" religious tolerance? Wow. Where they better than the Spanish? Yes. But minorities have time and again been purged in the Ottoman lands. There is a reason why the Empire went from a majority Eastern Christian area in 1200 to pretty much cleansed by 1950.
4. Yes, the Enlightenment is an English ideal. Good thing New World-powered Spain could be a successful version of Byzantium and stop the Ottomans from moving on to other prey.
Note: As for separation of religion and state that has long been a Christian practice (the Pope never led the "his" Holy Roman Empire). The Church only held secular reigns in the Papal States. Unlike the Muslim world where state and mosque have traditionally been one.

Anonymous said...

I just have to say that the causality in your post is completely lost on me. I just want to point out that the Ottoman Empire continued to expand for 200 years after Columbus' discovery of the Americas occupying Egypt, Syria and Iraq i the 1510s, Serbia in the 1520s, Hungary in the 1530s, conquered Tunisia and Algiers from the Spanish in the 1540s giving them control over the entire Maghreb, in the 1560s, the Caspian shore and the mouth of the Volga was brought into the Ottoman circle as well as the lands of the Crimean Khanate, in 1571 Moscow was occupied, after this for 60 years the Empire focused on expanding Eastward into Safavid territory and the Caucasus. The last great conquets came in 1669 when Crete was occupied sealing the irreversible decline of Venice, and finally in 1676 a huge chunk of modern Ukraine was ceded to the Ottomans by the Poles.
It seems to me that the Ottoman Empire building only got way after the silver of the new world started pumping through Europe into the Ottoman Empire, similarly the Mughal Empire in India was only possible because of the ready cheap supply of silver which caused an economic crisis in Europe and the Mediterranean in the 17th century but in fact aided the spread of Islam in more easrerly regions such as India and modern Indonesia. I suggest reaging the works of Andre Gunder Frank "India & the World, 1400-1750" to understand the key role played by New World silver in funding the expansion of Muslim empires in Asia, Africa, and Europe in the 15th-18th centuries.
As for a lack of separation of religion and governance in Islamic states, I think a serious study of Islamic history will show that again and again the role of Caliph and Sultan were divided. So that after the end of Ummayad dynasty there was invariably a secular leader "Sultan", who was separate from the "Caliph". In the Ottoman case I suggest reading on Suleiman's legal reforms and how he attempted to Islamicize the Ottoman judicial system which at that time was largely divorced from sharia norms, and despite his attempts at reform generally stayed divorced from sharia norms.
You also fail to note that in 1492 Spain also ethnically cleansed its territory of Jews. The largest number of them found refuge in the Ottoman Empire.
And as for Latin America, surely Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Columbia, Venezuela, and Brazil have far higher amounts of violence and income inequality than the former Ottoman lands.

Anonymous said...

And the concept of Greece as solely part of the heritage of Western civilization is bit rich when classical Arabic literature is the medium through which the West maintained and recultivated its connection with the classical Greek heritage. Surely Greece is part of a joint Mediterranean heritage.

Catholicgauze said...

Anonymous,
The gold from the New World powered the West to stop the Ottomans most serious drive at Malta and then Lepanto.
No, Greece is western and Arab is not Mediterranean. The book "Closing of the Muslim Mind" well documents how the Muslim world later rejected Greek thought as ignorance and closed itself off from Greek thought.

Anonymous said...

The author of the "Closing of the Muslim Mind", Robert Reilly is a "political scientist" with no knowledge of Arabic, Persian, or Ottoman Turkish. What sources he could possibly have used to study "the Muslim mind" is beyond me. The idea that he believes that there is such a thing as A "Muslim Mind" should tell you all you need to know about his worth as "scholar".
I suspect that he depended heavily on the old orientalists dinosaurs (some still living like Bernard Lewis) whose insistance on teleology in place of scholarship lead them to sweeping inaccurate (and indefensible) generalizations such as the idea that the all Muslim scholars everywhere could have turned their back to science at some point in the last millenium.
Your world view is sadly Victorian in its parochialism and Western chauvinism. For starters read Andre Gunder Wink.

Catholicgauze said...

Anonymous,
Was Greek thought rejected in the classical Muslim world after Averroes? Yes. Give Reilly credit where credit is due.
I am familiar with Wink. I recommend an easy read of Islamic v. Islamist thought by a Muslim, Militant Islamist Ideology by Youssef H. Aboul-Enein.

Anonymous said...

Neoplatonism did not end with Ibn Sina, with major neo-platonists such as Mir Damad and Mullah Sadra into the 17th and 18th century. This tradition ending as western education became the norm among Muslim elits in the mid-19th century.

And ancient Greek philosophic tradition aside, I'm surprised you don't think of the Byzantine state apparatus inherited by the Ottomans as an integral part of Greek heritage. The legal codes of Justinian and a millenium of Byzantine imperial tradition was/and is an inalienable part of the Ottoman/Turkish state heritage.

Meanwhile the author that you suggest I read has a Masters in Health Services Administration from the University of Arkansas, an M.S. in Strategic Intelligence from the National Defense Intelligence College, as well as an M.S. in National Resource Strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. How any of this prepared him to write authoritatively about the Islamic intellectual tradition escapes me.

Catholicgauze said...

Anonymous,
No, Greek thought was a minority opinion in the Islamic world.
As for Byzantium continuing on in the Ottoman Empire, besides Sulyman's efforts to be the new Ceasar that quickly died out. Are you seriously saying the Ottomans, which ran under Sharia and the pillar system, fit in the Greek world vice an Islamo-Turkic one.
I suggest you read where the author works and what he does (vice who he studied under). How many educated people are there who don't know what they are talking about. At least he has done something monumental.