columbus failed -- 5/26/15

Today's selection -- from Made in America by Bill Bryson. The missions of Christopher Columbus and most of the other New World explorers we remember were viewed as failures in their day:

"Columbus never found Antilla or anything else he was looking for. His epochal voyage of 1492 was almost the last thing -- indeed almost the only thing -- that went right in his life. Within eight years, he would find himself summarily relieved of his post as Admiral of the Ocean Sea, returned to Spain in chains, and allowed to sink into such profound obscurity that we don't know for sure where he is buried. To achieve such a precipitous fall in less than a decade required an unusual measure of incompetence and arrogance. Columbus had both.

"He spent most of those eight years bouncing around the islands of the Caribbean and coast of South America without ever having any real idea of where he was or what he was doing. He always thought that Cipangu, or Japan, was somewhere nearby and never divined that Cuba was an island. To his dying day he insisted that it was part of the Asian mainland (though there is some indication that he had his own doubts, since he made his men swear under oath that it was Asia or have their tongues cut out). His geographic imprecision is most enduringly preserved in the name he gave to the natives: Indios, which of course has come down to us as Indians. He cost the Spanish crown a fortune and gave in return little but broken promises. And throughout he behaved with the kind of impudence -- demanding to be made hereditary Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as well as viceroy and governor of the lands that he conquered, and to be granted one-tenth of whatever wealth his enterprises generated -- that all but invited his eventual downfall.

The "Columbus map" was drawn circa 1490 in the workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus in Lisbon.

"In this he was not alone. Many other New World explorers came seriously a cropper in one way or another. Juan Diaz de Solis and Giovanni da Verrazano were eaten by natives. Balboa, after discovering the Pacific, was betrayed by his colleague Francisco Pizarro and executed on trumped-up charges. Pizarro in his turn was murdered by rivals. Hernando de Soto marched an army pointlessly all over what is now the southeastern United States for four years until he caught a fever and died. Scores of adventurers, drawn on by tales of fabulous cities -- Quivira, Bimini, the City of the Caesars, and Eldorado ('the gilded one') -- went looking for wealth, eternal youth, or a shortcut to the Orient and mostly found misery. Their fruitless searches live on. sometimes unexpectedly, in the names on the landscape. California commemorates a Queen Califia, unspeakably rich but unfortunately nonexistent. Amazon denotes a mythical tribe of one-breasted women. Brazil and the Antilles recall fabulous, but also fictitious, islands.

"Farther north the English fared little better. Sir Humphrey Gilbert perished in a storm off the Azores in 1583 after trying unsuccessfully to found a colony on Newfoundland. His half brother Sir Walter Raleigh, attempting to establish a settlement in Virginia, lost a fortune, and eventually his head, in the effort. Henry Hudson pushed his crew a little too far while looking for a northwest passage and found himself, Bligh-like, put to sea in a little boat, never to be seen again. The endearingly hopeless Martin Frobisher explored the Arctic region of Canada, found what he thought was gold, and carried fifteen hundred tons of it home on a dangerously overloaded boat only to be informed that it was worthless iron pyrites. Undaunted, Frobisher returned to Canada, found another source of gold, carted thirteen hundred tons of it back, and was informed, with presumed weariness on the part of the royal assayer, that it was the same stuff. After that, we hear no more of Martin Frobisher.

"It is interesting to speculate what these daring adventurers would think if they knew how whimsically we commemorate them today. Would Giovanni da Verrazano think being eaten by cannibals a reasonable price to pay for having his name attached to a toll bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island? I suspect not. De Soto found transient fame in the name of an automobile, Frobisher in a distant icy bay, Raleigh in a city in North Carolina, a brand of cigarettes, and a make of bicycle. On balance, Columbus, with a university, two state capitals, a country in South America, a province in Canada, and high schools almost without number, among a great deal else, came out of it pretty well. But in terms of linguistic immortality no one got more mileage from less activity than a shadowy Italian-born businessman named Amerigo Vespucci.

"A Florentine who had moved to Seville, where he ran a ship supply business (one of his customers was his compatriot Christopher Columbus), Vespucci seemed destined for obscurity. How two continents came to be named in his honor involved an unlikely measure of coincidence and error. Vespucci did make some voyages to the New World (authorities differ on whether it was three or four), but always as a passenger or lowly officer. He was not, by any means, an accomplished seaman. Yet in 1504-1505, letters of unknown authorship began circulating in Florence, collected under the title Nuovo Mundo (New World), which stated that Vespucci had not only been captain of these voyages but had discovered the New World.

"The mistake would probably have gone no further except that an instructor at a small college in eastern France named Martin Waldseemuller was working on a revised edition of the works of Ptolemy and decided to freshen it up with a new map of the world. In the course of his research he came upon the Florentine letters and, impressed with their spurious account of Vespucci's exploits, named the continent in his honor. (It wasn't quite as straightforward as that: first he translated Amerigo into the Latin Americus, then transformed that into its feminine form, America, on the ground that Asia and Europe were feminine. He also considered, and rejected, the name Amerige.) Even so it wasn't until forty years later that people began to refer to the New World as America, and then they meant only South America."


Bill Bryson


Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States


William Morrow Paperbacks


Copyright1994 by Bill Bryson


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment