Columbus changed the world

Schoolchildren in Britain learn the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and it was in fact on August 3rd, 1492, that Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera in Spain with his three ships, the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa Maria. Supported by Isabella of Spain, his total crew numbered 90 sailors. He knew the world was round, so that by sailing West he could reach the Eastern lands of India and China, and capitalize by trading in their valuable goods, notably spices. The world was bigger than he thought, though, with two giant continents between him and his goal.

He thus discovered the New World and changed history forever. He thought he’d reached India when he made landfall in the Bahamas, and called the natives there “Indians.” The contact of the Old World with the New World, which began that day 527 years ago was to change both profoundly. From the New World came commodities, including gold and silver, tobacco and cheap food. From the Old World came people, crossing the ocean to live a new life on a faraway continent.

That day marked the beginning of a process that would lead to the establishment of many countries on the continents newly-discovered by the Europeans. The United States, Canada and the Latin-American countries have contributed much to the economies and cultures of the world since then, though the impact on the native populations and their cultures was to a large extent catastrophic. New diseases were among the less fortunate trades between the two worlds.

Neither Columbus, his crew or his backers could possibly have imagined that the New World they had landed on would one day be the home of a continental super-power with worldwide influence. The US adopted Britain’s Industrial Revolution and applied American know-how to it to develop new technologies that would impact on the lives of every person on the planet.

It developed the military prowess that would save Europe from tyranny in two world wars and the Cold War. Significantly, though, it also developed a new form of constitutional government that would restrain any excessive ambitions among its own rulers. The nations of Latin America, mostly ruled by a series of military dictators, have lacked the political stability of their Northern neighbours, and have had a more chequered history.

Now the US is following in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus by embarking on the exploration of yet another new domain, not that of another continent, but that of the wider universe. It has already put people on another world, and is about to do so again. Some commentators have suggested that, while the 20th Century was that of America, the 21st Century will be that of China. This seems unlikely, given the creativity and resourcefulness of free peoples. Unless the US is seized by some collective madness and ruins itself with socialism, as others have sadly done, the odds suggest that in the 21st Century the most influential, the most creative, and the most prosperous power will be the United States.

Those ships that sailed with Columbus certainly started something. There is a life-size copy of the Santa Maria in Madeira, one that makes tourist voyages around the islands. Seeing how tiny it looks, one appreciates how brave those intrepid explorers were to set out in such ships upon vast and unknown oceans.