Columbus Day

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Columbus Day! Back in the day, it was a holiday, a serene celebration noted for the Knights of Columbus on parade, serene because the Knights were a relatively sober bunch in public, unlike another fraternal group prone to parade, the Shriners . As the political passions of the easily offended had not yet been metastasized by the greenhouses of social media into parody, the holiday aroused little passion.

For us schoolkids, there was a naïve exuberance to it. We were proud of our country and in our innocence confused the nation of the United States with the continent of the Americas.  It was a holiday in the school calendar, and so we celebrated it with glue and artfully contrived construction paper. But every kid knew that in the scheme of school holidays, Columbus Day definitely played on the “B” Team.

We were taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. College track students learned that he had three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. But the ditty well remembered by school children of that by gone age said all we needed to know;

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Having spent decades since in the company of co-workers, neighbors, children and grandchildren, not to mention a wife, I have come to the realization that history is a bit of a tough sell. And when the unwary adult is tempted to sample its wares, it can be a bit uncomfortable because, to put it simply, people are people.

It is not exactly a closely guarded secret that we do like to think well of ourselves. And it is quintessentially human to be proud of our identity and all that we love. All those pickups sporting Bronco stickers testifies to our ability to apply lipstick on pigs. But at the same time as we idealize our virtuous selves, we are human beings and as the Gospel of Mark notes:

“For from out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy slander, pride and foolishness.”

As history is the Story of Us, our need to think well of ourselves coupled with the realities of our human nature makes the subject a delicate dance indeed. Coupled with this paradoxical reality is history’s similarity to music. Playing an instrument takes a lot of dull practice. Making sense of history requires an extensive mental infrastructure of dates, name, events and ideas – a dull exercise requiring a lot of rote memorization. But without this background of context and meaning, history is simply a parade of straw men used most often as a consequence free way to declare one’s virtue.

And if history is to be of use, it must be an honest story, a recounting of events good and bad. But as that eminent historian Winston Churchill observed, “History is written by the winners”. And as we find with dismay in our own day, the descendants of the winners eventually become academics or activists puffed up with the conceit of their own unexamined virtue, removed from the fear, sweat and blood from which they came.

But for old men if for no others, ruminating in the musty detritus of myths serving as unseen foundations of our culture is what we do. Or maybe it’s just me. In any case, Christopher Columbus, or Cristoforo Columbo, is one of America’s historical icons and the key to an attic door piled high with boxed insights. Once a celebrated figure, the namesake of everything from our nation’s capital to great rivers, cities, a country and movie studio, Columbus now serves most often as a convenient scapegoat for the self-righteous as well as those seeking excuse for the pathologies of their own cultures.

But in his own time, Christopher Columbus was a quintessential American before there was an America. He was a self-made man, an entrepreneur of unshakable ego, vaulting ambition coupled with an amazing talent for promotion and making the right connection.  Born in the Republic of Genoa in 1451, he came from a modest family. His father, Dominico, worked as a weaver of wool, while his son, Cristoforo the “discoverer” of America, sold cheese out of a bodega the family owned.

But Columbus was not cut out for cutting cheese. He was a young man on the make and found a job hustling for some of the wealthy commercial families in Genoa, the De Negro’s, the Spinola’s and the Centurione’s. Perhaps one of the De Negro family’s sons stopped for a snack in the marketplace one day and was impressed by the moxie of the kid hawking cheese.

Over the next ten years, Columbus traveled widely in the Mediterranean for these three families, buying and selling, but always looking for his own chance. A common man of limited education but willing to do whatever it took, Columbus became an experienced sailor traveling on behalf of his wealthy clients and customers. Rubbing shoulders with these Renaissance elites, he learned the manners and customs of the high born.

And then lightning struck. Somehow this ambitious commoner marries the daughter of a Portuguese family so noble, that his new wife is cousin to the newly crowned Queen of Castille, one Isabella. In looking at the life of Columbus, more than a whiff of Meghan Markle the Duchess of Sussex comes to mind.

As with Ms. Markle, an ambitious young actress of dubious talent, Columbus had been just another young aspiring salesman seeking to make his fortune in the prosperous and cosmopolitan world of the late-Renaissance. But as the husband of a near royal, like Ms. Markle, Columbus was elevated to a different social level. Network executives, or kings and queens, they all now took his calls, went to lunch, invited him to weekends in the country.

For some 12 years, Columbus networked, promoting the idea of reaching the fabled cities of Asia by sailing west into the Atlantic. He spent that time with the great and near great in the power centers of Europe’s Mediterranean coast, as well as the London of Henry VII’s court. Lots of power lunches and promises of “We’ll get back to you”. But at the end of the day, no money.

And then the Year of Our Lord, 1492, rolled around. On the 2nd of January, the Emirate of Granada surrendered to Isabella’s husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. The Reconquista was finished, perhaps the most momentous event in the entire history of Spain. Nearly 800 years before, in 711 AD, Muslim armies from North Africa had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered the Iberian Peninsula. It was a lightning bolt, a blitzkrieg rolling over the Visigothic kingdoms there.

In a mass migration over the late 4th Century and early 5th Century, the Visigoths, – Germanic people originally from South Poland, had swept over the Roman Empire, bringing its Western half to an end. They were driven out of France in the early part of the 6th Century, but remained in control of the Iberian Peninsula. But then Moslem Berber armies from North Africa swept the remaining Christian Visigothic kingdoms into history’s waste cans.

Only two small Visigothic kingdoms in the north of Spain, Asturias and Navarre, survived the initial Muslim onslaught. These tiny mountainous kingdoms, Christian in faith, resisted. Eventually the invaders decided that the stubborn faith of the people in these two mountainous lands, coupled with their difficult geography, raised the price of conquest too high. Perhaps our own generals might have studied this bit of history before they invaded Afghanistan.

Instead the Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into France, invading Europe. The Franks met them around 150 miles SW of Paris at the Battle of Tours in 732. At Tours the Frankish armored cavalry finally stopped the almost irresistible advance of the Berber armies, marking the high point of the Moslem invasion of Europe. The victorious cavalry was led by Charles Martel, whose grandson Charlamagne, would found the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity centered on Germany lasting until the 19th Century.

But the Iberian Peninsula, isolated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains, was left to suffer under the rule of Mohammed. But beginning with those tiny kingdoms of Asturias and Navarre, Christian warriors in the service of Christian kings would battle to rid the land of its Moslem rulers for the next 781 years. This great struggle, lasting across 30 generations, was called the Reconquista, the Reconquest.

Like our tales of the Founding Fathers, the Pilgrims and George Washington, the Reconquista is the foundation story for the modern countries of Spain and Portugal. Their greatest hero is El Cid, a legendary knight of the Reconquista who lived around 1050 AD.

There was a time when Hollywood, in the days before Stephen Spielberg, made historical movies on topics other than the Holocaust or evil antebellum slave owners. One such movie was El Cid, a historical spectacle starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

Sixty years after seeing the movie, I still remember its ending. The Muslim army is besieging Valencia, a major city of the Christian Kingdom of Aragon. El Cid has been mortally wounded and is dying, the morale of the defenders is shattered by the loss of their great warrior leader.

True to the legend of El Cid, a dying Charlton Heston is dressed in his armor, tied with ropes into the saddle of his horse and leads the Christian army of Aragon into battle. Their spirit restored by the appearance of El Cid, they go on to defeat the Muslim attackers. I always wondered whether JRR Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings didn’t draw on the legend of El Cid, the great warrior of Aragon, as the template for his own great warrior, Aragorn.

El Cid died defending Valencia in 1099. The Reconquista continued, sometimes triumphant, sometimes defeated, but always continuing. With the fall of the last of the remaining Moorish territory, the Kingdom of Granada, on Jan. 2, 1492, the Reconquista was over. It was the surrender of Gen. Cornwallis to George Washington at Yorktown. Only instead of a decade for our War for Independence, the Reconquista, Spain and Portugal’s wars of independence, lasted 781 years.

And so the rulers of what had become a united Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, had completed the great mission weighing upon the Spanish people for tens of generations. And in this spirit of old obligations met and new opportunities beckoning, Cristoforo Colombo, met once more with his cousin by marriage, Queen Isabella.

As a result of his fortuitous marriage, Columbus had spent much time at the court of Portugal’s king as well, Joao II. But Portugal’s burden for the Reconquista had ended some 300 years earlier with Sancho I’s conquest of Portugal’s southernmost province of Algarve in 1189 AD.

But it was Henry the Navigator who drew Portugal in a different direction from that championed by Columbus. Henry was the third son of the Portuguese King, John I. Born some 60 years before Columbus, he used his station in life to search for a route to the fabled cities of Asia, not by sailing west, but by sailing south along the coast of Africa. It was Henry who sponsored expeditions to explore the west coast of Africa, seeking to round that continent and reach Asia.

While Columbus’ initiative to sail west to reach Asia was an interesting idea, Portugal had been exploring this southern route for nearly 75 years. Just five years before, in 1487, a Portuguese ship captained by Bartolomeu Dias had rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, proving it could be done. Only a couple of years after Columbus “discovered” America, the Portuguese Admiral Vasco de Gama would sail around Africa and reach India. Columbus’ ideas were interesting, but the Portuguese had decided to go another way.

However Columbus was in the court of Isabelle and Ferdinand at an auspicious time. The celebration of Reconquista made everyone optimistic, at the same time as Spain’s close cousin, Portugal, was on the verge of a historic success. The royal families of the two countries, and the nobility in general, were so interrelated that a marriage within the nobility sometimes required a letter from the Pope absolving the couple of the sin of incest.

Thus in Spain and Portugal, as in most families, there was a bit of competition between siblings – looking at you Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton. And so Columbus’ plan offered the Spanish court an opportunity to shoot the moon. Freed of the Moslem yoke in generations past, Portugal has been patiently building toward success for 75 years, leaving Spain trailing in the dust. Now Columbus is saying he knows a shortcut and can do it this year. Yuk yuk yuk – take that Portugal!!

Speaking of incest and the year 1492, that was also the year that the Throne of St. Peter welcomed a new Pope, Alexander VI. It so happened the new Pope was a Spaniard, a member of an influential family seated in Valencia. Before he was Pope Alexander VI, his name was Rodrigo Borgia.

Rodrigo Borgia, along with two of his children – Cesare and Lucrezia, raised the bar of corruption, already quite high, in the Papacy of the Renaissance to a new level. Persistent rumors held that both the father Rodrigo and the brother Cesare, in the Biblical sense, knew Lucrezia.

The Borgia family became so notorious that the pay tv service, Showtime, always in the market for a seamy story, produced a popular series about the Papacy of Alexander VI, The Borgias. It is said that JRR Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, drew his inspiration for Jamie and Cersei Lannister from the Borgia siblings.

As it happens, Cristoforo Columbo was no stranger in Rome, or the Papal Court. Let me see, Christopher Columbus, a successful developer of great ego practiced in dealing with corrupt governments awash in intrigue, malfeasance and conflicted loyalties. Perhaps I was wrong in imagining Meghan Markle, perhaps he is more like Donald Trump.

In any case, Ferdinand and Isabella give Columbus the go-ahead, along with a title, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. They granted him a substantial ownership – and his heirs in perpetuity – of anything that he might find – out there in the Western Sea.

In fact, returning to that long ago school room, the history we learned in the classroom says that Queen Isabella used her crown jewels to provide the money for her cousin by marriage, Cristoforo Columbo’s, voyage of discovery. As it happens, this is a somewhat embroidered version of actual events.

On May 5, 1492, four months before Columbus set sail, Queen Isabella got a loan of 1.14 million maraverdis (est. @ $4M US) from the Sancta Hermandad, the national police force, to fund Columbus’s voyage. You ask why did she get a loan from the police? The Sancta Hermandad was under the control of Queen Isabella and was at that time in the process of monetizing the confiscated assets of Jews expelled from Spain.

On March 31 of 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had issued an edict known as the Alhambra Decree. It declared that all Jews in their kingdom must either convert to Christianity or be expelled from the kingdom by May 1 of that year. Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 Jews were expelled and their property expropriated by the crown in the guise of the Sancta Hermandad. And so it is fair to say that the Jews of Spain financed Columbus, though not voluntarily.

We might ask why the 15th Century began what the history books once called The Age of Discovery, two centuries of exploration and discovery by the cultures of Western Europe. We are conditioned by the world we live in, the world that those men and women of adventure created, to believe that Christian Europe was the dominant culture of its time.

To be sure, the Iberian Peninsula had been retaken from their Muslim overlords, but that was really just a side show. An outside observer would look at Europe in the 15th Century and see an aggressive and powerful Ottoman Empire as the team to bet on. The Mediterranean was an Ottoman lake. They controlled all of its shores and ports except those on its NW shore, parts of Italy, France and Spain.

While the year 1492 is celebrated, another year in the 15th Century was equally noteworthy, perhaps one might say it the reason why 1492 became memorable. In the year 1453, only forty years before Columbus sighted the New World, the fabled city of Constantinople, capitol and last remaining redoubt of Imperial Rome, was besieged and captured by the Ottoman Turks. The city’s famed walls, built in 410 AD by the Roman Emperor Theodosius, had protected the city for over a thousand years, but they were finally breached by the cannons of Mehmed II.

Twenty years after the fall of Constantinople, Ottoman armies were marching down into Italy. The light of their campfires was visible from St. Marks Square in Venice. Venice only survived by agreeing to pay a very substantial ransom. But the Ottoman armies continued to advance into Europe. In 1529 the great city of Vienna was besieged. The Ottoman Empire was the superpower of the time and Europe was under siege.

But it was the fall of Constantinople that changed the world. Constantinople, or Istanbul, as the Ottoman’s renamed it, controlled the Bosporus. The Bosporus is that narrow strip of water separating Asia and Europe, connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. Constantinople sat on the European shore separated from Asia by a strip of water ½ mile wide.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, Europe lost its connection to the “fabled cities of Asia”. The great Silk Road, a collection of trade routes connecting the cities of China and India with Europe had existed since at least two centuries before Christ. It nominally began in Xi’an China, capitol of the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang and home of the Terracotta Army. It went through the present countries of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The fabled city of Samarkand was on the Silk Road, as was the ancient city of Merv, said to be the home of 500,000 people before the Mongol Conquest.

The ill-defined trade route stretching across central Asia trade between East and West had made fortunes for those who dared across the centuries. Shortly after the time of Christ, Pliny the Elder complained that the Romans were spending so much on silks from China that he feared that China would soon own the Empire. But with the loss of a Christian Constantinople, and free passage into the Black Sea, Europe lost its access to the Silk Road.

This is the backdrop to Columbus’s sales pitch. Western Europe had suffered the loss of its trade with China, a source of luxury goods underlying the fortunes of many great trading families whose prosperity underlie the flowering of the Renaissance. The Renaissance of Leonardo Da Vinci, of Michelangelo, of Johann Gutenberg was in large part possible because of the existence of the Silk Road an important part of that trading network.

The prospect of a sea route to replace the Silk Road was an enticing prospect. Even at its best, the Silk Road was a road nearly 4,000 miles in length. Goods traveled on the back of a camel or mule, being bought and sold many times. It was expensive, slow and uncertain. Even so, it was the source of great fortunes among the commercial trading families based in the Christian Mediterranean.

Imagine the profits to be made hauling goods in the cavernous holds of ships instead of on camel backs, much faster transit times and free of an endless string of middlemen? Bartolomeu Dias voyage around the southern tip of Africa proved the very real possibility of a direct route straight west across the Atlantic Ocean.

Columbus was a proven sea captain with the right connections at court and in the trading houses. Funding Columbus was certainly a risky bet, but it promised very great returns, financially, politically and in prestige.


One Response to “Columbus Day”

  1. Russell Kyncl says:

    A nice comprehensive history. I was surprised to learn this material when I was a Spanish major at CU Boulder. One confirming fact: I’m told 40% of the words in Spanish derive from Arabic.

    You could expand your comments on Shriner parades with photographs of the fez-topped Shiners putzing around in formation on mini-bikes and go-carts. That and the free orange sickles round out my small-town memories.

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