Columbus and the Fate of Empires
Chris Columbus doesn’t get the respect he used to. America celebrates Columbus Day without enthusiasm. Celebration these days consists less of revelry than rest. Our local schools didn’t even bother to rest. They used the holiday to make up time lost to hurricanes.
Schools today are more interested in Columbus’ appalling political incorrectness than his accomplishments. Students hear how rotten he was to the natives. Let’s face it, he was rotten to the natives.
He came looking for gold. When he didn’t find any he contented himself with selling the locals into slavery. It diminishes his achievement in our enlightened age of racial hypersensitivity. He was simply a man of his times and a great explorer never the less.
For better or worse, his discovery, combined with dramatic technological advances, changed the course of history.
Columbus discovered the New World because he was dead wrong. He underestimated the circumference of the earth by thousands of miles. It is a literary myth that 15th century navigators thought the world was flat. Sailors knew the world was a globe. It was obvious to anyone who had seen a tall ship approach from a distance. What was in doubt was just how big the globe was.
Columbus thought Asia was 2,500 miles west of the Azores. He was way wrong. It’s one of the reasons he had such a hard time finding backers for his voyage. The prevailing idea, the correct one, was that it was over 10,000 miles to Asia. Everyone thought the distance consisted entirely of open sea. Everyone knew you couldn’t carry enough food or water to sail that far.
Through persistence and luck Columbus finally found a backer and stumbled upon New World. His discovery jump-started the Spanish Empire that would dominate Europe and South America for three hundred years.
As the Spanish colonized the Americas they sent back shiploads of gold and silver to Spain. The Spaniards began to think like modern Americans. They felt like they had all the money in the world. It seemed to them the rest of the world should be just like they were.
Mountains of gold, firearms and the printing press changed the 16th century world as much as paper money, nuclear weapons, and computers changed the modern world. The arrival in Europe of thousands of tons of gold and silver, the only money of the time, caused a tremendous inflation. Prices tripled in 100 years. In the 20th century prices increased by a factor of 20. Inflation is easier with modern technology.
Like 20th century America, 16th century Spain was at war almost constantly. Like America in a world on the Dollar Standard, the Spanish had so much easy money they could even afford to lose a war now and then. The defeat of their mighty Spanish Armada hardly disturbed the empire.
The Spanish army, a rainbow coalition of professional soldiers not unlike the U.S. Army, dominated the battle fields of Europe with the superior technology of the tercio, or Spanish Square. The tercio was a battle group consisting of 3,000 heavily armored infantry pike men and technologically advanced musketeers. They were so fearsome that their enemies often deserted rather than face them.
Easy money triumphed. Technology triumphed. Military discipline triumphed. But conquests were still about loot and religion.
Even Martin Luther’s 1517 repudiation of the Catholic Church was inspired by a fight over who got the money generated by itinerant papal indulgence peddlers. Luther claimed it was faith alone that would save your soul, not chits you bought from the Pope. He threatened Catholic market dominance. Spain’s Catholic king called Luther on the carpet before the aptly named legislative body, the Diet of Worms, but Luther wouldn’t budge.
Like modern judges interpreting the law, the Church warned Christians “Don’t try this at home. Only trained professionals can interpret the Word of God.” While Luther was in hiding from the king of Spain he translated the Word of God into German and proved the Church was wrong.
You could read the Bible just fine at home, and understand it too, without the help of a priest. And because of the media revolution begun by the newly invented printing press, someone with less money than a bishop could afford to own a Bible. The internet is bringing about a similar information revolution today, simplifying legal and historical research and providing news alternatives to big media.
The subsequent popular uprisings against authority appalled Luther but were the unintended consequences of his work. Luther was like a Chinese refugee from Tiananmen Square publishing freedom pamphlets on the internet. Before he knew it walls were coming down and former politicians were looking for honest work.
Spain ran through her fortune eventually. She ended up on the rocks of debt, as empires do. Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 and put his brother on the throne. The colonies in South America all revolted within three years.
It took a little over a hundred years for Spain to go from Columbus’ accidental triumph to world domination. Never underestimate what a persistent man with a mistaken idea can accomplish. It took two hundred years more to blow all the money and suffer ignominious conquest by the French.
By historical standards Imperial America’s empire of IOU’s, fighting our own Muslim heretics for our own oily loot, should have at least another century to run. The more things change the more they remain the same.