What if the legend is true and St. Brendan of Clonfert and his Irish monks did discover the New World?
Would we be speaking a remnant of the Gaelic tongue, reading illuminated manuscripts in Latin instead of Elmore Leonard in paperback? Would our inheritance from such pious founders have left our society softer, gentler than it has turned out to be?
Suppose the Norsemen had stayed. They left signs of their presence, stony monoliths in places like Maine. Would we have inherited Viking inclinations? Would pillage be acceptable behavior -- generally, that is, not just on Wall Street?
Again, probably not. Which only goes to prove that H. M. Tomlinson was wrong when he wrote, in "The Sea and the Jungle," that the way things turn out can always be discerned in their genesis. You never can tell what will happen.
Consider Christopher Columbus. If the New World had been named with reference to Columbus' navigational skills, it would have been called the Lost World.
Some discoverer. He never even knew where he was. Until he died, after four voyages, he still thought he was in Asia. He blundered around the Caribbean asking the way to Chipangu. Take me to the Great Khan! The Caribs smiled indulgently. He thought he found the Japanese in Cuba.
The question of what might have come to pass in the Americas had Columbus never landed has not been asked much amid the arguments surrounding the approach of the 500th anniversary of the Discovery.
The revisionists are trying to persuade everybody that he introduced a cataclysm, nothing less, that he was bad juju. Indigenous people were wiped out by the millions. Africans were brought in and enslaved. The land was raped, the forests cut down, the atmosphere despoiled. What's to celebrate?
The traditionalists look around at all that has been built up: the great cities, the high culture, the scientific achievements, beauty contests, Velcro. They don't understand the cranky questions. What cataclysm? they ask. So we made a few mistakes. So we put a hole in the ozone. So what if the rain forest is a little sickly?
Is that a reason not to take the day off?
A new word has emerged from the debate. It is Eurocentrism. Did Europeans discover the New World? What about the indigenous people? Do their perspectives command no respect? Obviously, they came here long before any European. They discovered this part of the planet first. You would think that in these days of rampant multiculturalism they would get some of the credit for it, or blame.
Did Vasco Balboa discover the Pacific? If he did, what were the Japanese looking out upon for so many thousands of years? And the Tahitians? Talk about Eurocentrism.
Nobody seems to have had the curiosity to ask what might have eventuated had Columbus not come upon Watling Island early on the morning of Oct. 12 a half-millennium ago. Suppose his caravels had sunk in a storm, with all hands lost? Suppose the shock discouraged Europe from further costly expeditions out our way? Would things have turned out better for all concerned?
It is at least worth thinking about.
The pre-Columbian civilizations, without the Spanish interruption, might have gotten along quite nicely, advanced to the wheel, devised an alphabet, maybe even given up the practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism, all those barbecues at the pyramid. The Plains Indians in North America might have invented firearms on their own and annihilated the buffalo before anybody ever arrived.
This is not sour cynicism, just a necessary corrective to the prevalent noble-savage idealism that encourages the notion of the Indian as a being perfectly attuned to nature. There's little reason to believe Indian people, given the same technological capacities available to the Europeans, would not have used them as recklessly.
Which is not to suggest they would have used them more recklessly.
Columbus missed out
Still, maybe it's not fair to speak against the ancient Indians, even those who had unspeakable practices, such as the Caribs, who used to descend on their neighbors, the peaceful Arawaks, "to steal their women and castrate and fatten their young men for food." (J. M. Cohen, "The Four Voyages.") They didn't invite Columbus here. They didn't ask to be discovered.
Actually, the trajectory of their history was altered more fatefully by Hernando Cortes and those who followed than by Columbus. They Christianized the New World, Europeanized and Africanized it. They killed the old culture.
Columbus missed the best parts, even though the natural scene he encountered almost overwhelmed him. "This country," he wrote, " . . . is so enchantingly beautiful that it surpasses all others in charm and beauty as much as the light of day surpasses night."
But neither he nor Amerigo Vespucci, who later explored the entire East Coast of South America, ever saw its centers of civilization. "Everywhere it was the same: no ports, no cities. Naked Indians," wrote the historian German Arciniegas.
How were they to know that unlike in Europe, where cities grew on the coasts and by rivers, here they developed inland, in the Yucatan, in the Andes Mountains and on the high plains of Mexico. And what cities they were. Cortes, in 1519, recalled nothing in Spain to equal the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Francisco Pizarro had the same humbling experience in the Inca empire's Cuzco. It was more glittering than any city of 16th-century Europe. The Toltecs' Teotihuacan, a ruin today outside of Mexico City, was the world's largest city in the seventh and eighth centuries, long before the Spaniards came.
So there was a lot of potential here, and it is hard to believe that left to develop on its own it would not have advanced, become better able to defend itself had the encounter with Europe been postponed.
What might have been
In 1492, two powerful civilizations dominated the New World: the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru. Everything else, from Patagonia to Alaska, to the forests of the Amazon and those of the Eastern seaboard of North America, was primitive by comparison.
Thus it is reasonable to assume these two civilizations would eventually have made contact, begun trading, intermingling, stimulating each other, maybe even fighting. Expansion would have been likely: the Aztec into North America, the Inca further south.
They were good at mathematics (calendars and astronomy), engineering (roads, buildings, canals, bridges, terrace farming), and more important, political organization over vast areas. The Aztecs knew what the wheel was; it was evident in their toys, though they never exploited it. The Incas did brain surgery.
The American civilizations were besotted with religion, but also scientifically inclined. They were wrestling with the same ambivalence that obtained in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, and there is no reason to think the outcome of the struggle between superstition and reason would have been different from the way it was in Europe.
The prospect of a delayed, or even missed, encounter between the European explorers and the New World raises other questions: What would life have been like here? And there? What would we both have had to get along without?
Europeans would have been denied the delights of the potato, the exquisite tastes of corn, tomatoes and chocolate. They would have been spared the inconvenience of syphilis and the deadly pleasures of tobacco, but they would have been denied quinine for their fevers. They would have had no rubber for the wheels of their future vehicles. They would have avoided the curse of cocaine but been denied pineapples, red beans or chili.
Rats and cats
Nor would they have had the stimulation of coffee, nor known the beauty of bougainvillea, nor the perfection of the "Reclining Nude," by Henry Moore, who got the idea for it from the 10th-century Toltec Chac-mool, a sacrificial stone in the shape of a reclining man.
And what would we Americans have missed out on? Much. We would have been ignorant of cows, horses, pigs, chickens, sheep and donkeys. We would not know the taste of bananas, rice, mangoes, peaches, apricots, apples, pears, oranges, grapes (no wine!), olives, lemons, garlic, onions. We would have no wheat. No roses.
Sugar would be foreign to us (and possibly the experience of plantation
The Old World gave us much more: They gave us rats; but they also brought cats.
Also, had no one come, this would probably be written in Nahuatl.
The people on both sides of the oceans were enriched by the Discovery. It changed both worlds. Like it or hate it, it can't be undone. And it is a bit perverse to heap all the blame for the grief it brought upon the head of Christopher Columbus, without giving him the credit for the good that came of it.
It is not easy to honor Columbus. He was obsessed with gold and social advancement. He was inhumane ("They would be good servants, " he wrote of the generous, welcoming Arawaks, some of whom he kidnapped.) And he was dishonest: He cheated Juan Rodriguez Bermeo out of his reward for sighting the New World first.
But Columbus was more a force of nature than a man, and to blame him for all that ensued is like shouting at the storm that ruins your picnic. It is a futile gesture.