"When Worlds Collide"
by Kenneth Auchincloss
in "Newsweek" (Special Issue, Fall/Winter 1991, pp. 8-13)
No, Columbus didn't discover America.
Let's lay to rest
that old notion right at the start.
First of all, the verb's all
wrong for our multicultural, interdependent, ultrasensitive
"Discover" suggests that "we" went out and found a
strange and unknown "them."
If you are one of "them," you may
justly feel you are being patronized.
Then, too, it's pretty
clear by now that Columbus was not the first outsider to set foot
in the Western Hemisphere.
That distinction belongs to the
original human settlers, who probably crossed from Asia tens of
thousands of years ago.
Or, if we're not talking about the
aboriginal settlers, claims have been staked for various
"discoverers": second-century Jews, a Chinese Buddhist who may
have visited Mexico in the fifth century, the Irish monk Saint
Brendan, Prince Madoc of Wales and--most likely of all--Leif
Eriksson and the Norsemen who landed in "Vinland" in about A.D.
(All their claims are engagingly described by Donald Dale
Jackson in the September issue of Smithsonian magazine.)
But even if they did reach the American continent, none of
them made a big deal about it--which Christopher Columbus, in
1492, emphatically did.
He left European settlers and animals
behind, he brought native people and odd vegetables back.
told tales of rich lands and potential treasure.
He inspired a
wave of explorers and adventurers to head west.
In short, he had
That is why, 500 years later, the world still takes notice.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella .
.. the Nina, the Pinta and the
Santa Maria .
.. the excited shout from the crow's nest .
men wading ashore on a Bahamian island may all seem the stuff of
school pageants--simplistic, ritualized and more than a bit
But they also mark one of the great collisions of human
Imagine that a gigantic spaceship descended on our
planet tomorrow, filled with four-inch creatures of a color not
yet imagined by man.
That would perhaps be equivalent to the
encounter of the world's two hemispheres half a millennium ago.
It was as if scattered pieces of the human puzzle were
fitted together at last.
Parts became a whole, and life was
transformed in a hundred ways.
New foods reshaped the diet of
both hemispheres; sugar, cattle and pigs moved west, the tomato
and the potato, cocoa and corn moved east.
The horse, hitherto
unknown in the New World, changed daily existence for the Indians
of the North American plains and made possible the world of the