Yesterday America did what it does best, parades. Lots and lots of them. It’s hard to beat an American parade, whether it’s celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, the Chinese New Year, or Independence Day, with marching bands, baton twirling and expressions of love and loyalty to motherland, or fatherland, depending on your gender preference.
So with the focus on the USA this week it’s worth asking the thorny old question, was Christopher Columbus the first to locate America, and if he didn’t why does everyone give him credit for the discovery?
First of all, let’s sort out what we mean by ‘discover’. After all, it’s not like he found it down the side of the couch. There were plenty of people there before him. In the Eurocentric world of the fifteenth century you ‘discovered’ something when you were the first European to get there and begin the process of eliminating any indigenous peoples who had been around for the previous few millennia and had the cheek to assume ownership.
As is well known, when Columbus sailed out into the Atlantic in 1492 he was hoping to hit the eastern suburbs of Asia. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas, travelled on to Cuba and Hispaniola, kidnapped a few natives, and headed back to Spain to figure out how to exploit his good fortune. This is why America isn’t called Columbia, and the best the USA could do for him was call Columbus Day (12 October), and a few cities, after him. A later Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, figured out that what Columbus had ‘discovered’ was nowhere near Asia. He realised it was an integral land mass and won the naming rights – hence the Americas, north AND south are called after Amerigo. Roll over Columbus. I suppose Americans should consider themselves lucky, Amerigo could have insisted on the place being called North and South Vespucci.
Of course, neither of those peripatetic Italian gentlemen even came close to being the first Europeans to land on any part of the continent of America. There are numerous prior claimants, some fanciful and some proven beyond doubt. Let’s take them in order of appearance, or invention. Starting with our own St. Brendan the Navigator, the world’s most famous Kerryman. Brendan, a sixth-century monk, is reputed to have built a variation of a traditional currach and sailed westwards with a crew of fellow monks to what is described in an 8thcentury text as the Isle of the Blessed.
Until 1976 it was generally believed to be impossible to sail something as relatively flimsy as a currach across the Atlantic Ocean until the explorer Tim Severin did just that. Severin didn’t prove that Brendan had got there–the possibility that he reached Iceland is more likely—but he did demonstrate that it was possible.
Which brings us to the Vikings. Their ancient sagas told of an adventurer named Erik Thorvaldsson, or Erik the Red who became the first permanent European settler of Greenland. Obviously, he hadn’t ventured too far inland before he gave the new snow and ice covered landmass a name.
Erik the Red had a son named Leif, assumed to have been born in Iceland. Leif Erikson was as adventurous as his father and journeyed even further westward, to a place he called Vinland because of the profusion of wild vines and grapes. In the 1960s the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, and his wife Anne, an archaeologist, identified a site on the northern tip of Newfoundland which showed evidence of Norse settlement five hundred years before the voyage of Christopher Columbus. According to the Icelandic sagas, Leif Erikson didn’t remain long in Vinland, relations with the indigenous tribes of the area were not good, the Norsemen felt outnumbered and insecure and abandoned to settlement. Who knows, some of them may even have made it all the way back to Dublin in time for the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
The work of the Ingstads in uncovering the Viking settlement offered confirmation of the Icelandic sagas and the European ‘discovery’ of North America around the end of the first millennium. In 1969 the United States Congress conferred recognition on the Norse role in the settlement of North America by establishing 9 October as Leif Erikson day.
Which secures the Viking claim to have got there first, until such time as some enterprising Irish archaeologist discovers the site of St. Brendan’s first American monastery and consigns Leif Erikson to the dustbin of history. Should that come about the Irish government should immediately petition the United Nations for the USA to be renamed, West Kerry.
But did Columbus get to America first, with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in 1492? Not by half a millennium, that’s fake history.