Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A world historic figure

Columbus Day undoubtedly celebrates a significant event in world history. If Columbus hadn't made his famous voyage, it would have taken the Europeans at least a few more years to find out that the lands to the north and west of which they were vaguely aware were far more extensive than they had realized. The result would have been to delay the dispossession and holocaust of the people's of the Americas, the mass enslavement of Africans, the destruction of the North American forest and prairie, the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and Jon and Kate, by a decade or two.

We are taught in school that Columbus was a genius who figured out that the earth was round, while everybody else thought it was flat and he was going to sail off the edge, so they all laughed at him. Actually that's not why they laughed at him. Sailors knew perfectly well that the earth was a sphere -- the ancient Greeks had figured that out and they had also calculated its size, quite accurately. Columbus's bright idea was that the earth was only 15,000 miles in circumference, and that's why people laughed at him, quite rightly. If he hadn't blundered into the Antilles, Columbus and all his crew would have perished because they were not provisioned for a journey of 17,000 miles. In fact they barely made it to San Salvador. So Columbus may have been a heroic entrepreneur, but he was also an utter fool, just an inordinately lucky utter fool.

The Spanish, on the other hand, turned out to be unlucky fools. Those Indians or whatever they were had gold. The Spanish thought they had struck it rich, as they hauled caravel after caravel laden with plunder back to the homeland. The result was not that they became wealthy. All they had, after all, was big piles of useless shiny metal that happened to be what they were using for money at the time. Money is only worth what you can buy with it and if you have more money and the same amount of stuff, you have not wealth, but inflation -- in this case a ruinous inflation that left Spain the most impoverished and undeveloped nation in Western Europe right up until the end of the 20th Century.

Columbus Day in the U.S. is celebrated mostly as an Italian-American festival, on the grounds that Columbus was born in Italy. An odd conceit, as Italy had nothing to do with his voyages, no interests in the Americas, and Italians didn't even start coming here in substantial numbers until 400 years after the famous voyage, plenty of time for some other European to have blundered onto New Haven.

But, it's a day off from the salt mines, so I'll make the most of it.

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