Commemorating the Lost Lunatic

A church sign not far from me reads, “Lost? So was Columbus. Read the Bible.” Thus begins a stream of consciousness that begins in ships and ends in trains.

FSM knows I have my problems, but I can be pretty sure I know what continent I’m on. And regardless of how lost I am, I’d as soon not become an apocalyptic delusional like Columbus.

Respect for Columbus is probably at its nadir. Not long ago, every schoolchild knew that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and proved once and for all that the world was round. Now we know that Columbus was one of the first people to decide that the earth was not round, but was pear shaped – or as he put it, breast shaped (he’d been at sea for a long time.) He was a slave trader, guilty of genocide and delusional, all at the same time.

We also know that the was an apocalyptic who viewed himself as bringing on the end times. He’s even done some horrible latin to convince people that his name translated to “dove.” His harsh treatment of the natives was probably driven by the fact that they wouldn’t make him rich – so he could fund another Crusade – and they wouldn’t convert en masse.

But at the same time, I’ve heard it suggested that only a madman would attempt the voyage he attempted. Magellan was also a bit mad, with a messiah complex towards the end. Hudson was so obsessed with finding the northwest passage that his crew finally mutinied and stranded him in the arctic. Great explorers, great lunatics.

Do we need the occasional lunatic like this to drive history? Granted, I’m sure most of the natives would have been quite happy never to hear of Columbus, but lots of us have grown fond of living here. It’s been argued that madmen like this are a necessity in order for a society to tackle the big, insane project that occasionally pop up.

It reminds me of the argument that historians like Stephen Ambrose make about the creation the the transcontinental railroads. Sure, everybody involved was fantastically corrupt. They set a standard for political and corporate corruption that has yet to be matched. But the job was so big and so complicated that no honest man would undertake it. Only someone looking to line their own pockets with shareholder money would start such a company.

I think the best argument against Ambrose comes from Richard White’s Railroaded. White pointed out that the country was not ready for the transcontinentals yet. The market wasn’t ready to handle the goods they shipped, the government wasn’t sophisticated enough the regulate it, the population wasn’t large enough to fill all the spaces being opened and the economic institutions that could finance such undertakings were still developing.

The result was that the transcontinentals corrupted the government, perverted the market, pitted city against city, caused massive ecological damage, forced natives off their land and crashed the economy three times. White suggests that the failure of normal modes of capitalism to produce the transcontinentals should have been a warning. The railroads should have been built at a later date as demand for them rose and the components became available.

So maybe that’s the answer to Columbus as well. Maybe the fact that the job required a religious zealot and madman should have been a warning. Perhaps if the new world had been discovered later, the west would have been better prepared to deal with the natives in ways that didn’t involve wiping them off the map.

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