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.

  • Mark the Pilgrim

    Money and the promise of more money appears to drive these sort of discoveries. Which isn’t a bad thing itself, but like you said, without regulation by economic institutions and governments there is large scope for corruption and exploitation. For example, look at what is going on with the Congo: since the mid-1980s-1990s they have been having many companies and individuals going into the Congolese interior and extracting resources (e.g. diamonds). But due to the unregulated nature of it (and based on the fact that they have had a string of recent civil and foreign wars), there are many reports of inadequate working conditions, slavery and numerous human rights violations.

  • uu4077

    “the failure of normal modes of capitalism”? That was/is the normal mode of capitalism – “greed is good” and all that. The financial crisis of 2008 was the normal mode of capitalism. If capitalism is to benefit the majority it must be controlled – regulated. Otherwise, in its natural state it benefits only the very few, at the expense of the many.

    • blotonthelandscape

      So “greed is good”, often attributed to capitalism, is actually not a maxim of capitalism per se, but actually a simplistic reading of neo-classical/rationalist economics, which these days is a little out-of-vogue (unless you work in a bank). Capitalism is also a core part of Keynesian economics, which explicitly calls for market regulation.

      Otherwise, yes, unregulated capitalism would, as you say, “benefit only the very few, at the expense of the many.” Free-marketeers don’t have their heads screwed on straight.

  • Francesco

    Actually Colombo, (the italian translation of Columbus) means litterally “dove”

  • vasaroti

    We don’t need madmen to stimulate discovery; any sort of large or small mistake will do. For example, the communal mistake of the Hubble telescope mirror led to useful advances in optics and computer imaging.

  • machintelligence

    The problem with waiting until you are “ready” to do something is that someone else who was equally unready will already have done it, and you will be left standing in their dust. The technology and control systems were borderline adequate for putting astronauts on the moon in the 1960′s. It was tremendously expensive and dangerous, but we did it anyway. It did have the useful side effects of spurring technological development and diverting rocket technology from ICBM’s to the space race.

  • smrnda

    Sometimes attempting to bring out a technology before it’s time ends in disaster. I think a bit about the dot com bust and given that I work in start-ups now, a big reason why companies succeed now who couldn’t have in the past is the existence of mobile devices that creates a market that didn’t exist before.

    The problem with the pursuit of money is that pursuing money can create these things called ‘externalities’ that libertarian economists like to ignore. You can build a great railroad but at a huge cost to many other people. Y0u can cash in on your African diamond mind while destroying people’s bodies through slave labor and destabilizing the region politically, creating corruption and violence.

  • Daedelus

    Yes, maybe if they had waited until they understood the causes of disease and had cures for some of the ones that actually killed off most of the indigenous populations…

    • JohnMWhite

      By using actually I assume you’re trying to minimise the role of Columbus in murdering, torturing and violently converting lots and lots of natives. Too bad – that diseases from Europeans did most of the damage doesn’t wash his sins away in the slightest.

  • PsiCop

    Re: “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.”

    This makes a bit of sense … at least intuitively. As a whole, people tend to do what’s familiar. They change things only when they’re forced to, and even then tend to go about that change gradually. Suddenly shifting gears in a dramatic fashion requires someone who’s not straitjacketed by the inertia of “tradition” and familiarity. People like this tend to be eccentric, “crackpots,” etc. It certainly not hard to imagine that it took a wingnut freak to attempt the first transoceanic voyage.

    Having said that … whether or not this is objectively demonstrable, is another matter entirely. There are exceptions to the rule I stated above, I’m sure. One that comes to mind is the long process by which Polynesians settled some far-flung Pacific islands & archipelagos. They did have an old tradition of exploration which surged periodically and triggered some long journeys, a process that repeated itself over quite a long span of time.