Did Columbus discover America? The story we know today is that he did. But what if the truth were different? What if Columbus never set foot on American soil? What might the continent have looked like today, and what consequences would those changes be for our sense of who we are as a nation?
For many Americans, the march from Jamestown to Washington is an introductory history lesson they learn in school. Thanks mainly to the efforts of Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer, and navigator, this country has a much more complicated relationship with the Americas than we’re often led to believe.
Where did that “New World” come from if Columbus didn’t discover America? Did Europeans later discover it? Was it populated by animals entirely different from those in Europe? To answer these questions, we first have to look at how modern society sees its relationship with the rest of the world.
America and the World Before Columbus
Some context. We know quite a bit about how the world looked before Europeans arrived, largely thanks to the work of PhDs and field researchers. Mark Lynas, an ecologist, said that quite a few of the core features of the modern world, such as the separating of land into different continents, the presence of animals and plants with unique characteristics, and the idea of a single overarching continent, came about as a direct result of the European colonization of the Americas.
The most widely accepted theory about how and when humans first settled the Americas is that humans first journeyed to the New World via the Mediterranean and that the first Europeans to make contact with Native Americans, at least in this sense, were the Phoenicians.
Columbus, Spain, and Europe
There are many ways to look at this. While many of the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas, such as Christopher Columbus and the crew of the Niña, sailed westward, the vast majority of the Europeans who followed continued on their traditional path, going eastward. The lands east of the Atlantic Ocean, including present-day Russia, China, and parts of South Asia, were all part of the “Old World,” as it was known to the people of Europe.
However, in 1492, when the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean and reached the “New World,” he was part of a fleet of about a thousand European settlers, explorers, and officials, many of them members of the Portuguese Order of Christ.
America and the World After Columbus
It’s important to note that, while the rest of the world saw a lot of change after the discovery of the New World, America itself didn’t see much change. The original Jamestown settlement remained a small fishing village, and only after years of struggle did the English succeed in establishing a Jamestown-like town on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
In many ways, America had become much different by the time of Columbus’s first voyage. Consider:
- European diseases had nearly wiped out Native American populations on the eastern seaboard of North America, so they lost the opportunity for a quick and cheap entry into a new world.
- Most European-introduced plants and animals had either been exterminated or driven to extinction, so there was no way to adapt to new conditions quickly.
- The indigenous population of the Americas had diverged from the European lineage more than 50,000 years earlier, so the cultural influences on American life could not be easily transferred.
America’s Place in World History
Depending on your point of view, we could argue that American history is either a long and glorious list of accomplishments or a series of failures, blunders, and misadventures. In any case, it’s a fascinating story, full of important lessons for today.
America and the Rest of the World
Despite what you might’ve been told as a child, there was much more to the New World than the Americas. Two separate continents – two hemispheres connected by a bridge of land called “the zone of separation” – eventually became one country, two states, and three co-equal sovereign nations.
During the Age of Discovery, the “New World” was not just a name applied to the Americas. It was an economic and political concept with real consequences for the rest of world history.
Columbus and Why This Topic Matters
By the time Columbus set sail in 1492, European exploration and colonization had been going on for hundreds of years. During that time, various European countries claimed ownership of parts of the “Old World,”, particularly what is now called Africa. However, one central sticking point was the owner of lands in the “New World.”
Both Spain and Portugal were interested in the lucrative trade that might result from possessing new territories. Still, each was willing to share the ownership of those territories with the other country. In the end, however, the Columbian discoveries changed all that.
The Far Side of the Coin: What if Columbus Was Wrong?
Even though very different species populated the world to those living on the American continents, some species had travelled from Asia to North America and were scattered by the Europeans. Among the plants, animals, and trees that welcomed Columbus on his arrival in 1492 were varieties that still live in Asia today. The tulip and the jasmine are two well-known examples.
What Would Happen If Columbus Never Found America?
Even if all of that were to change, the results of an “America without Columbus” would be somewhat different. In many ways, the country would be a lot like the United Kingdom, with a different language, different government, and a different history.
The Myth of Europe Discovered by Columbus
For most of human history, the western coast of Europe was virtually uninhabited. The Old World was filled with Pagan and Orthodox cultures, except for a few spots in western and southern Europe. At the time of European contact, much of the rest of the world was little more than a series of Barbarossa leviathans wreaking havoc in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
European travellers went to America with the preconceived notion that they had discovered a “new world,” which they called “America.” The “New World” was perceived as an entirely different planet, with a different climate, different flora and fauna, and different people. However, the fact remains that the Americas remained utterly out of bounds for much of the first two and a half centuries after Columbus’ voyage.
So, What If Columbus Never Discovered America?
The discovery of the New World would, in all likelihood, have led to an enduring expansion of European power. Even if Columbus never set foot in America, the Spanish Empire would have quickly spread its influence throughout the Western hemisphere. The southern tip of Africa, for example, would have become an important stepping stone on the way to India.
If Europe never found America, then Africa’s place in world history would have been very different. In this scenario, the Black Plague, which had all but wiped out the population of Europe, would never have reached the New World. Instead of the Native American population being exterminated by European diseases, as happened, the opposite would have happened. Europeans would have quickly learned about the diseases and horror to come, and they would have judiciously protected the Americas from outsiders.
Columbus’s daring, if not foolhardy, actions would almost certainly never have been achieved without the inspiration and support of the Holy Roman Emperor, Habsburg, who funded the expedition. The world would have been very different if Columbus’s daemon, rapaciousness, and audacity, were instead channelled into a more constructive spirit. In this scenario, the West would have eventually achieved world dominance, with the Habsburg Empire ruling over the Islamic and Slavic world.
What If Columbus Found America, but It’s Been Changed Forever?
The “New World” might have remained unvisited by humans, aside from Columbus. The seven regions of the New World would have remained virtually uninhabited until the 1500s, when the first European explorers ventured into the region. Just as the Old World was largely unknown to the West, so too would have been the New World.
The result would have been a completely different interpretation of history, painting a more racialized and imperialized picture of the “New World” and its inhabitants.
What Consequences Might Result if Columbus Never Discovered America?
Although the practical impact of a “lost” America would be relatively modest, the results of changing history would be profound. If Columbus never discovered America, its history would remain unchanged, with only minor adjustments to suit the new circumstances. The consequences of this scenario for the “New World” and its inhabitants could not be more different than the results that would have ensued from a “found” America.
The Myth of a Columbus Discovery
The “new world” that Columbus discovered would not have been the same “new world” we know today. The plants and animals that grew in the New World would have been entirely different, and so would have been the European culture that settled there. The indigenous population would have been exterminated or reduced to little more than nomadic hunters and gatherers. In this scenario, Columbus’s “discovery” would have been portrayed as nothing more than a grand hoax, with Europe cast as the villain.
Columbus and India
When it came to the countries where the Spanish explorer first landed in the New World, they were pretty different. Brazil would become the world’s largest country, and the “Indies” (as the British would later call the eastern portion of the continent) would become the world’s most diverse and vital continents. As Columbus imagined, the “New World” would have been very different from the “New World” that would eventually open its doors to European settlers.
Columbus and the Evolution of Western Culture
Finally, we come to the most bizarre scenario of all: the idea that Columbus discovered the “New World” as it had evolved. If Columbus had been the first European to step foot in the New World, the rest of history would have been very different. In this timeline, Columbus is regarded as the “discoverer” of the Americas and not as a European. The race is still on, and European dominance is only beginning. This timeline, which sees the American continent as having evolved, is the most conservative and probably the most implausible of the “lost” scenarios.
The Myth of America’s Birth
The myth that Columbus discovered the New World has evolved, with the geographic position of the “New World” changing over time. During the Age of Discovery, which saw Europe become the dominant power in the western world, the “New World” was perceived as a distinct continent with a distinct culture, a different climate, and animals and plants entirely different from those in Europe. The map commonly depicted during this period featured a three-layered structure: a topographic layer representing the lands.
What If Columbus and his crew had not been lost at sea, and what if they had survived? What if Columbus’s crew had managed to survive the winter and made it to the New World? During the Age of Discovery, the “New World” was perceived as a distinct continent with its language, culture, and wildlife.
Once the Europeans had settled in, the “New World” would have evolved into the North American continent, with animals and plants quite different from those in Europe. Once different species populated the Americas, the “New World” perception would have changed again. Today, the “New World” is perceived as the middle part of North America, consisting of the northeastern United States, the eastern Canadian provinces, and western Mexico.
The story of Christopher Columbus is complex and fascinating, but it does not tell the whole story of the discovery of America. The truth is that while the Italian navigator set sail in 1492, he did not discover America. Instead, he discovered a part of Asia already part of the “Old World.”
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