November 4, 2002
7:51 AM   Subscribe

Am I the only one who doesn't think this is news? This story also showed up here a few days ago. (more inside)
posted by kate_fairfax (54 comments total)
I first read about Chinese voyages of discovery in a book published at least 10 years ago called "The Discoverers". Is it suddenly in the news because Columbus day is coming up for Americans or something?
posted by kate_fairfax at 7:54 AM on November 4, 2002

Boy, way to introduce a link as being fascinating. I guess nobody can blame you of NewsFilter. :-)

Besides, everyone knows the Israelites discoved America long before Columbus....
posted by oissubke at 8:08 AM on November 4, 2002

Columbus Day is the second Monday in October, so no, probably not.
posted by UnReality at 8:09 AM on November 4, 2002

"There has been a concerted effort to suppress the truth."

More like ignore it. We must maintain our icons. If we were to dismiss their myths and embrace reality, there wouldn't be anyone left to venerate, and we wouldn't have any holidays left.
posted by mikhail at 8:13 AM on November 4, 2002

Bah, you had Norwegians here in the year 1000. What's the big deal? Even with the Norwegians and with the Chinese, they didn't do anything about it. Columbus started the whole mad rush to the new world.
posted by Plunge at 8:13 AM on November 4, 2002

From the article: "... discovered America 70 years before Columbus."

Last time I checked, millions of people beat Columbus, the Chinese, the Israelites, and whoever else you want to mention, to North America.

Or, as a t-shirt a Mohawk friend of mine wears says:

Fuck Columbus. He was lost.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:13 AM on November 4, 2002

Of course it's not news...I've known about it for 581 years.
posted by Mack Twain at 8:15 AM on November 4, 2002

Well, the Vikings discovered North America in the 11th Century, and possibly by St. Brendan the Navigator from Ireland even before that - so, sorry for this guy, the Chinese still lose the "discover North America" race.

Excellent point, lupus_yonderboy.
posted by dnash at 8:17 AM on November 4, 2002

It may not be news to those of us who read on the subject. And maybe not to the bulk of Mefi denizens. But it is probably news to most American's that the Chinese had a robust and aggressive exploration effort in the early 15th century, and that there ocean going technology was probably a century or so ahead of European powers during this period. What I think is important here is not if the Chinese "discoverd" the New World per se (even if they did site it and make a small landing, it had absolutely no permanent impact that we have been able to discover, making this voyage less important that the landings made by the Vikings, which at least left in northern Europe's collective memory tales of the rich fishing grounds of the North-western Atlantic) but rather that the voyages illuminate two things about history and China:

1) It shows the danger of inward fascination. The Chinese had the technology to discover and colonize the New World. They willingly gave up this edge to pursue inward looking political intrigue, which ultimately weakened the Chinese and left them behind the agressive and rapidly developing European powers. This decision ultimately had the result of placing China and its sphere of power "behind" the European powers, allowing Europe, for the first time in its history, to outweigh Asia in wealth and geopolitical power, a balance that is now shifting once again

and 2) It's a physical manifestation of the of the power and technology that Asia once possessed, and a clear sign that there was a latent drive in Asia to seek power beyond its traditional geographic confines.
posted by pjgulliver at 8:23 AM on November 4, 2002

It's suddenly in the news because he has a book, and as the Yahoo article states, is "beginning a global publicity campaign" to promote his {ideas|book}. I don't know that it's front page news, but it's a kind of news, keeping in mind that news is the stuff that people want to read and there are column-inches to fill and surfing eyeballs to capture.

Previously discussed last year when he gave a talk to the Royal Geographic Society.

The articles are very heavily loaded. He's not "debunking" Columbus in any way, simply pointing out evidence that may suggest other civilizations discovered the Americas (not counting the Asian colonizers via the land bridge), which is an idea that is widely accepted among historians. (Similarly, the childhood idea that Columbus "proved the world is round" is also a loaded idea, in that it falsely suggests 15th-century Europeans generally believed the world was flat. Unfortunately, this is still apparently found in some textbooks.) Columbus provides the 'hook' for his story, though, and it probably attracts certain political stripes to pay attention to him.

Certainly the Cheng Ho treasure fleets are fairly well understood to have engaged in widespread exploration, perhaps to the east coast of Africa and the west coast of at least North America. Menzies is pushing the idea that one fleet actually circumnavigated the globe, which of course means that Cheng Ho preceded Magellan, who is not as well known as Columbus. All he really has for this is a map, which isn't really proof of anything -- the Chinese could have gotten the information from other regional travelers.

And can we get the fuck over this game of reducing history to arguments about who got here first? That's what these discussions always devolve into.

In the end it's a rather pointless exercise. Columbus is important to the history of the Americas because his voyages were the vanguard of a permanent presence by Europeans. The Chinese, by contrast, went through a political and quasi-religious purge which led them to destroy their fleets and forbid exploration. The end result of this choice is left as an exercise for the reader. Nor were the Viking or Basque voyages of lasting value.
posted by dhartung at 8:23 AM on November 4, 2002

Wow, I was going to say dhartung could have just said "ditto" to what I said. But, dhartung's polemic is much more elegant.

Wonderful dhartung.
posted by Plunge at 8:27 AM on November 4, 2002

If you are an American who went to high school and had a history class, you will LOVE this fascinating book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. No axe-grinding polemic, the author is simply a seeker of truth.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:27 AM on November 4, 2002

I think the Welsh are also trying to usurp old Columbus. Seems they came over and swapped some DNA with the Natives well before chris came knocking (Not that it really matters).
posted by shoepal at 8:28 AM on November 4, 2002

Yeah and that's why so many people speak Welsh in the America's now? I think the point of Columbus was that the Chinese, Vikings, Welsh, Basque or anyone else really amounted to much in the new world other than a few strands of DNA and some rotting earth huts in some Nova Scotia bog. Colonization on a mass scale by Europeans did not happen until after Chris made his round trips and came back with a viable voyage chart. Besides that I think I think that those folks that made those spear heads in Clovis, NM would probably take great offense about us arguing about who made it here first.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:44 AM on November 4, 2002

I really hate memepool-style obscure linking on the frontpage.
posted by mecran01 at 8:50 AM on November 4, 2002

if people can at least stop saying that Columbus discovered the New World I'll be happy. But I'd really be happy if we could get rid of the stupid holiday. Yes, let's celebrate a man and his starting the moving of people to this land which has almost destroyed it and the people who were already living here (and those we forced to sail here). What a wonderful thing to celebrate!

And where can I get one of those shirts, lupus_yonderboy?!
posted by evening at 8:54 AM on November 4, 2002

Wait, which one is this? Obscure linking, or Newsfilter? It meets the posting guidlines, doesn't it?
posted by UnReality at 8:56 AM on November 4, 2002

To answer your questions, both, and since it doesn't link to any web content other than a regurgitated press release on Yahoo!, no.
posted by JollyWanker at 9:09 AM on November 4, 2002

Cheers to PJGulliver and Dhartung for historical background and analysis on the silly "who got here first" question....I'm more interested in the long term political and cultural ramifications of the colonization of the New World.

In "Columbus: his Enterprise", Hans Koning provides a brutal retelling of how the Spanish treated the inhabitants they found in the "New World": the book has a numbers of reprints of woodcuts done at the time which show the Spaniards chopping the hands (and sometimes) feet off the Indians of Hispanola who were forced to pan for gold. Those who did not meet their quotos met this "justice". Other woodcuts depict these unfortunate indians herded, en masse, into barns which were then set on a decade or so, the original inhabitants of Hisponola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), estimated at perhaps 1/2 million or more, had all died off. To be fair, the bulk of these deaths were probably due to smallpox and other diseases - to which the inhabitants of the New World had little or no resistance - unintentionally brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Some historians attribute the very different economic development of Latin America and North America to, in part, the very different political cultures of, respectively, colonial Spain and Colonial England. The Spanish colonized areas of the New World developed similar degrees of the severe political, cultural, and economic stratification which charatorized Spain in the 15th Century. English colonial areas developed more along the lines of the far more egalitarian England. Thus the tendency towards coups and the use of military forces in former spanish colonial latin american countries.
posted by troutfishing at 9:12 AM on November 4, 2002

The USA really celebrates Columbus day. I have never, not even in school other than seeing it marked on a calendar. Unless observing the banks are closed.

A discovery of time deception has been discovered.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:32 AM on November 4, 2002

Yeah and that's why so many people speak Welsh in the America's now?

Hmmm, I don't think DNA and language spoken are that closely related, to be honest.
posted by ed\26h at 9:37 AM on November 4, 2002

I think the real importance of Cheng Ho is being missed here. The sad fact is that eunuchs don't have any role models. Now eunuchs around the world will learn about their proud history, and have a hero to look up to.
posted by putzface_dickman at 9:41 AM on November 4, 2002

Evening: And where can I get one of those shirts, lupus_yonderboy?! A local uni group had them printed up in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the aboriginal discovery of Columbus. Dunno where to get them now, but check out any powwow. I'm sure they'll have what your after -- or something even better.

As to the point of the relevance of the who-got-here-first debate: I agree with those who say the most important voyage of contact is Columbus because it set in motion the cycles of genocide and dispossession which resulted in the conquest and colonisation of settler societies. The attempts to debunk Columbus are usually, as in this Chinese example, just a pathetic nationalist project to prove that "we" did it first. Whoop-dee-doo, folks.

But I find the discourse of "discovery" to be offensive as it nullifies the existence of the hundreds of viable, vibrant pre-contact aboriginal societies. This wasn't empty territory Columbus stumbled across; that is the portrayal that has been adopted in the last 100-150 or so years to provide cover for the latter-day dispossession of aboriginal groups in Canada and the US.

Look, here's a fact: If it wasn't for the existence of some nasty microbes (and Euro immunity to them thanks to the overcrowded, filthy nature of European cities) all us inhabitants of the Americas would be speaking Cree, or Sioux, or Navajo, now.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:45 AM on November 4, 2002

"in the conquest and colonisation of settler societies."

Er, that that should obviously read: "in conquest and colonisation by settler societies."

Sorry 'bout that.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:55 AM on November 4, 2002

pollomacho "Yeah and that's why so many people speak Welsh in the America's now? "

The "America's" was probably a bad choice of word.

Welsh Speakers in the Americas

And the ones in north america dont speak welsh anymore 'cos the cowboys killed them all..
posted by couch at 10:07 AM on November 4, 2002

Thanks troutfishing.

Lupus....You are correct about the devestating toll that European disease had on Native American populations. In fact, traditional historical sources have probably underestimated this impact. For a thoughfull examination of the full scale of indigenous population and activities prior to the arrival of European colonists, read "1491" an article published in March 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately, the article is in archives, so you have to pay to see it, but believe me, it is well worth it.

However, to say we would be speaking Cree or Sioux (Lakota) or Navajo now is to be missing historical reality. Huge (if reduced from their peak) indigenous societies remained in Central America and parts of South America. These countries still speak Spanish. Disease or no disease, European technology, drive, philosophy and methods of command, control, and communication were sufficiently advanced from indigenous methods that European victory in North America was a forgone conclusion. (Though and interesting counterfactual is to posit what would have happened in Andean South American and Aztec MesoAmerica if disease did not play as large a role. Could these powerful and centralized states have defeated the first small waves of Spanish invaders and proved nimble enough to adopt enough European technology that they could have continued to exist as some form of subordinate state, much like China in the nineteenth century?)
posted by pjgulliver at 10:14 AM on November 4, 2002

I hadn't read about this at all. Wonderful stuff. Menzies apparently used Starry Night to develop his theory. Pooh-pooh-ers may want to note that some historians were characterized as eagerly awaiting the chance to look at Menzies' maps, which the articles note were published for the first time today (that explains the "news" element, kate_fairfax).

pjgulliver: a clear sign that there was a latent drive in Asia to seek power beyond its traditional geographic confines

A "latent drive in Asia to seek power"? That's a strange way to put it. What do you mean by "latent drive?" I'm not sure it's news that Asians share in the basic human urge to explore. And how do you reconcile this "drive to seek power" with the Chinese choice to focus on problems at home? Does someone have a good link about the Chinese decision to stop exploring?
posted by mediareport at 10:28 AM on November 4, 2002

I'm not trying to make any sweeping generalizations about Asians mediareport. Rather, I think a fallacy introduced into US public education is the subtle reinforcement by textbooks and teachers of the notion that in some ways it was preordained that Europe would conquer the world and reshape it in its image. That a long line of history, stretching back primarily to the Greeks (from whom we say we derive our science, philosophy, and governing institution) show Europe to be the vigorous force of questioning and exploration that one would naturally expect to "triumph." I was simply pointing out that this is probably not the case, and that many other societies had vigorous exploration movements, and that these movements did not reshape the world in the way European colonialism did may not be as much a reflection on supposed European strengths, but rather a reflection on the vagueries of history.

In terms of links, I just googled, so don't hold me accountable for the quality of these sites (I learned about these things in a college course on China.) Here's one, here's another, and why not, let's make it an even (or odd) three.
posted by pjgulliver at 10:46 AM on November 4, 2002

It's worth mentioning Jared Diamond's thoroughly brilliant and fascinating Guns Germs and Steel, which tries to answer the question, "Why did history take such different evolutionary courses for peoples of different continents?"

The book opens with the question of why Europe colonized America and not the reverse. Diamond also talks about the Chinese history you mention, pjgulliver, and adds another important reason: China was geographically able to be dominated by a centralized goverment, and so when they decreed that technology should be destroyed, that decree applied everywhere. European geography meant that Europe was fragmented, and so when one prince turned Columbus down, he was able to go and find Ferdinand and Isabella. This argument for the historical importance of decentralized power is still pretty relevant today.
posted by fuzz at 11:15 AM on November 4, 2002

It's a truly excellent book Fuzz. For those of you who haven't read it, do. One thing I really liked about it was that it is not all social science. Diamond is a biologist by training, and he examines other factors in development, such as the protein content of domesticated plants, which was much higher in Eurasia than in the Americas. I would also recommend Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. Though the book's main thrust is not why did some areas develop while other's didn't, I really like Wright's theory of critical mass and his discussion of how the expansion of linked population can lead to more and more memes.
posted by pjgulliver at 11:22 AM on November 4, 2002

pjgulliver: Thanks for the Atlantic reference. I'll go look it up.

As to your point, I do agree that the effects of European contact were different between North and South American aboriginal societies; in general, South American were more centralized, esp. the Inca, as opposed to more decentralized trading empires, like the Iroquois, in NA.

But I think that it's interesting and important to note that in all almost all of the initial contacts between Europeans and aboriginals, the initial aboriginal reaction was one of compromise and co-existence. This, along with the quick and brutal death toll from infectious disease, probably decided the matter before very long. The most interesting hypothesis I've read is The Conquest of America which argues the failure of the meso-American groups was a failure of intellect and communication; unable to correctly understand what was happening doomed them to conquest.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:29 AM on November 4, 2002

(sorry to keep posting post after post, but I'm really fascinated by this topic)

Has anyone read or discussed the theory of the differing political development of hydrological based empires versus non-hydrological based states? Essentially its thesis is that in areas of the world beset by either, 1) predictable flooding or river valleys or 2)lack of water resources that necessitate large irrigation works to sustain an urban population base, there is a large an incentive for a massive centralized state to emerge (along with attendant features like a large bureaucracy and absolute power vested in an executive) because only such a state could marshall the resources necessary to undertake the large civil-engineering projects necessistated by such environmental factors. And that such states tend to be more rigid and stifle innovation, as compared to the more limited governments that might arise in areas where water resources are both abundant and pose no threat. Its an argument used to discuss the difference in political development of say Greco-Roman Europe versus the Persian or Egyptian Empires. People also apply it in a China vs Europe setting.
posted by pjgulliver at 11:30 AM on November 4, 2002

I think its pretty apparent that had the Aztecs kings or the Incas realized that the Spanish were there to enslave them and take their lands for the next 500 years that things would have been quite different, but their cultures were far different from European cultures, why would they have any reason to be suspicious of a handful of Spaniards? Its as if an alien spaceship landed in Washington, why would we think that they would travel all that way just to kill us (but science fiction has shown us time and again...)
posted by Pollomacho at 12:00 PM on November 4, 2002

Concerning Native Americans: Despite Rousseau, the noble savage is a fallacy. Native Americans had wars, killing, disease and barbarism even before European explorers brought those traits to America. Natives in the North killed out many species; Anasazi, I believe, overfarmed the land; the mound people in the midwest were victims of disease from overpopulation and external war; nearly every civilization had destroyed themselves in Central America. Of course European diseases precipitated the decline in traditional native american society, and there were true atrocities, such as Hispanola, which was mentioned earlier, but to suggest that these were novel problems, problems not already existing among many native american societies, in ridiculous revisionism.

Despite the power of the Incans and Mayans, especially, no civilization in the Americas was an exploring civilization, or a very powerful one. The divergent histories of Eurasia and the Americas lead inexorably to the conclusion that one would find the other, specifically the Eurasians. Whether it was the Moslems (Ibn Battuta traveled as many miles as Marco Polo, I believe), the Chinese (with Cheng Ho specifically) or the Europeans (on many occasions).

I would suggest that the areas separating "civilizations" (in the sense that a group of people had both goods desired by another good and the ability to defend themselves such that trade was more probable than war) in the Americas was too great for intense exploration. Eurasia had a distinct line from England - Arab/Moorish Areas and African empires like Mali - Italy - Greece - Hormuz and Persia - India - Indonesia - China that forced nations to trade if they wanted to stay powerful.
posted by Kevs at 12:07 PM on November 4, 2002

Like pjgulliver, I'm fascinated by this topic to the point of trigger-finger posting. Diamond's theory is pretty similar to yours, Kevs, except that he adds the twist that it's easy for culture and technology to spread East-West because of the similarity in climate, but harder for it to spread North-South. Central America's geography goes a long way to explaining why its empires were more limited in scope than Europe and Asia's.
posted by fuzz at 12:26 PM on November 4, 2002

"Despite the power of the Incans and Mayans, especially, no civilization in the Americas was an exploring civilization, or a very powerful one."

What? Aztecs had trade routes running from Tierra del Fuego to the Great Lakes! Mexico was the 2nd largest city in the world in 1521! To say that they were neither exploratory nor powerful is ridiculous! Power structure in Latin America is STILL based in a Eurocentric oppressive bias! To argue otherwise is simply neo-conservative revisionism! The fact that they did not travel across the oceans and discover Europe or Asia first was only a matter of timing.

Sure they practiced religious and political practices that Eurocentric people would call barbarous and there were some spectacular failures, but I don't think anyone said anything about that. The fact that MILLIONS of people were slaughtered by the English and Spanish through disease, enslavement and brute force cannot be ignored regardless of if your think its "revisionist" to say so or not. Saying it didn't happen is like saying Treblinka was a summer camp.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:31 PM on November 4, 2002

(wow, I am really procrastinating at work today)

Pollomacho, I also think the outcome would have been enormously different if the MesoAmerican and Andean cultures did not have religions based on human sacrifice (in the MesoAmerican case, massively so.) Though the Spanairds did undoubtedly horrible things, I sometimes try to put myself in their place. I try to imagine what it would have been like to be Cortez. To make my way to the Aztec capital, and see before me a city larger and more complex than anything in Europe at the time, with giant aquaducts bring fresh supplies of water, a functioning public sanitation system (which no European city had since the fall of Rome) safe, beautifully clean public markets, etc. And then, at the center, in momuments as large as the pyramids of Egypt which I would have read about, I see brown stains. And slowly the horrible truth dawns. At the center of this wealth and power and complexity lies a horrible secret: this quasi-theocratic government murders, every day, every year, thousands of its citizens and its captured enemies in horrific sacrafices designed to appease Gods. How could I not look on all of this with disgust? How could I not assume that any people who willfully submitted to this type of religion and government were worthy of my contempt? What would I do? Simple. I would do what I have read my forbearers did. When Rome captured Carthage, a society that also practiced human sacrifice, it razed it utterly and sowed salt in its fields. I would do this, scatter the malignant power in the land, and, at the same time, I would be taking a kingdom, with all of its wealth and power. A fairly easy decision.

(The above is roleplaying and does not necessarily relfect my true views.)
posted by pjgulliver at 12:41 PM on November 4, 2002

(and Euro immunity to them thanks to the overcrowded, filthy nature of European cities)

lupus_yonderboy: actually the immunity to disease that you speak of had more to do with European domestication of, and close contact with, large animals. For example, cowpox mutated into smallpox and Europeans were naturally selected over thousands of years for immunity.(once again, credit Jared Diamond's GG&S for this piece of info)
posted by rbellon at 12:43 PM on November 4, 2002

Not only is this a bad post for the reasons JollyWanker mentioned, it propagates an absurd myth about history (as if we need more, what with Afrocentric tales about Greece and Egypt, looney-tunes tales of aliens building the pyramids, &c. &c.). Cheng Ho's expedition is well known, and it's also well known how far it got: to wit, East Africa. There's a good map here. Another medieval expedition, far less known (and rightly, since it disappeared without trace), was sent out into the Atlantic by the ruler of Mali around 1300; it's fascinating to speculate about what might have happened had it "discovered America," but that's alternate-universe fantasy. If I posted this, with its elaborately invented details and rapid transition from "difficult to prove" to "Africans must have arrived there on their own," to the front page with "Am I the only one who doesn't think this is news?" I hope I would be slapped upside the head.

On preview: pjgulliver, you might want to think about how fifteenth-century Spain treated its citizens (hint: think conversos) and enemies. Cortez didn't give a damn about anything except doing whatever it took to get all those goodies he saw for himself (and, secondarily, Spain).
posted by languagehat at 12:46 PM on November 4, 2002

Languagehat...first, your post has nothing at all to do with the prime discussion of this thread, that, while off-topic, is fascinating in its own right and drawing informed, interesting, and polite discussion (until now.)

Second, I was by no means trying to paint the Spanish as the good guys, and thought I had made that clear. However, I was trying to point out, as Kevs has also written, that any discussion is more complicated that simple a "black legend" brutal Spanish vs morally upstanding indigenous peoples argument. Even if Cortez's main goal was plunder, which I believe it was, how much easier do you think it made it to plunder and horribly abuse the natives because of the horrific nature (by our standards) of the religious and governmental undertakings of Aztecs (which then set a continuing stage for further destruction of the other major American civilization, the Incas)? If you look at European colonization and its admittedly abhorant practices, you will find that outrage, justified or not, at native practices often allows the colonizer to convince himself that he is in the right to capture, destroy and plunder the other. King Leopold was able to seize and brutalize Congo partly because he had a fabulous PR machine that convinced European elites that the Congolese were both cannibals and slave traders. Therefore not Leopold could paint himself as a civilizer and a force or moral correction, not as a plunder. And it upsets me when people only harp on what the Spanish did in the New World with no discussion about the horrors that had occured there before hand. Let us rightly condemn the Spanish for their practices, but let us also remember that the picture is by no means black and white.
posted by pjgulliver at 12:58 PM on November 4, 2002

On review, languagehat, I was a little harsh. Sorry, I just got out of a bad phone call and vented here...
posted by pjgulliver at 1:03 PM on November 4, 2002

If you read the chronicles of the conquest of the new world (Diaz and such) you always find many exculpatory passages, I told Cortez not to slaughter those women but did he listen? Why? Because the conquistadors knew that what they were doing was savage by their own standards. Killing and enslaving, even the children, burning and looting, it wasn't right and they knew it, but they felt compelled to do it, if not for the glory of the new unified Spain than for the glory of God.

1492 is not only the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but was the year Spain finished the conquest of Spain and began the inquisitions. Spain itself was a barbarous place in 1492 so one can only imagine what a bunch of greedy, rough hewn Extremadura soldiers were capable of on their own in the Americas.

I don't want to sound all revisionist here, but the Aztec and Mayan texts talk of captive warriors being treated with the utmost of respect and in the most luxurious surroundings until either being ransomed or sacrificed. Sacrifice was often not only voluntary, but was in fierce competition to prove the "victim's" worthiness. It is not known if the losers or victors of the ball games were sacrificed, but more recent examinations lead research to believe that it was in fact the victors that won the right to be sacrificed. As for the bloody cities, the chroniclers only tell of how pristine the temples were and how brightly painted, the only brown stains would have been in the back of their pantaloons!
posted by Pollomacho at 1:28 PM on November 4, 2002

pjgulliver: Boy, you sure know how to take the righteous indignation out of a guy. (I too just got a phone call, but mine was to tell me I don't have to do a fact check tonight, so I can just go have dinner and hear Tomasz Stanko without sweating over overtime work first. So I'm feeling expansive and benevolent.) I actually agree with you to some extent, but:

he had a fabulous PR machine that convinced European elites that the Congolese were both cannibals and slave traders.

Exactly, and thus it didn't matter whether the Congolese were cannibals and slave traders. Similarly, the Aztecs could have been saints, and Cortez would have invented something to make them deserve massacring and looting. (I don't know enough to judge the plausibility of Pollomacho's revisionism, but I like his punchline!)

Sorry for derailing the thread back to the original post...
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on November 4, 2002

One need not be either full-tilt revisionist (Give the Americas back to the Indians! Euros go home!) or manifest destinarian (Filthy savages needed us to bring them civilization!) to recognize that the colonization of the New World had many brutal elements, that the civilizations here were not inconsequential, but that given different circumstances things would probably simply have been reversed. I don't believe the history we know of the prehistorical American peoples shows them to have been Hobbits in the Shire. Nor was the colonization a particularly unique or new event. Study the history of Europe and you find again and again that Native Americans were not the first people to experience oppression and even extermination. Human history can get pretty ugly -- and people have been moving around on the planet pretty much from the first day they domesticated the horse. Most of Europe was itself "colonized" many times over -- Goths, Vandals, Mongols, Vikings, Angles, Normans ... And even if you assume an idealistic history, with no violent conquest or disease interfering, the Europeans would probably have kept coming and eventually outvoted the Indians anyway.

I do find it amusing that some of the same people who say it's bad for white people to colonize America also say it's bad for white people to prevent anybody else from coming to America. What is that if not colonization by drips and drabs? Shouldn't that same advice for an open immigration policy apply to the aboriginals?

A small note here is that many Americans probably have a homogeneous view of Latin America. But each individual nation has a separate history, and to this day you can see differences in how native or European different countries are, and splits between the rural Indians and coastal immigrant populations. And immigration has continued to Latin America -- the most popular man on Latin American television is an immigrant German Jew, and of course we've seen South American presidents of Arab and Asian extraction. Sometimes there's a tendency by Americans to overpoliticize these groups as fully representative of aboriginal perspectives. The influx of European immigrants to Texas is sometimes oversimplified as an American invasion of Mexico -- but Mexico itself had Europeans contributing to its development all along, and sought immigration after independence. In the pre-industrial era, there wasn't much difference between agricultural USA and agricultural Central America.

As for Columbus Day being celebrated, it used to be a lot more common, but you can still find parades in any modest-sized city with a large Italian-American population. New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and there was even controversy over one in Denver. But it's not a federal holiday.
posted by dhartung at 2:37 PM on November 4, 2002

languagehat: [This post] propogates an absurd myth about history...Cheng Ho's expedition is well known, and it's also well known how far it got: to wit, East Africa.

That's seems just a bit too certain, given that the data in question has just been published to the academic community, er, today. Last spring, Phillip Sadler, a celestial navigation expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told, "There's a definite logic to his analysis."

He added that the fact that Menzies had found celestial clues in multiple charts was a good sign. "The more stuff that fits, the better."

But Sadler wonders exactly what the ancient Chinese maps look like; a secret Menzies has no plans to release prior to the book's publication. "Everybody is waiting to see what this guy produces," Sadler said.

Let's at least give historians and scientists a moment or two to check the data before we dismiss it out of hand, shall we?
posted by mediareport at 2:42 PM on November 4, 2002

pjgulliver and fuzz: Funny that you both mention Jared Diamond's analysis, as I just came from a modest but intriguing article by a retired naval officer (and sea chantey singer) who critiques Diamond's analysis in interesting ways.

"Professor Diamond's thesis is perhaps over-simple," he gently suggests, before noting a number of factors he calls more important than unification, including "the completion of the Grand Canal as a more efficient and safer means of grain transport."

His discussion of comparative geography notes Spain's "eminently defensible land borders" as a factor in the emergence of its reliance on maritime tactics (Portugal too, I imagine, and Britain and Holland's focus on the sea is obvious). In contrast, China is "largely surrounded by land, with sea trade routes not particularly convenient, with most of the people far from the sea (the exception being the south coastal Chinese), and with governments through the ages generally disinterested in the seapower or ocean commerce."

He adds, "maritime threats were always considered secondary in China to continental or land-based threats," which meant that "the navy/maritime trade aspect is a luxury to be discarded" during tough economic times.

Again, fascinating stuff. I've always felt that purely materialistic explanations for large-scale cultural phenomena - whether from Karl Marx, Marvin Harris or, I'm guessing, Jared Diamond - tend to over-reach, but a lot of the ideas I've seen in this thread are intriguing. Anyone know of a good critical review of Guns, Germs and Steel?
posted by mediareport at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2002

"His discussion of comparative geography notes Spain's 'eminently defensible land borders' as a factor in the emergence of its reliance on maritime tactics "

Seems funny then why Spain and Portugal felt the need to contract seafaring out to Genoan merchants like Chris Columbus if they were so interested in developing it.

To say that Diamond's work is an over-simplification could not be argued, I'm sure Jared himself would have no problem with that, but he did have to create ONE book of what could take up libraries and still be an over-simplification. It would be impossible for him not to have simplified the events and factors that shaped history. The reasons and possibilities in history are boundless. What if Hannibal's elephant had stepped on his toe and he couldn't have made his ride over the Alps? What if Cortez had drunk some bad water on the voyage over and hadn't felt so well when they hit land? What if Columbus had landed in Miami in stead of Hispanola? What if fourth century Australian aborigines riding on reed canoes had established trade routes with the Incas? Fact is none of those things happened like that and we have now the product of millennia of human history.

On a different note Mexicans don't celebrate Columbus day per se, however they do celebrate October 12th as the day in which la raza, the Mexican race, was born out of the people of the old world and those of the new. Oh, and dhartung, one of the villages near the one I where I lived in Mexico spoke nothing but Italian, and had for a couple hundred years. The guys from the village used to have to come into ours to find girls because they were all cousins in their town!
posted by Pollomacho at 6:56 AM on November 5, 2002

Glad to see that this thread continued to get a lot of interesting comments.

Mediareport, I think you are exactly correct in your analysis of what we may call "the rise and fall of Chinese naval mastery." (Bonus points to whoever can identify where that slightly modified quote came from.) I think Diamond does have a tendency to oversimplify. When I studied Chinese history at university, the explanation we received was much more similar to the nuanced explanation you provide above then Diamond's. However, I don't think that means there is no value in G,G&S. Diamond took on an incredibly large task, essentially trying to explain the flow of global history in a four hundred page book. For comparison, it took Churchill 5 books of equal length to write about the the decade from 1930-45! (yes, apples to oranges, I know.)

dhartung, great points as always.

languagehat, hope the dinner and music was good. And yes, you are correct in that Cortez would probably have invented some reason if one didn't exist. But the fact remains, a reason did exist. The Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a scale that had not been witnessed in Western Europe. Remember, mass killing of civilians and human sacrifice are two very different things. I think Europeans of that period could mass killings to some degree as a natural resultof warfare. But sacrifice to appease gods? Never. I'm not saying that the fact the Aztecs behaved badly "justified" Spanish brutality. But it certainly made it an easier sell initially. And may be why the culture was completely irradicated and the cities razed, rather than being coopted by the Spanish conquerers.

I think a fundemental difference between European and New World outlooks of the period was slavery. The Europeans had long embraced chattal slavery as an economic tool that becomes available after conquest. Look at ancient Greece and Rome. Some of the most profound thinkers of the period (Aesop, Polybius, off the top of my head) were formerly free men, captured in combat, and instead of being put to death, were treated as slaves. And these slaves had economic value. They could be bought and sold, their labor enriched their masters and by and large the were allowed to pursue their former professions, thus conquerors maintained a skilled class of professionals from defeated land. I wonder how much effect the absence (I believe the absence, I might have the history wrong) of chattal slavery had on MesoAmerican populations. Its my impression that the bulk of the skilled population in areas conquered by the Aztecs et al were put to death. If you follow Pollomacho's logic above, the skilled populations actually COMPETED to be ritually sacrificed after lossing combat. So instead of preserving the skills and talents of a defeated foe you absolutely destroyed it. That must have had a huge effect on development of technology and philosophy....hmmm....I'm rambling.
posted by pjgulliver at 7:12 AM on November 5, 2002

It does seem a bit illogical from our point of view that the strongest, etc would be the ones killed, however, when being sacrificed supposedly has a very positive outcome, much better than living, it is easy to volunteer, just look at Palestinian suicide bombers for a similar logic. As for the Spaniards being moved to frenzy by the sight of mass sacrifice, I've never even come across an example of the Spanish actually witnessing a human sacrifice going on, maybe some sparse results of one, but mostly just through stories. Cortez's reasoning was conquest for God and country, not because he saw human sacrifices and though, "how barbaric" You are right that he would have killed them regardless, and did. I wonder what he would have done if Montezuma had said, "sure we'll convert, bring on the Pope!"
posted by Pollomacho at 9:25 AM on November 5, 2002

I think the Spanish still would have killed many people and enslaved others. But I don't think there would have been a wholesale destruction of the civilizations the way there was. I don't think the city would have been razed. I don't think the Catholic Church would have played AS complicit a role in the resulting horrors (though they still obviously would have favored the Spanish over the natives.) I think that the language and customs of the natives might have been preserved to a greater extent. I think that you might have seen some rump native aristocracy that survived.
posted by pjgulliver at 9:31 AM on November 5, 2002

Oh, and as for captive warriors: the captive warriors didn't compete for sacrifice, the Aztec people did! The captive warriors were either sacrificed wholesale or ransomed back. The captive peoples were enslaved and used as labor. The main difference in the Aztecs and Spanish was technology, even their religion had a central wrathful creator and a divine advocate savior who would return to change the earth!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:32 AM on November 5, 2002

But it's not a federal holiday. Maybe so but....

Columbus day was October 14th this year and the mail did not get picked up, nor was the Post Office open in Addison Texas per their sign. Trust me I had some explaining to do with my boss, so I know for fact. The bank never checked.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:12 PM on November 5, 2002

I think that you might have seen some rump native aristocracy that survived.

But the rump is the best part! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

mediareport: Oh, all right, I'll give them a few days -- but I want the report on my desk Monday morning! Seriously, I'd be delighted to be proven wrong, but this just sets off my bullshit detector, especially things like "a secret Menzies has no plans to release prior to the book's publication." But we shall see. The Chinese stuff is fascinating; tell me, do you (or pjgulliver) have any thoughts on Mark Elvin's The Pattern of the Chinese Past, a book that was groundbreaking 30 years or so ago? I haven't kept up with the field...

pjgulliver: The dinner was good (Tunisian, a bit overpriced), but the music was great -- I urge everyone to run out and by the CD whose music they were playing, The Soul of Things. (The hall was packed, and 90% of the audience was Polish, which was fun to eavesdrop on at intermission.) Thanks for asking!
posted by languagehat at 5:49 PM on November 5, 2002

I haven't kept up with the field

Hell, I hadn't *heard* of the field before this thread, as I mentioned in my first post above. It was a blast exploring and pondering the links here, though.
posted by mediareport at 12:51 AM on November 7, 2002

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