zaterdag 22 november 2014

So the president of Turkey just said a silly thing...

In short: the prime minister of Turkey claims Muslims discovered America centuries before Columbus. He bases this on Columbus mentioning finding a mosque upon arrival. Some observations.

Observation the first
Let's start with the most obvious point: If we're going to assume Columbus correctly identified everything in his diaries, he didn't actually land in America, but in Asia. And finding a mosque in Asia in 1492 is really not that special.

Observation the second
Perhaps the most persuasive proof that America was not discovered in 1178, is that the world did radically change in the century afterward.
Columbus' journeys began the Columbian Exchange, which introduced American crops to the Old World, with drastic consequences for the entire globe. Within 100 years every corner of Eurasia was dealing with widespread tobacco addiction. Within 300 the world population had doubled thanks to the introduction of crops such as the potato, sweet potato, maize, tomato, cassava and others. In addition to this, the discovery directly lead to increased European overseas expansion, the first European colonial empires and the Transatlantic slave trade.

Most tellingly: there were still empires in the Americas when Columbus arrived. Even if any pre-Columbian Old Worlders that ended up in America had been completely peaceful, Old World germs should've razed the American civilizations, like they did after the European discoveries. 
So Muslim sailors being blown off course and glimpsing the Brazillian coast prior to Columbus? I can believe that. That's how the Portuguese discovered the place after all. But them actually going there regularly, converting people and building a mosque? If they had done that, sadly there wouldn't have been many people left to convert after a century. North African Muslims carry the same germs as South European Christians.

Observation the third
I can see why people would want to claim Columbus for their nation/religion/culture/whatever. His discovery is one of the biggest turning points in history. But without that hindsight, was he really someone you want to associate yourself with?

Our current image of an explorer as a Captain Kirk-like figure who boldly goes where no man has gone before is profoundly influenced by Columbus and those who followed in his wake. However, if you read a bit more about explorers in general (I can recommend Felipe Fernández-Armesto's book Pathfinders) you'll see that most of them were more cautious. Sailing was expensive and dangerous, so they only sailed to places where they had a very good chance of finding something worthwhile. And if they did set out into the unknown, they usually sailed against the wind and oceanic currents. Which makes sense if you think about it: if you don't find anything, at least you'll quickly be home again.

Columbus was a weirdo in this respect. He just really wanted to discover something. Originally he was trying to get funding for journeys that would look for more islands in the Canaries archipelago, or to discover the antipodes. Nobody was interested. Only when he changed his aim to find a new path to the riches of the Indies did the rich and mighty of Europe perk up. But then he still had a problem. Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference of the world way back in the third century BC. This, combined with estimates of the size of Eurasia made by Ptomely in the second century AD, proved that the distance between Europe and China was far to great to cross with 15th century technology. But luckily for Columbus, in his time there was some confusion over the measurement systems these ancient mathematicians had used, and a small group of people started to question their results. Columbus latched onto these theories, did some calculation and exaggeration himself, and came up with theory that the world was about 20% smaller than it was in reality, that Asia was far more elongated than it was in reality, and thus that he could reach Japan in a matter of days. For the honor of discovering the west route, and for the money and titles he would receive for it, he was willing to risk his own fortune, plus his life and that of his crew, on these false claims.

So... suddenly this heroic explorer figure looks like a glory hound, and possibly a lunatic, not to mention either a terrible mathematician or a fraud. The most positive thing you can say about him is that he was incredibly lucky that he accidentally stumbled upon an entirely new continent before he ran out of resources and drowned, like the only known previous attempt at finding the western route to China.

Observation the fourth
Remember that bit about explorers only setting sail if the journey is thought to be profitable? That bit is the reason why I'm not surprised it was a European who discovered America. Prior to 1500 Europe was the backwater of the international economy. Some time between 500 BC and 1 AD a vast trading network had materialized across the Indian Ocean and over the Silk Routes in Central Asia. This network ran from the Chinese Sea all the way to Zanzibar and connected every region in-between. From the seventh century this network was extended by regular caravans crossing the Sahara, which allowed the vast mineral wealth of West Africa to be incorporated into the system. Europe knew of all this trading wealth through Venetian and Genoese contacts with the Levant, through Marco Polo and through the Crusades, but they couldn't get at it directly simply thanks to their geographical location. And unlike West Africa they had no natural resources that could easily buy them in. This made the possibility of a direct route to China so appealing to Europeans.

If mister Erdogan does want to claim a geographical stroke of luck for Islam, surely "We were positioned so well that we didn't even need to discovered America!" is a better boast than "We accidentally stumbled upon America first!"?

Well, perhaps not. But at least it's more historically accurate!

Observation the last
Where on earth did mister Erdogan get the date 1178? It's so oddly specific, and it's not in the article he based the claim on...

I don't really have a conclusion to this article. It's just a collection of observations. But the general idea should be clear: please let politicians stay well away from any historical comments.

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