Congenitally Optimistic

Posted: Oct 08, 2009 12:00 AM
Congenitally Optimistic

Next week, we will celebrate the 517th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering America.

Much more complex than the rhyme we learned in grammar school that "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," the story of America's discovery is one of human ingenuity and perseverance.

The story goes back to 1453 and the trading center of Constantinople (current-day Istanbul), then the largest and wealthiest European city. That's when the then-Christian city fell to Sultan Mehmet II, who placed it under Muslim control and restricted business. The spice-hungry Europeans had to rethink trade. Their options were to either sail around the bottom of Africa or sail west to reach the Far East.

Neither had been done before, and both were risky, dangerous ventures.

Astronomers had proven that the world was round -- the assumption was that the Far East could be reached by sailing west. There had been no known expeditions to the west of Europe, however. The circumference of the earth was not known -- therefore, the length and feasibility of a route were undeterminable.

In the era of sailing ships, the safe shipping routes were closely guarded, very valuable secrets. When sailing away from the coast, they were literally sailing into unchartered territory. The greatest difficulty was managing the fear of the sailors on board. While the captain was nominally in charge of the ship, if the crew unanimously decided to change directions and go home, they could -- they would not only have numbers on their side, but also maritime law. Successful leadership required the ability to persuade as well as to command.

The need for a new trade route to the Far East provided Columbus with a way to finance his exploration to the west. Long enamored with maps and the idea that the Far East could be reached from the west, he approached numerous sovereigns with a proposal. If they would help fund the expedition, any newly discovered land would be theirs and Columbus would earn a portion of any profits.

King Edward IV of England was contemplating this undertaking in 1483 when he died. His death sparked a struggle for the throne, creating uncertainty for trade and commerce. This resulted in withdrawal of credit by banks and the avoidance of ambitious projects. Sound familiar? Commerce stalled, as did Columbus' project.

After years of pleading, Columbus persuaded King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile (later Spain) to sponsor his expedition to the West. Isabelle and Columbus were romantics and believed that they were part of making the world bigger and greater.

During his journey to discover a new trade route to the Far East, Columbus stumbled upon the West Indies -- and mistook them for the outlying islands of Asia. They did not provide the spices, gold or diamonds the investment plan had envisioned, so Columbus taxed the indigenous people.

When taxing did not work, Columbus transitioned to slave trade. Historians often gloss over his participation in the slave trade, cruelty and harsh rule over the islands. With his great discovery came great tragedy for the indigenous peoples.

The central theme in Columbus' story was what biographer David Boyle labels as "congenital optimism" in "Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Race for America," (Walker & Co., 2008). This was Columbus' strength -- his persistence in presenting his concept and his decision not to turn around when faced with near mutiny, but to sail onward for three more days, which led to the discovery of the West Indies.

"It was done with few resources and originally by a handful of adventurers on the margins of mainstream business and navigation," notes Boyle. But their discovery led to "gigantic intellectual and scientific leaps in the space of a generation."

For those of us occasionally overwhelmed, it may be helpful to remember that there have been times in human history when the situation was dire and the outcome could not have been imagined. Just keep in mind what human ingenuity and persistence can discover.