In 1492 Christopher Columbus got lost, followed some birds and wound up on some islands he’d never been to before. He came up with a plot to enslave some of the people he met there, went home and staked a claim that would be contested by Vikings and Bristolians and the Turkish president: he called dibs on America.
The idea that any group discovered a supercontinent inhabited by thousands of native people for well over 10,000 years has long been pilloried, but that did not deter the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Sunday, he said that Muslims probably discovered the Americas before Columbus.
“Muslim sailors reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus, in 1178,” Erdoğan said at a gathering in Istanbul of Muslim leaders from Latin America. “In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba.” Erdoğan added that he would like to see a mosque on that hilltop, too, but didn’t mention what Cubans might think of that.
That “mosque” in Columbus’ memoirs was almost certainly a metaphor: Chris saw a large and memorable bit of geography and waxed eloquent; a turn of phrase like this during the renaissance evoked something majestic and exotic, and Columbus was a man who liked frills. There is no archaeological evidence of Islam in the Americas before Columbus’s arrival, and though a 10th century historian tells the story of a Muslim navigator who returned from a western “unknown territory” with marvelous treasures, complete with a map showing a vague outline of a western coast shrouded in fog, the tale does not mean Muslim merchants beat Columbus.
As the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor points out, Erdoğan is probably alluding to the work of one controversial semi-academic, Youssef Mroueh, who takes the mosque literally and suggests that indigenous peoples’ words have Arabic etymologies.
Vikings are usually called the first Old Worlders to reach western shores. Erik the Red and his father, who were respectively exiled from Iceland and Norway for murders, reached Greenland. In 985 Erik took about 500 people, with farm animals and supplies, to settle Greenland, and his son Leif Eriksson returned a few years later, when the region had some 1,000 settlers. Vikings told a saga about Leif’s westward adventures, but it wasn’t until 1960 that archaeologists found evidence – halls, peat houses, ironwork – of 11th century Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows and Baffin Island in Canada.
But the Vikings may have not been alone among Europeans sailing west: archaeologists have found evidence that Basques, in pursuit of whales and cod, might have reached the territory the Vikings called Vinland. Journalist Mark Kurlansky, in his book Cod, points out that the Basques seemed to know all the secret cod spots, and knew how to salt and preserve food – meaning they could travel huge distances. In 1535, when Jacques Cartier “discovered” the mouth of the St Lawrence river, he found 1,000 Basque fishing boats already in the water flush with cod.
Bristolians couldn’t keep their mitts off the fish either. Kurlansky details how in 1480, Bristol fishermen saw the Basques bring in cod already dried, which they could not have done on a ship. An English official and merchant organized an expedition west to look for an island called “Hy-Brasil”, which they thought could serve as a bountiful fishing base. The men never said what they found, if anything, but they did start bringing back fish. In the 1950s a letter dated 1497 turned up in the Spanish National Archives, from an English merchant to the “Lord Grand Admiral” of Spain – presumably Columbus:
“The cape of the before-mentioned land is one found and discovered in other times by the people of Bristol and thought to have been an island, as your lordship already knows.”
Kurlansky writes that with purely commercial interests, neither the Basques nor Bristolians felt like planting flags, and may well have landed in North America before Columbus.
Russians also sometimes claim to have reached the Americas first, taking undue credit for migrations that occurred during the last ice age – over 10,000 years ago, when Siberians and Asian people crossed the Bering Strait with no glimmer whatsoever of “Russia” in their mind’s eye. This version of history – ice age migration followed by a spread south – was long accepted, until bits of evidence complicated it. Sites in Florida, Texas and Chile poked holes in the accepted timeline, putting people all around the Americas during the years when tribes were thought to be crossing the strait. Groups may have sailed from Polynesia to South America (a theory arguably supported by sweet potato DNA), or even from southern France and northern Spain to the modern US east coast. It gets very contentious, and could go back as far as 20,000 years.
Plenty of less empirically minded folks want to retroactively claim history today. A few fringe scholars suggest that pre-Columbian civilization “had its foundation built by Africans”, backing up the theory with the toxicology of an Egyptian mummy, by saying Olmec heads kind of look African, and suggesting that Aztecs worshipped “black deities” such as Quetzalcoatl (also portrayed as a gigantic feathery snake). One bestselling writer (decried by actual historian Geoff Wade) implies Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He visited America. Elizabethans took up a folk story about a Welsh prince to justify colonial claims. Nineteenth-century Mormon founders said indigenous Americans descended from Israelites who arrived in 600 BC, including one cursed with “skin of blackness”. Columbus himself used the allegory of St Brendan’s journey west to argue for an Atlantic voyage. Everybody has always wanted in.
But oddly the man whose name stuck on the place rarely enters the discussion. Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian chief navigator for Spain, traveled south along the coast of South America – still hoping to find a way round to Asia – and mapped both the coast and the stars along his way. Finding that the maps differed radically from Asia, he proved to Europeans that the continent must be a wholly separate landmass. With that demonstration he quietly won the war for America’s nominal discovery.
"The Guardian," November 17, 2014