Friday, September 15, 2006

Ronald H. Fritze says that one reason most Europeans didn't reach the Americas in numbers for so many centuries is they didn't try.

The Norse tried, and they got there--founded a settlement in Newfoundland which has been found and excavated. They didn't stay because they didn't have the skills to beat the people who already lived there and because the climate changed for the colder, so their string of northern settlements, in Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, became much harder to live in and were abandoned.

The Atlantic is the roughest of the oceans of this planet. Many Europeans were used to the Mediterrean, which isn't even an ocean and is a much milder sailing experience.

So those that saw the Atlantic crashing away would think no way. They might think no way without ever formulating the thought.

The Norse tended to think of water as a road. Cultures tend to think of water as a road or a barrier, and the Norse, the Vikings absolutely saw it as a road.

And being up in the north of the Atlantic they could go from land to land, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland.

In the 1490's the political entities between European traders and the Asian trade were more together and more hostile to European trade than they had been in centuries. That, says Fritze, was the biggest change--not technology of sailing. Motivation. People who had been making good money trading with Asia found it much harder to trade across land so they started looking harder for sea routes.

Although technology made another kind of difference--not sailing technology, weapons technology. The Vikings who settled in Newfoundland couldn't consistently win fight against the local. By the 1490's, the Europeans had what Fritze refers to in explaining how the Portugese dominating the trade from India--better naval and weapons technology "and a ruthless willingness to use it."

The ruthlessness was presumably always there. The superior technology emerged beforethe Europeans tried to find a westward route to India and stumbled on the Americas and started to cut a swath of destruction that still goes on.

Fritze says the Atlantic could have been sailed sooner, as the Vikings did, if people had wanted to, but they were, without knowing it, saying, "Who needs it?"

Columbus knew there was money to be made in a sea route to Asia, and he brought to the search inaccurate optimism.

Fritze says all educated people knew the earth was a sphere. The controversies relevant to sailing West from Europe to get to Asia were two: How big was the Earth? How big was Asia?

How big was the Earth--one theory was smaller, 18,000 miles in circumference; one theory was larger--24,000 miles. Columbus liked the smaller theory. The larger theory was right.

How big was Asia? Some people thought it was about as big as it is. Some thought it was a lot bigger than it is. Columbus chose bigger.

So with the Earth smaller than it is and Asia bigger than it is, getting from the coast of Europe to the coast of Asia seemed doable to Columbus. Those who didn't buy his theory weren't flat Earthers--they were people who believed accurate theories about the size of the Earth and of Asia.

For Columbus, Asia was always the right answer, the accurate answer. He thought the islands he first explored were off Asia. All the local people who directed him to Cuba told him it was a big island, but he kept believing Cuba was the mainland of Asia.

On Columbus' fourth voyage, he told his crew that anyone who said that what they were exploring was something other than Asia would have his tougue cut out.

Speaking of brutality, Fritze says something interesting about Juan Ponce de Leon's trip to Florida. He was believed to be and usually still is the first European to go there. He went in 1513, 21 years after Columbus' first voyage. When de Leon landed in Florida, he and his crew were instantly attacked. That was the first time in 21 years of extensive exploration of the islands and the coasts of Central and South America, that the people who lived there attacked the Europeans right away, at first contact.

Fritze says, "The hostility may have been a product of earlier, unrecorded Spanish slaving raids."

I'd like it if we could knock it off with the vicious. Are we really trying to? Is there a way to somewhere else that is right there if we try? It might not be as physically difficult as sailing the Atlantic? It might be a short mental trip we keep not making because we don't know it's there to make.

There were many years that people did math without a zero, which is difficult. It massively limits what you can do.

Even people really good at math in those centuries couldn't see zero. They didn't know what they were missing. Real math wonks of those times would have been made happy to the max by finding zero, but they didn't. They didn't even see a barrier like the barrier the people standing on the Atlantic beaches saw. The barrier stopped them from knowing there was a barrier.

There's a good history of math called "From One to Zero." It took a long time to make that journey, from the idea and practice and counting to the amazing powers of understanding and fun that having zero leads to.

I wonder what we are missing now. The roads we see as barriers. The barriers we don't see at all. The squiggle of notation that would make many things easier and many things possible that weren't possible before.

The barriers that mean if we notice new people, places, and things we are likely to destoy them. Or the people most likely to notice are most likely to destroy. I'd just love to get past that, to know how to deploy love to get past that.

There's a road around to the non-destructive place. that looks like a barrier. But it isn't.

--Ronald H. Fritze's thinking, and the quote, is from his book "New Worlds: The Great Voyages of Discovery, 1400-1600" In his book, Fritze uses language differently than in the title of his book. In his introduction, he says he avoids saying New World and says Americas instead. He talks in the book about exploration far more than about discovery. He refers to Columbus' "first Western voyage"--that would be the one where Columbus hit the islands between North and South America and had no idea where he was. And in that reference Fritze uses neither the word discovery or exploration. The book by Fritze is European centric, but more enclued to current thinking than the title indicates. Norman Davies in "The Isles," his history of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, talks about the Norse seeing the North Atlantic as a road that they could easily use.