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kottke.org posts about Christopher Columbus

A Catalogue of Lost 16th-Century Books

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 12, 2019

Catalog of Epitomes.jpg

Hernando Colón was the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus. He was also one of the great book collectors of 16th century Europe, having traveled extensively and assembled a library of about 15,000 volumes.

What’s left of Colón’s library has been housed in Seville Cathedral since 1552. The other evidence of the library is a catalogue, with epitomes and summaries of the books in the collection. But the catalog itself, called the Libro de los Epítomes, was thought to be lost, until it was identified in an unlikely collection belonging to “Árni Magnússon, an Icelandic scholar born in 1663, who donated his books to the University of Copenhagen on his death in 1730.”

The discovery in the Arnamagnæan Collection in Copenhagen is “extraordinary”, and a window into a “lost world of 16th-century books”, said Cambridge academic Dr Edward Wilson-Lee, author of the recent biography of Colón, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books.

“It’s a discovery of immense importance, not only because it contains so much information about how people read 500 years ago, but also, because it contains summaries of books that no longer exist, lost in every other form than these summaries,” said Wilson-Lee. “The idea that this object which was so central to this extraordinary early 16th-century project and which one always thought of with this great sense of loss, of what could have been if this had been preserved, for it then to just show up in Copenhagen perfectly preserved, at least 350 years after its last mention in Spain …”

Another choice quote from Wilson-Lee:

After amassing his collection, Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes, ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato, which Wilson-Lee dubbed the “miracle of compression”.

Because Colón collected everything he could lay his hands on, the catalogue is a real record of what people were reading 500 years ago, rather than just the classics. “The important part of Hernando’s library is it’s not just Plato and Cortez, he’s summarising everything from almanacs to news pamphlets. This is really giving us a window into the entirety of early print, much of which has gone missing, and how people read it - a world that is largely lost to us,” said Wilson-Lee.

What a wonder.

Rethinking American History on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2018

In most parts of the United States, the holiday listed on the calendar today is Columbus Day, which was designed to celebrate Italian-American heritage in America. However, there is a growing movement to replace the holiday commemorating the genocidal Cristòffa Cómbo with one that honors the original human inhabitants of the Americas, Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In the forefront of the minds of many Native people throughout the Western Hemisphere, however, is the fact the colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors. Generations of Native people have protested Columbus Day. In 1977, for example, participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America. And it urges Americans to rethink history.

Join me in supporting the Native American Rights Fund today.

Christopher Columbus is not worth celebrating

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 13, 2015

Columbus Day is to Native Americans as Uber Day would be to taxi dispatchers. Many schools and other institutions are off today. Vox celebrates with a rundown of nine reasons Christopher Columbus was a murderer, tyrant, and scoundrel.

Population figures from 500 years ago are necessarily imprecise, but Bergreen estimates that there were about 300,000 inhabitants of Hispaniola in 1492. Between 1494 and 1496, 100,000 died, half due to mass suicide. In 1508, the population was down to 60,000. By 1548, it was estimated to be only 500.

Understandably, some natives fled to the mountains to avoid the Spanish troops, only to have dogs set upon them by Columbus’s men.

The Oatmeal was less flattering.

Update: Here’s chapter one of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the first part of which concerns Columbus. (via @mathowie)

Shipwreck of Santa Maria found

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2014

A shipwreck believed to be Christopher Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, has been found off the coast of Haiti.

The evidence so far is substantial. It is the right location in terms of how Christopher Columbus, writing in his diary, described the wreck in relation to his fort.

The site is also an exact match in terms of historical knowledge about the underwater topography associated with the loss of the Santa Maria. The local currents are also consistent with what is known historically about the way the vessel drifted immediately prior to its demise.

The footprint of the wreck, represented by the pile of ship’s ballast, is also exactly what one would expect from a vessel the size of the Santa Maria.

Using marine magnetometers, side-scan sonar equipment and divers, Mr. Clifford’s team has, over several years, investigated more than 400 seabed anomalies off the north coast of Haiti and has narrowed the search for the Santa Maria down to the tiny area where the wreck, which the team thinks may well be Columbus’ lost vessel, has been found.

1491: the New World before Columbus

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2013

As a belated recognition of Exploration Day, here’s Charles C. Mann’s piece on the history of the Americas before Columbus: 1491. This piece blew my doors off when I first read it.

Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought-an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.

This article spawned a book of the same name, which is one of my favorite non-fiction reads of the past decade.

Change Columbus Day to Exploration Day

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2012

A group of citizens is attempting to change Columbus Day to Exploration Day. Columbus Day has always been a weird holiday, what with CC’s slavery and genocide and all, so this seems like a good idea to me. Maggie Koerth-Baker makes the case over at Boing Boing.

The logic is quite neat. Columbus Day is about one guy and the (actually untrue) claim that he was the first person to discover America. Inherently, that’s pretty Euro-centric, which is a big part of why it sits awkwardly in a pluralistic country. But exploration is inclusive. The ancestors of Native Hawaiians were explorers who crossed the ocean. The ancestors of Native Americans explored their way across the Bering land bridge and then explored two whole continents. If you look at the history of America, you can see a history of exploration done by many different people, from many different backgrounds. Sometimes we’re talking about literal, physical exploration. Other times, the exploring is done in a lab. Or in space. But the point is clear: This country was built on explorers. And it needs explorers for the future.

If you want to help out, sign this petition to Congress or this one to the White House.