Originally written in 2013, this is the final chapter in a three-part installment on Christopher Columbus beginning with The Other Explorers and Hunting Prestor John in the End Times. This post ponders how the destruction of the Americas, and the accompanying legacies of colonialism and slavery, help shape the fears of our popular imaginings–including science fiction.
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. . . We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”–physicist Stephen Hawkins.
The last in a three-part installment on Christopher Columbus. How the destruction of the Americas and the legacies of colonialism and slavery, help shape the fears of our popular imaginings.
What do the hunt for a mythical Christian King of the East, a fabled river of African gold and fears of the impending Apocalypse have to do with Christopher Columbus? Turns out, quite a bit. The Age of Exploration has a weird speculative side.
Everyone knows that in 1492 an Italian sailor named Cristoforo Colombo sailed the ocean blue, stumbling across what we would eventually come to call the Americas. But while his voyage may have been the first of its kind, he was by no means the first explorer. With the exception of the Americas, the late medieval world from which Columbus emerged was one of long-established contact, as trade and curiosity sent out earlier explorers, seeking across both land and sea.
In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks, removing the last stronghold of Christendom in the East. The news sent shock waves throughout Europe. The Byzantines were no friends of the Papacy; in fact, the Eastern Christian city had been brutally sacked by reckless Norman Christian Crusaders nearly two and half centuries earlier, from which they never recovered. Still, the loss of Constantinople was a staggering blow.
For one, it placed the Sultan Mehmet II and his victorious armies right at Christendom’s doorsteps–and indeed, fears of the “dreaded Turk” would fill the minds of Europeans for generations, as the Ottomans rolled through the Balkans and reached the gates of Vienna. For the devout, here was yet another sign of the impending Apocalypse, that would pit the defenders of Christ against unbelievers. For European sailors and merchants, it meant the valuable flow of Eastern spices, silk and other goods–once controlled in great part through Constantinople–was now blocked by a hostile rival force. For investors in the profitable sugar plantations in the Mediterranean, it meant the drying up of much-needed supplies (from timber and Slavic slaves) to feed the sugar industry, and an increasingly dangerous waterway. A long period of Muslim-Christian détente would give way to religious rivalry, as two emerging fiscal-military states–the Ottomans and the Habsburgs–now battled over spheres of power for the next three centuries.
So what do Muslim conquests, the Apocalypse and trade have to do with Christopher Columbus and our primal fears of alien invaders? Perhaps everything. But if you like, you can skip past the history lesson to come and go right to Alien Columbus.