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Dear Columbus, Welcome to Vinland

Jeff Myhre

Posted on October 8, 2018 11:41

4 users

Columbus duplicated the work of the Norse, who proved that the Americas were full of people ages ago -- not really a discovery, is it?

It's Columbus Day. Well, actually, Columbus Day is October 12, but Congress decided to move some holidays around years ago to create regular three-day week-ends, and Columbus Day is one of those.

Anyway, Columbus Day celebrates the voyage of an Italian under the Spanish flag who thought he was headed to India and wound up where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are. Many Italian-Americans take great pride in this accomplishment, but Joe DiMaggio marrying Marilyn Monroe was a bigger deal. Joe D knew what he was doing.

Meanwhile, others suggest this is a day of mourning as the arrival of Columbus marked the beginning of slavery, oppression and colonialism in the New World, and they have a point. These same people, though, tend to omit the fact that human sacrifice in the Americas dropped off radically after 1492.

Fortunately, there is an earlier experience of Europeans in the New World. The Norse were here centuries ahead of Columbus, engaged in no slave trading and left after a while because . . . well, have you been to Newfoundland in January? 

Norse, or Northmen, are better known as Vikings, but the two aren't really interchangeable. Viking comes from the term “vikingr” – meaning pirate. In the summer, rather than listen to Helga go on about the condition of the farm, Norsemen would get into ships and go “a Viking” returning with stolen wealth so they could have some peace and quiet in the winter.

The Sagas tell of a land found by Leif the Lucky, son of Erik the Red (founder of the Norse colony in Greenland), where grapes for wine grew – Vinland. But that was considered merely myth and legend until 1968. Archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad found a pin in Newfoundland then, and excavations led to the discovery of a small Norse base.

Calling it a settlement implies a duration that it simply didn't have. It was in use between 990 AD and 1050 AD for maybe a decade. Its success relied on a Greenland settlement that didn't have all that many people, certainly not enough to provide a surplus population for something more permanent. Besides, the resources Vinland had were easily available in Europe, while it lacked things like textiles, armor and spices that make the sea voyages in longships worth it.

Moreover, there were the Mi'kmaq people, who were there already. Colonization only works if there are no people there (like Greenland and Iceland), or if there are fewer being colonized than are doing the colonizing – unless there is a huge technological difference, and even then, that doesn't last long (e.g. British and French Empires). At best, a Norse settlement would have been absorbed into Mi'kmaq society. At worst, people were going to get killed.

So, welcome to Vinland, Columbus, and congratulations. You duplicated the work of Northmen who proved that there were loads of people in the New World long before Europeans ever showed up, and who went home to build a social welfare state.

Jeff Myhre

Posted on October 8, 2018 11:41

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