Once upon a time, not so very long ago, we studied something then called the Age of Discovery, or if you were feeling a bit more militant, the Age of Conquest. This was the period in history from the 15th through the 17th centuries when Europeans set out on a global search for faster trade routes, wealth, personal glory, and to extend the reach of their national flag. Not coincidentally, It’s also a period that corresponds with a then unprecedented explosion in knowledge about the natural world.
Hundreds of millions of people lived and died during the three centuries of the Age of Discovery. Aside from kings and princes, we remember very few of them by name… and for those few, we don’t remember them because they spent their often-short lifetimes wringing their hands about the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent.
During the Age of Conquest, some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before written language existed to keep records. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. There’s a movement now to tell those stories. That’s a fine thing to do and certainly adds perspective to the proceedings. Increasing the sum total of human knowledge is almost never a bad thing… although that doesn’t mean I’ll be here rending my garments when told the tales of woe and sadness.
At a time with no accurate maps, no global positioning systems, and no way to even accurately establish longitude, men went down to the sea in ships, and occupied their business in great waters. They had names like da Gama, Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, Magellan, and Drake. The set out in fragile wooden ships, pointing their bows west into a world more unknown than known, and opened two continents to further exploration and conquest. They were hard men living in a hard world. Our modern, gentler world would want them hauled to The Hague and tried for crimes against humanity – but that’s the same modern world that wouldn’t exist without them.
Columbus and the rest were unquestionably part heroic and part villainous, which makes them very much men of their age. Perhaps it makes them men of any age, as it’s impossible to be all one or all the other in this or any other time. Even if it leaves me squarely in the minority, today I’ll honor them.