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An Unnecessary Holiday

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue …

Okay, I’m willing to grant him that. He didn’t “discover” America, though. The original discoverers walked across what is now the Bering Strait (or sailed in from various Pacific islands) and scattered through North and South America thousands of years ago. If you’re looking for a European discoverer, your man is the Icelander Leif Eriksson, aided and abetted by information from one Bjarni Herjulfsson. He started a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

The Viking settlers did not stick around. They faced constant warfare with the Skraelings (i.e. aborigines) and gave it up as a lost cause. But they left behind an archeological record and wrote the experience up in the Vinland Saga, which you can read for yourself. Penguin Books has a good edition, which includes several related sagas bound in the same volume.

In the meantime, we are stuck with this holiday in October commemorating an Italian explorer who is reviled by generations of the people he called Indians. If you want to see what they really thought, read Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire. The Spanish and Portuguese colonial experiences left behind some very pretty churches and millions of tormented Indian slaves, if they were so unlucky as to survive.

Columbus himself was not himself an arrant villain, but he made it possible for real arrant villains like Pedro de Alvarado and Nuño de Guzman to control the lives of thousands of innocents. Okay, so maybe they had human sacrifice—but nowhere on the scale of death practiced by the Iberian newcomers.