It happened today - January 9, 2016

Christopher Columbus is, or was, a hero for modernity. A daring rebel who challenged convention, made great discoveries and showed those orthodox fuddy-duddies some real change. Including the mermaids he sighted on Jan. 9, 1493. Yes, mermaids.

Lately the notion that if Columbus hadn’t discovered the New World bad Europeans would have left good Aboriginals in Eden has taken the shine off his statutes. But while I can’t help thinking someone else would have got in a ship and bumped into the Americas sooner or later, chasing gold, fish or dreams, I’m not a big Columbus fan in other respects.

To begin with, can we please dispose once and for all with the shallow progressive canard that stupid medieval peasants and clerics thought the Earth was flat until brave Chris set sail? In fact plenty of them knew perfectly well it was round, not least because when a ship sails over the horizon the hull disappears before the sail does so the surface of the ocean must be curved. Duh. It’s all in Iohannes Sacrobosco’s popular treatise.

Evidently the flat earth bit originated with some sloppy research by Washington Irving. And while doubtless there were people who thought the Earth was flat, well, people think plenty of strange stuff today from diets to astrology.

Moreover, Columbus didn’t show the fuddy-duddies you could sail to the Americas. Quite the reverse. He thought the Earth was a lot smaller than orthodoxy believed and he was, well, wrong. Or else he deliberately underestimated the size to hone his pitch for subsidies to the Spanish crown in which case he was lying. Either way if he hadn’t hit a continent no one knew about he’d have sunk without a trace in the middle of an ocean that would have been exactly as big as the stuffy types claimed.

Finally, can we just do the mermaids? Near what is now the Dominican Republic, for better or worse, Columbus spotted three “mermaids” that were in fact manatees, dugongs or the now-extinct Steller’s sea cows. To give him credit he reported them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted”. But considering how beautiful they are in paintings I still feel he was overdue for some shore leave at that point if he was hallucinating nude women while gazing at 800 pound marine grazers.

Look. His voyages took guts. And he cannot be blamed for the tragic collision of European and indigenous cultures overlaid on a demographic catastrophe caused by thousands of years of very different economic and hence medical patterns. But he was a bit of a crackpot and the mermaids really don’t help.