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Contrasting View: Columbus And Isabela Are Pretty Good Role Models

Columbus at landfall
Austin TX (SPX) Jun 29, 2004
Isabela and Columbus were recently discussed by Jeffrey Bell in Space Daily. Bell's dissection of Columbus's business plan is interesting reading. Isabela and Columbus, however, achieved something great together that will not soon be forgotten. Isabela and Columbus were not such bad people. I got the skinny on them from the resident Columbus expert in my family, Professor Emeritus of History, Dr. Robert J. Dinkin, aka Dad.

According to Prof. Dinkin, "First of all, C was a sailor, who had 30 years of experience on ships, who knew the Atlantic as well as anyone of his day. He also knew about all the latest technology."

Entrepreneurs today have been known to emphasize the practical aspects of their business plans and be overly optimistic about the parts that have never been done before. Perhaps Columbus exaggerated on purpose. Perhaps he just made a math error.

That is not unusual in history states Prof. Dinkin, "Even if C's calculations about getting to Asia were wrong, he did achieve something monumental. And it should be noted that many other scientific discoveries came about through miscalculation or mistakes in arithmetic."

The implication of the flawed premises of the business plan is that much of discovery is serendipity. As a logical matter, that suggests that to get to Mars and the Moon, we should consider the unorthodox.

We should have been extending tax credits today even to, as Jeffrey Bell puts it, a Columbus-like "classic obsessive crank scientist whose ideas were preposterous even by the lax standards" of the day if we want a repeat of the European discovery of the New World.

Prof. Dinkin continues, "It should be remembered too that C was willing to test his hypothesis, risking his life in the process. He was not an 'armchair quarterback.'" If Columbus risked life and limb on a flawed premise, shouldn't he deserve a larger share of profits once he was successful?

Spain's decision to strip Columbus's family of his 1/8 share of all New World trade is typical lack of gratitude that we still see today.

Dan Morales, the former Attorney General of Texas who won $15 billion for the State from Tobacco firms is serving a 4-year sentence in a Texarkana prison for his role in the case - the same city where the Federal court approved the record settlement. Texas certainly appears to have less gratitude than Spain.

Would-be entrepreneurs should take heed, but President Bush should recognize that his promises of riches to entrepreneurs will not bind the Country to do the right thing in the future. That is, the US may be able to have its cake and eat it too by stiffing the entrepreneurs that enable colonization.

Isabela's motives may not have been particularly visionary. Consider Bell's assessment that "Academic historians say that [Isabela's decision to fund Columbus] was one of those random personal whims that medieval autocrats often indulged in."

Putting $10B into a prize to reach Mars would certainly be whimsical. For a President that some would characterizes as having whims that include a $500B tax cut, a $500B new drug benefit and a $500B war on terror, a $10B whim is pocket change.

To a $10T economy, $10B is a reasonable size bet on future growth. As (to use Bell's words) a "space cadet," I certainly would be happy for Bush to emulate the whimsy of Isabela's decision. A contrasting view comes from Prof. Dinkin, "Queen Isabela was not the sole funder of C's voyages. Some of the money and other support came from private sources - the Pinzon brothers of Palos, Spain."

This less whimsical version of Columbus's efforts better fits the fact that Isabela's government sponsored three additional voyages to the New World. Columbus's public private partnership is just the kind of thing we are asking of today's entrepreneurs.

Bell asserts that Spain "...was destroyed by the discovery of America. Ambitious middle-class youth left to become conquistadores. The river of cheap gold and silver flowing in from mines...caused rapid price inflation that wrecked the embryo capitalist economy of Spain. The crown was enabled to borrow even more money from optimistic bankers blinded by wagonloads of doubloons leaving the docks of Seville."

This wealth management problem is one that I would like to have. Would the Saudi's trade their misery from oil wealth for misery from poverty? The only people more miserable than the rich are the poor. Mr. Bell, please join the Luddites and Bin Ladens of the world and do your best to turn back the clock to the 15th century.

Prof. Dinkin said, "The new modern Spain that Isabela tried to build was not quickly destroyed." Spain continued to be a force for decades after Columbus. Prof. Dinkin continues, "In fact, Spain was the leading nation of Europe until after the Armada failure (1588). And if the Crown had better managed its wealth, Spain probably would have continued its high position."

Bell goes on to say the world was ravaged by disease due to Columbus's discovery, "90% of the Indians died as a result of forward-contamination. Back-contamination saddled Europe, Asia, and Africa with the scourge of syphilis."

That does not seem likely to happen in this age when exploring the Moon and Mars because they are continually sterilized since they have no ozone layers. But is it fair to credit genocide to Columbus?

Columbus could not reasonably have expected to trigger an epidemic and Prof. Dinkin adds, "he was long gone before most of the mistreatment occurred."

Even if Columbus had visited the New World, the cross contamination would probably have been inevitable because within 150 years, no blockade could have possibly kept the Europeans out.

Suppose Isabela had been given a copy of Bell's article that said that 90% of Native Americans would die, and Europe would be raked by syphilis if Columbus is sent. Would she have left the New World in the hands of Native Americans? No. I believe she would have sent Columbus anyway. She would have ushered in a great era of growth and globalization- a prize with great costs.

In our era in contrast, genocide is a crime against humanity that gets world leaders jailed. Today's morality might have dictated forgoing colonization of the New World until it could be done non-destructively.

Hopefully we will be more cognizant of the possible costs and benefits as we make decisions about the coming wave of space exploration.

Finally, Bell tells us that the textbook versions of Isabela and Columbus are biased. If you consider the warmth and clarity that the memory of Reagan has evolved to after only 16 years after he left office, it is only fitting that Columbus and Isabela be remembered fondly with all of their rough edges smoothed off over time.

This is a well-deserved mythology for astute, visionary Queen Isabela and foolish, whimsical Queen Isabela for being first to dare and succeed. Long live Queen Isabela. So President Bush, how do you want to be remembered?

Dr. Sam Dinkin is a space investor and enthusiast. He can be reached at, (888) 434-6546 by voice and 512-347-9149 by fax.

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Queen Isabella's Ghost
Honolulu HI (SPX) Jun 25, 2004
In an earlier article I commented on the use of bad historical analogies by spaceflight advocates, specifically the tribute fleets of Ming Dynasty China. Lately I have been seeing lots of bad historical analogies drawn from a somewhat later time, the great age of European sea exploration, writes Jeffrey F. Bell.

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