It’s been more than 500 years since an explorer ventured into the Atlantic, searching for new lands rumoured to exist beyond the horizon.
I speak, of course, of Ferdinand van Olmen.
What, never heard of the guy? Neither had I, until I found a single-sentence reference to the unlucky explorer in a history book recently. (It was Empire’s Crossroads by Carrie Gibson, in case you were wondering. Available at the Fraser Valley Regional Library!)
Van Olmen, apparently, sailed west from the Azores in 1487, five years before Christopher Columbus made his voyage, sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.
Van Olmen vanished from history. Some sources suggest he never returned, and that his bones are buried in silt in the deep sea, others suggest he returned empty handed after a few months.
Either way, he never discovered the New World.
And yet, he easily could have.
Van Olmen was apparently Flemish, but he was sailing for Portugal, which since the early 1400s had been using improved ships to explore the seas in ways never before possible. The Azores, islands about a third of the way across the Atlantic, had only been discovered a few decades before.
And yet, there was driftwood that washed ashore on the beaches of the Azores. Not from Africa or Europe to the east, but from somewhere to the west. There was land there – islands, an archipelago, a whole new continent, perhaps?
So van Olmen arranged for the Portugese crown to sponsor a small exploratory mission – he asked for a lot less than that Columbus guy, who had been begging various monarchs for a chance to head west for years.
A year after van Olmen disappeared, another explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, discovered the Cape of Good Hope and the passage into the Indian Ocean. The Portugese crown put their resources into sailing south and east instead of west, and Columbus had zero competition for his trip.
There are two lessons from the story of the obscure, most-likely-dead explorer.
One is that history is predictable. The other is that history is wildly unpredictable.
The predictable first – better ships such as the caravels that carried both van Olmen and Columbus, the discovery of the Azores and voyages to Africa, and the western European hunger for trade goods, particularly spices – made the discovery of the Americas inevitable. If Columbus had run into a storm and died, someone else would have done it, 10 or 20 years later.
The same is true of almost all major inventions and discoveries. The light bulb, the car, the airplane, even gravity and the laws of motion.
One example – the NPR podcast Short Wave recently highlighted the fact that two researchers, one French and one American, working completely indpendently, each discovered how to cheaply extract aluminum from ore just months apart from one another in 1886. The world was just ready for the next step, the knowledge was available, and a smart and hard working person – or two – could take that step.
This kind of thing happens constantly. Wallace and Darwin with evolution, Hooke and Newton with gravity, Liebniz and Newton with calculus.
But history remains unpredictable – what would be different if van Olmen had claimed the New World for Portugal, rather than Columbus for Spain?
It’s fun to think that we might be living in the province of British Olmenia, but the changes might actually be very far reaching.
Columbus was, not to put too fine a point on it, a raging psychopath. He killed and enslaved and looted his way through the Caribbean, and the Spanish conquistadors followed his bloody example.
We don’t know what kind of a person van Olmen was – there’s no guarantee he wasn’t as bad, or worse, or that those who followed him wouldn’t have been equally awful – but there’s a chance that history would have turned out differently depending on how he’d interacted with the indigenous people of the Americas, had he made landfall first.
Some things would have been the same. Certainly the diseases that devastated indigenous peoples wouldn’t have cared which Europeans they were hitching a ride with. And European society at that time had very little problem with slavery, conquest, and colonialism. The general shape of things – several hundred years of violence, genocide, and the African slave trade – could very well have followed. Different countries, different colonies, different kings, but broadly the same outcomes.
But it’s unlikely that a different discovery would have led to the nations we have today, with the same boundaries. Spain got a tremendous boost from being the first to arrive. Nations like the Aztecs and the Inca Empire, and their European competitors, were reacting to what Spain did.
For people, specifics matter. We wouldn’t be living in British Olmenia if van Olmen had lived, but nor would we be living in British Columbia. The official language in this area might be Portugese, or Russian, or Tagalog, or Halkomelem. The locals might be living in a democratic country, a dictatorship, a kingdom, or a colony.
Real historians hate “counterfactuals,” questions about what would have turned out differently had one event gone differently – Napoleon won at Waterloo, say. But it’s impossible not to look at the world once you know of van Olmen and say that it doesn’t matter who got there first.
Someone would have. History was pushing that way. But who got there first, and what they did, mattered a great deal, and that’s still true of every choice we make today.