Leif Erikson Day

The National Geographic asks an interesting and at least somewhat worthy question:

This past Friday was Leif Erikson Day, a U.S. holiday that honors the Icelandic explorer whom some believe was the first European to reach North America. 
Leif Erikson Day doesn’t get as much recognition because it’s overshadowed by Monday’s Columbus Day—which, unlike Erikson’s day, is a federal holiday, meaning government employees get off work, as do many students and private-sector workers.

Christopher Columbus and his holiday are controversial today largely because of the way he and subsequent European explorers and settlers treated Native Americans. For years, there have been campaigns to celebrate an Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But in the late 19th and early 20th century, many people had a different problem with Columbus. They argued that the real credit for discovering North America should go to Erikson, whom they believed arrived 500 years before Columbus. Plus, unlike Columbus, he wasn’t Italian or Catholic.
Now look, I'm not one of those twerps who is going to insist on the American government tearing up and revising all public holidays named for historical figures just because of little things like "facts" that happen to get in the way. I recognise, perhaps even better than most Americans do, the importance of history and of mythology to the fabric of a nation's identity.

I just think that it's important that we understand that, beyond the myth and the legend, there were real things at stake for both of the men who purportedly "discovered" America.

In Erikson's case, he was looking for a "true" Greenland. The one that his father, Erik the Red, found is in fact a rather cold and ugly wasteland. The Vikings who sailed west into the howling dark of the Great Unknown were doing so in order to find new lands that their brothers and sons could live in, unmolested by the rule of kings like Harald Harfager, the first true King of Norway and the man who banished Erik the Red himself.

Eventually- so the story goes- Leif Erikson found his "Vinland". He was, by the way, a convert to Christianity- in and of itself no mean feat given the pagan nature of his people, and their violent hostility toward the Word. While the Vikings never appeared to establish truly permanent settlements up in the Great Frozen North that is Canada, the Canoeheads (rightly) consider him to be Kind Of A Big Deal, because, after all, he was here first.

And what about Columbus?

Well, with Christopher Columbus, his voyage was for rather more than just discovery and expansion of Spain's empire. (He, of course, was Italian, not Spanish.) But his voyages, and the subsequent explorations of great men like Vasco da Gama, took place during a truly epic race for economic and political power between the then-superpowers of the Mediterranean.

Spain, Portugal, England, France, and to some extent the Italian city-states were all locked in a struggle for primacy of trade routes with the East. The nation that was able to secure the most efficient and economical way to get richly-desired spices and trade goods from China and the Far East back to Europe, was the nation that would gain tremendous wealth and trading power.

More than that, the race was between the Christian nations of Europe, against the Islamic nations of the Near East.

The fact was that, between Islam's sudden rapid expansion during the 7th Century and the final success of Spain's Reconquista in the 15th, the Arabs and Persians had succeeded in establishing massive empires of their own in formerly Christian territories. All land- and sea-based trade between Europe and the Far East, at the time, had to pass through Islamic hands. And the Muslims ruthlessly exploited this advantage.

So let us, indeed, acknowledge both great men- Columbus, and Erikson, for being the men that their people needed, at the right time and place. And by all means, let us have a public holiday for each in turn- since one actually did discover America proper, and the other actually did find a way to give Christian Europe a big leg up in its mortal struggle against its greatest enemy. (Just not quite the advantage that he thought, of course.)

And yes, I'll admit, I'm saying this because I'd really like to have a 4-day weekend. For reasons that are frankly too stupid to list, Columbus Day is only a holiday for part of my company- the part that is related to the fixed-income market, which was closed today. The part that deals with the equities market, or is not attached to any market at all, had to be in the office today.

This was painful, to say the least...


  1. Beats 'Che Guevera Day'
    One of the few things the CIA did right. Too bad they did it too late.


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