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January 24, 2005

Scenarios for Alternative Histories

Mark Kleiman writes:

Mark A. R. Kleiman: Scenarios for alternative histories: Here's a fact I'd never seen before:

Hume in his History of England, records that Columbus, having been rebuffed at the courts of Spain and Portugal, sent his brother Bartholomew to England to ask Henry VII for support. Henry liked the idea, and sent Bartholomew back with a message inviting Columbus to come to England. But Bartholomew's ship was taken by pirates, and Christopher stayed in Spain until Isabella finally came through.

How would the world have been different if Columbus had sailed for England rather than Spain? Perhaps Central and South America would be rich and democratic. Or perhaps the silver of Peru and Mexico would have corrupted England instead of Spain.

The mind boggles.

(This, it seems to me, is even better than my previous favorite, reported by Macaulay: that Pym, Hampden, and Cromwell all tried to leave England for Massachusetts in 1638 but were stopped by an order from Laud, who thought it best to keep troublemakers close by, the better to watch them.)

I don't know about you, but I find it frightening, at a metaphysical level, that randomness plays such a huge part in history. Imagine what the world would be like today if Palm Beach hadn't used that "butterly ballot."

Posted by DeLong at January 24, 2005 08:03 AM