Did Columbus really discover America?

ship-1433438960L8bIt’s one of the most celebrated moments in history – “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue”. It was on August 3, 1492, that the fateful voyage departed Europe. The next year, he returned to Europe proclaiming the land for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. But was he really the first European on American shores? What physical proof exists today? Did Columbus discover America?

THEORY 1: THE VIKINGS

PHYSICAL PROOF: L’Anse Aux Meadows

It is accepted among historians that around 500 years before Columbus sailed, the Vikings actually had settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland. The Norse Saga’s (stories about ancient Nordic history and travel) tell us that after the heroic expeditions and settlements of Erik the Red, founder of Greenland, his son Leif converted to Christianity and began making diplomatic voyages eastwards.

This is where the history gets hazy – the sagas give two differing accounts of what happened next. 1) He arrived in America after sailing off course while returning to Greenland from Norway, and 2) a trader had told him stories of a strange land west, and Leif decided to go in search of it. What’s not disputed is that Norsemen certainly did reach – and settle – and area of modern-day Newfoundland known today as L’Anse aux Meadows. The sagas tell us that Eriksson originally called the area he landed ‘Helluland’, Norwegian for “Stone Slab Land” – possibly present-day Baffin Island.

The Norsemen then voyaged south to a timber-rich location they called Markland, before finally setting up a base camp likely on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland. They called the area ‘Vinland’.

Eriksson returned to Greenland the following year for supplies; and although he himself never returned, there remains evidence of a Viking settlement there. In the 1960s, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad discovered Viking remains at L’Anse aux Meadows. The remains of the Viking village are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

So whether or not you believe the story of the Sagas¸ what’s not disputed is the fact that Norsemen settled in North America at least 500 years before Columbus.

THEORY 2: THE IRISH

PHYSICAL PROOF: Tim Severin’s 1976 voyage in the Currach

Anyone who grew up in Ireland (like me!) will know the story of St. Brendan which comes from Navigatio, a ninth-century account of Brendan’s travels in the Atlantic Ocean. Many versions of the story exist, with much crossover in other mythology (especially Welch).

St Brendan allegedly travelled tirelessly to establish monasteries, continuing the work of Ireland’s patron Saint, Saint Patrick. He is told to have frequently sailed to places such as Scotland, Wales, and Brittany to preach the Gospel. And the, one winter, he is told to have embarked on a mission that would remain in historic memory for more than 1500 years. For 40 days St. Brendan fasted and prayed atop a mountain on the rugged Dingle Peninsula, before going in pursuit of a fabled land over the horizon. He is told to have crafted a traditional Irish boat called a ‘currach’, with square sails and leather skins stitched together to create a watertight seal over the vessel’s wooden skeleton. Then along with a crew gleaned to be somewhere between 18 and 150, depending on the account, he sailed out into the Atlantic, encountering towering crystal pillars afloat in the oceans, an island of sheep, among other fabled encounters.

Finally, as the boat drifted through a fog – landed was cited – Paradise! A lush land of vegetation, fragrant flowers, and an abundance of fruit. After staying for 40 days, an angel told the men to return home. When St. Brendan came back to the Emerald Isle after the seven-year voyage, pilgrims who heard the sensational story flocked to his side in remote County Kerry until he died around 577 A.D.

The story comes with an immediate word of caution – Navigatio was written some five hundred years after the purported voyage took place. Yet that doesn’t mean the book wasn’t highly revered – it became so widely known that cartographers began to include Paradise, recorded as “St Brendan’s Island”, on maps. Columbus himself is said to have taken note of the elusive island as he embarked to on his own voyage in 1492.

Could St. Brendan have influenced some of Columbus’ voyage? Similarities on what St. Brendan saw – and where they might have been. Think of what Columbus’ crew claimed to have seen on their journey – ‘towering crystal pillars’ could have been icebergs. The ‘island of the sheep’ could have been the Faroes, and foul-smelling fireballs have been sulfuric dioxide spewed by Iceland’s volcanoes.

But would a trans-Atlantic voyage have even been possible in the sixth century? In 1976, modern-day adventurer Tim Severin attempted to answer the question – and succeeded.

So whether or not you believe the story of St. Brendan finding America before Columbus – one thing is known – it’s not entirely impossible.

THEORY 3: THE POLYNESIANS

PHYSICAL PROOF: The Chicken Bone

Moving to the other side of the world, we can’t forget the Pacific neighbours of America – those of the Polynesian Islands. It’s known that they definitely sailed as far afield as Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island in relatively small boats. These navigators had the tools and knew how to sail using only the starts and their ability to detect land nearby. So is it in inconceivable that they reached South America?

In 2007, an ancient chicken bone was discovered in Chile – chickens aren’t native to America and they can’t fly, so they could only have been brought there by other settlers. The bone was dated anywhere between 1304 and 1424 – so well ahead of Columbus’ era and the subsequent European settlement of the southern part of America. DNA extracted from the bones also matched closely with a Polynesian breed of chicken, rather than any chickens found in Europe. The bone was a close match for chicken bones found in Pacific Islands such as Tonga, American Samoa, Hawaii, and Easter Island.

And arguers for the case claim that’s not the only tangible evidence: Scientific arguments based on linguistic evidence and fish-hook styles suggest increasing evidence of multiple contacts with the Americas. And in the style of Tim Severin, in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian anthropologist, made the voyage from Peru to Polynesia aboard his Kon-Tiki raft to prove that the trip was doable in a rudimentary vessel.

So again, whether or not you believe that the Polynesians could have reached American land before Columbus, one thing that’s known for sure is that it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility.

The one thing we do know for sure, is that Columbus was NOT the first non-native American to reach the continent.

The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

The woman who dressed as a man and fought in World War One

I recently stumbled across a reference to Dorothy Lawrence while doing some research into the Great War. I was astounded by her story, and when I mentioned her name to a few friends, I was met with blank stats. Clearly, Dorothy Lawrence is one of the #AmazingWomenInHistory who needs to be remembered, not forgotten.

180px-dorothy-lawrence-soldier
Dorothy Lawrence in military uniform. I DO NOT OWN THE IMAGE.

Dorothy was born in Britain in 1896. Determined to be a journalist, at a young age she had some articles published in The Times. When war broke out, she pestered many people on Fleet Street with the hope of becoming a war reporter. When her calls went unnoticed, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Travelling to France in 1915, aged just 21, she applied to become an employee of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. When her application was rejected,  she decided to enter the war zone as a freelance war correspondent.

However she was arrested by French Police in Senlis, and ordered to leave. Spending the night sleeping on a haystack in a forest, she returned to Paris where she concluded that only in disguise could she get the story that she wanted to write. “I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish.”

Determined, Dorothy befriended two British Army soldiers in a Parisien café, and persuaded them to smuggle her khaki uniform, piece by piece, within their washing; ten men eventually shared in this exploit, later referred to in her book as “Khaki accomplices.”

Dorothy then began the process of transforming herself into a male soldier, by flattening her figure with a homemade corset, using sacking and cotton-wool to bulk out her shoulders, and with the help of two Scottish military policemen to cut her long, brown hair in a short military style. She used a disinfectant called Condy’s Fluid to darken her complexion, razored the pale skin of her cheeks to give herself a shaving rash, and finally added a shoe-polish tan. Lastly, she persuaded her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march. She got her hands on forged identity papers, and headed for the frontline, as Private Denis Smith, 1st battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment.  

After being interrogated as a spy, she was declared a prisoner of war, and taken cross country to Calais and was unknowingly questioned about being a prostitute (or ‘camp follower’) as the term was.Targeting the British sector of the Somme, she set out by bicycle. On her way towards Albert, Somme, she met Lancashire coal-miner turned British Expeditionary Force (BEF) tunnel-digging sapper Tom Dunn, who offered to assist her. Fearing for the safety of a lone woman amongst female-companionship starved soldiers, Dunn found Lawrence an abandoned cottage in Senlis Forest to sleep in and she worked as a sapper (a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc.) with the 179 Tunnelling Company. However after ten days in horrible conditions, a few bouts of chills and fainting, and with concern that if she needed medical attention her true gender would be discovered, Dorothy presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who placed her under military arrest.

The Army was embarrassed that a woman had breached security. Fearful of more women taking on main roles during the war if Dorothy’s story got out, Dorothy was made sign an affidavit swearing that she would not write about her experiences. Sent back to London, she moved to Canonbury, Islington, and only published an account of her experiences after the war, which was still heavily censored by the War Office.

With no income and no credibility as a journalist, by 1925 her increasingly erratic behaviour was brought to the attention of the authorities. After confiding to a doctor that she had been raped in her teenage years by her church guardian, and with no family to look after her, she was taken into care and later deemed insane. Committed first to the London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell in March 1925, she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Barnet.

Dorothy Lawrence died in 1964. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery, where today the site of her plot is no longer clear.

Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street, and an eminent investor

hetty_green_cph-3a42973

I recently read Charles Stack’s biography of Henrietta Howland Robinson Green, the American businesswoman and financier nicknamed as the “Witch of Wall Street”, who was one of the richest women in America during the Gilded Age, one of the few women on Wall Street. The book is entitled ‘Hetty Green: The Genius and Madness of America’s first female tycoon’, and both descriptions of her in the title are hugely appropriate.

Born in 1834, Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Green (nee Howland Robinson) was born into a rich whaling family in Massachusetts. The only surviving child of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland, Hetty honed her craft reading the financial papers to her maternal grandfather and her father. At age 13, she became the family bookkeeper and was incredibly knowledgeable in financial affairs.

When Hetty was 26, her mother died, leaving her daughter $8,000 dollars (nearly $200,000 today’s money). But just a few short years later, Hetty would become embroiled in a bitter battle to inherit her mother’s sister’s fortune, which would ensure that all inheritance from her grandfather’s company would go to her.

From her mother’s death, Hetty was determined to ensure every penny of Aunt Sylvia’s fortune went to her. But the invalided Aunt Sylvia, whose relied on the care of servants and health professionals, had other ideas. Sylvia was aware of her niece’s greediness, and temper, and wanted to be sure that all the people who had given their lives to make hers a bit better were remembered. Hetty, knowing this, hastened to her aunt’s home to discourage Aunt Sylvia from bequeathing any money to anyone escape her, Hetty. When Hetty realised Aunt Sylvia’s plans to leave money with her servants, Hetty got so angry she pushed one of them down the stairs. Aunt Sylvia eventually relented and signed a will in Hetty’s presence, bequeathing her entire fortune to her niece.

Hetty was horrified to learn that Sylvia had created a new will after signing the aforementioned with Hetty, leaving most of her $2 million estate (nearly $31 million) to charity. Hetty challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will that would have bequeathed all of her aunt’s fortune to her. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics. The court ultimately decided that the earlier will produced by Hetty was a forgery, although she was awarded $600,000 after five years of legal battles.

In 1865, Edward Robinson died, leaving Hetty approximately $5 million (equivalent to $77,293,000 in 2015) which included a $4 million trust fund that drew annual earnings, something she wasn’t pleased about.

Two years after her father’s death, at the age of 33, Hetty married 44 year-old Edward Henry Green, a Vermont businessman who had lived in Asia for several years making his fortune. Hetty requested that Edward sign a prenuptial agreement before the wedding, renouncing all his rights to her money. The couple soon fled to London, probably to get away from the hype created by the Robinson vs. Mandell case. They spent seven years living in the Langham Hotel off Regent Street, during which time Hetty bore two children – Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green (known as Sylvia).

When her children were small, Hetty took to being a mother while her husband pursued investments. However, she soon wanted to make use of her astonishing fortune, and formulated her investment strategy which she stuck to all her life. She made conservative investments, always had substantial cash reserves, and never lost her cool. She began by investing in greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought in majorly. She claimed to has amassed a fortune of $1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone.

The family returned to the US in the mid 1870s, settling in Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Hetty spent a few years living her with the reputation of an eccentric. She famously quarrelled with all her in laws, servants and neighbours, and was noted for her stinginess in spite of her growing fortune.

The largest investor in the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, Hetty was horrified when the bank collapsed, in 1885 and hastened to New York. She soon learned that the bank’s greatest debtor was none other than her husband, Edward Green. The firm’s management had surreptitiously used her wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Emphasizing that their finances were separate, Green withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank of New York. Enraged by his dealings, she and Edward would never live together again (although there is evidence that they did reconcile in later years).

Throughout her life, Hetty had a reputation for her stingyness – an ironic fact considering her enormous wealth. While most Wall Street tycoons took a coach in the mornings, Hetty opted to walk. She could have afforded numerous houses in the most affluent parts of New York, a mere stone’s throw to Wall Street, but instead she spent most of her later years in a simple apartment across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey (this was possibly also to avoid having a permanent residence that would bring her to the attention of any tax officials).

One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. Perhaps most interesting, instead of enjoying the new restaurants that were springing up in Downtown New York, Hetty’s lunch while she worked at a Wall Street bank (because she didn’t want to pay rent for her own office) in New York consisted of oatmeal cooked in a big vat on radiator. Her stingyness, combined with her dour dress-habits and austere personality would nickname her ‘The Witch of Wall Street’.

But for all her eccentricity, Hetty was a phenomenally successful businesswoman. While she often dealt in real estate, lending and mines, her main investments were to be in railroads during a golden era of railroad building across America. As soon as Ned became old enough, she stationed in him in Texas, where he learned the tricks of the trade while managing their railroad investments.

The City of New York came to Green for loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907. She would travel thousands of miles alone—in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted—to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Edward and Hetty never lived as husband and wife after the John J. Cisco debacle, but there is evidence that they reconciled in later years. Hetty nursed Edward for a few months until his death in 1902.

Hetty was notoriously disapproving of all of Sylvia’s suitors, believing them to just be after her fortune. When Sylvia was in her late 30s, Hetty finally agreed for her daughter to marry Matthew Astor Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune. With $2 million of his own, it was enough to convince Hetty that he wasn’t just a gold-digger. Nonetheless, she compelled him to sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune.

Hetty Green died aged 81 at her son’s New York City home. She earned the title of ‘World’s Greatest Miser’ in the Guinness Book of Records, but left an estimated net work of somewhere between $100 and $200 million, equivalent to around $2-4 billion in today’s money.She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her husband. She had converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith (from her Quakerism) so that she could be interred with him.

You can buy Charles Stack’s biography of Hetty Green here.

Éire’s WWII neutrality?

When war broke out in September 1939, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera announced that Ireland was to remain neutral. The 26 counties of what is today known as Éire had gained de facto independence from Britain in the 1920s. But in 1939 it was still part of the Commonwealth and de Valera was keen to keep up the momentum for achieving a full Republic, especially as the Irish people had voted for a new constitution to be adopted just two years earlier, which gave greater autonomy to the fledgling state. More than anything, he wanted Britain and the rest of the world to recognise Ireland’s right to it’s own foreign policy. However, he arguably took this attempt too far in 1945 by extending his sympathies on the death of Adolf Hitler to greater levels than when the US President Roosevelt had died just three weeks earlier.

Churchill was always opposed to Irish neutrality. It irritated him so much that he and Roosevelt collaborated to try and persuade Ireland to join the war, but garnering support for the Irish war effort by Irish Americans. Churchill at many times throughout the war considered invading Ireland, as he knew that the questions of Irish unity and sovereignty meant that it would not be easy to persuade Éire to abandon it’s policy. Neutrality was a policy generally supported by the general public in Ireland and despite numerous barriers it remained throughout the duration of the war.

When Roosevelt passed away in April 1945, the Dáil (Irish parliament chamber), held a special sitting in which de Valera delivered a moving tribute to Roosevelt. As Taoiseach, de Valera was also Foreign Minister, and together with his aide  Joseph Walshe, he visited the German Embassy in Dublin on May 2, 1945, to sign a book of condolences for the Fuhrer. They also met with a German envoy to Ireland, Eduard Hempel, to express condolences.

 

The visits were met with major opposition, particularly in the United States. De Valera had arguably intended it as mark of statesmanship, reflecting the fact that Ireland was a now a nation separate from Britain. Additionally, the decision of President Douglas Hyde to send condolences to Hempel further ignited the anger, notably because there had been no presidential delegate had visited the American embassy after the death of Roosevelt. This was a move backed by the government, which further adds to the curiosity surrounding de Valera’s actions.

 

The visit to Hempel’s home has puzzled historians ever since, and it is likely that the decision was taken purely in a domestic context. Éire was a fledgling state, trying to exert itself on the world stage as a neutral nation. De Valera later argued that he offered his sympathies purely on moral grounds, stating, “During the whole of the war, Dr Hempel’s conduct was irreproachable. … I certainly was not going to add to his humiliation in the hour of defeat.”

 

This “irreproachable” conduct could not be said for the American Ambassador to Ireland, David Walsh. Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle, he led efforts to persuade Ireland to join the war, to the point that de Valera even requested that Gray be removed from his position after Roosevelt had died. Perhaps the bad relations between the two men were part of de Valera’s reasoning not to visit the American embassy when Roosevelt passed away, and probably further ignited anger when he visited the German embassy when Hitler died. Either way, the visit to Hempel created a storm of controversy, and never before had Ireland received such worldwide attention – perhaps a happy by-product of the visit to Hempel on the part of de Valera, as it parachuted the neutral State to the world media and told the world that it had maintained it’s own neutral foreign policy for the duration – if if it was for all the wrong reasons.

 

CONCLUSION

The Republic of Ireland was formally declared in 1949, but with 26 counties and not 32 as was de Valera’s long-held wish. Churchill never agreed with Irish neutrality during the war, and de Valera would later accuse him of not being able to “find in his heart the generosity to acknowledge that there is a small nation that stood alone, not for one year or two, but for several hundred years against aggression…” in his famous radio broadcast on May 16, 1945.

 

Despite it’s success however, the neutrality policy combined with the visit to Hempel was probably the final nail in the coffin in terms of de Valera’s chances of ever securing the 32-county Republic he had always dreamed of. The international storm caused by the visit to Hempel meant that the support for Irish independence which at one time was rife (de Valera had enjoyed support from Irish America for over 25 years), waned, and so did any general support for it from the United Nations when it was established in 1945. The visit was a small but yet significant glitch to de Valera’s dream.