An article in the weekend papers about Gavin Menzies book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, states that if Menzies hypothesis is correct it will "turn much of modern history upside down". Menzies claims that a "distinguished Canadian architect" discovered the remnants of a medieval naval base somewhere on Canadas east coast and postulates that the alleged base was established by Admiral Zheng He who commanded a fleet of ships that discovered Americas east coast.
Periodically throughout the past 100 years numerous individuals have stepped forward with evidence that America was actually discovered by a number of other, earlier explorers and that credit for that discovery should be taken away from Christopher Columbus. There is some evidence that Leif Ericsson first settled America in about 1000 AD. There are also stories about Irish monks having visited the shores of the new world in the middle ages, as well as legends among some of the central American Indians that detail visits from red haired, bearded adventurers over 1,000 years ago.
Discrediting Christopher Columbus appears to have become a modern pastime, as more and more "research" that touts other explorers who predated Columbus comes to light. Many of the more politically correct luminaries in North America today go so far as to say that Christopher Columbuss "discovery" of America was one of historys great disasters, resulting in the eventual establishment of North Americas current geopolitical reality.
Thats certainly a valid point of view, given that the indigenous peoples of North America suffered greatly as a result of Europeans settling here. But at the same time the reality of the here and now is that North America is what it is and suggesting that the accepted discoverer of the continent didnt really discoverer it after all will not alter the current state of this continent. Yes, the Vikings probably discovered America 500 years prior to Columbus and yes; its entirely possible that many others including the Chinese may have done so as well. So what?
The truth is that neither the Vikings, the Chinese nor any plethora of others who may have discovered America centuries before Christopher Columbus did anything significant with their discovery. It was Columbus that returned to Spain to tell Ferdinand and Isabella about the fabulous new land that he had discovered, setting off the great surge of exploration that characterized the next three centuries.
One of the reasons claims such as those made by Menzies receive such rapt, breathless attention here is that culturally we have attained an unprecedented level of self-loathing. Participating in the destruction of our historical icons provides the guilt-feelers among us a sense of atonement. We now freely accept guilt for the crimes wreaked upon North Americas aboriginals by individuals that have been dead for hundreds of years. We accept responsibility for the slavery that was prevalent in parts of North America, even though none of us has ever "owned" a slave or have had any actual complicity in the slave trade. In fact, slavery is alive and well in Africa today, without the participation of Europeans or North Americans. Some of us want to blame ourselves for the terrorism that fanatical Islamic fundamentalists want to bring down on us because of the Crusades, even though the Crusades were about the liberation of lands that had been forcibly taken from Christians by Muslims. When Osama bin Laden talks about the "tragedy of Andalusia", what he is referring to is the expulsion of the Muslim invaders from Spain. (This co-incidentally took place in 1492, while Christopher Columbus was "discovering" America.)
While the original discoverer of America is a subject that will enjoy years, if not decades of spirited debate, the point regarding the significance of the discovery remains moot. Only Columbus understood the implications of his discovery and as such can honestly claim credit as its discoverer.