Scenarios for alternative histories

Columbus almost sailed for England rather than for Spain.

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 “butterfly ballot.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

2 thoughts on “Scenarios for alternative histories”

  1. Alternate Americas

    The contrast between the English and Spanish colonies in America is stark, and to some extent reminiscent of the contrast that AdamSmithee draws between Australia and tropical Africa… Was this contrast determined by the circumstances the colonizers…

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