When Cherokee cowboy Will Rogers said his relatives did not come over on the Mayflower but “we met the boat,” he did not imagine that Europeans and Asians or Christians and Muslims would get into fights in the 21st century over the nationality of that first boat. It’s fairly well known that Norsemen were not only discovered by Indians in what is now Canada, but left evidence of their genetic material and the material ruins of a defunct Norse colony at L’Anse aux Meadows.
This month, several news sources have reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took on the Christopher Columbus myth in a televised speech to a November 15 meeting of Latin American Muslim leaders in Istanbul. His criticism, however, has little in common with what American Indians have to say.
Quoth Erdogan: “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus….Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast.” The conservative Turk referred to a mention in Columbus’ diary of a hill in Cuba shaped like a mosque.
Spain was busy ejecting Muslims from Spanish land, pushing them back to the Strait of Gibraltar. The Moorish Kingdom of Granada surrendered to Spanish King Ferdinand V in 1492, the year that lives in infamy among the surviving Taino people in the Caribbean. Columbus would have known what a mosque looked like, but finding Muslims in the “New World” would have been a terrible calamity, since his King was at war with Muslims and his “right” to claim the land and enslave the occupants was based on the Doctrine of Discovery.
Erdogan’s remarks were met with derision among academics and quickly became a partisan political issue in Turkey. On November 18, The Guardian reported that Erdogan was doubling down, quoting him, “very respected scientists in Turkey and in the world…supported his claim. Some youth of our country have begun objecting to this without doing any research or paying attention to discussions.”
Mehmet Yilmaz, of the Hurriyet newspaper, suggested that Erdogan’s next claim should be that a Muslim, rather than Isaac Newton, discovered gravity.
Most Indian reaction could be summed up, “Pass the popcorn!” We’ve never bothered to compare notes to determine which non-Indians we discovered trespassing first.
Craig Considine, graduate student at Trinity College, Dublin, seemed to get our point when he wrote in The World Post, “People lived in North America 12,000 years ago! … How, then, can anyone discover a land which has been populated for so long, by so many different groups of people?”
Considine has gotten the timeline wrong, but he seems to have grasped the point of Will Rogers’ bon mot about the Mayflower: Who discovered whom?