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The year is 1489, Christopher Columbus is planning to test his theory, that if he sails west, he will be in India much much faster than going to the east. Because he knows Earth is rounded, so this could save him precious time, thus he would find a better trade route to India

We know he was wrong because he was not killed by native Americans

Imagine he would. And consecutively, the native people of all "New Worlds" would kill all the explorers incoming by the sea, because they got warned by me after I invented the time machine and went back to the past. (They killed me too, but that is a different story and different plane of reality)

The native people of all lands unknown to Europeans as of 1489 apply these rules:

  1. If you see someone approaching you by ship from the sea, provide them with a warm welcome and let them think you treat them as Gods
  2. If asked by explorers about a previous mission, tell them that they are first one to visit (= let explorers think they are the first one to visit your land, so the previous exploring mission must have failed on the sea)
  3. Invite all the explorers from the ship to your land and throw big ass party for them
  4. Let them get drunk
  5. Wait till they fall asleep
  6. Kill them all and burn their ship.
  7. Hide all evidence about being visited
  8. Repeat step 1

So, if Europe sends out any explorer ship after the year 1489, it goes "missing" forever.

The question is: How would the world look like then?

And ultimately, would we be able to discover America, start the United States and build StackExchange again?

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    $\begingroup$ You should read the book "The Redemption of Christopher Columbus". It contains a similar idea. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Dec 17 '14 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ You could also give the natives a fighting chance by infecting them with a virus that's 90% fatal to Europeans, instead of vice versa. $\endgroup$ – octern Dec 17 '14 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ @octern That might actually be a workable way to get this effect. It worked for H G Wells well enough. I mean let's face it, it is impossible to organize Indians to kill visitors everywhere over two continents, the far north and south can't support the population for that kind of organization. An originally simian virus that evolved in the new world monkeys and jumped to indians few thousand years ago, could be deadly enough to make sailing home impractical. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Dec 17 '14 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Magic-Mouse: not really. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth Galileo theorized that the earth revolves around the sun. $\endgroup$ – njzk2 Dec 17 '14 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Magic-Mouse Also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_Flat_Earth scholars knew the earth was round since the Greeks. $\endgroup$ – njzk2 Dec 17 '14 at 15:55

11 Answers 11

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Probably the biggest result would have been that America would have been "discovered" by the Portuguese. Because of the physical layout of the Atlantic, their sailors learnt to use something they called volta do mar, or turn to the sea.

Atlantic Gyres

As you can see, the North and South Atlantic Gyres almost require a Cape-of-Good Hope-bound ship to get near the Brazilian coast.

Historically, South and South East Asians who were better organized and had more advanced weaponry could not prevent Europeans from establishing forts and colonies. Spain and Portugal were full of conquistadors fresh from centuries of Reconquista, and these forces were occasionally capable of defeating on the ground and at sea the forces of the largest Mediteranean Empire at the time, the Ottomans. Similar reasons explain why Ceuta, Granada, and Melila fell to the Portuguese and the Spanish around this time. I somehow doubt a few dozen stone-age Arawak warriors could have wiped out the entire crew.

There are three main reasons why the American natives were doomed:

  1. Germs. Due to lower density of population, N-S Axis (Crosscutting climates) of the Americas, genetic variability, and a host of other reasons, the germ virulence of Eurasians was orders of magnitude higher. The result: Europeans got syphilis, Native Americans got 90% death rates.
  2. Organized states. A longer history with thousands of years of warfare, along with the easy spread of ideas and troops along the E-W Eurasian axis, made the Eurasian states much, much better organized.
  3. Technological superiority (ships, guns and steel) made it a lopsided fight.

Good books to read on this are the classic "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Diamond and "Why the West Rules, for Now" by Morris.

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First, I do not think it would work nicely.

Because

a) No matter how nice your deception is, Colon and others were not a bunch of girl-scouts. Seamen of the age were well used to warfare (including fighting piracy). That means keeping a skeleton crew in the ships, and keeping watch. Of course the natives could try a coup-de-main against the ships, but at any rate it will mean a big probability of some ship getting back to Europe with the news.

b) I am of the opinion that there was some kind of precolombine contact (otherwise, Colon's expedition made not sense, as, for the science of the age -which was right-, the Earth was round but Asia was too far away to be unreachable across the Atlantic). Even with Colon's expedition silently wiped, those contact would have been maintained and sooner or later some other expeditions would have been sent.

At the very end, you would get delayed "first contact", but that would only make the advantage bigger for European powers (think of colonialism in North America, or India).

Also, to note: Spaniards did not conquer South America so easily just because of superior weaponry. The difference in numbers would have more than negated that. The main advantage they had were:

  • The spread of new diseases decimated (or even worse) lots of people.

  • They fought a bunch of desunited tribes. Even the Aztecs were an empire formed by a leading people with many subjects, and many of them quickly switched sides and helped the Spanish.

  • One way travels: since only Spaniards could travel through the Atlantic, they could meddle in the internal politics of the indian kingdoms. Those could not retaliate, just be in the defensive.

  • Additionally, the Spaniards were (mostly) united. Many of the people involved in the conquest wanted to go to battle, plunder the indians AND return to Spain with the booty. That helped limit the cases of Spaniards turning against each other (there were still some), because even if victorious, they could not have returned to Spain.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, the Spaniards had a lot of native allies who hated the Aztecs. Seeing what kind of empire the Aztecs were leading, it's no wonder. $\endgroup$ – vsz Dec 17 '14 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ as another note the European forces tended to have better developed the concept of fighting in a military unit, instead of individuals fighting separately. This and other similar 'military technologies', which had more to do with how war was raged and organized and less about better guns, played a non-trival role. This is really just an offshoot of the bullet point 4 & 2 listed above really, but an important one. $\endgroup$ – dsollen Dec 17 '14 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ You mentioned a skeleton crew remaining on the ship - OK, lets assume that there is a skeleton ship that manages to not get killed and set sail - what sort of crew would a ship of that magnitude require for the months long journey? where would they magically replenish their food supplies? $\endgroup$ – user2813274 Dec 17 '14 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ @user2813274 presumably they would try to find somewhere unpopulated to land to replenish. Admittedly risky. $\endgroup$ – smci Dec 17 '14 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ A great answer. Killing people to rob them or just killing for fun was so popular that the European explorers has no reason to expect the natives met on journey wouldn't try that as well. $\endgroup$ – Danubian Sailor Dec 18 '14 at 9:18
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As said getting everyone in the Americas to agree to this is nearly impossible. In addition most sailors would stay on their ships, so it would require invading of ships and be difficult. Your best hope would be to force ships to leave coast without resupplying, which would potentially lead to dieing at sea. Of course that just means closer land masses, like Greenland, would be the first to discover the Americas because their sailors will have enough food to get home if forced to.

There are also some...misconceptions about the native American people. The "welcome people as gods" idea is not realistic, that's our butchered history trying to paint the native Americas as foolish and easily tricked. If any story was written like this I would encourage you to take the time to research, or get feedback from here, on the actual culture of the Americas to avoid such misrepresentations. Of course even that is hard, since the culture at the tip of south America is not the same as what became present day Canada. The Americas are HUGE and trying to make any generalization as if all the peoples of all the Americas are the same or would respond the same way is impossible.

The diseases brought to America from the 'old world' would still be a concern. If settlers were killed quickly it's possible that it would take awhile for them to spread their disease, but once the disease is spread at all the same epidemics will be an issue in the Americas. They wouldn't be as bad presumably, but they would still likely occurs. Of course this would also mean that the Americas may have better immunity to these disease when a real invading force reached the Americas, which could have an affect on how these forces were met.

again I must stress that the Americas were made up of a huge number of peoples, not a few large countries like England, and it's really impossible to generalize beyond this without setting a specific part of the Americas or a few tribes who's personality and reaction you wish to explore. Still, getting all of them to work with you to repel European settlers is impractical, part of the reasons that the later push of European peoples into the Americas was successful was because of there being so many different peoples with different beliefs that couldn't decide rather they wished to resist the Europeans, help them, or use them to get rid of their neighbors. Getting all of these groups to work towards a common goal is nearly impossible.

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Let's assume that many of the peoples of the Americas have been convinced of these (and only these) facts:

  1. People are going to come on large ships from the East.
  2. If they are able to send a message home, their people will come to kill you, enslave you, and give you plague.
  3. They are the Borg. You can't beat them. Not even you, Aztecs.

This might lead them to cooperate in creating settlements along the coast specifically to keep watch for ships, even forming garrisons in less hospitable areas that would usually be sparsely populated. This wouldn't last forever -- eventually they'll get an "explorer" who's bloodthirsty enough to kill them first (alternately, eventually some subgroup is going to defect and try to ally with the Europeans to get an advantage over their rivals). On the other hand, if everyone who tries sailing West is never heard from again, that will probably slow down the rate at which Europeans keep throwing themselves at the problem. Let's say it buys the Americans 100 years. What are they going to do?

First of all, they're going to study the artifacts they recover from the explorers. They'll learn 1) how to make firearms and other European weapons, and 2) "Oh ****, we're going to need a lot more metal." This might lead them to rapidly push toward industrialization (and for groups that hadn't already transitioned to a more sedentary, agricultural society, this would push that to happen quickly). This is a massive change to everyone's way of life, but they're aware that the alternative is genocide.

Of course, this doesn't turn them into angels. Some of them will probably use their technology to kick the butts of all the people farther to the West. But that might be beneficial in terms of getting everyone working together on the resistance.

So, when Europeans eventually hear about what's over there, they might find a land more like their own, with densely-populated cities, specialized militaries, and no willingness to put up with their BS. The Americans don't have to be able to win a shooting war with all of Europe, just able to work their way into the existing system of trade and alliances rather than getting overrun.

Unfortunately, this would do absolutely nothing to help the Americans against the real European weapon: plague. I've seen estimated mortality rates for smallpox and influenza that are as high as 90%. High population density would make it even worse. They wouldn't even be able to use quarantine for arriving Europeans, because some would be asymptomatic carriers. I can't think of any way that you could have a "soft" introduction of European diseases to the Americas, allowing the native population to acquire the resistance that Europeans developed over thousands of years. There are low-tech vaccination methods, but allowing them to know about that in advance goes outside the scope of your scenario. To the extent that the ability to survive these diseases is genetic, enthusiastic interbreeding might help... but it would still put the existing population at a huge disadvantage when they first made contact.

In the end you might have the same result as we had in real life, with the exception that Europeans would have a harder time rewriting history as a narrative of cultural superiority and colonization.

... okay, I wanted to believe that last part, but if that happened we'd probably just rewrite it as a narrative of biological superiority instead.

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    $\begingroup$ hey're going to study the artifacts they recover from the explorers. They'll learn 1) how to make firearms and other European weapons, and 2) "Oh ****, we're going to need a lot more metal." This might lead them to rapidly push toward industrialization. Supposedly you have more knowledge that a bunch of native americans that held their first bunch of weapons. Can you (without searching in books/internet) tell us how would YOU mine and smelt iron/steel and/or produce black powder? $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Dec 17 '14 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metallurgy_in_pre-Columbian_America - The people of South and Central America had pretty advanced mining and smelting techniques already, but they were relatively small-scale. I thought they worked with at least a little bit of iron but it looks like I was wrong. $\endgroup$ – octern Dec 17 '14 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ Gunpowder is hard, but people are smart. With a proof of concept, I'll bet that a civilizaton could figure it out given 100 years and lots of motivation. $\endgroup$ – octern Dec 17 '14 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ @SJuan76: you could always keep a few invaders at hand and get them to tell you (if they actually knew how to mine and smelt properly, which is indeed doubtful) $\endgroup$ – njzk2 Dec 17 '14 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ You can't learn much technology from artifacts. The Africans were able to make poor-quality replicas of European firearms on the short scale, and only because their melting technology is already on the high level. Gunpowder is useful only as a toy (fireworks) without high-quality metallurgy. $\endgroup$ – Danubian Sailor Dec 18 '14 at 9:36
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Japan might be an instructive example, as it tried something similar - the sakoku policy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakoku - for a couple of centuries. It had a much more unified culture, however, acting on a much smaller land mass, and still was not able to keep foreign influences out entirely. Still, it was able to limit the influences to the point where the eventual opening of the country didn't result in immediate foreign conquest. (And probably wouldn't have at all, had not the militarists overreached themselves at Pearl Harbor.)

I think, though, that the real problem with making this work in the Americas is the lack of cultural uniformity. Disease was a factor, but the Europeans had earlier recovered from plagues nearly as bad. The real problem (as with the British in India later on) is that culture A disliked neighboring cultures B and C much more than they did the new arrivals, and so sought alliances with the newcomers against the neighbors.

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Since Ptolemy the World knows that Earth is spherical and the trade route to China was so lucrative that many people wanted to compete with ancient silk road.

Therefore exploration couldn't stop after few lost expeditions. Discovery of Americas would just have taken more time and determination.

One day or another, an expedition would figure out what the problem was, and come back with more military resources.

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    $\begingroup$ And that is exactly why declaring independence of United States did not work, because British Empire was sending military ship after military ship until they repelled the rebellion... $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Dec 17 '14 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek I was under the impression that it wasn't Natives but Colonists who rebelled. The only country in the Americas that can claim to be under Native control is Paraguay. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Dec 17 '14 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ Yup, it is a legend that Columbus was the only one believing Earth is round. Arabs developed spheric trigonometry (they needed to know the direction to Mecca). His mistake (why he was laughed at) was he thought Earth is much smaller than in reality was - happily there was unknown continent for him to resupply with fresh water. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Dec 17 '14 at 13:59
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This would require that the entire eastern seaboard of North and South America become a unified state (perhaps via reverse-engineering your time machine's technology, or by deciphering the books stored within).

Otherwise, the explorers will land on literally any point on the eastern seaboard, and in the absence of a unified government of some kind, it will not be possible to consistently kill all of the explorers.

Given the technology and power to conquer and unify the Americas, it would not be a stretch for them to obtain sufficient resources to counter-invade Eurasia.

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    $\begingroup$ The people who lived there at the time were able to trade, share news, and fight wars all without being a unified state, so I don't see why they couldn't all come to an agreement on this (especially once people started reporting "if you let these guys live, they'll try to enslave you and/or give you smallpox"). $\endgroup$ – octern Dec 17 '14 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ The Aztecs with their system of Flower Wars were pretty bloodthirsty already, and it is not unreasonable to have at least one tribe refuse the orders and not kill the explorers. It only takes a single failure of this honour-based system for the Europeans to find out the New World exists. This system is honour-based as punishment would not have any effect on the outcome, even if the tribe is genocided for not killing the Europeans, the cat is already out of the bag. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Dec 17 '14 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ @octem unless they all had a completelly clear understanding of the dangers involved, it would have been difficult to get all of the people to agree. Imagine that your people is often suffering raids from the tribe next hill, and you see that "the dangerous white people" is at your coast. Maybe it would be tempting to just politely welcome them and point them where the tribe next hill lives, instead of risking your own lives to protect the tribe next hill... $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Dec 17 '14 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ @octern I'm quite skeptical of the claim that the people across the whole seaboard were trading and sharing news - if your relationships with your neighbours are "people from other nearby islands come to capture them as slaves; they defend themselves the best they can" then it's not realistic to expect that a message "let's all ally against a mythical foe that we have never seen and that might have future benefits (according to our prophet)" would pass along the coast and be accepted. A time traveler with such plans would have to visit convince each and every community separately. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Dec 17 '14 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ You're all right, this is a real weak point. In my answer I took it as a given that they were all individually convinced of this, which I think is how the question was stated. $\endgroup$ – octern Dec 17 '14 at 15:33
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Just for the moment, let's assume the possibility of this situation actually happening (it's unlikely, but I'll leave that for later). I think, due to human nature, someone would eventually make the same discoveries, even if we don't colonise (though again, I think we'd do that too).

On the point of discoveries, we would eventually be able to discover that the world is round due to other technology. For example, although it may take us a little longer, we would eventually develop satellites, which would show us pictures of a round world. Or, of course, people could just try sailing East without stopping to prove the roundness.

More to the point, given how militaristic humans are, I suspect that someone would get suspicious pretty soon that all the ships are disappearing, even as food and technology and ships get better, and eventually they'd just send warships and heavily armed soldiers over to find out what really happens to all the ships. Admittedly this strategy would still be vulnerable to the strategy you outline, but if several warships and boatloads of soldiers disappear people will get really suspicious. On the other point, colonisation, due to the reasons above, we'd eventually send enough troops (and other people too, later on) over to be able to control the entire country.


Now I come on to the unlikelihood of this actually happening. You're talking 15th century communication, medicine, technology. So just briefly: for this to happen, all these countries (which are long distances apart) would have to communicate, agree and all carry out this plan, while maintaining a good enough population to stay populated and keep the strategy going. Admittedly it is possible, but it's fairly unlikely.

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  • $\begingroup$ As for a round world, that was known well before Cristobal Colon. Pythagoras called the world round in the 6th century BC, and Greek astronomy proved it in the 3rd century BC. The Christian establishment in medieval Europe accepted this as fact (just not other things like the Earth going around the sun) $\endgroup$ – Vincent McNabb Dec 17 '14 at 23:52
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Assuming that the Native Americans did manage to stop all ships sailing across the Atlantic for many years (unlikely), then one possible result is that when we finally do get there, we discover that the Americans all speak Russian. After all, Russia had a presence in Alaska, Hawaii and California from the 18th Century and it would have been very difficult to stop them from spotting the coast of Alaska, even if the West Coast Americans were as organised as the East Coast ones.

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Perhaps the great barrier defence could be a disease thatnwas not (only) carried by people, which has been noted is too sparce. It could be in some thing or things that are everywhere along the coast and unavoidable, especially with no clue that it's present.

As an engineered defence, it would not be constrained by the usual limits of the naturally evolved biosphere.

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  • $\begingroup$ To be honest, I dont have a clue what are you talking about... $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Dec 17 '14 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek this appears to refer to your plan to keep explorers out; instead of people you can use a disease, spread along the coastline. $\endgroup$ – ArtOfCode Dec 18 '14 at 0:16
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This could work well with contemporary tourists. But not too long. The more people are missing, the more the others get suspicious.

Europe was a hard place to live in middle ages. You could get robbed and killed. Some princes were gangsters and their castles were bandit's nests (Raubritters). You were used to mistrust strangers.

Consider the first expedition is so childlishly naive they will fall into this trap. In Europe, nobody knows why the expedition has failed. They suspect the Columb wasn't knowing what he is doing and the ocean is much bigger. The actual expedition would require more bigger ships with more supplies (and more weapons, just to make sure). The conquista would be delayed, but eventually someone will send it. If they find the land near enough for Columb to survice, they would get much more suspicious about the possible failure reason. They would expect monsters or hostile (man-eating?) natives.

They could even not try to socialize with natives, but kill enough of them to make the others flee, capture as much as you can, put in the cages and bring to the Europe for research purposes.

The only thing that could change the history is that the black death plague would be probably already over and the new population, immune to European illnesses would be reborn. Therefore, the conquista could be more similar to those of the Africa - it could take centuries.

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