523 years ago, a Genoese explorer and his three-ship expedition landed on Guanahani, in the Caribbean. This landing began over five centuries of brutal genocide against the indigenous population at the hands of Europeans, destroying entire civilizations. Some of those civilizations were far from perfect, such as the human-sacrificing Aztecs. However, most were truly decent, and didn’t deserve to have their entire way of life wiped out by white-skinned, gold-hungry, religious fanatics...and their germs.
I’ve spent a better part of a decade trying to figure out how the hell Native Americans could have beaten the Europeans. I tried killing Columbus, but then fucking Cabral had to independently discover Brazil. Even if Europe never stumbled upon the Americas in the fifteenth century, they would have eventually. The Europeans still would have all but wiped out the Native Americans. It’s because of European diseases more than anything.
That was the problem with my original approach. I was looking at it from an isolationist approach; I was trying to keep the Americas safe from Europe. But no matter what, when the Americas and Europe met, there’d still be a biological catastrophe (one could argue that if contact happened after vaccines were created, Europeans could have given it to Native Americans. That idea is laughable for several reasons). Now I realize that the key is to have contact happen sooner.
Before the fifteenth century, Europe, Africa, and Asia were in no position to reach the Americas. They didn’t have the nautical technology required for such voyages, such as the compass (though it was being developed in China starting in the second century BCE, and arrived in Europe in the 13th century CE) and carrack (a sturdy type of ship developed in the 15th century). They were confined to cabotage, travel from port to port along coasts. However, even during this time of limited maritime knowledge, one group managed to reach lands completely unknown to people of the Eurasian-African landmass.
Around 1000, almost five hundred years before Columbus happened upon Guanahani, Leif Erickson arrived at what is today Newfoundland in Canada. He had traveled from Viking colonies in Greenland — which itself had been settled in the late tenth century by Norse from Iceland — and according to the Saga of Erik the Red, Erickson reached Vinland accidentally while trying to return to Norway. The “new” land was called Vinland due to the abundance of grapes ideal for making wine. However, the journey from Greenland, which itself had a small Viking population, was a difficult one due to pack ice exacerbated by the Little Ice Age. The difficult journey combined with resistance from Native Americans forced the Vikings to eventually abandon Vinland. However, peaceful relations with Native Americans, such as trading, were also mentioned, so peace between the Norse and Native Americans was possible. After the abandonment of Vinland, even Greenland was abandoned by the 15th century due to difficulties of resupply from Scandinavia caused by the Little Ice Age. The Americas remained all but isolated...and ripe for the Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and Portuguese plucking.
Was there another way?
If the Little Ice Age had been delayed a couple of centuries, it’s possible that Norse colonists could have streamed to Greenland and Vinland en masse. If they had, the Norse might have made it into the southern part of North America, maybe even all the way to Florida. As they did so, the diseases they carried would have spread throughout the continent, just as it did in this timeline. Millions of Native Americans still would have died. This seems to be all but unavoidable. But would the Norse have taken advantage of this, and began plundering the entire continent?
It’s unlikely. The Norse were primarily a maritime people; as such, they would have probably stayed close to the coasts and along waterways such as the Saint Lawrence River and Great Lakes, either peacefully trading with the Native peoples or coming to an arrangement after several wars (probably both). The Norse had a small edge in technology with their ships and iron swords; but Native Americans had numbers — even after outbreaks of disease — knowledge of the land, and their own formidable technology on theirs. While the Norse likely would have created alliances with some Native American nations against others, I think overall there would have been a general balance of power. There would have been a brief period in which the Norse tried to capture Native Americans as slaves, but as the slaves died from disease — as what happened in the Caribbean in the time of Columbus — the Norse would have altered their relations with their indigenous neighbors.
The greatest problem with this new Norse scenario is that there is no way they’d be able to keep this vast new land a secret from the other European powers. However, a full-on European invasion of the Americas earlier than the 1490s is unlikely. Spain and Portugal were both embroiled in their Reconquista against the Muslim rulers of Iberia. England was ravaged by the Norman conquest and subsequent wars of unification. France too was mired in wars of unification until the thirteenth century. Most of Europe also would have been distracted by the Crusades and Mongol invasions. Vinland and its riches would likely just be considered legends and exaggeration until the fifteenth century, when the nations of Europe were finally cohesive enough to launch voyages of commerce and exploration.
Whether the Norse would have expanded their presence into the Caribbean depends on many factors. If they had a large enough population along the North American northeast coast, they might have kept going, making their way around the Florida peninsula and along the Gulf Coast. Some might have made their way up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, trading with local indigenous nations. Who knows, the Norse might have even gone all the way to South America, creating a vast network of settlements and Native American allies. It all depends on the infrastructure the Norse were able to build along the coasts, and the alliances they were able to create with Native Americans. I’m going to assume a best case scenario, in which the Norse and most of the Native Americans end up having peaceful and lucrative trade relationships. Trade would trickle back to Denmark and Scandinavia, while the Black Death would have traveled to the Americas in the late fourteenth century via Norse trading ships. The disease would devastate the population of the Americas, just as it devastated Europe. But as the population of Europe recovered, so too would the population of the Americas, this time with much greater immunity to Eurasian diseases.
How tied the Vinland colonies would stay to Scandinavia depends greatly on how self-sufficient the colonies were. If they reached the same level of self-sufficiency the English colonies did in the 1700s, it’s not a huge stretch to assume they’d push for independence — if they weren’t de facto independent in the first place. In any event, Scandinavia would be in no position to force the colonies to stay in line, since they’d be struggling against the Franks and converting to Christianity.
Would the Vinland colonies have turned to Christianity as well? Almost certainly; even in “real” history, the colonies of Greenland and Newfoundland were Christian. The bishops of the colonies would have tried to convert Native Americans as well, probably with mixed results.
By 1492, after nearly five hundred years of exploration, wars, attempted conversions, and epidemics, the Norse colonies and Native Americans would have lived in relative peace, the indigenous populations having rebounded. There could have been as many as six million Norse colonists living along the coasts of North and South America, and millions of Native Americans across both continents by the late fifteenth century. Native American adventurers could have joined Norse trading ships, even making it back to Europe. Additionally, new carrack-style ships would have become part of the Vinland fleet. Instead of relying on cabotage, Norse trading ships would sail directly to European and African ports.
Columbus would have nothing to “discover” because the Americas would become common knowledge once Native American diplomats and adventurers traveled to Europe regularly. It’s possible he and the other conquistadors would try to conquer the Americas, but considering they’d be facing an indigenous population at full strength along with their Norse allies, I seriously doubt it.
As for imperialistic Native nations such as the Aztec and Inca, the Norse would join the empires’ adversaries, especially once they got wind of the Aztec propensity for human sacrifice (which would go against their Christian faith). But rather than wage wars of conquest against the Aztec and Inca, the Norse would merely aid their allies in breaking the empires apart and restoring a semblance of freedom to the regions. By this time, the Norse would barely even be Norse anymore. Centuries of interbreeding with indigenous people would likely create a new “Vinish” people with strong ties to both Norse and Native American heritages.
The Pilgrims and other religious and political refugees would likely still travel to the Americas seeking the freedom to practice their faith, but they would have faced not a depopulated Massachusetts, but a vibrant and rich land bustling with Vinish colonists and a strong Wampanoag nation (having long since recovered from devastating plagues brought upon by the Norse centuries earlier). This alliance would keep the Pilgrims in check, and prevent them from taking over the area. The same would be repeated along the American coasts from Newfoundland to Tierra del Fuego. Even in areas in which the Norse and Vinish did not have an established presence, a strong Native American population would very likely keep any conquerors at bay.
By the seventeenth or eighteenth century, as the Americas continually asserted their independence against increasing attempts by the European powers to dominate Vinish and Native American affairs, the European powers would do everything they could to gain a foothold in the Americas — backroom deals, trade alliances, even outright military aggression.
In the face of this hostility, the Vinish, other European-descended colonists, and Native Americans — inspired by the unity of the Haudenosaunee League (Iroquois, colloquially) — could agree to form a union that spanned the continents. Not a union as complete as the United States, but more like the current European Union, a pact of mutual defense and economic unity. The new Vinland League (completely guessing as to what it would be called) could fight off the imperialistic Europeans, and cement their independence.
Of course, it would only be a matter of time until corporations ultimately took control of North and South Vinland, as they have done here. The continents in the 21st century in the new timeline would be much like the Americas today, full of corruption, greed, and other ills. But at least it would be a far richer culture, enhanced by the traditions and individuality of hundreds of intact Native nations.