The field of Alternology (commonly known as counterfactual history or virtual history) is a relatively young offshoot of History. Most historians concern themselves with what definitively happened (according to sources that may or may not be reliable – i.e. Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul), as opposed to what could have happened. They scoff away the exploration of alternate histories as a waste of time, useless except perhaps as a fun mental exercise. The idea of teaching alternate history in a classroom is all but unthinkable; it would be a waste of time (and more “insidiously,” perhaps teach our children that there are other paths available than the one we are on).
I don’t agree. If my teachers had offered alternate scenarios to established history, it would have made me more inclined to learn history, not less. In fact, before I discovered the endless possibilities of alternate histories, I was not only on the verge of flunking out of college, I was in a rapid downward spiral in general. It was only when I discovered the magnificent Marvel X trilogy (Earth X, Universe X, and Paradise X), that I began to realize that the “boring” world I had grown up with is but one of a countless multitude. I began writing about an alternate world I wanted to go to after I died, one free from the manipulative nature of organized religion and the pessimism of nihilist atheism. But I wanted what I wrote to be as accurate as possible, not some fantasy world. I demanded to know if there was a better way than the one this world was forced to take. I began eagerly looking for any alternate histories that pertained to this world, and found nothing at first.
Then I found Robert Cowley’s collection of counterfactual essays, What If? The essays were fascinating; while three dealt with World War II (one could argue for a fourth, “Funeral in Berlin,” but that was more of a Cold War essay) and two dealt with the U.S. Civil War – two of the most popular topics for counterfactual historians — I was more fascinated by the essays that touched upon more little-explored topics, such as what would have happened had the Assyrians not sacked Jerusalem, or if Alexander the Great had died sooner. I devoured the book and then looked for more like it; sadly, my search of Borders and Barnes & Noble turned up nothing (while the Internet was rapidly expanding at the turn of the century, it was nothing like it is now, and was more or less useless for my endeavor).
Then about a year later, a second volume of What If? was released. I didn’t even wait for it to come out in paperback; I scooped up the hardcover right then and there. I was not disappointed; new essays included one about the consequences of Pontius Pilate sparing Jesus of Nazareth, another explored the possibility of Socrates dying at the Battle of Delium. The two books reignited my love of history, and I began devouring dozens of history books. And I began formulating my own “What If?” scenarios.
The first, and the one I have spent the most time researching for, is what would have happened had a hurricane destroyed Columbus’s expedition before it ever reached the Americas (originally, I had the Lucayans – the people of Guanahani, the island Columbus first landed on — killing Columbus, but given their pacifist nature, this is a very unlikely scenario). Hurricanes in October are not unheard of in the Atlantic, and Columbus’s three vessels would have been very unlikely to withstand such an onslaught. And hurricanes are a fairly random occurrence, so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a world where the weather doomed his expedition.
What would the ramifications of the loss of Columbus be? In 1492, Portugal was the leading seafaring nation in Europe. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias successfully returned to Portugal after rounding the Cape of Good Hope near the southern tip of Africa. This achievement cemented Portugal’s domination of an eastern sea route to Asia, and motivated them to reject Columbus’s pleas to finance his westward journey to Asia. Almost all educated Europeans of the time agreed that a westward journey to Asia would take so long that the sailor would die of disease, thirst, or hunger before they could reach the continent. Columbus was finally able to win the backing of the Spanish rulers Isabella and Ferdinand after two solid years of begging. Even then, the rulers had little faith in success, but were desperate to find a way to circumvent Portugal’s domination of eastern sea trade routes to Asia, and the Ottomans’ domination of land trade routes.
If Columbus had never returned, it’s likely that this would strengthen the belief that a western sea route – at least at that time – was a pointless endeavor. However, in 1500, Pedro Alvarez Cabral accidentally stumbled upon what is now Brazil as his exploration fleet was making a wide westerly turn to catch a trade wind that would ease their journey to the Cape of Good Hope.
From what I’ve gathered from my research, the “discovery” of Brazil was completely independent of Columbus’s discovery, though there are theories that Cabral was intentionally looking for it. If so, he might have been following rumors resulting from Columbus’s voyages. However, none of this is established fact, only speculation by historians.
So if Columbus had not reached the Americas in 1492, Cabral would likely be credited today for doing the same in 1500. However, John Cabot would probably not have sailed to North America in 1497, as his voyage seems to have been dependent on Columbus’s. The two were friends (or at least acquaintances), and if Columbus had been lost, it would have either delayed Cabot’s journey or caused him to write it off completely as too dangerous. After Cabral discovered Brazil, however, Spain, France, and England would probably have sent their own expeditions to Brazil to stake their own claims to the new land, which would have caused conflict with Portugal. Over the years the European powers would have slowly made their way to the Caribbean and North America. The Treaty of Tordesillas — which divided the unexplored world between Spain and Portugal — most likely still would have been created to prevent war between the European powers, only England and France would have been parties to it.
As more European conquerors headed to the new continents, history would have progressed more or less as normal. Cortes and Pizarro most likely would have still conquered the Aztecs and Incas, and the French and English would have begun making inroads in North America.
Columbus today is remembered as a great villain by some, and a great hero by others, but the truth is, he was ultimately unimportant in history. If he hadn’t stumbled across the Americas in 1492, Cabral would have in 1500. The United States would most likely still existed, as would all the nations of the Americas. The only different would be that the continents would most likely be known as North and South Cabralia.