Penkava: A Eureka! moment: 'Discoveries' not new

Remember reading about all of those explorers of the Age of Discovery during the 15th through 17th centuries? Ah, who could forget famous names such as Magellan, Drake, Cortes, not to mention Balboa, who either discovered the Pacific Ocean or fought a lot around Philadelphia.

It certainly must have been an interesting way of life for those early explorers. They would just sail around looking for places to discover and name after themselves. I mean, how did they get to be explorers anyway? Did the local community colleges have courses such as “New Continents 101” or “Intro to Squelching Mutinies”? Perhaps you just answered an ad in the local newspaper:


Must have own ship and crew

Needs to know his way around a sextant

and have good map reading abilities

Bravery and foolhardiness a plus

Send résumé to local royalty

However it happened, there were a whole bunch of guys going exploring back then. But let’s say you are out there and you find something. How does the process of discovery really work? Is there paperwork to fill out? Is there a processing fee? Did you need an Explorer ID card?

Well, most explorers simply planted a flag on a beachhead and made an official declaration of possession. This was called the Right of Discovery, or Doctrine of Discovery and Conquest. What that meant was that the finder takes possession of all the people, land and wealth of the new territory in behalf of their sponsors, usually a king and queen. According to the history books I’ve read, that’s pretty much how we got famous places such as America, Hudson Bay, and Scrappy Corner, N.J.

But all this exploring stuff got me thinking. What about the people who already lived in the places that the explorers were discovering? In other words, how can you discover a place that is already discovered? I mean, Columbus “discovered” America, but weren’t there millions of indigenous Indians already living there? It would seem to me he was doing more visiting than discovering. Maybe he and the other explorers were more a part of the Age of Visitation than the Age of Discovery.

As I investigated this concept, I found that there have been a whole lot of explorers who discovered things that were already known. For example, you know who “discovered” the Mississippi River? Mr. Hernando de Soto. It doesn’t matter that long before him the Indians called it “Misi-zibi,” meaning “Great River.” Yep, just step right up, name a place, and go down in history. It sounds like a pretty good gig to me.

In fact, not too long ago someone tried it. Back in 1992, an Indian chief from the Chippewa Tribe and his entourage flew to Italy. When they disembarked their Alitalia airliner they promptly claimed Italy for the Indian people. The chief stood there on the tarmac of Fiunicino Airport and took possession of Italy by “Right of Discovery.” The fact that Italy had been populated for centuries did not matter, as it didn’t to Columbus in the Caribbean centuries earlier. The chief stated, “What right had Columbus to discover America when it was already inhabited for thousands of years? The same right that I have to come now to Italy and claim to have discovered your country.”

Oops, Columbus. I think the chief has a point there. But interestingly, as far as I know, Italy is not an Indian Territory and there is no plaque in the Rome airport that marks the spot of that great discovery by the 20th century Indians.

And so the legacy of the explorers goes. Perhaps what we read in our old history books is lacking a bit of accuracy, much less honesty. But wouldn’t it be nice if the Age of Discovery was still in fashion? Then I could walk into Country Donuts, plant myself on a counter stool, and lay claim to the people, land and the dough of their domain. Not to mention all the Boston creams I can eat.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He recommends the book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” by James W. Loewen. He also recommends the Boston Creams at Country Doughnuts. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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