A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World
Everything you know is wrong
By Steven Martinovich
Ask the average American who were the first Europeans to have settled North America and you're likely to hear "the Pilgrims". It is, of course, the wrong answer -- by about a millenium -- but the fault likely isn't their own for the error. For centuries, the Pilgrims -- a group of dour folk escaping religious oppression in Europe in order to impose it in a new colony -- have received great press, plenty of time in history class and their own holiday to celebrate a feast that probably didn't include a turkey. While a great story, the reality of the exploration and colonization of America is far more engaging...and tragic.
So argues Tony Horwitz in A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, part travelogue, part search for the historical truth of America's founding story. Plymouth was merely the latest in a long series of settlements installed by the Vikings, Spanish, French and English, among others. Most of them were abominable failures that typically ended in bloodshed after violent encounters with the natives – usually at the instigation of the newcomers – or starvation.
With A Voyage Long and Strange Horwitz once again assumes his guise of the skeptical traveler looking for the real story. Disappointed that he remembers little of what he was taught in school about America's founding, admitting he essentially has a third grader's knowledge, he embarks on a trip that takes him from Plymouth, Viking settlements in Atlantic Canada to Spanish efforts in the southern United States and the Dominican Republic and ultimately back to New England. Along the way he discovers that events that happened centuries ago continue to have their impact felt today.
While A Voyage Long and Strange not surprisingly debunks a lot of what people "know" about history -- Christopher Columbus, for example, didn't believe the world was flat but also didn't believe it was a globe either -- Horwitz chronicles the intense hatred that many conquered peoples still have for the explorers, soldiers and traders that came to North America. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the Spanish are hated for the brutal crimes committed against the island's natives. First Nation peoples in both Canada and the United States have few kind things to say about either the English or French. Even Plymouth marks a day of mourning for the natives who died from disease brought by earlier explorers, the reason why the Pilgrims found lands ready to work and pliant locals.
A reader would be justified in wondering if they were reading yet another politically correct chronicle of mass murder and exploitation. Over the past few decades it has become fashionable to decry those explorers as genocidal con artists, equal parts Adolph Hitler and Ken Lay. If A Voyage Long and Strange settled for merely being the latest in a series of "real" histories it would be little more than a political and cultural screed. Horwitz, however, isn't content with that. He makes the effort to talk with people who eagerly defend the legacy of men like Juan de Oñate, a conquistador who brutally suppressed the natives of Mexico and the United States by cutting off the feet of his victims. Nor were the natives the "noble savages" that many today are intent on painting them as. First Nations people needed no lessons from the Europeans on tyrannical government, murder, war and slavery.
Learning what "real" history, Horwitz shows, can also illuminate past motivation. America's history has been written and rewritten countless times to serve the nation's interests. Why does Plymouth continue to be celebrated while Jamestown – founded in 1607, 13 years before Plymouth – is often ignored? The Pilgrims were seen as hard-working, thrifty and religious people fleeing oppression who enjoyed a shared meal with the natives while Jamestown is considered a failure, its inhabitants too incompetent to survive either violent encounters with the locals or smart enough to plant crops. Neither description tells the entire truth about the two settlements but one is held as an example of American values and a part of the nation's mythology.
Even Horwitz may be accused of selectively interpreting history to suit his needs. He returns time and time again to the brutal legacy of exploration led by men like Oñate, Hernando de Soto and James Smith but never once touches upon those who peacefully explored the New World, those who include Samuel Champlain and Henry Hudson. Nor does he manage to find a responsible defender of the explorers and soldiers, rather eccentrics and bigots. They are not fatal flaws for A Voyage Long and Strange, though one might wonder if Horwitz had an agenda when deciding what himself to explore.
Ultimately A Voyage Long and Strange is about attempting to find the truth embedded in the various myths that surround the early days of European exploration and settlement. It is also an entertaining ride, however, and few are as adept at juggling entertainment with the sober lessons of history as Horwitz is. With his latest Horwitz has once again crafted an illuminating foray that combines travel, history and people and how they all live in an uneasy peace with the truth.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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