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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 160
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James Robert Enterline, Erikson, Eskimos and Columbus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 342 pp.
It was the Eskimos who discovered America. That is more or less the message of this highly intriguing and remarkably speculative book. It was the Eskimos who had a cartographical way of looking at the world, who had cartographical memories, who were in touch with noncartographical but mapmaking Europeans through contact with the Norse of Greenland. There may even have been Eskimos who went to Europe to share their knowledge of the shape of the land west of Greenland, and that perhaps was how Baffin Island found its way onto the Vinland Map. Many years ago, just after the Vinland Map was first published, I lectured to six hundred first-year undergraduates along the lines of: Columbus knew where he was going. My most distinguished colleague—a Jewish American born in Berlin and educated as an Englishman at the school where Goodbye, Mr. Chips was filmed—remonstrated with me. After the Vinland Map was declared a forgery and my unhappy colleague had committed suicide, I was conscience-stricken: I had not told the truth to six hundred first-year undergraduates and I had thought gleefully of my colleague's reading as not up to the mark. Now the Vinland Map is back. It is just as likely to be genuine as not. I seem to be off the purgatorial rack.
Or possibly not. What Columbus knew when he set out westward into the Atlantic is an epistemological conundrum that may never be resolved. It seems, however, despite information from Bristol seamen (who, seeking "Brasil" and finding Newfoundland, may have had Eskimo-inspired charts in their cabins), that Columbus thought he was setting out eastward, or at any rate for the East. Old Europeans, Old Europeans of the dreamier sort, evidently prefer myths to maps, tall stories to cartography.
Colin Richmond is professor emeritus of medieval history at the University of Keele. His books include The Penket Papers (short stories) and a three-volume history of the Paston family in fifteenth-century Norfolk.