This week in 1493, the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, was sailing just off the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic. As he navigated the area, his attention was caught by three unusual beings: mermaids.
What Columbus actually saw were three manatees. His log notes that they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Apparently, Columbus had a talent for understatement. Some readers may recall the 1984 film, Splash, staring Daryl Hannah or the 1989 Disney film, The Little Mermaid. In neither of these cinematic epics did the main character even vaguely resemble a manatee… “not half as beautiful” indeed.
Almost a century earlier, a similar notation occurred in the logs of the famed Chinese Admiral Zheng He. Zheng was an unlikely choice to ascend the ranks as he did. To begin, he was a Muslim and a eunuch. Even so, his ambition and courage brought him great favor with the emperor, Yongle.
In his book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, historian Gavin Menzes even argues that Chinese mariners may have made it as far as the Sacramento River just off the northeast corner of San Francisco Bay. Medieval Chinese armor recovered by divers in the area seems to support this claim. There is, however, no strong scholarly consensus.
The first of Zheng’s six voyages began in 1402. He commanded what has become known as the Great Treasure Fleet. His ships were enormous. These Ming era treasure junks were almost four times the length of the average European vessel of the day. As such, they were capable of transporting vast riches and exotic goods from as far away as the eastern coast of Africa.
On Zheng’s voyages to Africa, his party traded with the indigenous people they encountered. Just like Columbus, Zheng was met with creatures he had never before seen. One of the exotic beasts, hitherto unknown by the Chinese, was a giraffe.
As sailors have long done, they made a record of those items taken on board. As the giraffe was loaded onto Zheng’s ship an entry was made in the manifest: one unicorn.
These two examples demonstrate one of humanity’s most complex and valuable traits. As we encounter the unknown, we attempt to make it fit within those things we already understand.
Sometimes the fit is pretty exact. We see a white cow and a black cow and we think “cow.” Maybe we know something more specific about cows and can discern that the white one is a Charolais and the black one is a Welsh Black. Maybe we just see two cows.
Sometimes it’s less exact. We see a manatee and we think “mermaid” or we see a giraffe and think “unicorn.”
The broader point here stems from the fact that we regard all new things in the context of historical knowledge. Unless we’re pushed over a paradigm-enlarging threshold, all new things get crammed into old boxes.
This then brings us to the specter of a new year. Obviously, each new year adjoins an old one. The old is predicate. The new is promise, but that promise is tethered to what has been. Therein lies the conundrum for all who desire progress or betterment: How do we use the past to inform our journey without being a slave to it?
As magical, mythical creatures go, that one is far more profound than any mermaid or unicorn.