Humankind began in Africa, but has perennially been driven to see what’s over the next hill. With one next hill after another, in time we came to inhabit most of the globe.
Partly it was the mere urge for survival; but we’ve never been satisfied with merely that. Always we’ve striven for betterment, always seeking greener pastures. Surely that’s why, perhaps 15,000 years ago, people who found themselves in the bleak terrain of eastern Siberia pushed on, across the Bering land bridge, into a new continent. Long before that, a similar land bridge may have brought humans to Australia.
Yet not even open water could stop us. Early peoples also populated many remote islands dotting the vast expanse of the Pacific.
Just imagine such a voyage. Looking out at the horizon, you saw nothing but water. You couldn’t know how far you’d have to go before finding land – if ever. Someone had to go first, after all. And your boat was surely nothing much, a ramshackle little raft or dugout. Yet, impelled by some inner force, you got in that flimsy boat, and you went.
For the people who embarked on such a voyage, it was akin to a moonshot – but without the benefit of a backup team at a Houston control center. They were totally on their own, sailing into the unknown.
No doubt many of their bones lie at the bottom of the sea. But some of them made it.
Back on the other side of the world, people knew nothing of any of this. Eventually they learned to deploy not just rafts and canoes, but sturdy seagoing vessels. Still, those were scant match for the oceans’ caprice, and such voyaging took huge courage. For a long time, people pretty much huddled along their shorelines; the Chinese crept along theirs to explore their neighborhood; the Portuguese methodically felt their way along the African coast; the Vikings hopped from Scandinavia to Iceland to Greenland and even Newfoundland.
But the Straits of Gibraltar, between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, still represented a barrier, not a gateway. Called the “Pillars of Hercules,” they were metaphorically draped with a banner proclaiming Non Plus Ultra – nothing further beyond.
One man, however, was undeterred. And when he set out, with three ships, in 1492, the first (as far as we know) ever to attempt a straight shot out across the open Atlantic, surely this too was akin to a moonshot.
Columbus was wrong about plenty; he grossly underestimated the distance to his actual goal, and never understood what he discovered instead. And for untold millions the consequences were horrible. Still, the ultimate result was to begin the immense process of reuniting all the people who, long before, had spread out among the globe’s far-flung reaches, into one great world community.
When the Spaniards minted coins in the New World, for three centuries they all depicted a pair of pillars, the Pillars of Hercules, but with a new and thrilling banner draped across them: Plus Ultra – there is more beyond.
“O God, your sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” This is the so-called sailor’s prayer. Yes, the sea is vast indeed, and our boats are very small. But with our eyes to the horizon, our faces to the wind, our hopes and our dreams, we set out upon our journey.
And someday shall reach the stars.