On July 7, 1987, a Guyanese-born scholar and historian appeared before Congress. His aim was simple: to separate history from myth by demonstrating conclusively that Christopher Columbus was not the first voyager to ‘discover’ the Americas, that in fact he was preceded by seafaring African nomads several centuries before. The man’s name was Ivan Van Sertima, and this book is the brilliant compilation of research that informed his groundbreaking speech on that summer day in Washington. Written in an elegant, academic manner with a literary flair, Van Sertima makes a stunning case for pre-Columbus, African contact with Mesoamerican cultures which, when viewed in its totality, stands as incontrovertible evidence. Such a claim requires multiple threads of corroborating research, and Van Sertima does not disappoint. He discusses ‘Negroid’ artifacts, linguistic and religious parallels between Egypt and Central American cultures, testimonials of Portuguese sailors and even royal court documents from Mali. Through Van Sertima’s fastidious detective work, an amazing picture of the early Americas emerges, one that is perhaps not in favor with popular colonial history (something which the author is not timid in pointing out) but nonetheless warrants our attention.
A people’s history is often the sum of its most popular stories, and They Came Before Columbus, in my opinion, offers us a new and dynamic story of American history, one that can only further enrich our appreciation of the cultural exchanges that have happened on this continent for a millennia. Food for thought the next time we get Columbus Day off!