David Bouchier: Financing The Future

Oct 9, 2017

Christopher Columbus, whose bold and erratic voyages we celebrate today, began his career as a trader and business agent. He knew the value of money, and he knew how hard it was to persuade people to part with it. His fantasy, based on a study of unreliable old maps and books, was to find a direct sea route from Europe to the Far East, where fabulous riches were believed to be had for the taking. As we now know, he was badly mistaken. A huge continent blocked the way between Europe and Asia, and Columbus sailed right into it.

History is strange. We celebrate Columbus as the Great Navigator, the discoverer of the New World, even though he never set foot on mainland America, not even on Long Island which is hard to miss. And, of course, America had been discovered thousands of years before by the people who were living there when he arrived, and again five hundred years before his voyage by a bunch of blond Vikings in funny hats, who decided it was an unpromising place and went home.

Columbus was a visionary, and when you have an unlikely and expensive scheme like his, it’s not easy to get financial support. His voyages were the fifteenth century equivalent of a Silicon Valley startup, promising vast returns on a big investment, based on nothing more than a grandiose idea. In Columbus’s time big investments were more or less the monopoly of the great European monarchs, who had managed to corner the market in money. Nobody else had very much. So he went where the money was.

Columbus first presented his visionary business plan to King John II of Portugal in 1485 and again in 1488, and was rejected as a fantasist. He tried his proposition on the courts of Genoa and Venice, and even on Henry II of England, with absolutely no success. Finally he took his scheme to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who after two years of negotiation, finally agreed to give him a contract to explore the far side of the western ocean, with the promise of all kinds of rewards if he succeeded. Columbus was on his way with the consequences we all know, and that are not over yet.

This investment was an act of faith on the part of Ferdinand and Isabella, and it was the key to his success. Here at Public Radio, we are in much the same situation as Columbus. We need to persuade you to invest in something that is invisible, abstract, and that exists mainly in the future – something idealistic in fact. But we can’t hope for support from government, as he did. The pseudo-monarchs of our time would rather accumulate wealth than give it away. They don’t care about serious news and classical music.

If you look forward to future voyages of discovery on Public Radio, the hard fact is, that you have to help to pay for them. Columbus the Great Navigator got his money the old-fashioned way. He begged for it. We would much prefer if you didn’t make us beg for it.

Copyright: David Bouchier