Yesterday was the anniversary of the day that Christopher
Columbus bumped into the West Indies – under the mistaken belief that they were
the East Indies.
To some he is a hero, to others a villain. The truth is
that, like most high achievers, he was something of both.
He was also an entrepreneur.
The Spanish discovery of the Americas was largely a triumph
of private enterprise.
For years, Columbus hawked his business plan around the
courts of Europe in a 15th Century Dragons’ Den.
He eventually sold his idea of sailing to the East Indies
via the West to the King and Queen of Spain.
In the event, it is difficult to say what they contributed. Much
of the capital came from Italian investors, Columbus’ own countrymen, and the
ships in which he sailed were private property.
The deal was that Columbus himself would get 10% of the
revenues of any lands he discovered plus the option to purchase a 12½% stake in
any business established in those lands.
It is said that he was only granted these terms because it
was assumed that there was little chance that he would ever return. Certainly,
no one expected him to be as successful as he was.
However, the Spanish monarchs did not honour the original
deal. Although he died a fairly wealthy man, he never received the huge sums to
which he felt entitled. Litigation continued for almost 300 years.
Like many entrepreneurs, before and since, Columbus also
discovered that there is no point complaining to the government when you are
cheated by the government.