Monday, October 11, 2010

Europe's Columbus Day

Some 518 years ago today, Luis Torres, a Spanish Jew, became the first European on record to set foot in the New World. While we still debate the fateful consequences, I am struck by the comments of a contemporary European, to whom Christopher Columbus is a minor 15th century figure.

Indeed, in modern Europe, only Spain celebrates October 12 as a national holiday. In the Iberian peninsula, it is the "Día de la Hispanidad." The holiday that celebrates the common language and culture of the roughly half-billion people worldwide touched in a fundamental way by Spain, starting October 12, 1492.

Why would the other countries celebrate the day? Italians in the New World claim the Genoa-born Columbus as their own, but apart from a few historians Italians in Italy largely ignore the explorer.

Otherwise, the other Europeans associate the New World with the Spanish plunder and enslavement of which Eduardo Galeano memorably wrote.

Of course, the French forget about Haiti and Quebec, conquered just as savagely as were the francophone countries of Africa. The British forget their fateful invention of biological warfare against the natives of New England, just as they forget their invention of the concentration camp in Africa.

The Europeans just didn't have much of a chance to despoil in America. They had to wait to do so in Africa and Asia.

Moreover, Europeans think in centuries, so anything less than half-a-millenium old  is "new" — as are nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Across the Atlantic, the dominant narrative is still one about plucky European emigrants who somehow chucked their Europeanness and became American.

And Columbus? My unscientific sample said Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press in 1450, or polymath Leonardo DaVinci, born in 1452, were far more significant.

To Europeans, that is.
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