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.


Anonymous said...

"Of course, the French forget about Haiti": you forget that Haiti was first invaded by Columbus that called it Hispaniola.Then Haiti was exploited by the Spaniards for its gold, when they murdered a big part of the Amerindians living there. Then they brang overthere African slaves. France came overthere only in the XVIIth century, almost two centuries later after the washing away had been done.

"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." Who murdered the 80 millions of Indians living in America before Columbus arrived, so that they were only 10 millions in 1550? Not Europeans? Were those Europeans already Americans by the moment they put their divine feet on the New World?


Ms. Di Rico said...

Thanks for sharing these interesting thoughts, Mr. M. I would so prefer that the national Italian-American holiday commemorated the life and work of da Vinci or Saint Francis...maybe then I would march in the parade with my dad.

Anonymous said...

One less irritating close-everything-state/federal holiday on the calendar suits me, but try promoting that!