Curtain Raiser

A Debate of Little Substance, Colltalers

Poor old Chris: since the 1960s, he never seems to catch a break. Every year a new spark adds flame to the bonfire and demotion of the Columbus legacy lore. From intrepid conquistador, ‘first global man,’ to the greatest agent of ethnic cleansing in modern history.
In truth, debate over the discovery of America (actually, what’s now Bahamas, but never mind), 522 years ago yesterday, is now more nuanced, and his legacy, a bit better understood. Seattle, though, couldn’t wait: Oct. 12 is now Indigenous People’s Day.
That it rarely falls on that particular day (as a movable holiday, it’s marked on the second Monday of the month) is not the point. The movement to turn it into a celebration of the millions of natives who perished when the Genovese landed in the Caribbean island has gained momentum worldwide and other places are expected to redefine the day according to a new understanding of that.
Revisionism aside, though, political correctness not always work on hindsight and often tends to turn a well worn tradition into an incoherent travesty, with no bearing either to the historical record or justice to the figure itself. In the case of Columbus, however, it makes sense reassessing the myth, add context, and reestablish a narrative that may serve a higher purpose.
Despite Seattle’s early move, though, today will likely proceed as planned, following a familiar pattern of most American holidays: parades, political grandstanding, shopping, and B-B-Qs. And time off, of course, which for many won’t even be part of the bargain.
This year, the official story was assailed from the left field, by a respected discipline, unrelated to the controversy: underwater archeology. Last May, a team of ocean explorers thought they had found the shipwreck of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, off the coast of Haiti. If further studies would confirm it, this could revive the dog-eared holiday with a fresh paint of wonder.
But it wasn’t to be. U.N. investigators have proven that the carcass was of much more recent vessel. Copper nails, found at the site, were exactly the ones sinking the theory for good, since at the Italian mariner’s time, shipbuilding would use iron nails, not copper.
More: at least one historian, American-Portuguese Manuel Rosa, is now questioning even the belief that the Santa Maria ever sank. To him, the ship was hauled onto the Haitian shore, used to house sailors left behind by Columbus, and later, burned down.
Even if neither of these findings relates to the ongoing cultural and political revaluation of the sailor – who supposedly lost his way to ‘the Indias,’ and the lucrative spice markets of Asia, but found a spanking new world – globalization and its woes certainly has.
What was expected to be the end of border wars and the creation of a global market of all goods produced by mankind to benefit all corners of the world, with free trade and exchange of knowledge and riches among all, became another nightmare of even greater contrasting realities between the mega rich and the miserably poor. Worse: it’s accentuated a hundredfold racial and ethnic hatred.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus to a new continent – strangely not named after him, but after a rival navigator, the Portuguese Amerigo Vespucci who never stepped foot on it – also brought about the first global epidemic, the spread of a sexually-transmitted infectious disease, syphilis. First diagnosed in 1495 among his crew, within years, it’d exploded in Europe and jumped to Asia.
It’s unfair to blame Columbus for the ills of civilization four centuries after his demise. But expansionism ideals and dreams of world domination through occupation and trade control, drove European crowns to sponsor his journeys and of others like him.
These special group of individuals were imbued of equal parts of scientific curiosity to explore the unknown world, and to pillage it, whenever necessary, so to achieve glory and immortality most certainly beyond the reach of their humble upbringings.
Much of this contrite drive to reassess history is also part of our own undeniable debt to these conquerors’ rampage and massacre of native cultures, some lost forever, others obliterated to eternal submission, and yet others turned into a multi-century race of slaves.
If it’s all reduced to stereotypes, Columbus is a mere figurehead, a convenient scapegoat for a mostly white culture to safely express feelings of shame and regret. That such a reductionist view downplays the inherent miscegenation experienced by world populations since his time, only betrays its fatal shortcomings and inadequacy to frame the current reassessment of his cultural role.
It’s very likely that Columbus’s Day, as it’s marked now in the U.S. and other nations, will continue to undergo its extensive facelift, perhaps linking it to the struggle of disappearing cultures, and not just the ones he’s wiped out. Or adjusting it to less nationalistic tradition, and closer to a call for awareness about how globalization has become yet another instrument of domination.
But the zeal to sanitize and dress up old civilization myths, however reactionary they may be, seeking to exhume them to what’s acceptable to a contemporary sensibility is questionable in and on itself, as it’s often focused on form and not content.
There’s an inherent fascism on rewriting history to adapt it to current mores. Intentions apart, the end result is often catastrophically tilted towards authoritarianism, calls for ‘a new order,’ and other dangerous cliches. While we focus on what Columbus Day may or may not represent, Reservations remain the most brutal and accurate portrait of Native American life in this country today.
If we’re not willing to discuss the social impact of corralling an entire culture within the confines of fences, and pretend a solution thought out (badly) in the 1800s should still be acceptable today, then much of what’s being discussed is of little consequence.
In other words, however you mark Columbus Day, or ignore it like the majority, celebrate it or despise it, it matters less than what can still be apprehend from our habit of erecting icons to figures of the past we know almost nothing about, besides the trail of destruction and cultural ruin left on their wake. By now, you know where we stand on the debate about statues of famous people.
We’ll probably never return to a time when it was possible for a Spanish architect, Alberto Palacio, to conceive an 1000ft in diameter monument to the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival. Designed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it never got built.
It was probably the last time Western civilization was so giddy about his accomplishments, and in typical self-serving manner, was so eager to memorialize the man who, indirectly, made possible many of us to come to be, then and now.
Compared to that, celebrations have been considerably toned down. And even when rife for discrimination, as when some attempted to ban gays from parading, they also served an unexpected, positive purpose: showcasing prejudice at its most despicable, right under a patina of traditionalism and dignity. Hadn’t it been for them, arguably, that would’ve remained hidden.
So Italians, and anyone, can have their parades, and school children shouldn’t be prevented from drawing those three mythical ships, or learn how the drive to explore isn’t always about slash and burn, at least for a while. Truth, though, should always be told.
As for those who deplore the demotion and lack of real heroes to inspire new generations and all that, they may be barking at the wrong statue. Maybe it’s time to draw heroes not from war commanders but from entire ethnicities, traditions, ideals, ideas even.
The whole concept of worshipping could use a rehash itself, perhaps bending it towards showcasing human experience, and not so much the individual quest, albeit they’re more relatable and easier to encapsulate a moment in time for those who come after.
There’s often a deeper truth in the fate and trajectory of a whole group than in the sum of its individuals, however heroic each and everyone of them is. In a less glorifying view, Christopher Columbus was a skillful and pragmatic man, whose personal quest still speaks to us, and who like us, was also uterly unaware of which of his many decisions in life would guarantee him immortality.
His persistency and sense of purpose, which drove him to seek sponsorship from another crown not of his own tiny nation, by all means, deserve a monument or two, books retelling his adventures, and songs and dance too. A ticker tape parade? not so much.
If you’re not seeking a hero but an inspiration, Malala Yousafzai would be the one instead, anytime of this Columbus Day or night. If she accomplishes some of what she’s set to, the world will finally have a chance of becoming better than the one the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America ignited so long ago. Have a great week ahead. WC


One thought on “Curtain Raiser

  1. muz4now says:

    I enjoyed celebrating (Canadian) Thanksgiving and then working (no holiday for me). Forgot it was that other holiday until I read your post. 🙂

    Thanks for the — as always — great reflections here, Wesley!


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