Monday, October 8, 2012

Goodbye Columbus


Last February, two planeloads of gold and silver (593,000 coins) were transported to Spain from the United States after the government of Spain convinced a Florida court that the cache was the rightful property of Spain, and not the property of Portugal, in whose territorial waters the treasure, and the remains of a sunken galleon that carried it, had been located by an American salvage company. An emergency claim to the Supreme Court by the government of Peru, from whence the gold and silver had been mined, that the treasure actually belonged to their country was dismissed. The galleon sank in 1804, and Peru wasn't an independent state until 1821.Somewhere in hell, Francisco Pizarro must have smiled. 

An agent of Spain, and the first freebooter to land in the New World, Christopher Columbus - Cristoforo Colombo - is honored on October 12, in a country he never visited, but which feels a debt of gratitude for his stumbling on an island in the Bahamas while on a course for Japan. The natives of the island, and all the other islands of the region, as well as the natives inhabiting the mainland of North America, were subsequently called "indians" based on the explorers' mistaking the islands for Asian islands, or "Indies". Feebly, the mistake was corrected by the eventual adoption of the term "West Indies".

We all know, or should know, what happened to the natives next. The same thing happened to all the natives of North America, unless they were lucky enough to be wiped out by European diseases before European muskets could. Stories of explorations into the interior of America tell of villages being found deserted of life. Only the dead were found, victims of microorganisms that had been carried into their midst, to which their immune systems had no defenses. In exchange, Europeans got corn, tobacco, and syphilis. And gold.

Columbus Day is a holiday in the U.S. I learned the jingle, "In fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue" in the first grade. I found out later that it was the same year in which Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. I never minded Columbus Day when I was in the military, since I got the day off. But wherever Italian-Americans gather to parade down city streets on Columbus Day, they are often met by protesting natives, who would rather that the genocide committed on their people be more prominent in American public school history books. The problem of what to do with the native people displaced by European exploration and settlement has never been properly solved - unless one accepts William Tecumseh Sherman's solution: "the only good indian is a dead indian."  

Of course, Columbus's voyages introduced more than just smallpox and slavery to the New World. They introduced God and Jesus Christ (unless you believe the Mormon fables), along with all the other fruits of western civilization - science, literature, philosophy. 

The photo above is what's left of the memorial to Columbus in Caracas, Venezuela. The statue of the Italian explorer was knocked off its pedestal during a protest in which the holiday was re-dedicated as the "Day of the Indigenous Resistance". I currently abide in the Philippines, another former colony of Spain, where some of the most indelible signs of Spanish rule still visible are the many old churches, the same medieval strain of Catholicism in evidence in Mexico (in which, every year during Holy Week, people volunteer to be nailed to crosses), and the same stupid machismo culture that afflicts Latin America. And we owe it all to an ambitious Italian marriner who misjudged the circumference of the earth - or the size of the Atlantic Ocean -  by several thousand miles and got lost on his way to Japan.

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