Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I Celebrate Columbus Day

I have the gall today to celebrate the 520th anniversary of the most memorable bump and grind in the history of the Bahamas, the landing of Cristóbal Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, on his way over the edge of history. I may be the only pagan in the Americas who thinks this is something appropriate to celebrate.

Now, I know just what everyone is going to say. They’re going to say, How dare you celebrate the man responsible for the massacre of millions of Indi– I mean, Native Ameri– no, they weren’t Americans of any sort yet either. Well, whoever they were. The man who wiped out whole civilizations, and then lied about it!

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the Nativist point of view: White culture cannot be called an unmixed blessing. But I would argue that post-European patriarchal culture has not been a total loss just because, after the Indians kept it a going concern for 12,000 years, we have run North America into the ground in a mere 500.

As a proper Pagan I try to be entirely xenophile, and my multiculturalism includes Europe, which has provided many things today’s pagans might find indispensable—the doctrine of separating church and state, for instance, devised by Europeans on and off Europe after many, many trials and many, many executions. I mean, many, many errors.

Also, let’s keep blame in proper perspective: While Columbus was certainly a shit, the overwhelming majority of the native casualties died of microbial onslaught unsuspected by the whites. (Who knew measles were lethal?) Nor were Indian conquerors (Aztec, Inca, Carib, Iroquois) more humane than the Spaniards when the mood was on them. And some whites did have qualms and second thoughts, and tried to stop the brutality. Queen Isabella’s dying words were an entreaty to Ferdinand to protect the natives. Typically, he paid no attention to her.

But I’m celebrating Columbus Day because, 519 years ago, the brave and astonishing actions of this overbearing and egotistical Genovese transformed the world (all of it), for better and for worse (both). If there is a single event that marks forever the break between the old Europe, culturally obsessed with fawning upon Classical Antiquity, and the new Europe, sure of its abilities to handle anything that came along and make anything of it, the Europe that thereupon invented Medicine and modern Science and modern Democracy and the modern world (all of them overrated achievements, perhaps, but undeniably impressive), it was Columbus’s first voyage.

True, Columbus was not a nice man. He had his little ways. He boasted. He lied. He claimed credit for other people’s deeds. He allowed the locals to be treated abominably. He made such a nuisance of himself that the colonists ignored and imprisoned him. And then they behaved worse.

Too, he did not do the two things everyone remembers him having done: prove the world round or discover America. The Norse, for one, had reached America centuries before him. The Bretons and Basques had been fishing the Grand Banks for years and keeping a good thing to themselves. Irish monks had got here even before the Norse. Roman coins have been found. Phoenicians are a possible. Chinese and Japanese contacts with the Peruvian coast have been deduced (from pottery, mostly). And if you take the Book of Mormon seriously (Heaven help you), the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel had been here for millennia.

Most notable of all, and something folks seem to forget in all the debates, the Western hemisphere was very heavily populated at the time Columbus arrived and for at least twelve thousand years before that (possibly three times that long), so talk of his “discovering” something quite unknown is a bit eccentric, never mind Eurocentric.

What Columbus almost undoubtedly was is the first Italian to reach the New World. If you’ve ever tried to find an inexpensive and filling meal in New York after midnight, you know how significant that is, and how worthy of celebration. But that is not my reason for wishing the occasion well either.

On the round world thing: Columbus did not prove it. He never made it further than the Orinoco in Guyana, for one thing, but more important, no authority in Europe at that time believed the world flat. The ancient Greek astronomers had proved it was round, and during the Renaissance everyone read the Greeks. The tale that the medieval church thought the world flat and that Columbus defied the scholars of his time was invented in the nineteenth century, probably by Washington Irving. Columbus was examined by the doctors of the great university of Salamanca (which I visited last November: They will show you the sublime monastic church where the discussion took place), but it wasn’t the shape of the world that gave pause; it was its size.

The Greeks deduced the world was round because, when there was an eclipse of the moon, no matter where the moon was in the sky, the shadow of the earth upon it was always circular. Clever, eh? Even cleverer, one of them had measured it. That was why the astronomers of Salamanca told Isabella that Asia was much too far away to reach without stopping for supplies or fresh water en route. If there were no America, they would have been quite right.

Nonsense, said Columbus; the world is only half that size by my calculations, and we can reach Asia in about six weeks. (Here we see the true visionary at work, though it is also possible that he knew of the Basque fishing expeditions.)

His calculations, in fact, were wrong, and the Salamanca astronomers were right, and it took him ten weeks, with a pause at the Canaries, but who remembers all that now?

More important, from the European point of view, was the intellectual ripple from Columbus’s discovery. (I use the word “discovery” here in the sense of: That restaurant/resort/rock band/hem length is my discovery—they may have existed, and people knew of them, but I made them known, seekable, chic. America was nothing to talk about before Columbus discovered it, darling. Even the people here were simply unaware there was anyplace else to be.)

Renaissance Europe suffered from a terrible sense of inferiority: Nothing they did was ever as good as what the Greeks and Romans had done. No poem was as good as the Aeniad, they sighed, and no building so noble as the Pantheon, and no play as sharp as Oedipus or Medea, or as funny as the Menaechmi, and the plumbing was just not up to old Roman standard, and all the knowledge anyone would ever gain was never so great as Aristotle had possessed, or said he did. Even the printing press did not (at first) seem such hot stuff, and gunpowder was a nuisance—smelly, too. The only decided improvement over the ancients, the old Europeans would have told you, was in religion: Moderns were able to achieve salvation from sins the pagan ancients had never even realized they were committing. Good News indeed!

Suddenly, incontrovertibly, Columbus presented them with a great big Secret, something the ancients hadn’t even guessed at, a secret as big as Asia itself (and far less able to fight back). Renaissance thinkers began to feel they weren’t so mediocre after all. They began to get cocky. They suggested all sorts of things that contradicted their elders: That the earth went around the sun (a theory considered and discarded by the Greeks, actually). That blood circulates in the body. That plays could be good even if they didn’t preserve the classical unities. That salvation was a matter of opinion, and not necessarily the priest’s opinion. That women could vote—uh, no, that came later.

The process begun in 1492 may be said to have reached its climax in Mantua in 1597, when modern man devised something beyond the dreams of the ancients destined to alter humanity’s view of itself forever: Grand Opera. After that, the conquest of the universe was just a matter of time. Round up a search party of expendable crew members and meet me in the Transporter Room.

America was the first step on the road to the stars, the key that Columbus, ignorant as Alice and every bit as childish, accidentally found on the table by the flask marked "Explore me," and used to enter the long-locked door to the garden of the future.

Columbus created the world we now inhabit, warts and all, but at least it’s ours. And, as he said, when standing an egg on its end, “Sure anybody coulda done it. I did it.”

He had a point, or rather, as with the egg, he made one where no one else had.



Chas Clifton said...

Sounds like you have been reading Samuel Eliot Morison. ;)

Doug vanderHoof said...

Why wasn't I taught this? Who knew Columbus invented opera? Was he gay? All that time alone with sailors, did that do it?
I have more questions but these are the most pressing.

Laura Wildman-Hanlon said...

Love this, John. I've missed your humor!

Seumas Gagne said...

A very interesting perspective!

Nancy said...

Quite enjoyable.

I've read some of the Italian poetry contemporary with Columbus's discovery, they're classic. Take a look, it might raise a smile.