Columbus and the New World Discovery
October 12, 1992, marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the most crucial of all encounters between Europe and the Americas. In the contemporary global mood, however, the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus's landing in the New World - new, anyway, to the European intruders; old and familiar to its inhabitants - seems an occasion less for celebration than for mediation. Indeed, in some quarters the call is for penitence and remorse.
Christopher Columbus has always been as much a myth as a man, a myth incorporating a succession of triumphs and guilts over what is now five long centuries. The myth has found particular lodgment in the mightiest of the nations to arise in the Western Hemisphere - a nation that may not speak Columbus' language (any of them) but has diligently revered his memory.
Though both the continent and the country bear another's name, Columbus has been surpassed in nomenclatural popularity in the United States only by the great George Washington - and Washington is itself located in the District of Columbia. I make this observation as a native of Columbus, Ohio, the largest of many municipalities called after the great explorer. The preeminent university in the city in which I now live is Columbia - not to mention such other North American institutions as the Columbia Broadcasting System, the Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia Pictures, and a variety of enterprises from banks to space shuttles.
The biography that fixed the nineteenth-century image of Columbus was published in 1828 and written by Washington Irving, Manhattan's first international man of letters, a lover of Spain, the aficionado of Granada and the Alhambra, and in later life the U.S. minister to Madrid. Half a century after, Irish-Americans named a newly founded Roman Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus. A movement to honor the day of landfall culminated in 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed October 12 a national holiday. The holiday is observed in most Latin American countries as well.
The United States also staged the most memorable celebration of the quadricentennial of what it was then widely acceptable to call the "discovery" of America. The World's Columbus Exposition took place in bustling, thrusting, Midwestern Chicago, the very heart of the republic. Reconfiguring the great explorer in images of technology and modernity, the Chicago World's Fair saluted the man then regarded, in the words of President Benjamin Harrison, as "the pioneer of progress and enlightenment". In a book especially produced for the fair, the historian Meyer Kayserling summed up the prevailing assessment of Columbus: "In the just appreciation of his great services to mankind, all political, religious and social differences have vanished."
How things changed in a century! Political, religious, and social differences, far from vanishing, place Columbus today in the center of a...