Monday, October 10, 2005

My thoughts on Columbus Day

Columbus Day is quite a difficult day. When I started this post, I tried to make it light and easy, avoid altogether the tragic events – some of deliberate intent, some inadvertent – that followed in the centuries after Columbus’s landing. This is what I wrote:

“I promise not to be elegiac. Instead, I shall sing paeans to Columbus’s pioneering effort, the great adventure that he embarked on, which lead to the discovery of the New World. What valor! What doggedness! The glamour and gloss of that legend!

And the New World was full of strange exotic foods that completely changed cuisines in Old World. For we wouldn’t have otherwise had potatoes, tomatoes, chilies, vanilla, corn, and turkey; no marinara sauces, no fries. What luck to have stumbled on the sources to such culinary riches!”

I realized soon I could not proceed in this manner. I could not exalt Columbus and hide his avarice. I could not happily talk of the new food imports and ignore the vicious spread of diseases from the Old World that exterminated so many so comprehensively that there are no stories to tell. There are too many uncomfortable facts, of subjugation, genocide, swept under the rug of history, the rug that the victors chose to spread. (To call some worlds New and others Old: these can only be the categorizations of those who conquered; history, as they see it.)

Perhaps not writing anything at all – recourse to passivity, unquestioning acceptance – is the best way of acknowledging the almost total silence of many hundreds – even thousands possibly: how does one know? – of languages, ways of living, cultures that have ceased to exist. How else does one reconcile with this?

I sometimes think that this sense of tragedy is just a fashionable, romanticized feeling, easily dredged up for angst-filled insinuations. Have not other people in other places at other times suffered the same fate? Yes, but the memory of this most recent and massive dispossession and disappearance is still fresh. Perhaps it shall take a few more centuries, a millennium even, for the burden to lighten, for things to be viewed from a cold, impersonal distance.


Brewtus said...

Well put!

I agree that a lot of people in history have faced similar fates. I still think, though, that the almost complete annihilation of the people and cultures of the "new world" sets this chapter in history apart from other such occurances.

Hari said...

That's true : the scale of what happened sets it apart. It's beyond anything known anywhere else. But I don't know if other such things might have happened before events came to be recorded in history. Still, something of such a magnitude happening elsewhere is hard to imagine.