Because the original UPI piece seems to have died from link rot, I’m going to republish Jim Bennett’s Columbus Day essay here.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (UPI) — A few years ago I chanced to be in Buenos Aires on Columbus Day. It is a major holiday there, during which no business is transacted. I spent the day wandering about town enjoying the celebrations. One plaza held a Columbus Day festival in which passersby could enjoy demonstrations and samples of music, dance, crafts and foods of all the various Latin American nations, and of many of the source-nations of Argentina’s immigration.
The interesting thing to me was the complete absence of anything representing the United States. This was not a coincidence. Columbus, and the holiday celebrating his landing in the New World, are seen throughout the Spanish-speaking world as having to do primarily with the extension of Spanish-speaking, Catholic civilization to the New World and the creation, through a conflicted encounter, of a new culture. It is, to coin a phrase, the creation of the Hispanosphere that is commemorated.
Traditionally, the role played by the United States in this narrative is not one of a joint participant, but rather an antagonist. In the narrative of Hispanosphere nationalists, Latin America is Shakespeare’s Ariel, the graceful and sensitive artistic spirit. The United States, or “Gringolandia” as it is sometimes called, is Caliban, the powerful but ugly monster that dominates tragic Ariel.
Columbus Day in the United States carries an entirely different set of connotations. During the 19th century, Columbus was reinvented by Washington Irving and his successors as a sort of Yankee visionary entrepreneur before his time. His specific roots in time, space, and culture as a Genoese in the service of Spanish monarchs was downplayed; what was celebrated was his seeming prescience and capacity for self-reinvention.
In fact Columbus did have some such characteristics; entrepreneurism is often a leap into the unknown, and he was neither the first nor the last to set out to seek one thing and discover another, nor to venture on the basis of mistaken calculations and assumptions. There was, it is true, a certain Enron-like quality to his mileage calculations.
Subsequently, this useful narrative was seized upon and expanded by Catholic immigrant communities eager to demonstrate that Catholicism was not inconsistent with being American. Italian immigrant groups found Columbus a particularly appealing figure; here was an Italian Catholic already elevated to heroic status by the Americans they sought to join. Columbus Day became established as an American holiday, but for reasons and with symbolism quite different from those for which it is celebrated in Latin America.
Now, of course, Columbus Day is under attack as a holiday in the United States by the forces of political correctness. This is primarily an effect of the Calvinist Puritan roots of American progressivism. Just as Calvinists believed in the centrality of the depravity of man, with the exception of a miniscule contingent of the Elect of God, their secularized descendants believe in the depravity and cursedness of Western civilization, with their own enlightened selves in the role of the Elect.
I do not particularly sympathize with the demonization of Columbus Day by the politically correct, although I do not think the injustices suffered by our Siberian-American fellow immigrants should be glossed over. However, I think Columbus Day should be reconsidered as a U.S. holiday for a different reason. I am fundamentally in agreement with the Hispanosphere nationalists on one point: Columbus’s voyage was very specifically the initiation of the contact between Spain and Spanish America. Neither the settlement of Brazil nor of English-speaking North America were direct consequences of Columbus’s voyages, and would probably have happened had Columbus never returned with the news of his landing.
The Portuguese discovery of Brazil was, after all, the accidental by-product of their ongoing exploration of Africa. The English-speaking world, on the other hand, began its expansion into North America as a consequence of John Cabot’s voyage of 1497.
It makes more sense to think of the European encounters with the Americas as three distinct main streams: one was the Spanish movement to the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, and ultimately other areas, stemming from Columbus’s voyage; another was the Portuguese movement to Brazil, which was intimately linked to their explorations of Africa predating Columbus; and the third was the stream of peoples from the British Isles and ultimately elsewhere to North America to found the nations of the North American Anglosphere. These three distinct streams founded the three principal cultural-linguistic communities of the Americas.
Although Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland was undoubtedly spurred by news of Columbus’s voyages, the expanding English maritime enterprise would sooner or later have recapitulated the Viking achievements in the North Atlantic. There are interesting conjectures about prior voyages from the British Isles to North America before Columbus, from Bristol fishermen working the Grand Banks (not unlikely) to other, more speculative theories, such as Farley Mowat’s ideas about voyagers from the Orkneys preceding the Vikings in the Dark Ages.
Whatever the realities of these theories, it is the expansion of the cultures and traditions that form the template on which today’s societies in the U.S. and English Canada that we should commemorate. Columbus, whatever his merits and demerits may be, is in this regard beside the point. If Americans of Italian descent wish to point with pride to a predecessor in discovery, perhaps we should look at Giovanni Caboto, another Italian navigator. Moving to England, he adopted the English style of his name and became known to history as the discoverer … John Cabot.
Not only did Cabot’s discoveries spark the great stream of human migration that became the English-speaking New World, he was himself a precursor of the millions of Italians who crossed the Atlantic to North America and became part of the English-speaking world, to its and their own enrichment.
I do not join in the politically-correct denigration of Columbus. But I do raise the question of whether, by celebrating him rather than John Cabot, we of the Anglosphere may be celebrating the wrong Italian.
It seems as timely now as it did thirteen years ago.