Globalization and Christopher Columbus in the Americas

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Elise Bartosik-Vélez, "Globalization and Christopher Columbus in the Americas" page 5-8 CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 8.4 (2006):

The manner in which Columbus, an archetype of empire, was appropriated by nationalists in Europe and the Americas at the time of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first landfall in the New World suggests the artificial nature of the boundaries between empire and nation-state that have been constructed in nation-state-centric discourse. Before considering the case of Columbus in Latin America, let us look briefly at the case in Europe and the US for purposes of comparison. Spanish and Italian nationalist discourses in the nineteenth century drew heavily upon the history and discourse of empire because, and here I borrow a metaphor from Benedict Anderson, monarchical dynasties there had successfully dressed the empire in nationalist drag (87). This costuming was successful in Europe where the imperial could easily be subsumed into nationalist narratives by transforming it into a kind of nationalism avant la lettre.

Around the year 1892, nationalists in both Spain and Italy both claimed Columbus as a national hero and emphasized his connection to empire. In characterizing Columbus as an imperial figure, they invoked the collective memory of their own respective historical experiences with empire, which were construed anachronistically as a golden age of the nation-state. When Spanish nationalists lauded Columbus, they often conjured up the imperial salad days of Ferdinand and Isabel; when Italian nationalists did so, they often portrayed his greatness as a product of the legacy of the Roman Empire, which they portrayed as the germ of the nation-state. One might think that the contradictions between empire and nation-state, referred to earlier, not to mention the anachronistic contortions this kind of discourse entailed, would have rendered it ineffective, yet it seems that the more Columbus was associated in Spain and Italy with the great empires of the past, the greater his appeal as national hero. Thus the "official nationalisms" (Anderson [86] borrows the term from Seton-Watson) of Spain and Italy found in Columbus an especially apt poster boy.

But why would nationalists of the newly independent states of the Americas who recently freed themselves from the bonds of the imperial colonizer, look to Columbus, an archetype of empire, when searching for a national symbol? Nineteenth-century nationalist discourse in the US mirrors in many respects the corresponding discourses in both Spain and Italy. Unlike European nationalisms, however, US nationalism developed an ambiguous stance with regard to empire: it both opposed empire, in so far as it was associated with the Old World, and supported empire, in so far as "empire" represented power and dominion according to the US cultural and philosophical European inheritance. Because of nationalists' desires to construct a national genealogy separate from the corrupt influences of the Old World, US discourse about Columbus in the nineteenth century only vaguely acknowledged the nation's general experience or contact with empire, going to extremes to avoid the topic of its own affiliation with the British Empire. Thus, while Spanish and Italian nationalist discourses about Columbus appealed to their countries' respective historical experiences with empire in order to bridge the gap between nation-state and empire, the corresponding discourse in the US attempted to bridge that gap by focusing on the trope of translatio studii, or the transfer of the civilization and culture of Western empire that tacitly accompanied the translatio imperii, the transfer of empire. Nationalist discourse about Columbus in the US in the nineteenth century therefore often entailed portrayals of the nation-state as the modern cultural heir of all the great empires of the Western world. Such is the case in Thomas Brower Peacock's "Columbian Ode," a poem presented at the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition in May of 1893that portrays Columbus as responsible for the movement of the "Star of Empire" from Asia to America (8).

While the contradictions in what Anderson calls the "weld between nation and empire" (88) were easily absorbed by nationalist discourse about Columbus in Spain, Italy and the US, the postcoloniality of Latin America rendered those contradictions more glaring. That postindependence setting problematized nationalists' claims to Columbus as a national hero because of the enduring legacies of colonial rule. Thus, while the model of nationalist discourse about Columbus that developed in Spain and Italy applies to some extent to the US, it is less applicable to the case of Latin America. There, while some nationalists did try to construct Columbus as a national hero by emphasizing his connection to the empire of the Spanish motherland, these constructions were contradictory. On the one hand, we see an attempt to construct Columbus as a national hero, but on the other, we also see somewhat of a rejection of Columbus because he represents empire.

This ambiguous characterization of Columbus in Latin American nationalist discourse is seen in a poem entitled Canto al descubrimiento de América (1882) by Gabriel Carrasco (1854-1908/1909), a well- known Argentine journalist, writer and publicist. His Columbus is first portrayed not as a victim of Spanish cruelty but as a vile imperialist. At the beginning of Carrasco's poem, the embittered volcano of the Canary Islands, angry at Columbus for daring to venture beyond his sight, damns the Admiral for the destruction he will cause in the New World. (10) The poem here invokes a gruesome scene of civil war ("la lucha fratricida") and bloodshed ("verter ... noble sangre de hermanos"). The colonizers' enslavement of the native population is conveyed by the most powerful image of the quotation: the bleeding back of a whipped slave. Columbus is deemed responsible for this horrific scenario, as it is his "sangriento tea" that "esparce de la América en los campos / Su rencorosa luz" at the beginning of the stanza. But after damning Columbus as a brutal colonizer, Carrasco's poem then rescues him by reinterpreting his connection to empire and conquest so that he becomes a spiritual king of the Latin American nations who is disassociated from the physical violence of colonization. This rescue is accomplished by superseding the initial view of the conquest at the beginning of the poem with an alternate view of history which is introduced by the virgin "Nymph of America" who reprimands the volcano, calling him a "tenebroso mónstruo" and commanding that he flee. "Huye," she orders, "Tu secular imperio, derrumbado / A los pies de Colon, está prostrado" (11). The Nymph's pronouncement that the volcano's "secular imperio" now lies in pieces at the feet of Columbus suggests that Columbus reigns over not a secular realm but a spiritual one. This is the key to Carrasco's reinterpretation of Columbus' connection to empire. He is capable of assuming the throne of the American nations because of his noble imperial spirit, not because of the bloody conquest he initiated. The poet thus claims that that the nations like Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina owe their existence to Columbus, referred to here as "el genio" (12). In the first lines of the final two stanzas, the poet twice repeats: "Esas tus glorias son," emphasizing the debt of the nations to Columbus. The poem ends by describing Columbus' spiritual apotheosis which coincides with his arrival in the New World: "Y muy luego, Colon, alborozado / Cuando al Puerto llegó, subió radioso / De la inmortalidad al alto asiento" (13). Thus in Carrasco's poem, Columbus' association with empire is reinterpreted to the extent that he is extricated from the history of Spain's colonization and its bloody consequences and placed at the head of a spiritual empire of nations.

As is clear in the case of Canto al descubrimiento de América, nationalist discourse in Spanish America that appealed to Columbus at the end of the nineteenth century was of an entirely different nature than the corresponding discourses in Spain, Italy and the US. In those countries, Columbus was portrayed as a national hero precisely because of his association with empire. Spanish America, however, was still struggling in the nineteenth century with the deep-rooted legacies of colonialism. The region's long experience with empire was not incorporated without contradiction into the narratives of nation building. Carrasco's poem is representative of the plasticity of much Latin American nationalist discourse of the nineteenth century that claimed Columbus as a national hero in the post-independence setting. Columbus was an unavoidable character in the history of the region and many nationalists felt compelled to address him, but because he represented the imperial colonization from which nationalists in the nineteenth century had only recently escaped, his inclusion in nationalist narratives often required creative innovations. Many nationalists, like Carrasco, therefore portrayed him as a spiritual and decontextualized figure of power. Other Latin American nationalists embraced Columbus as a father who had been mistreated, like themselves, by negligent mother Spain and the cruel excesses of power she allowed in her colonies. This kind of nationalist discourse appropriated the leyenda negra, according to which Spain and the conquistadors were cruel and enslaving opportunists who hid their true material motives with the professed desire to convert pagans and serve God. Portraying Columbus as a victim of the leyenda negra, a well-established narrative that needed little explanation, was one of the most effective ways in which nationalists attempted to resolve the contradiction at the heart of the claim to a figure of empire as a symbol of the nation.

An example of this kind of portrayal of Columbus is found in the rhetoric of those advocating for the adoption of the name "Colombia" for the confederation of states known in retrospect as "La Gran Colombia." In his well-known 1815 Letter from Jamaica, Simón Bolívar, writes, "Esta nación se llamaría Colombia como un tributo de justicia y gratitud al creador de nuestro hemisferio" (1: 171). Four years later, Bolívar was even more explicit about the honor due to Columbus. To his "amigos íntimos," including his aide de camp Daniel Florencio O'Leary, whose memoirs preserve the following quote, Bolívar portrayed Columbus as a victim of the Spaniards and suggested that by honoring Columbus, as Spain failed to do, Latin Americans would show themselves to be worthy of independence" (II: 20). Bolívar's language here is typical of this kind of discourse in that Columbus is completely severed from the context of the Spanish conquest and colonization. His "glories" are spiritual in nature and appear to relate to his status as discoverer and as a bearer of Christ, although Bolívar never makes this connection clear. As the naming of Colombia indicates, nationalist portrayals of Columbus in Latin America suggest a complicated dynamic between empire and the nation-state whereby the former works both in support of and against the latter. Empire is denied by nationalist discourse because it rejects the Old World from which it claims to be entirely different. Yet empire simultaneously infiltrates nationalist discourse because the nation-state was imagined in terms of empire and its narratives of power and dominion.

The manner in which Columbus functions in Spanish American national discourse points toward this complicated dynamic between the nation-state and empire. Traditional methods of inquiry that fall under the spell of the compelling narrative of the nation-state, however, do not allow us a clear vision of this situation. The naming of the territory "Colombia" is one such invocation of Columbus by nationalists that cannot be fully understood if it is not viewed in a transnational context. Simón Bolívar was not the first to think of Columbus when looking to name the territory of the Americas. The first to propose his name appears to be Bartolomé de las Casas, who suggested that the New World be named "Colomba" in honor of Columbus. Las Casas consistently portrayed Columbus as the agent responsible for bringing Christ to the New World and he argued that naming the continent in Columbus' honor would reflect the evangelical mission at the heart of Spain's colonization project. In the seventeenth century, Juan de Solórzano Pereira, a Spanish colonial judge and author of Política Indiana, argued that the Spain's American territories should be named "Colonia" or "Columbonia." Most experts agree that the modern application of Columbus's name in South America likely derives from the transatlantic figure, Francisco de Miranda, who toured the US in 1783-84 and met with many of the region's elite. By this time, the term "Colombia" had been used for decades in the north as an opposition to "Britannia" and as a general term referring to the territories that were or had been part of the British Empire. It was only shortly after Miranda's visit, in 1791, that the nation's capital was named after George Washington and Columbus.

It is unclear whether Miranda adopted the term Colombia from his experience in the US or from someone like Bartolomé de las Casas, whose characterizations of Columbus Miranda surely would have known. Perhaps both sources served as his inspiration for the title he gave to the short-lived serial published in London beginning in 1810, El Colombiano, which was addressed to "el continent Colombiano" and argued in favor of its independence from Spain. Miranda also requested that his written works, which he viewed as historical documentation of the effort to forge one great united confederation of an independent Spanish America, be published under the title "Colombeia" after his death. Given this transnational context, we can apprehend more easily that the adjective "colombiano" ("el continente colombiano"), as it appeared in the first federal Constitution of Venezuela of 1811, invoked the same kind of connotations with regard to political independence that Miranda would have perceived the word as having during his travels through the US.

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