Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"Cracking Columbus" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 1 October 2011)

San Antonio, Ibiza
Chickens and Eggs

Following his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus was invited to dine with some Spanish aristocrats. Naturally, discussion centred on the Genovese mariner’s feat, which had been patronized by the Spanish crown. The noblemen demeaned Columbus’ accomplishment, arguing that one of their own countrymen would have done the same if given the opportunity.  

Columbus listened to his detractors and then asked for an egg. He enquired of the others if they could make the egg stand on its end with no external aid. No one could. The explorer tapped the egg on the table, so as to crush one end, thus balancing the egg upright. Once something is accomplished, he wished to demonstrate, it is easy to claim it is simple. 

This account is apocryphal at best. However, I find it interesting that I learned the story at school in India, a postcolonial state. The anecdote was dispensed with nothing said of the Age of Discovery, colonialism, or the decimation of Native Americans. If anything, our young minds were being offered the exploits of a hero whom we should seek to emulate. No doubt, this tale is taught globally, the Americas included.

Between Two Indies

In October 1992, indigenous American tribes protested national celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage. Among other events, plans to sail a replica of Columbus’ boat in San Francisco were halted. Similarly, it was only last year that the Portuguese ship Sagres circumnavigated the globe. Its arrival in Mormugao harbour coincided with the quincentennial anniversary of Goa’s capture by Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510. The ship’s visit was described as being one of goodwill by Goa’s former colonizer, a naval stopover devoid of political intent. Several Goan freedom fighters saw the incident differently and famously protested. 

NRP Sagres
The Iberian-sponsored “discoveries” of the Americas and the Indies are connected as we know. Columbus was in search of the latter, which is why there are now two parts of the world whose natives bear the “Indian” moniker. Eighteen years apart, celebrations and protests highlighted the 500th anniversaries of European incursions into those areas. How might these legacies be reconnected? Certainly not by focusing on the colonizer alone.

Decolonizing Education 

What makes the tale of Columbus’ Egg particularly apocryphal is its lack of recognition of the navigator’s failure in finding the Indies. The hero only became one because of a mistake. Regardless, colonization still found its way across the globe. Furthermore, the story casts the sailor as an underdog in the land of his benefactors. He is othered by his lack of privilege in comparison to the aristocrats who mock him. Meanwhile, the recipients of colonization recede into the backdrop. It is Columbus, instead, who serves as the repository of otherness. The narrative and real effacement of the natives in their own homelands make room for new identities, such as Columbus’ – the underprivileged seafarer with a dream. Empty Continents thereby become Lands of the Free and stories of the colonized go unheard. 

Despite indigenous protests, Columbus Day continues to be celebrated in the United States.

Previously published here.  

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