Christopher Columbus and the Uses of History

'An event which ought to have been beneficial to all' - David Armitage looks at how the 'discovery' of America has drawn mixed reviews from the West over five centuries of commemoration

COLUMBUS! We read of him every day
In books, pamphlets, magazines, papers;
Whilst Italy, Portugal, Spain, USA,
Cut constant, consecutive capers

So Punch lamented the festivities of 1892 which surrounded the fourth centenary of Columbus' first voyage, It is hard to suppress similar apprehensions of overkill in 1992 as at least 'Italy... Spain, USA' celebrate the Columbian quincentenary. Yet the 500th anniversary of that first voyage has attracted as much bile as boredom. Columbus himself is denounced as a mass-murderer. The legacy of the encounter has been called nothing less than 'ecocide'. Meanwhile the various international commemorations are seen not as affirmations of a unified world but rather as evidence of the continuing claims of Europe to be top dog. In this atmosphere Columbus is more likely to be hailed as the inventor of New World slavery than praised as the father of world unity. No longer a far-sighted visionary, who romantically overcame every hardship, he seems more a blinkered bigot who brought slaughter and damage in his wake.

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