Monday, October 8, 2007

Columbus Day

Take away this Columbus Day
No more bones on display
Blackhawk never had a say
Just taken out of the picture.
—"Out of the Picture," from the Son Volt album
Trace

Martin Waldseemüller's 1507 "globe gores" map of the world, the first map to include the name "America" (on the far right of the map). In the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

Today is Columbus Day, which thanks to a 1971 law is observed on the second Monday of October rather than on October 12, the original date of the holiday. (In Canada, today is Thanksgiving Day.) The first official proclamation of a national Columbus Day was made by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of America. There are, of course, all kinds of problems with celebrating Columbus's "discovery" of a continent which was already inhabited by millions of people who, in subsequent centuries, became the victims of genocide. When Columbus landed on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas in October 1492, his first thought seems to have been of enslaving the native Arawak (Taino) people. He wrote in his journal: "It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion." In the decades after Columbus's arrival, the Arawaks were completely annihilated by smallpox carried to the New World by the Spaniards.

It wasn't until five years after Columbus, on June 24, 1497, that a European explorer set foot in North America, when John Cabot landed in Canada, probably on the coast of Labrador. Cabot, born Giovanni Caboto in Italy, received funding from the merchants of Bristol, England, who were, like everyone else, looking for a western trade route to Asia. One of the major backers of Cabot's voyage was a Welsh-born merchant named Richard Ameryk, who was the Sheriff of Bristol in 1497. A theory popular in Bristol is that America is named after Ameryk. But the more widely accepted theory is that America takes its name from the Italian traveler Amerigo Vespucci, whose accounts of a voyage to the New World were published in the early 1500s.

In 1507, Vespucci's accounts were included in a book called Cosmographiae Introductio, by the German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller. The book was accompanied by the first map to include the name America. Waldseemüller's large wall map of the world was purchased by the Library of Congress in 2001. Four smaller Waldseemüller maps also exist, one of which is currently on display (through December 31) at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. The small (10"x15") map is called a "globe gore," because it was intended to be cut out and affixed to a small globe. The globe gore at the Bell Library is the only one in an American collection.

Here's a poem for Columbus Day by one of my favorite poets, the Caribbean Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, originally from the island of St. Lucia.

New World

Then after Eden,
was there one surprise?
O yes, the awe of Adam
at the first bead of sweat.

Thenceforth, all flesh
had to be sown with salt,
to feel the edge of seasons,
fear and harvest,
joy that was difficult,
but was, at least, his own.

The snake? It would not rust
on its forked tree.
The snake admired labour,
it would not leave him alone.

And both would watch the leaves
silver the alder,
oaks yellowing October,
everything turning money.

So when Adam was exiled
to our New Eden, in the ark's gut,
the coined snake coiled there for good
fellowship also; that was willed.

Adam had an idea.
He and the snake would share
the loss of Eden for a profit.
So both made the New World. And it looked good.

From Collected Poems 1948-1984 © 1986 by Derek Walcott. Published by The Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

1 comment:

fabrile heart said...

I'm not sure whether I should leave a comment to this post as it may verge on the bleak. However, I've started now, so I may as well say that it seems to me that one way of looking at 'history' is to see it as a continuous cycle of the subjugation of one set of people by another.

I do like your tag though, 'pointless holidays' ;)

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