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I Christopher Columbus and the Myth of ‘Discovery’

Why Columbus?

Let us begin at the most famous of beginnings.

Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions

Imagine the scene: it is an autumn day in the late fifteenth century. On a beach with rose-colored sand, somewhere in the Caribbean, two groups of people, the hosts and their visitors, are about to meet for the first time. The world will never again be the same.

Michael Dorris, “Mistaken Identities”

The mythology of the ‘new world’ begins with the discourse of discovery and with powerful European projections that envision a new kind of paradise, a utopia somewhere across the Atlantic that alleviates the grievances of the ‘old world’ and that promises boundless earthly riches. In its traditional European version, this discourse is not so much about the ‘hosts’ whom the part Native American novelist and poet Michael Dorris envisions as sharing in the primal scene of encounter as it is about their ‘visitors,’ i.e. those Europeans who arrive and ‘discover.’ Although this primal scene precedes the formation of the USA as a nation-state by several hundred years, it has developed into one of its core foundational myths, and, for all its historical remoteness, has profoundly shaped the national imaginary. The story of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and his arrival in the Americas holds a pivotal place in an American foundational mythology that stages the ‘discovery’ and the subsequent settlement and colonization of the ‘new world’ in prophetic ways as an inevitable step forward in the course of human progress that eventually would lead to the founding of the USA and to US-American westward expansion, its ‘manifest destiny.’ One may wonder why, when, and “how an Italian explorer became an American hero” (cf. Bushman, America), or, to tease out the paradox further: why Columbus, who never set foot on the land that would later become the United States and who never knew in his lifetime that in 1492 he had not landed in Asia has been considered one of the founding figures of the US-American nation. In fact, he may be the single most important and best-known figure in the context of the ‘discovery’ of the ‘new world’ even though his place in history has for a long time been contested. I will show how the myth of ‘discovery’ is firmly tied to the figure of Columbus and how ideological investments determine the uses that this historical figure has been put to: Columbus “is nothing but a collection of multiple disguises assembled around a set of historical facts” (Stavans, Imagining xvii) with an image oscillating between “the arch-villain of the modern era for bringing genocide and pollution to an unsullied earthly paradise” and “someone worthy of sainthood” (Shreve, “Christopher Columbus” 703).

This chapter will sketch four phases in the making and unmaking of the American myth of ‘discovery’ and of Christopher Columbus; it will historicize the myth and its modifications and point to its various functions. My genealogy starts with the historical moment of Columbus’s original ‘fame’ in the late 15th century and its reverberations in the context of Spanish colonialism; second, I will turn to the inauguration and consolidation of the Columbus myth in North America during the revolutionary period in the second half of the 18th century and look at the processes of translation (also in the sense of translatio imperii) involved; third, I will trace the myth through the late 19th and early 20th centuries to point to its enlistment in immigrant discourses that made Columbus into an ethnic hero following the Irish, Jewish, and Italian ‘waves’ of immigration to the United States; fourth, I will summarily discuss the recent revisionism in Native American scholarship in the context of the watershed year of 1992 (which marked the quincentennial of ‘discovery’) as indicative of a new take on Columbus (the man as well as the myth).

Of course, these four phases cannot be said to start or end in one year or another; instead they indicate tendencies, trends, and shifting perspectives. Throughout US-American history and for hundreds of years Columbus has served as a national icon - Columbus Day today is still a national holiday despite persistent objections to his idealization and glorification. His profile, however, disappeared from the five-dollar bill in 1923 (the last US-American bill on which he was depicted); and whereas US-American elementary school students still learn of Columbus’s heroism in unequivocal terms, the city of Berkeley since 1992 has been celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead of celebrating Columbus (cf. Martin, “Literature” 16): the meaning of Columbus and the legacy of his ‘discovery’ thus have been and still are contested and continually negotiated anew.

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