One day in 1474, when Amerigo Vespucci was only ten, his mother woke him up and said to him: “Amerigo, I had a beautiful dream last night. I dreamt that you will become a great explorer and that one day a whole new continent will be named after you. It will be called North Vespuccia.”
It saddens Norwegians that America still honors this Italian, who arrived late in the New World and by accident, who wasn’t even interested in New Worlds but only in spices. Out on a spin in search of curry powder and hot peppers - a man on a voyage to the grocery - he stumbled onto the land of heroic Vikings and proceeded to get the credit for it. And then to name it America after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian who never saw the New World but only sat in Italy and drew incredibly inaccurate maps of it. By rights, it should be called Erica, after Eric the Red, who did the work five hundred years earlier. The United States of Erica. Erica the Beautiful. The Erican League.”
Garrison Keillor, Lake Woebegone Days
It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.
To reconstruct the genesis - the making and unmaking - of the Columbus myth is also to acknowledge that, after all, the narrative of past events can only be told in many different versions. There is a sense of inscrutability and a certain amount of contingency to processes of cultural mobility like those that fashioned Columbus - him, and not others - first into an American icon, and then refashioned him into a villain.
Today, we are left with a somewhat uneasy coexistence of multiple ‘Columbuses’ both heroic and shameful and alternatively American, Spanish, Jewish, Italian American, part-Native, Catholic, etc. The myth of Columbus and the controversy surrounding it reveal ideological conflicts at the heart of American scholarly and popular historiography. Whether this shows that the project ‘America’ is still evolving and unfinished (cf. Campbell and Kean, American Cultural Studies 20) or whether it indicates that it has been thwarted from the beginning is a question still widely debated. In any case, we have to pay attention to the “emplotment” (cf. White, Metahistory) of history to find out just how narrative, causality, and a ‘good’ story are constructed and produced: a story that can appeal to and sway many people over a long stretch of time, a story both of ‘newness’ and of ‘discovery.’
I would like to end this chapter with a transnational perspective. Columbus is not only a foundational myth of the US - of course, he is at the center of much ‘old world’ mythmaking about the ‘new’ - but also a European myth, perhaps even a global one; and in the age of globalization he may take on new symbolic meanings. In the Spanish film Tambien la lluvia (Even the Rain, 2010) by Iciar Bollam, a Mexican film team travels to Bolivia in order to shoot a film about Christopher Columbus and his ‘discovery’ at seemingly authentic (and yet cheap) sites, even as the film early on acknowledges the problematic conflation of the natives of Bolivia with the natives of the Caribbean, a conflation which the producer justifies by commenting on the ostensible ‘sameness’ of all indigenous peoples. In the process of shooting the film, the film team is caught up in the 2000 Cochabamba protests directed against the privatization of the city’s water supply company. The main Native actor in the film project is also crucially involved in the water war. The film indicates the various levels of historical- colonial and present-day neo-colonial exploitation by cutting back and forth between film scenes and protests, and the various levels of narration often become entangled in powerful visual images that disorient us in time. The shooting of the film, it is suggested, exploits the historical conquest as the (only) cultural capital of the indigenous population of the Americas while it uses them as cheap extras. We recognize in the brutal police force that uses dogs to go after the water activists in the city the Spanish colonizers and their bloodhounds who hunted fugitive Natives in order to re-enslave or kill them. Both the present-day protestors and the captives of colonialism are bound and beaten when caught. In a remarkable scene in the film, the film director asks a group of indigenous women with babies to pretend to drown their children as an act of anti-colonial resistance: the translator tells them that they are to walk into the water, quickly exchange the babies for dolls, and then hold those dolls underwater for filmic effect. Whereas the director tries to insist on this scene as part of his artistic vision and the camera tantalizingly cuts back and forth between him and the faces of the (crying) babies, the women simply refuse to comply. The translator explains to the exasperated director that they could not even imagine what it is that he is asking of them. As they resist the director’s instruction, the women refuse to enact his version of their historical suffering. Even the Rain conjures up the myth of ‘discovery’ in the context of a continuous and/or renewed and global exploitation of the Americas. By simultaneously returning us to the primal scene of encounter in a make-believe filmic scenario and addressing present-day economic asymme?tries, the film can be read as a powerful critique of a globalization that follows a neoliberal logic. Such representations point to a hemispheric, even global perspective on the Columbus myth, and continue the cultural work surrounding one of America’s key foundational narratives.