Columbus Day is a problematic holiday. Schools and government offices close, but most private businesses do not. There is no public or private celebration. For many of us, the only impact is the realization that there was no mail delivery, so the book we’re expecting didn’t come. Dang it.
For those of us who study the history of the non-Western world, Columbus Day is problematic in other ways. There’s the whole question of what discovery means. There’s the impact of western diseases and greed on the native populations of the Americas. There’s the transformation of western culture by American plant stuffs from the tomato (good) to tobacco (not-so good). (For some of us, the potato famine of the 1840s was the real Montezuma’s revenge.)
However you celebrate Columbus Day*, it is absolutely clear that 1492 is a line in the sand as far as world history is concerned.
Two recent books** by Charles Mann offer the historical equivalent of “before” and “after” pictures. In 1491, Mann considers life in the America’s before the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria arrived on American shores. In 1493, he looks at what Alfred Crosby called the “Columbian exchange”: the transfer of hundreds of plant and animal species between the Old and New Worlds.
It’s Columbus Day. (Monday holiday? Pffft!) I’m going to have a dish of pasta with tomato sauce in recognition of the Columbian exchange. You?
* For many years I worked in an office where we closed the doors on Columbus Day to give the staff a chance to discover new territory: the tops of their desks. In theory, it was a chance to file, sort, think, and finish long term projects. In practice it was as problematic as anything else related to October 12.
** Recent on my shelves is relative. Let’s just say published in this century and leave it at that.