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.
In the summer of 1899, no one would have pegged Colonel Robert Baden-Powell as a potential military hero. He had spent the first twenty years of his army career in small colonial wars in Afghanistan and Africa, involved more often in map-making and scouting than in battle. When he wasn’t spying, he spent his time on polo, pig-sticking, and amateur theatricals. He supplemented his income writing instruction manuals for the British Army and exaggerated accounts of his adventures for the popular press.
As far as the British public was concerned, Baden-Powell’s well-publicized defense of the siege of Mafeking was the only bright spot in the morass of British failure and inefficiency that marked the first months of the Second Boer War. When Baden-Powell returned to Britain in 1903, he discovered that he was not only a popular hero, but a role model. His military manual, Aids to Scouting, was being used as a teaching tool by boys’ groups, especially those directed at salvaging young urban “wasters and slackers”*. Encouraged to create a similar manual specifically for boys, Baden-Powell wrote Scouting for Boy.
Published in January, 1908, the book was a crazy quilt of adventure tales, practical tips on woodcraft and other “frontier” skills, and high-minded rhetoric that caught youthful imaginations in a way no one expected. In a matter of months, existing organizations formed scouting troops all over Britain. Where no adult-sanctioned troops existed, groups of boys, and a few enterprising girls, formed themselves into patrols.**
Scrambling to catch up, Baden-Powell founded the Boys Scouts at the end of 1908. By 1910, the organization had 100,000 members, more than all the other youth groups in Britain combined.
*The Edwardians had no concept of political correctness. Today the phrase for this group is “at-risk” youth.
**A home-grown patrol of this kind plays a central role in one of my favorite adventure novels: Huntingtower by John Buchan. The “Gorbals Diehards” are a hard-scrabble group from the slums of Glasgow that would reduce any scoutmaster to tears. More than a match for the adult villains of the piece, they prove themselves to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty and heart-stoppingly brave. Courteous, clean and reverent, however, are beyond them.
One Christmas long, long ago–back in the days when My Own True Love was no more than my buddy and business partner–we exchanged packages that looked oddly similar. I gave him a book on the battle of Dunbar, part of Osprey Publication’s Campaign series. He gave me a book on Attila the Hun, part of Osprey Publications Elite series. Both gifts were references to inside jokes, made funnier by the shared impulse.
In the intervening years, I’ve come to have a great deal of respect for Osprey’s little books on military history. They’re only fifty to one hundred pages long. Each volume focuses on a specific battle, campaign, regiment or leader. They’re beautifully illustrated and what a friend of mine used to call “pelucidly clear”. The reading lists in the back are well chosen. I’ll admit that the books are a little short on color commentary. I wouldn’t curl up with an Osprey, the cat, and a cup of tea on a rainy Sunday. But when I need to follow the course of battle at Gettysburg, understand how armies were organized in the 30 Years War, or compare the gun power of Tudor warships with that of their sixteenth century Spanish counterparts, I turn to the Osprey catalog.
Speaking of which, I have some books to order.