Tuesday, October 13, 2009

columbus day leftovers

I meant to post something appropriate to the holiday yesterday, but spent the whole day taking care of my young son. (Most places of work may not take Columbus Day seriously as a holiday, but our day care center certainly does.)

Anyway, thinking about Columbus to me means thinking about the collision of worlds, old and new. Below is a quote from V.S. Naipaul's The Loss of El Dorado, a 1969 book chronicling the exploits of Spain and Britain around the author's native Trinidad, and the creation of a slave colony there.

El Dorado, of course, was a city that didn't exist. Stories about mines, or crystal mountains, or cities of gold somewhere in the jungle fired the imaginations of adventurers in the 16th century, but typically led to very bad behavior, disillusionment, and death:

El Dorado, which had begun as a search for gold, was becoming something more. It was becoming a New World romance, a dream of Shangri-la, the complete, unviolated world. Such a world had existed and the Spaniards had violated it. Now, with a sense of loss that quickened their imagination, the Spaniards wished to have the adventure again. The story grew subtler with Spanish failure. It took the Spaniards beyond the realities of their life in the bush; it teased every deprived sense.

In the first part of the book, during the 16th century, whenever Europeans ask natives about El Dorado, the city of gold, it turns out it's just over the mountains, or just a few miles downstream, always tantalizingly just out of reach somewhere in the jungle. But, of course, the natives are simply playing along: El Dorado is really just a story the Europeans tell themselves about a civilization they've already wiped out.

Sir Walter Raleigh went looking for crystal mountains and gold mines in Guiana twice, first in 1594, then again in 1616. He never found any. During the second attempt, men under his command attacked the Spanish outpost of San Thomé and killed its governor. Raleigh lost his son in the raid, too. His adventure ended a ridiculous, bloody failure, with Raleigh executed in London in 1618 for piracy.

The ships from Europe came and went. The plantations grew. The brazil-wood, felled by slaves in the New World, was rasped by criminals in the rasp-houses of Amsterdam. The New World as medieval adventure had ended; it had become a cynical extension of the developing old world, its commercial underside. No one would look at Trinidad and Guiana again with the eye of Raleigh or Robert Dudley or Captain Wyatt.

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