Goodbye Columbus

Eric Hobsbawm writes about 1492 and its cultural consequences in Europe

A few weeks ago, in Mexico, I was asked to sign a protest against Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the original native populations of the American continents and islands, or rather, of their descendants. I understand the feelings which inspire such gestures, and have some sympathy with them, although it seems to me that the only object of protesting against something that happened half a millennium ago is to get a little publicity for a cause of 1992 rather than 1492. The consequences of Columbus’s voyages and those of his successors cannot be reversed. The sufferings imposed on indigenous Americans and imported Africans, whether by deliberate human action or as the unintended consequences of conquest and exploitation, are undeniable and cannot be cancelled in retrospect. That the impact of conquest and exploitation on these populations was catastrophic, and not only during the first hundred and fifty years of European conquest, must not be denied or overlooked either. Nevertheless, we cannot cancel history, but only remember or forget or invent it. Everyone who lives in the Americas today, whether descended from the Aboriginal population or from voluntary or involuntary settlers, has been shaped by the five hundred years that have passed since Columbus sailed. But so has everyone in the Old World, though in ways of which we are rarely conscious.

That both sides were transformed was and is masked, in the first instance, by the very fact of conquest and overwhelmingly superior power. It was only on the periphery of settlement, and usually after the initial assertion of European power, that Europeans and native Americans met one another on anything like equal terms: an equality reinforced, on the northern and southern frontiers, for one or two centuries, by the ‘horse revolution’ which made the plains Indians of the North American deserts and prairies, and of the southern cone, into formidable cavalry raiders. Here and on the Amazonian jungle frontiers, as well as in a scattering of maroon settlements beyond the slave plantations, we find long-lasting resistance to conquest and colonisation – and only here. The settled American civilisations, especially in central America, succumbed rapidly. Under these circumstances we cannot realistically speak of a ‘clash’ of cultures, given the virtually total dominance of one side.

This dominance was reinforced by the combination of Christianity and barbarian conquest, which, as Edward Gibbon observed in the case of the Roman Empire, is a very effective destroyer of cultures. With all due respect to Las Casas and to the moral scruples of the Spanish crown, with all admiration for the Jesuits’ protection of the Indians, we must never forget that the object of the conquest was the destruction of a heathen culture and the substitution for it of the true faith. As in Cordoba, so in Mexico, we see the conquerors tearing down the fabric of one kind of holy place to build churches on their sites. This initial destruction was so systematic that – in spite of some belated attempts at rescue – only three of the written Maya codices are still extant, and their characters have been only incompletely deciphered. In fact, we can read the records of pre-Columbian civilisations far less than ancient hieroglyphics and cunieform tablets. The art and artefacts of these civilisations found their way to Europe, admired by experts like Albrecht Dürer for their technical workmanship and beauty, but, so far as we can tell, without becoming the subject of serious artistic interest until the 20th century. Several of its most important monuments, which have become major centres of global tourism, such as the Maya sites and Machu Picchu, were not even known or recovered until then.

In short, whatever the conquerors and settlers hoped to get from the New World, they did not expect to learn much from its inhabitants that would be of value in the Old. The most interesting and instructive thing about it was its very novelty: the discovery of other human societies, unknown and unmediated by history, literature or oral tradition; the discovery of territories with a geological and climatic structure unlike any in Europe, and with an overwhelmingly strange and rich but quite unfamiliar flora and fauna – in some areas it seemed a paradise before the fall. This confrontation with novelty was for long the American impact on European culture. It has been argued that this is what precipitated the European concept of the ideal society or Utopia. I need not remind you that the discoverer of Utopia in Thomas More’s book was supposed to have been a Portuguese by birth who had sailed with Amerigo Vespucci to New Castile, but stayed behind when Vespucci returned, to explore the New World further. Equally, and perhaps more important, was the novelty of the Americas as a stimulus to rethinking our scientific world-picture. After all, in the 19th century, it was the experience of South America which led both Charles Darwin and Russell Wallace to formulate the theory of evolution. Darwin himself said so in the very first sentences of The Origin of Species.

In the field of politics, institutions and high culture, it is safe to say, Europeans did not think they had anything to learn from the New World until the age of North American independence. Its institutions were derived from those of the Old World. Its culture and arts were remote provincial versions of metropolitan models. Politically, all this changed dramatically with the revolt of the American colonies, for after that the New World became the model of political innovation in an age of incomplete or unsuccessful metropolitan revolution. It was a continent of republics in a world of monarchies, and the USA was the pioneer political democracy. Still, even in politics the Old World did not quite lose its hegemony. The French Revolution was a more universal model than the revolution of the American colonies, and even in Latin America the Tricolour was the dominant model for national flags. However, the New World remained a dependency of the Old, in intellectual life and in the arts, and few wealthy or educated Americans denied this until the end of the 19th century.

The mass of the American populations, native, slave or settler, if they knew anything about Europe at all, knew that they were not living in an inferior version of the metropolis. Creoles or settlers were perhaps the first conscious ‘Americans’, and it is clear to us that, with numerically small exceptions, the indigenous and mestizo populations lived in a syncretic culture that fused European and autochthonous elements. The settler/Creole version of this New World culture combined with the indigenous versions in varying degree. At one extreme we find regions of heavy European settlement – urban or rural – and comparatively thin indigenous population, regions which colonists could treat virtually as empty land, from which the aborigines could simply be eliminated. For practical purposes, the native Americans in the USA were to leave no significant traces on US culture, after their initial contact with the early colonists, except as something which stood outside it. At the other extreme we find small settler or pioneer populations on pioneer frontiers or in indigenous milieus, who might be heavily ‘nativised’. In the special case of Paraguay and the adjoining areas of what is now Brazil and Argentina, a native language, Guarani, actually became the main medium of communication among local white settlers, but this was quite exceptional. Again, as one might suppose, European intellectual and cultural influence rose as one proceeded from the less to the more educated, and was at its lowest among the illiterate. Nevertheless, most inhabitants of the Western hemisphere, before the era of mass emigration from Europe to North and the southern cone of South America, lived in something like a syncretic New World culture which fused elements from both worlds.

The impact the Americas have made on the culture of the Old World has been specifically that of this New World culture. Here we must distinguish between the impact of Latin and Caribbean America and that of North America, especially the USA, for two reasons. That of the USA has been enormously magnified by the transformation of that country into the greatest industrial economy of the 20th century and the model of wealth and technological progress, and later by its transformation into a superpower. Almost everything that comes from there has had a major ‘demonstration effect’ and is likely to be imitated. If we want to assess the strength of this effect, we have only to compare US influence with that of Canada in both Britain and France. Canada is, after all, one of the seven most powerful economies in the world. Unlike the USA, or both Britain and France, Canada remains culturally provincial, though interesting things and people occasionally emerge from it. Again, since the late 18th century, the USA has been a political model for the rest of the world, though not, as it happens, a model much imitated. Initially there was nothing specifically American about this model, except the fact that ideas common to progressive intellectuals everywhere in Europe first led to political transformation across the Atlantic. Later, once again, the growing strength of the USA reinforced its impact. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a phenomenon of world interest, but the contemporary Cardenas era in Mexico was seen as having only regional interest. The situation is similar in the more strictly cultural field. Everyone in the world knows about the cowboys of the old US West. The Mexican vaqueros from whom their costumes, their equipment and even their vocabulary are derived are not world-famous. No doubt if Hollywood had been situated in a Mexican rather than a Yankee Los Angeles, the epics of the Wild West would have paid more attention to Latin America.

One might, of course, argue that in some ways the USA represents a civilisation, an economy, a polity more completely ‘new world’ than any other in the Americas, because it made a more complete break with the institutions of the Old World than did any other set of European transatlantic colonies. It is certainly the case that even today visiting Europeans find the USA in many respects a stranger society, and one whose mores are harder to understand, than those of the Latin American countries. In some ways the rise of the USA to its position as the world’s super-economy and superpower owes much to its situation in the New World – for instance, to its potential for transcontinental territorial expansion – but I would not wish to exaggerate the importance of such factors. If the rise of the USA is to be explained by its being a new country in a new world, then what about the rise of Japan?

I do not want to speak primarily about the repercussions of the USA on Europe, however, even though when most of us think of American influence in Europe, this is what we have in mind. I want rather to consider those cultural repercussions of America as a whole which owe nothing of significance to the size, wealth and power of their countries of origin. To take the extreme case of Ruben Dario in literature, his importance in the history of modern Spanish poetry is as great as the importance of his country, Nicaragua, in the early 20th century, was negligible.

If we consider the balance of European and New World elements in our culture, an interesting contrast between élite or high culture and popular culture becomes apparent. In the field of high culture, the balance still favoured the Old World until the late 20th century, in spite of the enormous prestige, resources and creative energy of the USA. The Americas are still net importers of talent and ideas, and nowhere more so than in the USA, even in the area of its greatest intellectual triumph, scientific research. In the rest of the Americas, the continued hegemony of the Old World continues among intellectuals, though particular mother countries have learned that their cultural superiority to their former colonies has disappeared.

Nevertheless, even in the fields of high culture, the Old World has increasingly taken notice of the New, though officially with some delay. The Nobel Prize did not begin to go to North American writers until 1930, or to Latin American ones in any numbers until after the late Sixties. Still, US literature has been accepted as a serious and independent component of world literature for at least a hundred and fifty years. Latin American writing had difficulty in making an impact outside the Iberian language zone, but it made its major breakthrough in the second half of the present century, and it is today in some ways more influential internationally than that of the USA. No doubt this was due largely to the Cuban revolution, which, small as it was by international standards, was the first home-grown Latin American event since the execution of Maximilian to be seen as a global event. In its time, the far greater Mexican revolution was overshadowed by events in Russia, even though it also achieved a significant cultural breakthrough with Mexican revolutionary painting – the first globally-recognised Modernist image-making originating in the Americas. Revolution has, in fact, been the secret weapon of Latin American high culture abroad, encouraged by the fashion for revolutionary tourism in that part of the world since 1959, particularly among intellectuals who found Spanish and Portuguese a lot easier to learn than Arabic or South-East Asian languages. Moreover, until today, the hopes of revolution have survived better here than in any other part of the world, and so has the positive image of revolution, as in Mexico. Latin America is the last bastion of the Left in the world. For this reason its literature has so far escaped the worst consequences of the privatisation of the imagination. But for how long?

Compared to the mixed fortunes of American high cultures, however, American popular cultures, from the middle or, at the latest, the end of the 19th century, have shown a remarkable power to penetrate the Old World. Once again, this has been the characteristic achievement of a mixed culture – in this instance, a Euro-American culture vitalised by African elements. Both North American, Caribbean and South American dances and popular music conquered Europe from the first years of the 20th century and have continued their advance from tango, maxixe and ragtime to the present. The mass popular music of industrial society comes essentially from the Western hemisphere today, whereas the transatlantic music of high culture, from the Colon in Buenos Aires to the Lincoln Centre in New York, remains dependent on Europe. Let us not dismiss these cultural repercussions of the New World. Popular culture is the universal culture of our century. It is shared by all of us, including the most uncompromisingly intellectual. High culture belongs to minorities, and sometimes very small ones. In saying this, I am not making a judgment of value. On the other hand, I am implying a ‘clash of cultures’. And indeed, if there is a genuine clash of cultures between the New World and the Old, it is here: between a New World whose main strength and dynamic force is popular and an Old World whose cultural impact on the New has overwhelmingly been through élites and rulers.

This contrast leads me to my main content ion. By far the most significant way in which the discovery of the New World has affected the Old is through an almost entirely anonymous process of mass conquest initiated from the West. The major contribution of the Americas to the Old World has been to distribute across the globe a cornucopia of wild and cultivated products, mainly plants, without which the modern world as we know it would not be conceivable. You may say that this has nothing to do with culture. But what we cultivate and eat, especially if it is a new kind of foodstuff quite unfamiliar to our way of life, or even an entirely new form of consumption, must influence, and may even transform, not merely our consumption but the way we live in other respects. Consider only the basic foodstuffs. Four of the seven most important agricultural crops in the world today are of American origin: potatoes, maize, manioc and sweet potato. (The other three are wheat, barley and rice.) The classic work on ‘the history and social influence of the potato’ was written by Redcliffe Salaman as long ago as 1949. Arturo Warman’s La historia de un bastardo: maiz y capitalismo was published in 1988. Both these excellent works demonstrate how far beyond mere food the social history of these crops takes us. But what about those products of the New World which were not simply substitutes for things already consumed in the Old World but opened new dimensions, new social styles? Chocolate, tobacco, cocaine? Or which have come to form the crucial elements of such novelties as chewing-gum, or Coca-Cola (even if it has lost its original cocaine component), the tonic in gin and tonic? What about the significant additions to the world’s medical pharmacopoeia, such as quinine, for long the only drug capable of controlling malaria? What about the sunflowers which Rembrandt and Van Gogh were to paint, the peanuts without which modern Western sociability is incomplete – not to mention their more practical use as major sources of vegetable oils.

What I am arguing is that the adoption of new products, or even, in traditional peasant societies, the change from one basic food to another, is far more than a mere shift in consumer choice. Potatoes and maize could feed far more people per unit of the cultivated area than earlier crops. We know what happened when rapidly expanding populations became dependent on such a single crop – the history of Ireland is a tragic example. But who will say that the potato-based transformation in Ireland, and the great famine that followed, and the massive haemorrhage of population which that country has suffered ever since, did not entail cultural repercussions, not to mention political ones, on both sides of the Atlantic? Without Pizarro it could not have happened. Everything about the use of tobacco, which was unknown outside the Americas before the conquest, has cultural implications, as I did not need to tell anyone in Seville, where I have just been discussing these matters, and where Carmen met Don José in the celebrated Real Farica de Tabacos. Everything about the use of tobacco is linked to human emotions, ideas, hopes and fears: from the last cigarette offered to the condemned man before execution to the smoker automatically reaching for a cigarette after sexual intercourse; even the campaign to eliminate smoking, which is rather more successful in the Anglo-Saxon countries than elsewhere, tells us more about late 20th-century beliefs concerning how life should be lived than about the medical effects of nicotine. We are, in short, talking about products of the New World which were unknown and indeed unknowable before the conquest of the Americas, but which have since transformed the Old World profoundly and unpredictably, and still continue to do so. And I may add that in this respect the Old World owes more to the New than the Americas owe to Europe.

The point I wish to stress is that these products were not simply ‘discovered’ by the Europeans, still less deliberately searched for, in the way that the Conquistadors searched for silver and gold. They were products known, collected and systematically cultivated and processed by the indigenous societies. Conquistadors and settlers learned how to prepare and use them from these local societies. Indeed, if the settlers had not let themselves be taught by the natives, they would have found it difficult, perhaps impossible, to survive. To this day the great symbolic festival of the USA, Thanksgiving, records a debt of the first colonists to the Indians, which subsequent white civilisation repaid by driving them out. Thanksgiving is celebrated by a meal that consists essentially of the New World foods which the colonists learned to live on from the Indians: culminating, as we all know, in the turkey.

My argument is that the true nature and significance of the meeting of cultures inaugurated when Columbus landed on his first Caribbean island cannot be understood in terms of conventional history alone. If we ask, what did Europe get from the conquest of the New World? the obvious answer is an expansion of some countries on the western side of that continent, through imperial rule, through wealth extracted from the labour of Indians and Africans, and through the settlement of migrants and colonists from the countries of Europe. The Americas were the first regions outside Europe in which empires were overthrown by European soldiers, and where European colonists established new Castiles, new Portugals and, later, new Englands. For a thousand years before 1492, conquest and settlement had gone the other way: from Asia and Africa into Europe. That is why it is historically significant that the date of Columbus’s discovery of America is also the date of the conquest of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain: all three are symbols of this reversal. 1492 marks the beginning of Eurocentric world history, of the conviction that a few Western and Central European countries were destined to conquer and rule the globe, of Euromegalomania.

Yet all this is past history. Spain, Portugal, Britain, France and the rest have long ceased to rule the Americas. They have themselves declined from world powers, even from ‘great powers’ in the European context, to states which, by themselves, exercise no particular influence, but are important only collectively through the European Community. At most, Spain and Britain benefit from the fact that their languages have, thanks to their past conquests in the Americas, become world languages. The countries of the Americas have long ceased to be transatlantic extensions of Spain, Portugal and England, even for the local élites. The era of the ‘expansion of Europe’, a subject on which history students were still proudly examined in my youth, is over.

But other direct consequences of the conquest and settlement of the Americas are still with us. They do not belong to famous men, or governments. And yet they have transformed the fabric of European life for good. And indeed, that of other continents also. When the cultural, social and economic history of the modern world is written in realistic terms, the conquest of Southern Europe by maize, of Northern and Eastern Europe by the potato, and of both by tobacco and more recently Coca-Cola, will appear more prominently than the gold and silver for the sake of which the Americas were subjected.