THIS year 'Columbus' has become a magic word which makes common sense disappear and turns critical intellects into white rabbits. Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston has an urgent and honourable case to make on behalf of Latin America's victims of injustice. He wrecks it by his abuse of facts and language.
Almost everything he says about colonial Latin America is wildly misleading. Columbus's arrival was not the 'beginning of European expansion' only an Important moment in what was already a long history. 'The age of empires' in the New World did not start with Columbus: the Aztecs and Incas might have something to say to Fr Michael about that Nor can Columbus's discovery fairly be made to 'represent for Africa the beginning of the slave trade'. which is documented in ancient
Roman and Chinese sources.
The suffering which 'continues today in different forms' was not 'caused by the invasion of the Americas'. The problems of debt and drugs, of environmental disaster and of human rights denied are the responsibility of today's elite: to blame Columbus is an evasion at which Fr Michael should be ashamed to connive.
He makes his worst error in misusing the word 'genocide'. Never mind his figures, based on a znisunder-standing of the name 'Aztecs' and his reliance on discredited statistics: there is a deeper issue at stake. Every slipshod misapplication of 'genocide' strips it of its horror, blunts the power of the word.
Whenever native American lobbyists resort to this verbal hype, they comfort vermin in the woodwork of the old world, who want to make us indifferent to the evils of the Holocaust or who revel in 'ethnic cleansing'.
'The principal thing you must do,' wrote Columbus in his instructions to his first deputy, 'is to take much care of the Indians, that no hurt or harm be done to them'. That remained the policy of the crown throughout the history of the Spanish empire in America. 'Genocide' would have been an irrational policy in a society dependent on Indian labour and tribute. Spain needed Indians too much to want to exterminate them. In the empire Columbus helped to found we know about cruelties and atrocities precisely because it was a conscientious empire, full of Catholic moralists to condemn them and courts to try them. Few empires have legislated so extensively, or so ineffectually, for the relief of their own victims.
Demographic catastrophe was triggered by the unforeseeable effects of the invasion of millions of immune systems by unaccustomed diCPS1C.P.
Columbus's achievements leave the world a lot to celebrate today. Through the Ihero-American political and cultural movement, the quincentenary has already helped peace and progress in Latin America: the Guadalajara declaration, which brought together all the heads of state and government of Spain, Portugal and the Latin American republics for the first time in history, initiated programmes for the benefit of the continent as a whole and of its indigenous communities in particular.
Juan Carlos, the embodiment of the old imperial power, shared a platform and a cause with Fidel Castro, the immigrant's son who has proclaimed himself an 'honorary native-American'.
Must of today's celebrators will be celebrating their own identity as Latin Americans, Hispanic Americans, Italian Americans or Just Americans. I hope native-Americans and Black Americans will join them for these identities, too, came into being only as a result of the colonial experience. October 12 1492 is a birthday the biggest birthday fiesta Latin America has ever had.
Latin America is at least as much the creation of its native peoples as of the black and white newcomers who helped them build it. They supplied cannon fodder for its wars and labour for its enterprises. They collaborated in varying degrees in an Imperial system and an urban civilisation in the tradition of Aztec and Inca predecessors..
The result is the latest in a great series of civilisations made by American people. It gives citizens of native descent plenty to be proud of as well as plenty to regret.
Colonial society was in most respects a worthy successor to the civilisations which preceded it but we can agree in thanking God for one discontinuity at least: as Columbus hoped and foresaw, his discoveries housed the hemisphere's first Christian civilisation, where Fr Michael's
Jesuit predecessors included some heroic pioneers of the power of love and the inspiration of faith.
Outside the hemisphere too, Columbus's achievement ought to be recalled admiringly. By discovering a fast, exploitable transatlantic route he forged a permanent link between the shores of an ocean across which, ever since, we have trafficked in goods and ideas and around which in times within everyone's memory we huddled for our defence In the wake of Columbus, routes of access between sundered or barelycommunicating cultures all over the world were opened up.
Like all change, it was for good or ill. But it turned Columbus's world-inhabited in discreet patches-into the one world we share today.
Felipe Fernandez-A rmesto is author of Columbus and general editor of the Times Atlas of World Exploration.