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Commemorating Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean Islands

Dr Fabienne Viala, Hispanic Studies

Published August 2013

In 1992, commemorations took place across the world for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean. While many were celebrating the explorer's voyage to, and 'discovery' of, the Americas, the Caribbean islands explored by Columbus demonstrated a more complex response. In her new book, Dr Fabienne Viala looks at the different attitudes of various islands towards Columbus, and what this reveals about their national identity, collective memory and approach to a colonial cultural heritage.

CaribbeanMy latest research examines comparatively the Hispanic, English and French Caribbean. I am interested in analysing the resonances between very different colonial and linguistic heritages, which has led me to look at the figure of Christopher Columbus in my latest book (which I am in the process of writing). I have been wondering to which extent this historical figure, who named most of the Caribbean islands he encountered, still plays a part in the contemporary national memory of the islands.

In The Post-Columbus Syndrome: Cultural Nationalisms, Identities and Commemorations in the Caribbean, I propose a comparative and differential analysis of the role and representation of Christopher Columbus in the commemorations on the Caribbean islands in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first arrival in the region. I look at the public and cultural reactions to this symbolic date in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Jamaica, where the commemorations did not have the same importance and relevance.

Unlike the fourth centenary celebrations in 1892, at a time when a colonial rhetoric coincided the world over, 1992 proved to be a problematic anniversary, marked by strong anti-celebration protests in the Americas. A debate around the meaning of the term ‘discovery’ gave birth to strong anti-celebratory activism in Latin American countries at the time. This has been widely studied. However very little has been written about what happened on the Caribbean islands and even less about how the Caribbean region as a whole reacted to the 1992 anniversary. With this work, I want to fill that void and in so doing, explore the complex dissonances in the different commemorative perspectives, which are deeply rooted in the national politics of each island.

Those dissonances are at the heart of what I define in the book as the post-Columbus memory syndrome in the region. I examine the diversity of different linguistic areas in the Caribbean and suggest that we reconsider 1992 as a turning point in the strategies of memory. The Caribbean collective imaginations of today are based on dysfunctional national memories; the islands of the Caribbean (variously nations, states and départements) share a constant desire to remember in a certain kind of way that implies a selection of what is to be forgotten on one hand and romanticised on the other. Official memory in the Caribbean is based on the repeated recycling of heritage with a view to cope with the present, often tied up with political powers. I suggest that this syndrome, as it is now, actually started in the 1990s.

The Caribbean islands were directly affected by Columbus’s voyages. But 500 years later they did not unite in unanimous anti-celebration movements, as was the case across Latin America. This is something that I wanted to understand. I found out that Columbus was, nevertheless, remembered and dismembered in the 1990s’ national and collective imaginations. The commemorative cultural productions of the time were concerned with the representation of some origins, the recognition of a certain heritage and the meaning of an authentic and national belonging, which they addressed vis-à-vis the historical continuum of 500 years.

For them, the image of Columbus symbolised this temporal continuity between past and present, emphasized the heritage of violence in the region and, therefore, the celebration of national cultures of resistance. The historical character was an instrument in the construction of a scenario of origin and national identity that varied according to the political agenda of the islands I am studying. The recognition or denial of, fascination with, and lack of interest in Columbus in Caribbean cultural memories in the 1990s derived from the symbolic potential of the character to engage with national identity.

At the time, Europe celebrated the fifth centennial of the Encounter of the Two Worlds with neo-colonial perspectives in mind. Spain promoted actively all manner of Columbus-related celebrations, such as the Regatta de Cádiz (a boat race following Columbus’s route). In Paris, UNESCO launched an international commission to commemorate the anniversary and facilitate cultural collaboration between the former European empires, moved by colonial nostalgia, and Latin American countries, reluctant to take for granted the representation of Columbus as a hero.

As a response, the Caribbean islands commemorated their historical past and national origins in order to respond to deep sociological, political, ideological and economic threats. With the collapse of the USSR and the resulting end of the three worlds paradigm, economic globalisation was considered to be promoting new forms of exploitation in the Caribbean. In that context, the need to remember the foundations of belonging and collective identity became symptomatic of an urgent need to make the present bearable, as a method of catharsis. In the Caribbean, the colonial past was read from the present and commemorations gave voice to pre-colonial and non-European origins, including Indian and African origins. In other words, in the past where a sense of solidarity could be found. Columbus, as a hero of both Spanish and colonial history, became a reservoir of metaphors that confront post-emancipation national myths and pre-Columbian collective imaginations. The collective recycling of memory thus became the voice of a desire to resist, and to perform in everyday life, the traumatic consequences of renewed forms of exploitation.

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Dr Fabienne VialaDr Fabienne Viala completed her PhD in Comparative Literature in 2004 at the University Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle, where she taught Latin American, Caribbean and Francophone Literatures and Cultures until 2008. She is presently finishing a monograph on The Post-Columbus Syndrome: Cultural Nationalism and Mutations of Identity in the Caribbean since 1992, which will examine the representation of Christopher Columbus in Hispanic, English and French Caribbean Cultural production. 

 Image: The Caribbean Sea by Michael Sims (via Flickr)