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Columbus' legacy haunts the New World

Columbus' legacy haunts the New World

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

by Nicanor Leyba

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AFP): Christopher Columbus' legacy in the "New World" is so controversial that many people in the Dominican Republic, which claims to be his final resting place, believe it is bad luck to mention his name.

An intrepid explorer or the forefather of imperialist domination? Five hundred years after his death on May 20, 1506, many people in the lands that Columbus discovered cannot decide.

But the Dominican Republic has a lot at stake in the Columbus industry, and for the moment, the burning issue is to determine just where Columbus remains are now.

After his death in Spain Columbus' body was taken the island of Hispaniola -- today shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

But the bones were allegedly taken back to the Spanish city of Seville in the late 18th century.

The mystery deepened when a cask was found in Santo Domingo Cathedral bearing the Columbus name. So what many Dominicans are praying are the Columbus' remains rested in the St. Mary of the Incarnation Cathedral from 1892 to 1992.

On the 500th anniversary of his discovery of Hispaniola, the 41 bone fragments were placed in a huge mausoleum at the Columbus Lighthouse in eastern Santo Domingo.

Columbus experts are now divided. A scientific panel was formed to compare DNA from the remains in Seville and Santo Domingo, but last year the Dominican government put off testing on its remains.

Columbus scholars are also battling over the explorers origins. Was he really the son of a Genoa wool trader, as traditionalists maintain, or could he have been of Catalan, Spanish or Portuguese origin as some suggest. The DNA project could help explain all this.

What is not disputed is that Columbus had requested he be buried in the island he discovered in 1492, putting himself at the forefront of the Age of Discovery, bringing huge riches to Spanish and other European settlers but also turmoil and desolation for the native communities of Latin America.

In the Dominican Republic, his name is honored by the upper class, while others link him to the extermination of Hispaniola's native Taino population. The inauguration of the lighthouse memorial led to protests that left one dead and dozens injured.

Columbus is respected by "an intellectual and political Dominican elite that seeks to follow his example of domination," said historian and sociologist Jose Antinoe Fiallo.

"We should be ashamed about this," Fiallo said. "What we should be remembering is the way this man referred to the population he found here in his diary."

Columbus wrote that he found the Tainos so docile that they would make good "servants," the historian said.

Dominicans of all social strata share the superstition that saying his name brings bad luck, which requires knocking on wood three times to avoid it.

"Part of the intelligentsia also believes this because he is linked to what the Tainos discovered when he destroyed them to impose his domination," Fiallo said.

"People believe that when Columbus arrived, bad lucked arrived," he said.

French historian Christian Duverger, who wrote a biography of Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes, who conquered Mexico, said Columbus is seen as a "barbaric" explorer "who was only interested in gold and exploiting the indigenous population."

In Cuba, the second island Columbus found on his first trip, and which he described as "the most beautiful island seen by human eyes," historians are holding six conferences to discuss his legacy.

The organisers are portraying Columbus as one of the most "known and controversial figures of the history of humanity."

"His adventure contributed not only to the discovery of the entire world, but also to the emergence of modern times and capitalism, with its bright and dark sides," they said in an introduction to the events.

Cuba plays a key role in the mystery over the Columbus remains.

Another story says that his bones were brought to Cuba in 1795, when Spain ceded part of Hispaniola to France. They stayed here until Cuban independence in 1898 and were then taken back to Spain.

Columbus died in the Spanish city of Valladolid at the age of 55 in virtual poverty, believing that his exploits never won the recognition they deserved.

He sailed west believing it was the quickest way to reach Asia, but the new land was eventually named America after Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who traveled from Mexico to Brazil 10 years after Columbus' discovery, but recognized the region as a new continent and not part of Asia.

South American independence hero Simon Bolivar dreamed of forming a "Great Colombia" covering the continent in honor of Columbus.

In 1819, the Republic of Colombia was created, but it only included today's Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. The country split in three in 1831.

Many historians defend the naming of America after Vespucci.

"It is incredible that statues are built for Columbus and that the discovery of America is attributed to him, when he never did that and never admitted doing that," said Gustavo Vargas, a historian at the Autonomous University of Mexico.

Trinidad and Tobago News

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