After twenty days we finally left the Ria de Arousa and sailed 37 miles south to Baiona. It was a misty drizzly day with poor visibility, but about ten miles out from Baiona the sky cleared and we were treated to the sight of green mountains and high majestic islands with overhanging clouds. As we sailed into Baiona over the swell rolling in off the Atlantic it was easy to imagine Martin Pinzón and the crew of La Pinta looking on exactly the same sight (minus the high rises of Vigo) 522 years ago as they returned with the first news of having discovered land to the west. It was a few more days before Columbus reached Lisbon, and by then news of the success of the voyage had been dispatched to Ferdinand and Isabella.
The landing of La Pinta suffuses Baiona. There are monuments, statues and street names, and a replica of La Pinta in the harbour. The first Native American to die on European soil is buried here (he died within days of La Pinta’s arrival), and monuments around town celebrate the ‘meeting of worlds’ and the importance of Columbus’ accomplishments. Indeed, it would appear that Baiona is currently seeking UNESCO world heritage status due to its link with the first Columbus voyage.
I find all of this celebration strangely lacking in context or reflection. I looked forward to the audio-guide that accompanied the visit to La Pinta. But while it recounted in great detail the difficulties of seafaring at the time, life aboard for the crew, and all the wonderful and exotic products they introduced to Europe (peppers, cotton, maize, tobacco, from that first voyage), there was little historical or cultural context. Why had Columbus sailed west in the first place? What impact did the discovery have on Europe? And crucially, what impact did the discovery have on the Americas? There was no mention of the forced labour, enslavement, disease and genocide that ultimately led to the deaths, according to some estimates, of 200 million original inhabitants of the ‘New World’. Nor is there mention of the African slave trade that became established a mere decade after that first voyage.
So, while enthralled by the presence of this reminder of a crucial moment in world history, we are also aware of the lack of reflection on what it meant, what it led to, and how this late medieval event reverberates down to the present day.
When Julian and I had exhausted our own knowledge of Columbus’ voyages, we turned to our onboard reference books and then to the Internet. We have taken advantage of this piece of history in our midst to have ‘Columbus days’ with the girls. We have explored La Pinta and have visited the various monuments, all the time talking about who these historical figures were, why they did what they did, and what the repercussions have been. I’m not sure if the girls appreciate that before the ‘discovery’, Europeans didn’t have potatoes, tomatoes, maize, cotton, tobacco, coffee, and much more besides. Indeed, I find it hard to imagine Europe without those, or to get my head around how recently my own country, Ireland, had become dependent on the potato before the Great Famine.
‘Columbus days’ have also led to conversations about trade winds, sailing directions, hurricanes, animals native to the Americas, animals introduced by Europeans, and much more besides.
The human history of contact between the Old and New Worlds is too horrific to delve too deeply into with small children. But what we can talk about are the vast and varied cultures of the Americas, the technologies unknown to Europeans, how people utilised the land and animals, spiritual and artistic culture. I guess what we’re trying to instil in them is that what Columbus ‘discovered’ was already home to millions of people.