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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 137-138

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Book Review

Sinking Columbus: Contested History, Cultural Politics, and Mythmaking during the Quincentenary

Sinking Columbus: Contested History, Cultural Politics, and Mythmaking during the Quincentenary. By STEPHEN J. SUMMERHILL and JOHN ALEXANDER WILLIAMS. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000 . Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Index. xii, 219 pp. Cloth, $49 .95 .

As its subtitle suggests, this work is less about Christopher Columbus than about the politics of commemoration, using the occasion of the Columbian quincentenary as a case study. Given the circumstances of the quincentenary, a work like this has been surprisingly long in making an appearance. The first five chapters after the introduction offer a blow-by-blow account of the jockeying in various parts of the world to capitalize on Columbus as either a commodity or a symbol. Not as the symbol of an ascendant imperialism, however, but of greed and corruption in the present and exploitation and infection in the past. Summerhill and Williams chronicle the unedifying course of the magniloquent U.S. Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission from its establishment in 1984 to its official demise eight years later. It is a story of the rankest politicking, incompetence, and malfeasance. Columbus would have understood, might even have sympathized.

Next follows an account of the largely abortive attempts by sites in the United States to make money off the admiral. Since Columbus did not so much as discern the North American continent, no locality there can claim a connection. Just the same, many did. Columbus, Ohio, after all, was named after the discoverer. New York City had the right by virtue of being . . . New York City. And so on. No commemoration was very successful in drawing crowds. Among the reasons were again incompetence and greed, but, in addition, there was the problem of market saturation. In the Dominican Republic, President Joaquín Balaguer, blind and senescent, bankrupted his country by building the Faro a Colón, an enormously expensive and largely useless monolith. Balaguer was not commemorating Columbus but Joaquín Balaguer. Only in Italy was there any semblance of success, largely due to Paolo Emilio Taviani, a prominent politician, Genoa native, and indefatigable money-raiser and traveler from one Columbus site to another. Thanks to Taviani's efforts, new editions of primary sources were published in grandiose editions, but the celebration at Genoa was a municipal fiasco. [End Page 137]

Sinking Columbus is a chronicle of failure, which renders it not unlike how a disinterested observer, or even Columbus himself, might view the sum of Columbus's own journey through life. Nonetheless, the work is couched in an enjoyably wry tone, as the authors retail one fiasco after another while trying their best to maintain a discursive distance. In this they largely succeed--there is little of the judgmental here beyond the occasion deadpanning.

Summerhill and Wiliams mean this work to be salutary and they succeed--how could they not? The lessons, of course, go well beyond Columbus's exemplification of the apophthegm that the higher they rise (1892-1982), the harder they fall (1992 ). Sinking Columbus is also a healthy reminder that historiographical currents have ebbs and flows, if not quite in cyclical form. By contextualizing the quincentenary they illustrate the degree to which celebration, although assiduously studied these days, largely refracts more important issues.

This approach overlooks the academic outgrowth that was largely beneficial. The authors have chosen largely to ignore the reciprocal effects of scholarship and the quincentenary. Before 1992 Columbus was either sanctified or demonized. Most of the scholarly works engendered by the quincentenary used more sources, drew a wider range of conclusions, and contextualized the Encounter/Discovery as never before. The occasion also produced many critical editions, not only of the slender surviving work of Columbus but of many other chroniclers of the Indies. The effects of Columbus, rather than merely his activities, took center stage. We know much more about Columbus in 2001 than we did in 1981 , even though we may admire him a lot less for it...


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