Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Historical Myths III

Maybe this is symbolic of just how little we pay attention to what goes on around us, but contrary to popular belief, the reason why we get the day off from work on October 12th each year has nothing to do with national heroes and everything with what happened in 1492. However, it is not Columbus Day. Instead, it is Discovery Day.

Those names have really done it to us. One group of very influential persons in this society campaigns loudly for a so-called National Heroes Day, but I suggest to you that none in that group are very much concerned about National Heroes, rather this campaign is designed to rewrite and falsify Bahamian history, cleansing it of our less glorious colonial past. You cannot do that. Our past is the only past we've got!

The National Heroes Day folks now tell us, and they have thousands of Bahamians convinced, that the government has "changed 'Columbus Day' into 'National Heroes Day.'" Mistake #1: Columbus Day is a U.S. American holiday, in the Bahamas it is Discovery Day. Why, if the promoters of National Heroes Day in all their self-righteousness are supposedly trying so hard to promote national(ist) pride, can't they get their facts straight? "Columbus Day" is what they call it in the United States, in the Bahamas, October 12th has traditionally been called Discovery Day. Sounds like someone is a proud Americanized Bahamian, which is tragic, because the difference between Columbus Day and Discovery Day is indeed of fundamental importance. Calling it Columbus Day honours the man, calling it Discovery Day commemorates the event. Throughout the world, events are commemorated, even if they have negative connotations, because humankind can - or at least should - learn from its mistakes.

The next point that Discovery Day bashers make is that Columbus did not discover the Bahamas, but that he was lost. That's a valid point. But actually rather irrelevant. On October 12th, 1492, Columbus landed at San Salvador, sailed around the Caribbean some more, and returned to Spain, where he told the whole of Europe about his discovery of... of what? He thought he was in Asia, but Asia did not need discovering as far as Europeans were concerned. What Columbus discovered was that you could sail across the Atlantic Ocean and find land on the other side, that European ships were sturdy enough to last the journey, big enough to store enough food and water for the journey.

As news travels fast, soon the entire Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) knew about Columbus' travels. Sure, it would take a little longer before the Old World realised that it had in fact found a New World that had previously existed without contact to the Old World (instead of a convenient route to Asia), but there can be no doubt that this event changed the course of history since. This discovery (or whatever term you prefer, but for the Old World, it was a discovery, and today, most people in the New World are descendants of Old World peoples) brought with it a lot of pain and suffering, such as the death and enslavement of countless Native Americans and Africans, but there were some positive aspects, too, such as the exchange of crops (maize, potato), which have alleviated the famines in the Old World and have saved many from starvation. Furthermore, the United States, for all its shortcomings and mistakes, has been an inspiration for millions, and has done much to promote democracy around the world. Who knows how World War II might have ended, had it not been for the involvement of the U.S., even before Pearl Harbor.

My point is simple. October 12th, 1492, is of fundamental importance to Bahamian AND World History. Therefore, it should be recognised. It is now, even if you may not believe me and the National Heroes Day crowd has you fooled. Don't believe me? Check the Government's own website: http://www.bahamas.gov.bs/bahamasweb2/home.nsf/vContentW/E33CDCC935A93A60852571ED004B668D!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,holidays (this document was last updated 25/02/2009)

In all likelihood, it does look like sooner or later October 12th will indeed become National Heroes Day. This strikes me as short sighted "negative" nationalism, i.e. a nationalism that defines itself by what it is NOT... NOT European, NOT colonial. And while these may no longer be our present, they sure are our past. A more "positive" nationalism, however, would find ways to celebrate the new Bahamas, without rejecting its history.

A 2007 article in the Bahama Journal raises some interesting points: Then-Director of Culture Nicolette Bethell points out that it still needs to be decided whether National Heroes Day, even if it is on October 12th, will replace and thus abolish Discovery Day, or whether National Heroes Day will be an addition to the date, meaning the two would coexist. Moreover, a minority report to the House of Assembly recommended to keep October 12th as a day to commemorate the above mentioned important event in our history, but to rename it Encounter Day, which would indeed be an good way to solve the apprehension caused by the word "discovery." For National Heroes Day, the report recommends the creation of a new holiday, which might be considered fitting, as one could question how honoured a national hero might feel if awarded a recycled holiday. The report stated, "that January 10, the anniversary of majority rule, be named National Heroes Day." Another fitting candidate for National Heroes Day could be April 27th, also known as Black Tuesday. Fred Mitchell once recommended making it a holiday, I agree with him - for once. ;-)

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