The Quandary of 1492
The year 1492 evokes a powerful symbolism.1 The symbolism is most charged, of course, among peoples whose historical memory connects them directly to the forces unleashed in 1492. For indigenous Americans, Latin Americans, minorities of Latino or Hispanic descent, and Spaniards and Portuguese, the sense of connection is strong. The year 1492 symbolises a momentous turn in historical destiny: for Amerindians, the ruinous switch from independent to colonised history; for Iberians, the launching of a formative historical chapter of imperial fame and controversy; for Latin Americans and the Latino diaspora, the painful birth of distinctive cultures out of power-laden encounters among Iberian Europeans, indigenous Americans, Africans, and the diverse offspring who both maintained and blurred the main racial categories.
But the symbolism extends beyond the Americas, and beyond the descendants of those most directly affected. The arrival of Columbus in America symbolises a historical reconfiguration of world magnitude. The fusion of native American and European histories into one history marked the beginning of the end of isolated stagings of human drama. Continental and subcontinental parameters of human action and struggle, accomplishment and failure, would expand into a world stage of power and witness. The expansion of scale revolutionised cultural and ecological geography. After 1492, the ethnography of the humanoid other proved an even more central fact of life, and the migrations of microbes, plants and animals, and cultural inventions would transform the history of disease, food consumption, land use, and production techniques.2 In addition, the year 1492 symbolises the beginnings of the unique world ascendance of European civilisation.