Columbus Day

 

christopher-columbus (2)Today the U.S. government officially observes Columbus Day.  But of course Columbus Day traditionally falls on October 12, the date on which the expedition under Christopher Columbus first touched land in the western hemisphere (by most reckonings at San Salvador Island in the Bahamas). Although the United States began to observe Columbus Day regularly in the years following 1892, the 400-year anniversary of the (European) discovery of America, it was only In 1971 that the Nixon administration made the day a federal holiday, to be observed on the second Monday in October.

Back then, the pop duo Seals & Crofts, two Texans who happened also to be adherents to the pacifist faith Baha’i, could still reach for Columbus when they wanted their lyrics to challenge listeners to find the best in themselves:

Like Columbus in the olden days, we must gather all our courage.
Sail our ships out on the open sea.
Cast away our fears
And all the years will come and go, and take us up, always up.
We may never pass this way again.
We may never pass this way again.
We may never pass this way again.

“We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” appeared on the album Diamond Girl in 1973. There’s no way Seals & Crofts would–or probably even could without inviting howls of protest–use Columbus as imagery again. Indeed, when they performed the song in concert in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage, they substituted the less inflammatory name “Magellan,” for by then Columbus and his holiday had become controversial, to say the least.

Indeed, invite a Native American to celebrate Columbus Day with you and see what response you get. People are not stereotypes and I imagine if you invited enough Native Americans you’d find some takers. But for the most part their appraisal of the holiday and what it really commemorates is probably well epitomized by Transform Columbus Day.Org, whose statement of principles reads in part:

Columbus Day is an inherently racist statement of cultural domination. Celebrations honoring Columbus reinforce a historical process of racism, theft, lies, murder, slavery and the destruction of the environment. Individually and collectively, we reject Columbus as a heroic personality, and we reject holidays, celebrations or other expressions of adulation for Columbus.

That sure puts a different perspective on the Seals & Crofts song. The contrast between their original intent and the TCD.org statement of principles becomes even more pronounced when you consider that the lines quoted above are preceded by this one:

Peace, like the silent dove, should be flyin’ but it’s only just begun.

Even so, Seals & Crofts eventually went back to singing “We May Never Pass This way (Again)” in its original form, probably because their fans found it jarring to hear the lyrics altered. Maybe the duo should have kept at it, though: I heard Rod Stewart at a 1993 concert start to sing his pre-AIDs era hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” only to halt just as the crowd began to get into it. He didn’t sing that song any more, Stewart explained. Which was as good as a sermon on safe sex.

Of course, even if they had stuck with “Magellan” the change would have been cosmetic rather than substantive. In and of itself, Magellan’s voyage was less lethal than the ultimately four voyages of Columbus, though Magellan himself was killed during a pitched battle with Filipino natives after siding with one tribe over another in a local dispute. But it was very much part of the larger European project of colonization and domination. Seals & Crofts would have run into the same problem with “Da Gama,” which also fits the rhythm. Da Gama’s three voyages were punctuated regularly by violence, including acts of piracy and at least one major battle at sea. They were also crucial in laying the foundation of the European enclaves in Africa and southern Asia from which the slave trade and, eventually, large-scale colonization would result.

Basically, Seals & Crofts couldn’t win for losing if they chose a European explorer on the historical merits, for virtually every one of these expeditions was a military expedition, carried out by armed men aboard armed vessels.

I still like the song, though. We may never pass this way again.