Felipe Fernández-Armesto

April 13, 2007

I have staked a lot on centenaries but I fail to understand their charm. In 1988, I published a book about the Spanish Armada. I had a biography of Columbus ready for 1992. I took part in commemorations of Vasco da Gama in 1997. And I cornered the market in histories of the millennium in good time for 2000. But all these subjects seemed to me to be of transcendent interest, independent of the coiling of the calendar. If the best way to get people reading about them was to exploit irrationality, I saw no reason to hold back. But I could, and still can, think of no good reason for taking interest in the great events of the past only at intervals of decades or multiples thereof.

This year, I have miscalculated. In the US, you can hardly throw a brick without hitting some centennial celebration. Many are tied to the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the slave trade. Most are about the fourth centenary of the founding of Jamestown, the earliest enduring British colony in America. I find neither particularly worthy.

Denmark preceded Britain in banning the slave trade, but that event has gone uncommemorated. Abolition, moreover, seems temporarily to have made the traffic worse. Though noble in design, it led to the massacre of slaving communities and stimulated the evil ingenuity that devised new ways of coercing and exploiting labour.

Celebrations of Jamestown simply make me sick. Last year at my university we had a vacancy for a scholar of colonial American history. The candidates included some of the most gifted young historians in the world. I asked them all the same question: "Which part of the present territory of the US was the first to experience a lasting European colonial presence?" The answer is Puerto Rico, where Spanish colonisation began in 1509. Then came Spanish Florida, from 1567, then Spanish New Mexico, from 1598. But almost all the candidates said "Jamestown", suckered by the myth that the US is an Anglo-Saxon invention. The truth is more complex and more interesting, but the myth has generations of warped historiography behind it. It has been responsible for many of the follies and cruelties of American history - above all, for the wicked assumption that to be fully American you have to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Generations of immigrants suffered the consequences, obliged to abandon their languages, anglicise their names and endure bit parts in their own history lessons.J In my naivety, I never realised that the Jamestown centenary would be widely embraced. By celebrating the inaugural event of Anglo-America, the US defies its own current shibboleths and constant truths: the facts that America is essentially diverse; that every community in the country has made its contribution and earned its stake; and that immigrants are and have always been the lifeblood of the economy and of the state; that undercelebrated groups, who were unrepresented at Jamestown, such as Catholics, blacks, Hispanics, native Americans and Asian-Americans, need more acknowledgement. Curiously, it runs counter to the year's other main attraction for centenary lovers: the beginnings of the end of the slave trade.

Yet the enduring power of the Jamestown myth is palpable. You can sense it in hostility to Hispanic immigrants, whose historic claims to a place on US soil are incontestable. You can detect it in the widespread adhesion to a monoglot Anglophone culture, on which - otherwise rational and intelligent Americans will tell you - the essence and unity of the country depend. You can observe its effects, I think, in the abiding diffidence of black Americans, who still seem unable to believe society is unprejudiced against them. Senator Barack Obama, the aspiring Democratic presidential candidate, is black. But he is the child of recent immigrants - not, therefore, a product of blacks' long history of deprivation and exclusion in this country. Hence, I suspect, the stunning self-confidence that makes him a credible candidate. To the surprise of most foreigners, opinion polls show he has less support among black voters than his main white rival, Hillary Clinton. But this is entirely understandable: blacks can't get their heads around the prospect of a black president.

To me, the foundation of Jamestown seems a trivial and delusive event. The year 2007 ought to excite public interest in the 500th anniversary of the naming of America. The name was bestowed in tribute to Amerigo Vespucci - an honorand, it must be said, of dubious morals, feeble intellect and practical incompetence - on April 25, 1507. But few institutions seem to be taking any notice of this event. I, with my talent for miscalculation and inability to understand the centenary mentality, have written a book about it.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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