Every year at the Organisation of American States (OAS), Spain, as an Observer state, has placed on the Organisation’s agenda a celebration of Christopher Columbus’ stumbling on what is now called The Bahamas on October 12, 1492.
This ‘celebration’, according to Spain, is to mark the “Encounter of two worlds”. In the view of Europeans, those worlds were the “civilised” nations of Europe and a new, savage world which Columbus ran into by chance, mistakenly believing he had arrived in ‘the Indies”, as China, Japan, India and Indonesia were collectively known.
The truth is that he was hopelessly lost. But his inability to find his way unleashed consequences which reverberate today to the detriment of the “new world” that Columbus and his patrons thought he had “discovered”.
Treasure and resources were transferred to Europe or placed in the control of European colonial settlers who seized lands, killed or displaced indigenous peoples and introduced brutal slavery. Most of the wealth and power in today’s world is concentrated in the same hands that began the grab in 1492, while most of the poverty exists in former colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
This is why on October 5 at the OAS, I made a statement, calling on Spain, supported by some governments in Latin America and North America, to stop “celebrating” an event, which has brought suffering and underdevelopment to many countries in the Americas.
I reproduce below, for clarity, the full text of my remarks.
I preface my statement by placing on my record my Government’s high regard for the present day government of Spain and the role it plays in global affairs, and more especially for its support of this Organisation of American States.
However, my delegation would be less than a true friend of Spain if we were to pretend that this occasion is one that we welcome or support. Indeed, the absence of several delegations at this meeting indicates the concern of a number of member states.
On the last occasion that the delegation of Antigua and Barbuda made a statement on this unfortunate topic that is persistently presented to this Permanent Council, we made it clear that Antigua and Barbuda has no wish to linger over a past relationship.
We emphasised that much of that past had a very dark side with repercussions that have cast a long shadow to this day.
Part of that dark past was genocide and enslavement of the native peoples of the Americas, and the gateway that was thrown open for centuries of brutal slavery of African people and the exploitation of Asian indentured labour in some Caribbean countries.
That past was indeed linked to an “encounter between two worlds”. It was an encounter between a lost Italian – Cristobal Colon or Christopher Columbus – and the people who had long inhabited the islands and mainlands that have come to be called “The Americas”.
The native peoples of these lands were not in need of discovery; they already had a civilisation, a rich culture, and knowledge that suited the sustainability of their environment.
All that was either destroyed or desecrated by the arrival of Columbus and his crew who stumbled upon these lands in the mistaken belief that they had navigated a new route to the Indies. That encounter should not be celebrated; it should be lamented.
It was an encounter contrived on the ideology of European superiority that is today commonly called – racism. The freedom that the European settlers sought in these lands now called “the Americas” came at the expense of the lives, lands. labour, blood and resources of non-white people.
That is what we remember; it is what we recall; it is what we see every time this so-called “Encounter of two worlds” is celebrated and not lamented. It does our relationship no good.
That is why my delegation has appeared here today to call again for the discontinuance of this event that re-opens wounds and re-enforces the strong desire for reparatory justice.
On October 12th, 2018, the Antigua and Barbuda delegation said, in this Permanent Council, that it is time we stop trying to perpetuate that mistake and, instead, to acknowledge it and, in doing so, vow never to repeat it.
Despite our exhortations, this topic continues to be thrown in our faces, complete with a wreath-laying ceremony, except we are not commemorating the millions of indigenous people who were exterminated or the millions of Africans who were enslaved, brutalised, and exploited for the enrichment of Europe.
We are commemorating those who exterminated people, erased the accomplishments of a thriving civilisation, stole lands, enslaved people and profited from denial of the most fundamental human right and that is equality of all humankind.
As my delegation has repeatedly stated, our country greatly values its modern day relationship with Spain. We congratulate Spain on the positive role it plays today in global affairs, and we welcome its efforts to make its present day encounters with our nations mutually beneficial for all.
We especially welcome Spain’s participation in our Organisation of American States as an honoured Permanent Observer.
In our relationship, we would like to stride forward to a bright future, not look backward at a dark past. The encounters, upon which we should all concentrate, are those which proffer a better future for our common humanity on our shared planet.
There is much that we can do together to end the scourge of communicable disease; to stop the pervasive destruction of Climate Change and Global Warming; to cooperate in economic and social development; to end global inequality; and to foster peace in our shared world.
It is time we advance the reality of one world which our one humanity must make better.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own