A scoundrel sails into history

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IT HAS been a stormy passage, but we are within sight of calmer waters now. Only a couple of months to go, and all references to Christopher Columbus will soon fade away as if it had been no more than a bad dream.

Unfortunately, it has been more than a bad dream. It has been one of those dreadful years when the man whose anniversary was elected Marketing Anniversary of the Year was given the whole year for exploitation instead of being restricted to the one day. Do you remember 1989, when the celebrations (ie TV programmes and book publications) of the French Revolution lasted longer than the original revolution itself had? Do you remember Mozart year, when entire record shops were filled with the complete works of Mozart, most of which were still there the following year? (And has anyone examined the theory that Classic FM was brought into being merely to soak up this Mozart Lake?)

They were bad years. In good years they are happy to confine memories of the French Revolution to one poor, inoffensive day called Bastille Day. In normal years, the Americans wait until Columbus Day to go out into the woods and shoot turkeys, or whatever one does on Columbus Day, and then the whole thing is forgotten.

This year was a bad year. You never knew when you might switch on Radio 3 and find yourself in the middle of a clearance sale of Mexican and Argentine composers, relabelled A Columbus Concert. They were at it all last week. Columbus Week, they called it. It was one of those weeks where they link up with cities all round the world to share in the same concert, so that people in more than 60 countries can feel a spirit of kinship as they all switch the radio off together.

Alistair Cooke was still at it yesterday morning. In his Letter from America, he was reflecting on this year's rumbling of protests from the native people of America that Columbus was an enslaver, not a discoverer. Maybe, said Cooke, but we should really judge Columbus by the standards of his own age. He was a man of his time. In other words, a man of a time when people thought you were a bit if a wimp if you didn't kill, enslave and rob people you met abroad.

To save me the trouble of rebutting this, the answer is already in print. 'We are told that Columbus was no worse than the men of his race and generation - that his vices were 'those of his time'. But no vices are peculiar to any time; this world has been vicious from the dawn of history, and every race has reeked with sin. To say of a man that he is like his contemporaries is to say that he is a scoundrel without excuse. The virtues are accessible to all. Athens was vicious, yet Socrates was virtuous. Rome was corrupt, but Marcus Aurelius was not corrupt. To offset Nero, the gods gave Seneca. When literary France grovelled at the feet of the third Napoleon, Victor Hugo stood erect.'

Who is this paragon of prose, this man who has been granted a Levinesque sense of indignation, but a most un-Levinesque talent for stopping his sentences in time? Who is this mighty journalist who not only knows about Seneca and Victor Hugo but, amazingly, assumes that his readers will know about Seneca and Victor Hugo?

Ambrose Bierce is who he is, and what he says comes from an article on Columbus which he wrote a century ago, in 1892, the last big year when they did a marketing exercise on the Genoese scoundrel. I mentioned this counterblast a year ago, in the fond hope that someone somewhere might read it and be inspired to cancel their Columbian Year concert. Fat hope. But his words still stand out as the strongest thing written on Columbus this year. Here is another sample.

'Columbus was not a learned man, but an ignorant. He was not an honorable man, but a professional pirate . . . His voyage was undertaken with a view solely to his own advantage, the gratification of an incredible avarice. In the lust of gold he committed deeds of cruelty, treachery and oppression for which no fitting names are found in the vocabulary of any modern tongue. To the harmless and hospitable peoples among whom he came he was a terror and a curse . . .'

My feeling is that America was at least worth discovering for giving us people like Ambrose Bierce. But I have another feeling. This other feeling is that we are almost in 1993, and I still don't know whose anniversary year we have to dread next.