Five Hundred Years from Now

By Fernandez-Shaw, Felx | UNESCO Courier, May 1992 | Go to article overview

Five Hundred Years from Now

Fernandez-Shaw, Felx, UNESCO Courier

THIS is a year of great historical significance, since it enables us to look back and take stock of a remarkable series of events which took place 500 years ago. The passage of time has brought a new perspective on these events, the effects of which can now be fully appreciated. The capture of Granada on 2 January 1492 by the Reyes Catolicos-the "Catholic Monarchs" as Ferdinand and Isabella were known--had a European-wide impact. Spain had abstained from taking part in the Crusades and had instead devoted its energies to its own reunification. When engaged on research in the archives of Genoa, I came across a decree signed by the Doge of that maritime republic ordering that the taking of Granada should be celebrated not only with the usual artillery salute but with a three-day holiday. On 31 March the Edict expelling the Jews was signed. And Spain, the melting pot of European and Mediterranean cultures which she transmitted to the western hemisphere, has the privilege of having been named by Arabs and Jews in their own languages as Al-Andalus and Sefarad, respectively.

Had these two historical events, with their far-reaching geographical and political consequences, not taken place, Christopher Columbus would probably have not been able to secure the signature by the King and Queen on 17 April 1492 of the Capitulaciones de Santa Fe, that extraordinary contract (or so it seems today), between a government and a private individual who demanded advance recognition of his rights to something which no-one yet knew existed. Without this agreement, Christopher Columbus and the Pinzon brothers would not have been able to fit out the three vessels in which they set sail from Palos, in Huelva province, on 2 August and lost sight of land off La Goreera, in the Canary Islands, on 9 September.

In his letter of 15 February 1493 to the Catholic Kings, Columbus reported that, after thirty-three days' sailing, he had made landfall on the previous 12 October, the date that has since been regarded as that of the birth of a New World through the encounter between the indigenous peoples of America and voyagers from the old continent. Apparently, however, Columbus's discovery did not make the same impact as the capture of Granada: in the Genoese archives I was unable to find any trace of a reaction to his exploit, although the letter describing it had circulated widely in Europe. Of course this does not necessarily mean that the event had not been reported, especially in view of the relations that then existed between Genoa and Barcelona, where the Catholic Kings received Columbus on his return to the peninsula after his first great voyage.

Little must have been known in Genoa of the approaches made to European monarchs by Columbus, who, it is true, had more links with Portugal than with his native city. How different was the impact of the letter sent later to Florence by Amerigo Vespucci, then in the service of Spain, which was so considerable that the name of the Florentine navigator would be given to the newly-discovered lands. Columbus had little influence on the political life of the Republic of Genoa, where he was only remembered many years later.


It would scarcely have been possible for Columbus's caravels to have taken with them the "Grammar of the Castilian language" which Elio Antonio de Nebrija published at Salamanca on 18 August. The date is worth mentioning, because if Nebrija thought that a language can play a role in strengthening an Empire, he was of course thinking of the Holy Roman Empire and certainly not of the Spanish Empire, which did not then exist.

It is also sometimes forgotten that Nebrija's monumental work, the fruit of many years' study, was on a language that had already existed for 500 years. Today, fortunately, the language has ceased to be an instrument of domination and has become a vehicle of international co-operation and solidarity. …

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