Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America

By James Axtell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER NINE
The Columbian Mosaic in Colonial America

NATIONAL ANNIVERSARIES CALL FORTH RELATIVELY CIRcumscribed efforts from historians. The centennial and sesquicentennial celebrations of revolutions, constitutions, and wars are largely bounded by those events -- short in duration, narrow in geography, and often limited in global significance. The quincentenary of the Columbian Encounter, however, is very different. It commemorates rather than celebrates the forging of a single world from hitherto isolated continental and insular fragments, not by a single sailor in a single year but by the mutual action of the inhabitants of all those lands over half a millennium. Historians called upon to treat that expansive theme have their work cut out for them.

Early in March 1989 the New Jersey Historical Commission invited me and three other historians to address their annual public meeting in December of the following year on the social impact of the Age of Discovery on Africa, America, and Europe. My assignment was the (to me) daunting one of concluding the conference with a forty-five-minute discussion of "the general nature of colonial North American society resulting from an amalgamation of western European, Native American, and West African societies." Since the conference was to be held in Princeton, where several friends live, I accepted the assignment with some alacrity but no little dread.

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