In the early hours of 12 October 1692, a lookout on the Pinta shouted in Latinic-Spanish to his captain and fellow seamen: Tierra! Tierra! The answering choral roar from below was, it appears, the Arabic-Spanish Albricias! That is to say, 'Rewards!'[*] Since the last centennial commemoration of this operatic, multicultural exchange, its sonorities have profoundly changed. A hundred Years ago, tierra sounded fortissimo, and Cristoforo Colombo's landfall in the Caribbean was generally understood as a world-historical event, which, following on the heels of Bartolomeu Diaz's rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, opened an Age of Discovery during which the whole planet became known for the first time to a single, powerful civilisation. Read as a triumph of science and reason over what Washington Irving, in his biography of the Discoverer, called 'the long night of monkish bigotry and false learning', it seemed also to presage the eclipse of the Old World and the lasting ascendancy of the progressive New. Today, this providentialism, which took on cousinly forms in Protestant North and Catholic South America, is still quite audible, notably during wars and election campaigns, but albricias more and more carries the tune.
LRB 7 November 1991 | PDF Download