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here was a day when life was as it had always been, when the only vessels to be looking for were those canoes that carried the ferocious, long-haired people reputed to eat human flesh. And then came the following day, when vessels like no others hove into view, and in so doing hewed a new horizon for the islanders. These vessels, resembling small islands with "trees" covered in cloth rather than leaves, carried light-skinned beings wrapped in cloth and metal. Were these men? The islanders were perhaps more curious than fearful as they contemplated the correct response to these newcomers. Should the islanders fete them, fight them, or flee them? They would try all three.
When Christopher Columbus sailed into view of the island he named San Salvador in October 1492, he was greeted by inhabitants he promptly and erroneously called Indians because of his preconceived notions of the world. He was not the only one to operate under cultural concepts that undermined firstand second, and third, and subsequentcontact. Preconceptions operated on both sides while eastern and western Atlantic peoples tried to make sense of each other from within their own frames of reference. As a result, when Columbus and subsequent explorers landed on the other islands of the Caribbean and then the shores of the landmass that blocked their passage to the Pacific, they would encounter hospitality and hostility from the natives who perceived both opportunity and threat in these contacts.
During those first few years of mutual discovery, some seventy-five million people inhabited the continents later known as the Americas. The ancestors of these aborigines had themselves migrated from Asia thousands of years earlier. Over the centuries, these peoples had created richly diverse civilizations. Some of these "Indian" societies had formed highly complex cultural, political, and economic organizations. They had conceptualized intricate cosmologies, built magnificent cities, and established mighty dominions based on agriculture and trade. The most powerful native empire at the time of Spanish exploration was that of none of them was prepared to deal with the impact of the European invasion.
The Europeans who crossed the Atlantic came from different empires or kingdoms and spoke various languages, but their home cultures were not dissimilar. Thus there were similarities as well as differences in how they viewed and treated the natives. These Europeans may have had mixed motives for exploring and exploiting the New World, but they all carried with them powerful biological, cultural, and technological weapons. They sowed germs, wielded the cross, and fired guns. Many did so while seeking gold, spices, and other precious commodities. Others, both Catholics and Protestants, saw the Native Americans as potential converts to the Christian faith. The Catholic Church in Rome had long before approved the use of military force as a means of controlling people who rejected the proclaimed teachings of Jesus Christ. In the New World, Spanish authorities were required to read a statement (the requerimento) to the Indians, inviting them to embrace Christianity. If they did not, the Spanish were then allowed to subjugate them by force. Variations on this precedent were practiced in other areas of the New World by the expansionistic and evangelistic Europeans.
The people on each side of this cultural divide viewed the other through the prisms of their own ethnocentrism. Such views led some individuals to repudiate negotiations based on commonalities and instead go to war over their differences. Furthermore, ethnocentrism caused both sides to over and underestimate the capabilities of the other as they clashed over such ideological concerns as governmental and religious doctrines and fought over such material matters as mineral resources and territory. Yet despite the inherent ethnocentrism of everyone involved, not all thought contact should be a synonym for conflict. There were individuals among the Europeans and aborigines who sought to understand, if not appreciate, other peoples. Humanity as well as inhumanity was inherent to cultural contact.
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The passage below is taken from a version of Columbus's journals edited by Bartolomeo de Las Casas. As you read the passage, imagine the thrill of discovery that would have been experienced by the sailors on board Columbus's ships. For them this was truly a venture into the unknown. For many years Columbus's landing was judged to have been made on San Salvador (Watling Island). A recent study retracing the voyage suggests that Columbus landed on the island of Samana Cay, more than sixty miles to the southeast of San Salvador. Many scholars will not agree with this new assertion, and the exact location of the island does not change the nature of the reaction shown in this journal. If you wish to examine the new evidence, see the National Geographic 170, no. 5 (November 1986): 566–605.
. . . the Admiral requested and admonished them to keep a sharp lookout at the castle of the bow, and to look well for land, and said that he would give to him who first saw land a silk doublet, besides the other rewards which the King and Queen had promised, namely and annual pension of ten thousand maravedis to him who should see it first. Two hours after midnight, the land appeared about two leagues off. They lowered all the sails, leaving only a storm square sail, which is the mainsail without bonnets, and lay to until Friday when they reached a small island of the Lucayos, called Guanahani by the natives. They soon saw people naked, and the Admiral went on shore in the armed boat. . . . As soon as they had landed they saw trees of a brilliant green abundance of water and fruits of various kinds. The Admiral called the two captains and the rest who had come on shore . . . and he called them as witnesses to certify that he in the presence of them all, was taking, as he in fact took possession of said island for the king and Queen his masters, making the declarations that were required as they will be found more fully in the attestations then taken down in writing. Soon after a large crowd of natives congregated there. What follows are the Admiral's own words in his book on the first voyage and discovery of these Indies.
"In order to win the friendship and affection of that people, and because I am convinced that their conversion to our Holy Faith would be better promoted through love than through force; I presented some of them with red caps and some strings of glass beads which they placed around their necks, and with other trifles of insignificant worth that delighted them and by which we have got a wonderful hold on their affections. They afterwards came to the boats of the vessels swimming, bringing us parrots, cotton thread in balls, and spears, and many other things which they bartered for others we gave them, as glass beads and little bells. . . . I saw but one very young girl, all the rest being very young men, none of them being over thirty years of age; their forms being very well proportioned; their bodies graceful and their features handsome: their hair is as course as the hair of a horse's tail and cut short: they wear their hair over their eyebrows except a little behind which they wear long, and which they never cut: some of them paint themselves black, and they are of the color of the Canary islanders, neither black nor white, and some paint themselves white, and some red, and some with whatever they find, and some paint their faces and some the whole body, and some their eyes only, and some their noses only. They do not carry arms and have no knowledge of them, for when I showed them our swords they took them by the edge, and through ignorance, cut themselves. They have no iron; their spears consist of staffs without iron, some of them having a fish's tooth at the end, and others other things. As a body they are of good size, good demeanor, and well formed.
. . . They must be very good servants and very intelligent, because I see that they repeat very quickly what I told them, and it is my conviction that they would easily become Christians, for they seem not [to] have any sect. . . ."
Bartolomeo de Las Casas was a Spanish cleric who became an early defender of the Indians in the New World. He was one of the first to argue that the Indians were civilized and worthy of the same respect as other humans. What follows is an excerpt from his History of the Indies, in which he describes the cruelty inflicted by the Spanish when they overran Cuba.
They [the Spaniards] arrived at the town of Caonao in the evening. Here they found many people, who had prepared a great deal of food consisting of cassava bread and fish, because they had a large river close by and also were near the sea. In a little square were 2,000 Indians, all squatting because they have this custom, all staring, frightened, at the mares. Nearby was a large bohio, or large house, in which were more than 500 other Indians, close-packed and fearful, who did not dare come out.
When some of the domestic Indians the Spaniards were taking with them as servants (who were more than 1,000 souls . . . ) wished to enter the large house, the Cuban Indians had chickens ready and said to them: "Take these—do not enter here." For they already knew that the Indians who served the Spaniards were not apt to perform any other deeds than those of their masters.
There was a custom among the Spaniards that one person, appointed by the captain, should be in charge of distributing to each Spaniard the food and other things the Indians gave. And while the Captain was thus on his mare and the others mounted on theirs, and the father himself was observing how the bread and fish were distributed, a Spaniard, in whom the devil is thought to have clothed himself, suddenly drew his sword. Then the whole hundred drew theirs and began to rip open the bellies and, to cut and kill those lambs—men, women, children, and old folk, all of whom were seated, off guard and frightened, watching the mares and the Spaniards. And within two credos, not a man of all of them there remains alive.
The Spaniards enter the large house nearby, for this was happening at its door, and in the same way, with cuts and stabs, begin to kill as many as they found there, so that a stream of blood was running, as if a great number of cows had perished. Some of the Indians who could make haste climbed up the poles and woodwork of the house to the top, and thus escaped.
The cleric had withdrawn shortly before this massacre to where another small square of the town was formed, near where they had lodged him . . .
The cleric, moved to wrath, opposes and rebukes them harshly to prevent them, and having some respect for him, they stopped what they were going to do, so the forty were left alive. The five go to kill where the others were killing. And as the cleric had been detained in hindering the slaying of the forty carriers, when he went he found a heap of dead, which the Spaniards had made among the Indians, which they thought was a horrible sight.
When Narvaez, the captain, saw him he said: "How does Your Honor like what these our Spaniards have done?"
Seeing so many cut to pieces before him, and very upset at such a cruel event, the cleric replied: "That I command you and them to the devil!" . . . Then the cleric leaves him, and goes elsewhere through some groves seeking Spaniards to stop them from killing. For they were passing through the groves looking for someone to kill, sparing neither boy, child, woman, nor old person. And they did more, in that certain Spaniards went to the road to the river, which was nearby. Then all the Indians who had escaped with wounds, stabs, and cuts—all who could not flee to throw themselves into the river to save themselves—met with the Spaniards who finished them.
Columbus was not the only one reporting back to his superiors. When Hernando Cortés and members of his European fleet set foot at Vera Cruz, on the mainland of what is now called Mexico, there were watchers in the woods. Sent by Montezuma II of the Aztec empire, who reigned from 1502 to 1520, they acted as messengers, bearing gifts and words of welcome from their ruler. Cortés responded with a show of strength by displaying his weapons and marching his force of approximately 600 men into the interior. The messengers then reported back to Montezuma. A well–educated and religious man as well as a skillful warrior, Montezuma was not a coward, but he was cautious when he interpreted events as religious portents—as he did in this case. He perceived that change was coming and was apprehensive about it, but as he looked over Tenochtitlán, the capital city that served as an impressive example of the skills and might of the inhabitants, he could not have foreseen how quickly his empire would fall. An Aztec account of the conquest begins with the king's reaction to the messenger's report.
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