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Response to Review no. 762

It is interesting to hear how those who have worked on later centuries view my approach to the first encounters between Europeans and the New Worlds of the Atlantic at the end of the Middle Ages, though I am afraid Trevor Burnard has misunderstood not just the overall aims of my book but what I say on particular points. Burnard needs to begin by recognising the chronological parameters of my book: 1341 (the first adequately documented voyage from Iberia to the Canaries) to the death of Ferdinand the Catholic in 1516, with an emphasis on the years from about 1480 to 1512. So much of what he mentions is part of the later, tragic history of the entire continents of North and South America, of which, in my period, very little apart from the Caribbean islands and the outline of the Atlantic coast of South America had yet become known. Within that time frame it is simply not possible to investigate the tremendous calamity that overtook the Americas as a result of the spread of diseases carried by Europeans, although I do emphasize how drastic the population decline was in Hispaniola, and how that was brutally addressed – with the arrival of the first African slaves to cross the Atlantic from east to west. My reasons for concentrating on the earliest phases of contact are clear: it is time to make sense of the disparate mass of new publications (including source editions) that appeared on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage; also, I was not satisfied by attempts in much of the recent literature to explain the medieval background to the age of Columbus. I insist, too, that it is vital to examine what happened on the ground as Europeans met the peoples of the Atlantic, as well as what theoretical issues were being aired back in Europe by men learned in Aristotelian texts, though I have not ignored what they say either. It made sense to me to look at the encounters with ‘primitive’ peoples, which preceded contact with the high civilizations of Mexico and Peru, and which raised specific questions about European reactions to societies with relatively unsophisticated technologies. The reaction to these peoples did, as I point out right at the end, have considerable influence on the categorization of the Indians of the great American civilizations later on, providing (by way of the ridiculous document known as the Requirement) a matrix into which all peoples were expected to fit. But that is to look beyond what I really aim to do. My book is about surprise: the contrast between the expectation of reaching the empires of Japan or China and the reality of the peoples discovered on the Atlantic islands.

I share Burnard’s regret at the lack of substantial evidence for reactions among the peoples of the Caribbean (and Canaries) to their early experiences of Europeans, but I do not propose to plug this gap with any artificial models. What evidence there is has often been provided in my book, but it is slim: the case of Hatuey, which he cites from my book and I cite from Las Casas’ most passionate pamphlet, suggests the difficulties we have in recovering the sound of native voices, which we can only hear in the often highly dramatic form they are repeated to us by European writers (p. 300). For that reason, it is vital to use the evidence of archaeology, which at least gives some clues about the nature of these societies on the eve of contact, even if, as I point out several times, archaeological evidence is often politicised by those who present it (notably the supporters of people as ghastly as Castro and Franco). Then there is the remarkable, if confused and confusing, record of Taíno myths and religious practices, from the hand of the friar Ramon Pané. So actually there is a lot more in this book about the native peoples in both the Canaries and the Caribbean than in other studies of the first phases of expansion, such as Hugh Thomas’ recent Rivers of Gold.(1) The archaeology of the early settlers is beginning to attract attention as well, and something can already be learned about interactions between native peoples and Europeans from the exciting excavations at La Isabela on Hispaniola, which I discuss.

Yet the question how Europeans viewed the peoples they encountered is an important one too, for which we have piles of evidence. To examine the very first moments of European response to the native peoples of the Atlantic is an entirely legitimate exercise. One can always go further, in time and space – a reviewer in the Independent was clearly not convinced that my arguments for setting contact with black Africans on one side were entirely cogent (I argue that the partly urbanised civilizations of Timbuktu, Benin etc. were much more recognisable than what was discovered either in the Canaries or the Caribbean, especially where they were Islamic). The role of these experiences in reshaping European conceptions of their own identity has been addressed in a number of important publications, and of course those of John Elliott immediately spring to mind – bearing in mind the argument of several scholars that America took a long while to sink into the European consciousness.(2) To explore this dimension of the ‘Renaissance discovery of mankind’, a phrase both John Elliott and I have employed (I do cite Burckhardt), one would really need to go deeper into the 16th century, and one would want to take on board the implications of the discovery of the central American high civilizations. I suggest in my conclusion that we have to think of two parallel discoveries of man in the Renaissance, rather different in character – that within Italy and that of the explorers (p. 307). If you want to see how they begin to interact, look at Peter Martyr and, despite his mendacity, Vespucci; I have quite a lot about both. Luther, whom Burnard mentions, might just squeeze within my period, though mainly while he is young and constipated; I should be interested to know what he did have to say about the New World, but, so far as I know, neither he nor the early Protestants were much interested in it.(3) Interest grew as competition for the souls of the Tupinambá developed in the mid 16th century, and was carried over into North America in the 17th century.(4)

Astonishingly, Trevor Burnard believes I am soft on the Spaniards; on the contrary, I have even strayed into judgmental comments, for example about the slave trade, because I believe that there are areas such as this where it is perfectly appropriate for a historian to come forward and express horror and revulsion. I insist that the argument that the Indians were legally free was a source of abuse, not the protection Queen Isabella occasionally wanted to extend. I am not sure what Burnard would have me do with Las Casas. I have used him as a partisan source for events in the era of Columbus; I have addressed his obsessions and his fight for justice on behalf of the American Indians, while trying to keep the argument away from the great debates at the end of his long life, which lie well beyond my time-scale. What I say is: ‘no one can read Las Casas’ denunciation of Spanish policy without being intensely moved’ (p. 210). Yet he was a monomaniac who took a long while to care about the Africans brought to America in place of the dead Indians, and he was happy to see conversos burned at the stake. He was prepared to describe the Indians as childlike. Contrary to Burnard, he did not want the Indians to be left alone. He saw Columbus as God’s agent, despite the admiral’s terribly misguided policies. He wept for the lost souls of the Indians; it was imperative that the Word of God should be brought to them by love, not war. He was shocked at the lack of serious interest in preaching campaigns. To make the fairly conventional remark that Spain (unlike rival empires) deserves some credit for this conscience-stricken opposition to over-exploitation of the conquered peoples may well be no consolation to millions of dead Indians. The White Rose movement achieved little in Nazi Germany; nonetheless it provides inspiring moments in a horribly dismal story.

I do think it is legitimate to query the use of the term ‘genocide’, now that it is increasingly applied in cases, tragic though they are, where scientifically-planned mass physical extermination is not being promoted. Emotion, not logic, guides Burnard when he suggests that, were disease-ridden Martians to invade, we would surely not be sympathetic to the argument that the near-extinction of humankind after being contaminated by their germs was the result of accident rather than genocide. To cite his (doubly ungrammatical) sentence: ‘it would be us who would perish quickly and in massive numbers, just like the Tainos, Caribs and Canary Islanders did in the wake of Iberian invasion’. And if a great asteroid hits the earth, who takes responsibility for the loss of life? Or – more pertinently – for the Black Death? Or for Spanish flu? The Spaniards were unable to predict that diseases which took a mild form in Europe would cause mass mortality in the New World. But there is plenty in my book about the impossible demands made by Columbus and others on the Indians, and the devastating effect that overwork and the break-up of village communities had on the Tainos (e.g. p. 207). For Las Casas, as I point out, this amounted to ‘the annihilation of their nation’. I think we owe it to the victims of planned genocide to recognise the difference between the hideous incompetence and cruelty of many Spaniards towards their Indian subjects and the terrifying hatred of those who have sought to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth using assembly-line methods, and condemning Jews not just as Untermenschen but as an irredeemably evil force that seeks to control the world. I find this statement by Burnard not just disconcerting but distasteful: ‘that the Nazis were worse than the Spanish because they were deliberate about exterminating Jews while the Spanish killed Indians by accident seems to me to be spurious historical reasoning’. For historians or indeed lawyers, such distinctions are not trivial word-games. Put differently, the Spaniards may have been guilty of the greatest act of manslaughter in history; but mass murder requires pre-meditation. There were mass killings, locally, as I make clear; but there was no grand attempt to unleash a biological weapon against the Indians, as I believe happened in parts of North America in later centuries (using smallpox). There was no policy to that effect; though, as I point out time and again, the policies that enabled Indians to be classed as free subjects who at the same time could be obliged to perform literally back-breaking work began to be formulated by Columbus and the Spaniards in the period about which I write: ‘they had been dehumanised not on the grounds of Indian behaviour or appearance, but on the grounds of Spanish cupidity and utility’ (p. 212). Ultimately, it is the sheer ‘human stupidity’ of the Spaniards that stands out, to cite Anthony Pagden.(5) I shall not pursue here the question whether the empire-builders of contemporary Peru or Mexico were much kinder to their conquered subjects than the Spaniards. It is fashionable to play down Aztec cruelty to captives; we can even find traces of this view in Las Casas. I do not want to produce a score-card for levels of cruelty.(6)

Nor am I sure what Burnard would have me do with the post-modernists, post-colonialists, etc., about whom I am, in fact, mostly silent, though one may read intention into that silence, and a number of names are indeed in the notes and in the lengthy bibliography. He says one can safely ignore their work; surely the point is that I have done so. (Since Burnard wants me to cite names, I am happy to reveal that the emperor, or empress, without clothes on p. xvi is a certain Constance G. Janiga-Perkins, author of the delightfully entitled Immaterial Transcendences on the theme of stuttering in early Brazil (published as recently as 2001), followed by a more recent study of Ramón Pané). And yet it would be bad scholarship to assume, as he appears to do, that anything written in the last century is so old that it can be ignored, though we know that many students take exactly that view. Peter Hulme, for instance, has had a great influence on thinking about cannibalism. Putting myself, for once, in the shoes of the Caribs and Tupinambá, I suggest that Hulme (named in the endnote) is being patronisingly colonialist in resisting the view that some of the native peoples of the Americas enjoyed an occasional feast of human flesh (p. 126). Burnard is also in error when he suggests that those who reject the existence of cannibalism are literary scholars; he cannot have missed Arens’ Man-Eating Myth.(7) The fact that John Elliott, with a later focus and totally different emphasis (though we do share our very capable publisher) has chosen not to examine this practice is neither here nor there in assessing two questions which certainly apply to my period. One, which it is perfectly legitimate to ask, is whether these widespread accusations had any foundation in fact. The other question, where Hulme and I would begin to converge, concerns the impact of accusations of cannibalism on the classification of the native peoples of the Americas as lacking in reason, occupying a status between animals and humans, etc. Here, cannibalism, along with nakedness, is of enormous importance. It recurs again and again in the book because it obsessed contemporary writers and observers, having already, as I show in chapter 2, been a theme of Marco Polo and other pre-Columbus writers. After my period, it continued to obsess Léry and other writers about Brazil.

Burnard thinks that there is no point discussing the notion of the pre-Columbian Caribbean as a quasi-paradise because no serious historian ever makes such a claim. What is astonishing is his statement, not mine. The image of the New World as a near-Paradise is already visible in the writings of Peter Martyr, a courtier of the Spanish monarchs (see p. 181). Among modern writers, I have great respect for Carl Sauer, who examined the environmental history of the region in his classic work The Early Spanish Main; it was re-issued, with an introduction by Anthony Pagden, among the heap of publications that appeared to commemorate the fifth centenary of Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic. There, you will certainly find a very positive view of the relationship between the Tainos and their environment.(8) It is true, of course, that there was also overblown rhetoric from popular writers around 1992 about ‘the conquest of paradise’. With all respect, I do find the assumption rather arrogant that we can allow such exaggerated ideas to circulate in the form of bestselling popular history books, often still in print, and that we have no duty to offer a corrective, and to make our views accessible to as wide an audience as we can. Clearly, the need is all the greater when someone as capable as Sauer points in a similar direction. ‘Dons in Cambridge’, to use Burnard’s phrase, or at least history dons, have a tradition of attempting to reach beyond the often narrow confines of the academic monograph. Many of us in Cambridge owe something here to that crabby but capable entrepreneur of historical writing, J. H. Plumb.

Burnard raises the question of geohumoral theory. This has some bearing on Columbus’ description of the lands and people he encountered, not least his insistence that Hispaniola is a fertile and temperate land and, as the name suggests, just like Spain. A great deal has been made of this in Nicolas Wey Gómez’s massive book Tropics of Empire, which appeared soon after mine and which I have reviewed in the THES; I was already familiar with his arguments after hearing him speak at a Columbus conference in Genoa a few years ago.(9) What I said in my review was: ‘these ideas certainly circulated, and Wey Gómez is to be congratulated on bringing them to greater prominence; he mobilises with some brilliance arguments that preceded and postdated Columbus but that (as he admits) cannot be proved to represent his own position, even if they did attract the attention of the great defender of the Indians, and admirer of Columbus, Bartolomé de las Casas.’ The problem is a familiar one: how ideas circulating in what might be called intellectual circles (figures like John Mair) filtered down to those who experienced direct contact with the peoples of the Atlantic.(10) If anything, Columbus occasionally seems to be rejecting geohumoral theories, for instance when he describes the physical appearance and mental disposition of Taínos in the Bahamas. The evidence, as Burnard indicates, is at best ambiguous: his Indians are frail, for they die when they encounter Spaniards; several contemporary writers insisted, though, that the inhabitants of these lands lived unusually long lives. Burnard ridicules Vespucci for repeating this trope (and me for using Vespucci); and yet I make no secret of my doubts about Vespucci’s veracity throughout his letters; of course, we can assume that infant mortality and inter-tribal warfare (and even being eaten) reduced one’s chances of living a long life. Clearly what matters is here is the set of assumptions about the nature of the New World that Vespucci, Columbus, Peter Martyr and many others conveyed, often in quite different ways. Indeed, I use Vespucci not so much as evidence for actual voyages, but rather as evidence for fantasies about the New World peddled right across Europe, more successfully even than Columbus’ writings.

Somehow, to my amazement, Burnard has portrayed me as an advocate of that bragging, self-obsessed would-be visionary, Columbus; in fact it was Las Casas, of all people, who felt a curious admiration for Columbus as the ‘Christ-bearer’ (Christophorus). What I say, to give just one example, is: ‘the first few years of Columbian rule in Hispaniola had brought chaos and misery for the Indians’ (p. 228). Beginning with Las Casas, no one sensibly denies that Columbus set off a terrible train of events, and that the Indians bore the cost of his greed and desire for fame, which co-existed with his mystical religious faith. These observations take us to the heart of the puzzle. Trevor Burnard seeks to reduce the issue to the appalling loss of life caused, in his view to all intents deliberately, by the Spanish arrival in the Americas. The central figures in the early history of the encounters – and this includes Las Casas – were far more complex than he allows. Explaining what happened is also much more complex than he allows. I have to say that he has consistently misrepresented the positions taken in the book, and has grossly over-simplified the history and historiography of the period – all the more justification for writing a book about the over-simplification of attitudes to the Atlantic peoples in the years around 1500.  


  1. Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (London, 2004).Back to (1)
  2. J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New (Cambridge, 1970).Back to (2)
  3. A starting-point might be H. Kleinschmidt, Ruling the Waves (’t-Hoy-Houten, 2008).Back to (3)
  4. L. Codignola, ‘The Holy See and the conversion of the Indians in French and British North America’, in America in European Consciousness, 1493–1750, ed. K.O. Kupperman  (Chapel Hill, 1995),  pp. 195-242.Back to (4)
  5. C.  Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966; new ed. with introduction by A. Pagden, 1992), p. x.Back to (5)
  6. The contradictions are very well brought out in C. Dodds Pennock, Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifestyle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Basingstoke, 2008).Back to (6)
  7. W. Arens, The Man-eating Myth (New York, 1979).Back to (7)
  8. Sauer, Early Spanish Main.Back to (8)
  9. N. Wey Gómez, The Tropics of Empire (Cambridge, MA, 2008).Back to (9)
  10. A. H. Williamson, ‘Scots, Indians and Empire: the Scottish politics of civilization 1519–1609’, Past and Present, 150 (1996), 46–83.Back to (10)