The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus
New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2008, ISBN: 9780300125825; 448pp.; Price: £26.00
Date accessed: 4 June, 2023
At the start of this century, Britons were polled about which century was the worst century of the last millennium. They alighted on the 14th century as the century when the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode most freely. The 14th century was the worst because the bubonic plague devastated the population of Eurasia. Given that nearly 100 million people died from the Black Death, mostly in China, the century was indeed especially grim. But the 16th century, especially the early years of that century, was even more demographically disastrous for one important sector of the world population. Diseases introduced by European invaders destroyed the native population of the Americas. Native Americans numbered perhaps 54 million in 1492. By 1600, that population had shrunk to 10 million. Overall, the population of Native America shrunk by about 80 percent between 1492 and the second half of the 17th century. In the regions settled first and hardest by the Iberians – Hispaniola, Brazil and Mexico, in particular – population decline was precipitous. The Mexican population shrank from around 17 million in 1492 to about 70,000 in 1650. Still, there were sufficient Native Americans in Mexico for Indian peoples and cultures to survive. In the Caribbean, however, where the initial population was smaller and where the impact of Columbus and his followers was most pronounced, Spanish conquest and the diseases they unwittingly introduced led to the disappearance of a whole civilization. When the English conquered Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, as a consolation prize after failing to conquer Hispaniola, no Native Americans remained to welcome or mourn the new arrivals.
It is still hard to grasp the dimensions of the Spanish assault upon the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean in the early 16th century. Indeed, we continue to see the loss of so many people and the destruction in a very short period of time of a variety of diverse cultures soon after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors – hardhearted entrepreneurs and religious bigots, drawn from the middling sectors of Spanish society, venturing to the Indies in search of wealth, power and fun – as something that while lamentable was also unavoidable. Sooner or later, we are told, the Americas were going to be colonized, by the English or French if not by the Spanish. The loss of life that in fact occurred was always likely to happen, whether in 1492 or 50 years later. Given, to echo the phrase Margaret Thatcher used to parrot about governmental policies in the 1980s, there was no alternative to European invasion of the Americas (it was always going to happen, one way or another), the destruction of the Indies was inevitable and not really the fault of anyone. True, the Spanish were cruel and avaricious. True, also, as David Abulafia notes in his lively account of the earliest encounters between Iberians and Atlantic peoples, the Spanish made a dire situation worse by ‘putting in place a way of managing the native population that made all this inevitable damage far worse’ (p. 210). But, as signified by the use of the term
‘inevitable’, the end result was predictable. The Indians had to die; the Europeans were bound to replace them. Liberal bleeding hearts in the form of ‘post-modernist’ and ‘postcolonialist’ literary scholars who cannot write proper English sentences might think that ‘we are to blame’ but ‘we’ cannot be accounted responsible for something we did not intend to cause and which if we had known we were going to cause, we would not have done. Indeed, the destruction of the Indies showed the failure of Spanish policy in the Caribbean. The Spanish, Abulafia asserts, wanted Caribbean peoples to live because only if they lived could they be exploited properly.
It is worth pondering the moral implications behind the above statement. What does it say about a people that they would be disappointed by the disappearance of another people and its culture only because that would mean that they could not make the lives of those people while alive much more miserable than they had been before? What does it say about a people that when they meet a new category of humans they had never met before they demonize them as savages who can be mistreated, misused and reduced to the category of non-humans? Abulafia cites a famous and revealing passage by a boastful Italian gentleman and friend of Christopher Columbus, Michele da Cuneo, in which the Italian was ‘granted’ by Columbus a gorgeous naked Cannibal woman. Da Cuneo ‘felt a craving to sport with her’ and proceeded to thrash then rape the woman while remaining convinced that the woman was so degraded by nature and so innately lascivious that soon ‘we were of such accord that, in the act, I can tell you, she seemed to have been trained in an act of harlotry’. The discovery of a ‘new’ kind of mankind brought out the very worst in representatives of an older kind of mankind. Da Cuneo was typical. One imagine that he and Columbus had a good joke about his ‘sport’ and about how he tamed a shrew and brought out her inner whoredom.
Certainly, Native Americans did not like the new type of mankind that they encountered disembarking from the ships of Columbus. Bartolme Las Casas, who despaired about what the Conquest of America revealed about the true character of his compatriots, retailed in his great work on the destruction of the Indies comments made by Hatuey, a cacique from Hispaniola who fled to Cuba, after being captured. Told when tied to the stake that if he did not convert, he would go to Hell and eternal torment, Hatuey asked where the Spanish went after death. When learning that Christians went to heaven, Hatuey replied he would prefer to go to Hell. And so he was burnt, unbaptised and unrepentant. Hatuey had a point, as Las Casas realized. Las Casas may have been a polemicist. He certainly ‘exaggerated the peacefulness of pre-Columbian Hispaniola’ (p. 211) to give greater effect to his tales of Spanish cruelty. But he wanted to use Hatuey’s words to alert his countrymen to the true nature of the Spanish rogues and villains who ruled Indians in the West Indies. Las Casas’ powerful denunciation of the Conquistadors resounded around Spain and Western Europe. It was the foundation of the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty. It led Spanish writers to think that the Americas were the special province of the Devil, as European men did such bad things when there that it could only be because the Devil was working upon their souls. It inspired Abbe Raynal and his team of writers in the mid 18th century to argue that it would have been best for humanity if the Indies had never been discovered by Europeans. Raynal thought European discovery of the Americas was terrible not just because Spanish rule was disastrous for native populations. He also believed that one consequence of Spanish conquest was that it revealed a heartlessness at the centre of European culture. It showed the Spanish, in particular, to be naturally cruel and avaricious, with personalities at odds with the Christian image they tried to project to others.
Abulafia did not write the book under review, however, with Las Casas’ admonitions to the fore. The ‘new’ mankind discovered in the Atlantic encounter he describes are Indians, not Europeans; the ‘we’ who read this book and who are not to blame for the 95 percent loss of population that occurred in the parts of the Caribbean and Central America where Spaniards were most exploitative are Europeans or people of European descent. He urges us to look just one way, outwards across the Atlantic to the Americas, rather than across the Americas to Europe. It is a curiously one-sided book.(1) We learn a great deal about the encounter period. We get to understand how early European views of Native Americans were almost fully formed in the European imagination before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Abulafia has instructive things to say about the relevance to our knowledge of first contact in America of the important pre-history of Columbian encounters that Spaniards and Portuguese made with the ‘wild men’ of the Canary Islands, a process of engagement that started just before the Black Death devastated Western Europe and which intensified in the first half of the 15th century. Abulafia deftly compares the positive views that Giovanni Boccaccio had about the Canary Islands – he saw Canary Islanders as children of Eden living peacefully in a pastoral idyll – with the negative views of Canary Islanders put forward by Petrarch. Petrarch saw them as beasts, naked out of stupidity and solitary because they lacked the capacity for sociability. Unfortunately, it was Petrarch’s view that won out over the more benign image of primitive peoples offered by Boccaccio. Later commentaries on Native Americans, notably that of the embryonic tabloid journalist, Amerigo Vespucci, after whom two continents were named, followed Petrarch in seeing Indians as savages.
But for all the great information on the Canary Islands, the careful and nuanced treatment of anthropological findings on the Tainos and Caribs, and the interesting recounting of Columbus’ voyages (albeit with Columbus firmly at the centre of events), the Eurocentric bias of Abulafia’s account makes this story of the meeting of two sets of peoples across the Atlantic incomplete. One never learns from this book that European ideas of themselves (as Burckhardt told us long ago) were rapidly changing. They were changing to such an extent that a few years after Columbus reached the Bahamas, the late medieval assumptions that guided Columbus were under attack from Martin Luther. We would like to know, but don’t get to know, how the European encounter with Americans in the late 15th century changed how Europeans saw themselves. Did their cruelty towards Indians make them question their own nature? The problem in this book, however, is that we never get to see how Indians saw Europeans. A paucity of sources makes finding Indian opinions about European character difficult but there is enough scattered evidence to suggest that Indians speculated hard about why strangers to their lands were addicted to violence and to a seemingly pacifist Christian religion. Even if we cannot get to Indian views on Europeans, we have enough contemporary evidence, besides that of the polemicist Las Casas, to know that 16th-century Europeans were curious about how the experience of America caused degeneration (a long-standing trope in writings on America by Europeans) in Europeans venturing abroad. Michel de Montaigne’s famous essay on cannibalism was sensitive enough to cultural difference as to believe that ‘each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice’. One implication of such a statement is that Indians could just as easily see the Spanish as barbarians as the Spanish could see them as sub-humans.
Abulafia does not concentrate on such things. He seldom questions the motivation behind the writings about America, being content to merely describe what Europeans wrote about Americans rather than to try and fit those writings into a discourse Europeans were having among themselves about their own nature. Europeans had by no means a fixed idea of what constituted human kind. They knew, as Christians, that they were fallen people, with multiple deficiencies and sinful characteristics. They knew, also, that in geohumoral theory – a common way of understanding human nature was through analyzing how European bodies altered as a result of being in one climate rather than another – some Europeans, notably those in cold northern climes, such as the English and Scots, and those in southern climes, such as those close to the shores of tropical Africa, had their bodies altered sufficiently by environmental factors so as to be morally defective and physically decrepit. It is by no means clear, as Joyce Chaplin tells us in an important book on English encounters with Indians that Abulafia does not cite, that Europeans felt all that superior to Native Americans on first meeting. It is true that the Spanish were more certain, as people living in a temperate country, that geohumoralism worked in their favour than were the English, who were residents of a cold country. But if Spain had an agreeable and equitable climate, allowing Spaniard bodies to become strong and hardy, Native Americans also lived in an appealing and temperate environment. If these people were savages, then this cast doubt on the whole understanding of the relationship between climate and character that undergirded much of early modern thinking. Moreover, it was not just Indians who died when they encountered other humans. Spaniards, too, found the Americas unhealthy. They died unnaturally frequently once across the Atlantic. What did it say about the character of a people that they could not live long lives in a beautiful climate? More importantly, what did it say about them when their behavior in such a climate was by any standards below the norms expected of civilized and Christian people?
I suspect that Abulafia does not engage in such questions because he feels that to treat the European as ‘the other’ smacks of postmodernism and postcolonialism. He rails against postmodernism as politicized and full of jargon. That is probably true but surely it should have come even to the attention of dons in Cambridge that the days of postmodernist and post-colonialist readings of the encounter period are long past. Abulafia is flogging a dead horse, as is clear from the fact that he never names the terrible postmodernist texts that he so dislikes. I, too, wouldn’t be able to cite a single postmodernist book of importance written this century on the age of discovery or the encounter period. But the tone of Abulafia’s book is such as to suggest that maybe his postmodernist straw man or woman might have a point. He engages in much special pleading on behalf of Columbus and his compatriots, moving seamlessly, for example, from a denial that Europeans destroyed a paradise where mankind lived in harmony with nature (even though no serious historian of the encounter period ever makes a claim about the Americas in 1491 being paradisical: no evidence supports such an outlandish and sweeping statement) to one of his particular obsessions, that cannibalism was in fact real in the Caribbean, not just a colonialist construct (p. xvi). It is true that a few literary scholars, unacquainted with a large body of anthropology that documents the existence of cannibalism in various parts of the world, from the South Atlantic to the South Pacific, made silly statements in the 1980s and 1990s suggesting cannibalism was a figment of the colonial imagination. But the subject does not deserve the extensive treatment that Abulafia gives it in this book. He proves again and again that cannibalism was likely to have existed in the Americas while not citing the post-modernist, post-colonialist writers who make ‘patronizingly colonialist’ assumptions that cannibalism was imaginary (p. 191). It is noticeable, by contrast, that in Sir John Elliott’ s justly praised comparison of British and Spanish Atlantic empire, cannibalism among Native Americans is not considered important enough to warrant discussion.(2)
By contrast with his fixation with cannibalism, Abulafia mentions disease and the demographic decline of the Native Americans usually only in passing, even though this must have been the most significant consequence of the Columbian encounter. He cites, without contradicting the statement, Vespucci’s ridiculous claim that sickness and early death was uncommon among Indians before discussing in much more detail Vespucci’s accounts of cannibalism. Moreover, on the one occasion when depopulation is explicitly mentioned, in the context of what Abulafia calls ‘Las Casa’ blood-curdling tales of cruelty’, it is accompanied by an anachronistic disquisition on how the depopulation of the Americas was not a genocide, as defined by the U.N. Convention on Genocide (p. 211). It is not clear to me, first, why one would want to use a definition created in the 20th century for 20th-century purposes to analyze a quite different situation 400 years earlier and, second, why the fact that depopulation was accidental rather than intended makes what happened in the 16th century to Indian population levels somewhat more morally palatable. 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. If we want to go down the road of assigning moral responsibility for catastrophic population loss in the past, a pathway which doesn’t seem especially fruitful, then the Spanish are not innocents. They may not have known what caused Indian deaths but they were perfectly well aware that Indians died as a consequence of their arrival. Moreover, they knew that Indian population decline was aggravated through Spanish mistreatment. Las Casas told the Spaniards what they should have done, as good Christians: they should have abandoned the Americas and gone home. That, ‘to their credit’, some Spaniards agonized over what they had done (p. 210) would have been small comfort to the Indians that died as a result of their being there.
We can see how disastrous the Spanish encounter with Native Americans was in the 16th century by extemporizing on a conceit that Abulafia raises early in his book. Drawing on an interview with an Australian cosmologist published in The Daily Telegraph in 2005 in which it was stated that discovering advanced life in the Universe would be the greatest discovery ever made, Abulafia makes an analogy between such a putative discovery and the encounters initiated in the 15th century in the Canaries and the Caribbean. What we know, however, is that we humans are not advanced enough as a species to have the capacity to find other forms of advanced life. A more advanced life-form elsewhere in the universe would find us, rather than us them. And ‘we’ (meaning humankind) would be the primitives. Of course, science fiction writers have thought of this conceit before. H. G. Wells did so most famously in The War of the Worlds. London was only saved from destruction by the superior Martians succumbing to our only weapon, influenza. If the analogy stands, however, it would not be the advanced life forms from elsewhere dying before they could destroy our culture. 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. I wonder then if we would be sympathetic to explanations from our conquerors that at least our depopulation was accidental, and not deliberate genocide, as they took our land, made us slaves and made derogatory comments about our debased natures. I suspect our reaction might be similar to that made by Hatuey before he was thrown in the flames. The Spanish did indeed discover a new form of mankind. Then they destroyed it and profited greatly from that destruction. Abulafia recognizes that the major consequence of the Columbian encounter was destruction, citing at his conclusion the words of the prophet Malachi, asking ‘why we deal treacherously, every man against his brother, profaning the covenant of our forefathers’ (p.313). It is a pity, however, that in his determination to avoid postmodernist excess, he soft-pedals away from the implications of Malachi’s condemnation of man’s inhumanity to man. It is not just postmodernists but the ancients who thought about what it meant to be the ‘other’.
- For how the encounter experience can be conceived differently, see Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: a Native History of Early America (Cambridge, MA, 2001).Back to (1)
- Another contrast with Elliott’s book (a book not cited by Abulafia) is in documentation. Elliott’s endnotes are crisp and helpful. The endnotes in Abulafia’s book are mystifyingly short to the point of being cryptic. I can understand that this book is meant for the general reader but what is meant by ‘cf. Montaigne’ in an endnote is unclear. Does ‘cf’ refer to a point of view he disagrees with, a point of view that is different but worthy of consideration or to something else entirely? I have no idea. Nor will the general reader.Back to (2)
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.
- Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (London, 2004).Back to (1)
- J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New (Cambridge, 1970).Back to (2)
- A starting-point might be H. Kleinschmidt, Ruling the Waves (’t-Hoy-Houten, 2008).Back to (3)
- 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)
- C. Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966; new ed. with introduction by A. Pagden, 1992), p. x.Back to (5)
- 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)
- W. Arens, The Man-eating Myth (New York, 1979).Back to (7)
- Sauer, Early Spanish Main.Back to (8)
- N. Wey Gómez, The Tropics of Empire (Cambridge, MA, 2008).Back to (9)
- A. H. Williamson, ‘Scots, Indians and Empire: the Scottish politics of civilization 1519–1609’, Past and Present, 150 (1996), 46–83.Back to (10)