The First Letter from the ‘New World’
Let us not make the mistake, now that we are about to accompany Columbus on his great adventure, of assuming, as is commonly done, that although he was not aware of it, he “really” crossed the Atlantic in quest of America and that the shores at which he arrived were “really” those of the American continent.
Edmundo O’Gorman, The Invention of America
When reviewing the historical evidence about Columbus’s journeys and about his landing in the Americas on October 12, 1492, in a first step it is to Columbus’s own writings that we turn, as he is commonly referred to as “the first European to write the new world” (Loewenberg, American History 31). The original manuscript of Columbus’s log has been lost, so scholars rely on the summary of his Diario composed by Bartolome de las Casas (which is excerpted in the Heath Anthology of American Literature; cf. Lauter et al.). Yet, Columbus’s so-called first letter is generally considered to be the more authentic document; he supposedly wrote the first version under the impression of an impending shipwreck on his return from his first voyage (three more were to follow) in order to leave a record for posterity of what he had seen and found, waxed and sealed it, and tossed it into the sea. He made a second version of it to be deposited on board of his ship, the Nina; both of these letters also were lost. However, the almost-shipwreck seems to have made Columbus aware of the importance of leaving a record of his explorations to document the ‘new world’ as well as his role in ‘discovering’ and claiming it. Thus, he wrote his letter for a third time - this time in a more sober mood and in a more calculated style, we may assume - addressing it to Luis de Santangel, treasurer of the Spanish Crown, and, by implication, to the Spanish monarchs themselves, who sponsored his enterprise and whom he obviously wanted to impress with what he found in order to legitimize and extend his venture (cf. Wallisch, Kolumbus 6). We should therefore not make the mistake of naively looking at this letter as simply a faithful rendering of Columbus’s travels and encounters; this would mean underestimating his rhetorical skill in crafting a scene that is fully intended to convey the importance and foreboding of the historical moment, i.e. to describe it as and thus make it a historical moment, even though he actually was rather clueless about where he was and what he was about to initiate. Above all, Columbus’s letter relies on conscious self-fashioning in its careful construction of his role as explorer and conqueror of new worlds.
Illustration 1: Columbus Takes Possession
Theodor de Bry, Discovery of America, 12th of May, 1492 (1590).
To begin with, in his letter Columbus describes the Americas in a language of wonder and awe, conjuring up biblical images of the Garden of Eden. “Hispaniola is a marvel,” he writes, “[i]t has [...] fine, large flowing rivers,” “mountains and peaks [.] most beautiful,” “trees of endless varieties, so high that they seem to touch the sky [...] covered with blossoms, some with fruits,” “honey, many kinds of birds, and a great variety of fruits;” the earth is “rich and fertile” (“Letter”). Columbus has found, his letter seems to suggest, an earthly paradise, a place of beauty and abundance that he describes in superlative after superlative. His expressions of amazement are not entirely genuine and sincere but are framed, in a second step, by a language of profit and gain. The abundance of the ‘new world’ promises economic profit for the Spanish Crown: not only will the Spanish be able to settle in this paradise by “planting” and “pasturage” and by
“building towns and villages” but also to gain a fortune by extracting from it the resources that it holds: the Spanish monarchs will find “as much gold as they desire” as well as “spices, cotton, as much as their Highnesses may command to be shipped” (ibid.). Columbus is trying to impress the Spanish Crown in order to fulfill his original promise of return on capital at least in words and to secure further financial support for his next expeditions across the Atlantic, an investment for the monarchs, he seems to suggest, with manifold and exorbitant returns. Thus, Columbus advertises his ‘discovery’ as a success by all standards.
Yet, this paradise that Columbus describes is not ‘empty:’ it is inhabited by an indigenous population that somehow seems to stand between him and the riches he covets. The Natives figure as inhabitants of the islands he takes to be located east of India. These ‘Indians,’ however, are not portrayed as owners of the place they inhabit. In the very beginning of his letter Columbus describes how he takes possession of the ‘new world’ by bringing the Native population under Spanish colonial rule: “I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses by proclamation and display of the Royal Standard without opposition” (ibid.). Stephen Greenblatt has drawn our attention to the theatricality of the event described in Columbus’s letter, which is a staging that may seem strangely inappropriate, almost absurd, and quite literally somewhat ‘out of place’ when we keep in mind that the circumstances of the encounter between the Natives and Columbus were “drastically different” from anything that went before (Marvelous Possessions 55). Who among the addressees of Columbus’s speech act present at the scene could have understood what was going on, let alone voiced opposition to Columbus’s proclamation? How could the Native population have opposed his claim when for them it was not clear what his pompous gesturing implied or what his ritualized language meant? Columbus ostensibly plays a trick on them - with a simple formality he claims the land, and their reserve is read as forever forfeiting the right to the territory (cf. ibid. 60). Columbus constructs his subject position as an extension and an expression of the Spanish royal authority that he simply assumes in a series of speech acts: “For Columbus taking possession is principally the performance of a set of linguistic acts: declaring, witnessing, recording” (ibid. 56-57). He is obsessed with naming. Prior to any closer descriptions of the islands, Columbus details the new names he has given to them not because they were nameless - he even registers their ‘Indian’ names at times - but because he disregards and discards their previous names in favor of new, Spanish ones and makes their renaming part of the process of his ‘discovery’ and conquest (cf. Sale, Conquest of Paradise; Todorov, Conquest of America 38). In addition, his choice of names is intended to flatter the monarchs in Spain: Isabella, Fernandina, Santa Maria de Concepcion, Juana. Translating, naming, and classifying are operations that are part of the process of colonization (cf. Hartog, Mirror) and intricate parts of the process of ‘othering,’ i.e. of turning the Native population into ‘the other’ and the object of European rule. In Columbus’s description of the ‘new world’ inhabitants, there is a clear dichotomy of us (the Europeans) vs. them (the Native population) at work - both groups are portrayed as fundamentally and irreconcilably different from each other. This extreme polarization - what Hartog describes as the “excluded middle” (ibid. 258) - is another ingredient in the rhetoric of otherness that produces unbridgeable difference, introduces a steep hierarchy between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and thus legitimizes asymmetrical power relations. Thus, the Natives are described as ‘children of nature’ by Columbus, as “extraordinarily timid” (in fact, they are “the most timid people in the world”), naked, instinctive, trusting, generous, gullible, and ignorant; and they have no weapons apart from “sticks of cane” (“Letter”). By inference, Columbus and his men are superior in every way. They represent culture (not nature) - and thus refinement and progress against the backdrop of the Natives’ ‘natural state’ - in terms of their clothes, their religion (Christianity), and their technology; and they violently demonstrate their assumed superiority: Columbus takes possession of the islands and of the Natives, implying that he is authorized to do so at his will. He fleshes out the culture- nature divide between Europeans and the indigenous population, who by definition are closely related to the soil of their ‘native’ land. In the entire letter, there is no sense of the kind of encounter conjured up by Michael Dorris in the epigraph to this chapter, no meeting at eye level between the inhabitants of the Americas and their European visitors: the Europeans are landing and invading; the Natives are fleeing and have to be taken “by force.” Overall, the latter are not portrayed as individuals but as a generalized group of “Indians” (“numberless people”). In his assessment of Columbus’s hermeneutical skills, Tzvetan Todo- rov even contends that Columbus “was more perspicacious when he was observing nature than when he was trying to understand the Natives. His hermeneutic behaviour is not precisely the same in the one case as in the other” (Conquest of America 17), thereby ranking, according to Todorov, the Natives, human beings inhabiting the ‘new world,’ below the level of the inanimate world of nature and landscape. The cherished assumption of his own superiority registers at every level of Columbus’s letter and is part of his “finalist” view - “the latter [view] no longer consists in seeking the truth but in finding confirmations of a truth known in advance (or, as we say, in wishful thinking)” (ibid. 19). All this is to the effect that Columbus offers us a narrative of first contact in which he tries to convince us of his rightful conquest of the Americas. This strategy locates the Native pop?ulation clearly on the side of nature, lumped together with the wildlife and the vegetation - “Columbus speaks about the men he sees only because they too, after all, constitute a part of the landscape” (ibid. 34). We know that Columbus took several Natives from the Americas back to Spain with him - just like he took along plants, animals, and gold - and paraded them at court in front of the Spanish king and queen like animals.
Another defining aspect of Columbus’s colonial hermeneutics and his ‘rhetoric of otherness’ is his religiosity. The letter opens and closes with references to God, and the ‘discovery’ is celebrated as a God-willed “glorious event, at which all Christendom should rejoice” (“Letter”). The Natives, of course, are not Christians, and in Columbus’s view this is another manifestation of their primordial state of nature and their inferiority. That they supposedly take the Europeans for gods from heaven only adds to the argument that they lack a proper understanding of Christian religiosity and a comparable concept of God. Columbus’s skills at reading and translating the gestures and exclamations of the Natives are certainly poor and symptomatic of his wishful thinking, yet his judgments are brought forward with utter self-confidence and with no attempt at self-reflection. Frauke Gewecke ponders the question whether he could have possibly freed himself more rigorously from his Eurocentric categories and norms in order to perceive and describe what he actually saw (cf. Wie die neue Welt 12). Clearly, in his letter it is by claiming the right to represent, define, categorize, and rule that Columbus grounds his authority over the Americas. From the perspective of postcolonial criticism, we find that Columbus’s representational strategy in his letter renders the Natives mute and turns them into objects of hegemonic discourse; they have no voice in his text, and as they do not speak Spanish, they cannot participate in his discourse. Regarding Gayatri Spivak’s famous question, “can the subaltern speak?” (cf. her article of the same title), in the case of the Native encounter with Columbus we would have to answer in the negative: no, they cannot.
Beyond the reception and circulation of this first letter - which laid the basis for Columbus’s reputation and has been the object of much interpretation - Columbus’s standing in the late 15th and early 16th centuries did not go unchallenged. In fact, power struggles between various interest groups in the newly conquered territories began the minute Columbus set foot on the Americas, proliferated after he had left to return to Spain, and continued to characterize the fate of the Spanish ‘new world’ colonies. His subsequent journeys to the Americas (14931496; 1498-1500; 1502-1504) did not consolidate his status as the ‘discoverer’ of new worlds. Even though Columbus quickly rose to fame in his time and day
(and has remained the object of public adoration and commemoration), he fell out of grace with the monarchs toward the end of his life and was even shortly imprisoned on charges of mismanaging the colony. As Kirkpatrick Sale and others remind us, “the Admiral” died in relative obscurity; Sale describes him as somewhat disoriented and alienated, and he certainly had not yet gained the mythic status he attained later on (cf. Conquest of Paradise). His role as explorer and his legacy of ‘discovery’ seem to have been contested already during his lifetime, and have remained so after his death.
Illustration 2: Map of Columbus’s Voyages
Filson Young, Christopher Columbus and the New World of His Discoveries (1906).
Next to Columbus’s letter and Bartolome de las Casas’s summary of Columbus’s logbook, it was the first biography of Columbus (written by his son, Ferdinand) that reached a wider circulation and promoted the image of Columbus as hero and ‘discoverer’ internationally. The narrative, titled The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand, was published posthumously in 1571 in Spanish, Italian, English, and Latin, and underwent many editions in the following decades and centuries (cf. Colon, Life). Ferdinand had his own agenda in promoting the unequivocal exoneration of his father’s achievement. The bookish Ferdinand, as a member of the “Columbus Dynasty in the Caribbean” (cf. Troy Floyd’s book of the same title), lived comfortably off his father’s ‘new world’ discovery as a landowner as well as an (entirely unscrupulous) slaveholder, and thus had a strong interest in securing his inheritance and the legal titles granted to his father, which in the meantime had been revoked by the Spanish Crown. It appears that many passages in the book had originally been written for a litigation procedure against the Spanish courts. Ferdinand claims that Columbus and nobody else before and after him had discovered the Americas and that he deserved unqualified praise for that; like many others, Ferdinand never questioned this ‘discovery’ by taking into account the fact that his father never knew or fully realized where he h ad been. Text s like Ferdinand’s continued to shape the image of Columbus as the agent of ‘discovery,’ and furthered the perpetuation of the idea of a ‘discovery’ of the Americas in general.
Even as the horrors of Spanish colonialism in the Americas - such as the brutal mistreatment of the indigenous population - became known in Spain and Europe at large, the reputation of Christopher Columbus as ‘discoverer’ did not diminish, and seems to have been largely immune to revision in the long run. In his famous History of the Indies, the foremost critic of Spanish colonialism, Barto- lome de las Casas, judges Columbus mildly; first of all he sees Columbus, whom he accompanies on his second journey, as chosen by God for “the fulfillment of a divine plan” (O’Gorman, Invention 19), and his ‘discovery’ as providence (cf. Roa-de-la-Carrera, Histories 138); and even as he indicts the horribly cruel treatment of the population by the Spanish and acknowledges Columbus’s role in the establishment of the encomienda system of slave labor, he largely exempts Columbus from criticism and does not blame him directly for the enslavement and torture of the indigenous population in the Americas. According to de las Casas, Columbus’s good intentions turned into an evil practice in the hands of the greedy and ruthless Spanish colonizers: “Columbus discovered America; others explored and colonized it” (Loewenberg, American History 44). De las Casas is not alone in separating Columbus’s ‘discovery’ and his journeys from what followed in the course of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, thus setting him apart from other figures of colonization such as the notorious Hernan Cortes or the even more infamous Francisco Pizarro. This strategy has clearly helped to preserve and to affirm time and again an image of Columbus as a figure of light and salvation (representing the possibility to convert the ‘new world’ natives) rather than as a figure of doom and destruction (representing genocide and slavery). Whereas Columbus symbolizes new possibilities, a new world, a new time, and the re-discovery of paradise, it is the successive Spanish colonists who supposedly destroyed this paradise and perverted Columbus’s vision. His journey to the ‘new world’ thus encapsulated “a brief moment of wonder followed by a long series of disasters and disenchantments” (Baym et al., “Christopher Columbus” 25).
Whether for reasons of personal gain (as in Ferdinand’s case) or to critique Spanish colonialism (as in de las Casas’s case), many writers have been preserving Columbus as a heroic figure, and a steady trickle of publications through the centuries ensured Columbus’s continued prominence and popularity; the myth of Christopher Columbus and his ‘discovery’ of the ‘new world’ was, and is, firmly in place.