English 328, Christopher Columbus

You’ve read an excerpt from Christopher Columbus’s letter on the first voyage.  This was a letter written to the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  It giving an account of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbeans (which Columbus misnames “Indians.”).  We learn a lot about Columbus’s worldview in terms of religion, private property, and social decorum.  What we never get is an account of what the native people (some of which Columbus took captive) think.  Let’s see if we can’t change this.  Are there moments, perhaps cracks in Columbus’s narrative, where we can hear the native “speak”?  Quote a short passage from the text, and explain what the native individual may be thinking.  Perhaps it’s a moment when Columbus misunderstood something.  This requires creative thinking in combination with context clues.  By considering these hidden voices, we may get a fuller view of the “discovery” as one in which two sides first meet.

22 thoughts on “English 328, Christopher Columbus

  1. We can hear the natives “speak” largely through their actions when they first encounter Columbus and his sailors. Columbus describes them as “by nature fearful and timid”, but that they show “greater love for all others than for themselves” once they believe they are safe (pg. 25.) This suggests to me that the natives felt apprehensive, as anyone would upon seeing strangers that look so unlike themselves, then were welcoming in their natural curiosity. Their curiosity and inclination to have fair trade can be seen in their desire for items unfamiliar to them that Columbus deems too small to be fair returns for gold. It is also worth noting that Columbus mentions “seizing” natives that he first encounters, which immediately would evoke fear in natives who would subsequently hear about Columbus’s arrival. Where Columbus seems to misconstrue the eventual welcoming nature of the natives is through his interpretation that because they are not combative, they are “very ready and favorably inclined” to be converted to Catholicism (pg. 26.) Rather, the natives seem to operate on the belief that the point where the two sides first meet is a meeting of two equal groups of people, with no superior ideologies or practices, and so their generosity may be interpreted as hospitality, though Columbus views it as a worshipping of a heavenly figure.

    • While reading Columbus’s letter I could hear the voice of natives through this quote “… I sent two or three of my men to some of the villages, that they might speak with the natives… they would quickly take flight, children being pushed aside by their fathers, fathers by their children” (pg. 25). What mainly stood out to me was the fact fathers were pushing their children out of the way and vice versa when the sailors would approach. I could imagine a father saying to their child to move out of the way we don’t know if they bring harm or not. Likewise with an older child telling their older parents to move out of the way as an act of protection. The natives, however, changed their viewpoint as soon as Columbus showed nothing but niceness such as him giving them valuables so that he can be on their good side. This meant the natives dropped their guard and accepted this kindness instead of questioning it. Columbus used this to his advantage and eventually turned the natives into slaves.

    • While reading Columbus’s letter I could hear the voice of natives through this quote “I sent two or three of my men to some of the villages, that they might speak with the natives… they would quickly take flight, children being pushed aside by their fathers, fathers by their children” (pg. 25). What mainly stood out to me was the fact fathers were pushing their children out of the way and vice versa when the sailors would approach. I could imagine a father saying to their child to move out of the way we don’t know if they intend harm. Likewise with an older child telling their eldery parent to move out of the way as an act of protection. The natives, however, changed their viewpoint as soon as Columbus showed them nothing but niceness such as him giving them valuables. This meant that the natives thought they can drop their guard and also be friendly. Columbus used this to his advantage and eventually made them slaves.

      • You can hear a little bit of the natives story in the way Christopher Columbus talks about the Natives being fearful in their dealings with Columbus and his men. On page 25 it says “And this was not because any hurt or injury had been inflicted on any one of them, for to every one whom I visited and with whom I was able to converse, I distributed whatever I had… but they are by nature fearful and timid.” It is with good reason that the Natives were fearful of people they do not know who came to their island and eventually “seized by force several Indians from the first island”.

        • There were two different quotes in which shaped the idea of the Natives for me. The first being, “yet when they perceived that they are safe, putting aside all fear, they are of simple manners and trustworthy, and very liberal with everything they have, refusing no one who asks for anything they may possess, and even themselves inviting us to ask for things” (25). This quote struck me because it shows how utterly selfless and giving the Native were. Not only did they completely trust Columbus, they did so fast. This shows how they believed in the good of everyone, and built foreign groups up, instead of dragged them down. I also like the quote in which Columbus states, “they also traded cotton and gold for pieces of bows, bottles, jugs, and jars” (25). This shows how the Natives found reliance and value in items that completely differed from Columbus and his people. Today it seems like robbery to accept gold in return for bottles.

    • “To the first of these I gave the name of the blessed Saviour, on whose aid relying I had reached this as well as the other islands. But the Indiands call it Guanahani. I also called each one of the others by a new name” (24). The natives watch Colombus as he gives new names to all of their islands. This renaming is a way of taking the land for his own and disregarding the people who already inhabit the region. This must have been alarming and maybe confusing to the natives as they watch this newcomer call their land by a new, unfamiliar name. This is one of their first signs that Colombus is there to claim the land for his own country and that he will not concern himself with their own history and culture.

    • Hi Eli,
      I agree I believe that Columbus was trying to do portrait of a perfect picture in how it went to meet the “Indians” . I believe that Columbus ignored the fact that they came to an island unannounced and intruding an island that is known to the Indians as their home. Also what I noticed is that he made up that if they accept Christ and do no idolatry that there fear will go away but what makes me think that the natives were afraid because their language, morals, values, beliefs, and norms are different from the Columbus. With this, it makes understand that the Indians will always be afraid because their making a threat and invading their space.

  2. “These people practice no kind of idolatry; on the contrary they firmly believe that all strength and power, and in fact all good things are in heaven, and that I had come from thence with these ships and sailors; and in this belief I was received there after they had put aside fear” (25).
    By Columbus choosing idolatry as a topic of discussion, I am assuming he figured the natives did not believe in a god, therefore they did not worship one (this acts as the perfect motherland to convert individuals to Catholicism). But, he makes a clear parallel; by Columbus coming to their land, he is now idolized as their heavenly figure. Or, as Eli mentioned, it could be the natives’ displayed acts of hospitality due to Columbus bringing his ship and shipmates. It can also be recognized that Columbus knew the natives were timid upon his arrival, yet due to his heavenly nature, they “put aside their fear.” I have come to the conclusion that Columbus was quite the narcissist, and he gave voice to the natives by praising himself and his accomplishments.

  3. There is a line in the letter that reads “They also traded cotton and gold for pieces of bows, bottles, jugs and jars, like persons without reason” (25). It is Columbus’s impression that the native people are being unreasonable by giving away cotton and gold . However, they simply have different values than the Europeans. Gold is a weak metal that the European’s smooth, shine, and wear to show status. Cotton is a good the natives have an abundance of. Bows, bottles, jugs and jars, on the other hand, are goods that require a skilled craftsman and are worth plenty more than the minerals and crops the natives have plenty of and few uses for. This doesn’t make the native people unreasonable or foolish. Instead, it makes Christopher Columbus a narrow-minded outsider incapable of accepting another way of living as equal.

  4. “…their conversion to the holy religion of Christ, to which in truth, as far as I can perceive, they are very ready and favorably inclined” (26).
    In this quote, Columbus misinterprets the natives friendliness and generosity as willingness to adopt Spain’s customs and culture. The natives seem to have viewed Columbus’ visit as temporary and nonthreatening, and as a result perceived “that they were safe” (25) and engaged with Columbus’ crew through trading and helping them navigate the islands. However, Columbus misinterprets these actions and their friendliness as submission, and even eagerness, to leave their culture and convert.

  5. There are some excellent points here. From Columbus’s emphasis on native timidity and willingness to comply, we get a sense that he is selling their submission to his royal patrons. Something like: there is good material to cultivate here, including the inhabitants. It’s not hard to imagine that the fear he saw had to do with a sense that strangers (the Spanish) could cause the native people harm. The other point that’s been raised about trade is also important. To Columbus precious metals are the standard, but to the native peoples (who had quantities of such metals) it may be other things. We can imagine seeing certain types of objects for the first time. We might feel the same (think: “crappy” souvenir shops!). In other word, Columbus does not escape his own value system to consider how and why some of the “trifles” may have been “fair” trade after all. He does not see the world (nor try to see it) from any side other than his own.

  6. One of the statements that I hear the natives ‘speak’ is when Columbus recalls his interactions with the people of Mateunin. He says “these women, moreover, perform no kind of work for their sex, for they use bows and darts, like I those I have described for their husbands. (26)” Columbus’s portrayal of the native women clearly impose his own view of women as unfit for powerful or physically demanding tasks. It is evident when he suggests that the role should be solely assigned for men, and that women do not perform that work that their sex should. What I understand from the interaction is that the women and men of the native group were held to equal standards, or at least were able to fulfill certain roles based on ability, and not sex, while Columbus is unnerved by the idea of a woman and a man performing a job with bows and darts.

    • Hey Lydia!

      I think your interpretation describes Columbus and his views on gender roles really well. I was thinking that the indigenous women that Columbus is describing might have been responsible for activities that were traditionally male in European settings…like farming.

  7. So this is very interesting to what I found on p. 25-26, so at the begging Columbus mistakes the Indians as being “Timid and afraid” but later on in the letter Columbus commits another error in stating that if they are worshippers of Christ there fear will go away. Yet, it is interesting on how Columbus restates each time Christ, becomes he thinks that the Indians had already been worshiping God. However, however that is not the case in the Indian culture, Indians worship many gods, which is founded by glorifying nature and how nature speaks to them directly. Also, with this Columbus was ignoring their god and wanting to pursue to worshipping God to have a good relationship with them.
    Another thing that I noticed when reading this again he mentions that the native Indians are “Strength and power” which he did not know what their own power of bravery was capable compared to where Columbus came from where everything was coming to be a formal society. The Indians have the ability to catch their own food, feed themselves, make weapons, and have shelter to what it explains why it was probably a slip to what Columbus said about the Native Americans.
    It was as if Columbus was threatening the Indians to become something that they were not made for and known to be. How I said on a reply, Columbus tries to paint a perfect portrait in his mind that the Indians would get along with Columbus. When Columbus at the end of the P. 25, “Putting aside all fear”, if they did everything that Columbus told them to transform themselves to the expectations of Columbus, makes me realizes that the Indians lived in fear because they knew that the Indians could die of not obeying Colombus.

  8. It is easy to hear what the Native people are thinking when Columbus talks about how “I distributed whatever I had, cloth and many other things, no return being made to me; but they are by nature fearful and timid”. Here, he is claiming that the people are afraid of him and his men, which of course would be true, but I still think this was a miscalculation on his part in terms of how they were thinking. He seems to be missing the possibility that the Natives are not rejecting his “generous” gifts because they are timid and fearful of him, but more because these are not things that they do not find them generous at all. It is possible that these people could see his presence and his offers of clothing and modern weapons as being almost a kind of insult to them and their culture; therefore, they wouldn’t want to accept any of it and hide away the best that they could so they could avoid the new settlers. Columbus has this idea that because these people are not living a lifestyle that he is used to seeing, meaning that they are not as “civilized” as what he would consider to be the standard of living, that he is automatically above them and that they should fear him. There are plenty more holes in this story in which the Natives have a clear voice, but this stuck out to me the most.

  9. I found this passage very intriguing but also challenging in the same respect, because the lens this is scene through is from the perspective of Christopher Columbus rather than stories of Native Americans told through European Literature. The first time I had read the passage I held a sense of bias towards the Native Americans and mentally, I was constantly making individual defenses to what I was reading. I wasn’t until I reached page 26, “Truly great and wonderful is this, and not corresponding to our merits, but to the holy Christian Religion, and to the piety and religion of our sovereigns, because what the human understanding could not attain, that the divine will has granted.” At this point I realized the perspective in which this passage was delivered, Christopher Columbus and the rest of the European world believed that they were carrying out God’s will and blessing the Native Americans with their presence. The European travelers took it upon themselves to give reasoning and purpose by bestowing the Native Americans with European culture, thinking that it is the divine right to do so and to inflict their own culture onto another without question, but only blinded ignorance.

  10. Although it is difficult over the shouting of Columbus, the native voice can be heard in a myriad of quiet passages. Columbus announces his views on the indigenous distribution of labor among genders when he describes that the “women appear to work more than the men.” (26) Here Columbus is probably judging the men by European gender roles in which men are responsible for farming and hunting is seen as a leisure activity performed by the wealthy. Perhaps Columbus sees the women planting while the men participate in activities related to the protection of the village. Columbus sees the natives as “timid and full of fear” (25) describing the protective actions of the men who, upon seeing Columbus and his men “take flight, children being pushed aside by their fathers, and fathers by their children.” Although they are running, the indigenous men are sheltering the children and elders from what they perceive as a threat. Who wouldn’t run away from something they had never encountered, who looked completely foreign?

  11. Although it is difficult over the shouting of Columbus, the native voice can be heard in a myriad of quiet passages. Columbus announces his views on the indigenous distribution of labor among genders when he describes that the “women appear to work more than the men.” (26) Here Columbus is probably judging the men by European standards of gender roles, in which men are responsible for farming and hunting is seen as a leisure activity often performed by the wealthy. Perhaps Columbus sees the women planting while the men participate in activities related to the protection of the village. Columbus sees the natives as “timid and full of fear” (25) describing the protective actions of the men who, upon seeing Columbus and his men “take flight, children being pushed aside by their fathers, and fathers by their children.” Although they are running, the indigenous men are sheltering the children and elders from the perceived threat.

  12. Columbus says in his letter, “I forbade that things so small and of no value should be given to them, such as pieces of plates, dishes and glass, likewise keys and shoe straps; although if they were able to obtain these, it seemed to them like getting the most beautiful jewels in the world…,” (25). This emphasizes Columbus’ misunderstanding of what is seen as value in a non-European world. Rather than seeing worth within superficial items such as jewelry, readers of this letter are able to see that the natives prescribed value onto items that were practical for their own uses. This difference highlights the disconnect that the Europeans experience when interacting with the natives while also giving note to the natives’ perspective on interacting with the Europeans.

  13. In the middle of page 25, Columbus talks about trading with the Natives. He says the natives, “show greater love for all others than for themselves; they give valuable things for trifles, being satisfied even with a very small return, or with nothing.” To Columbus, the natives he has encountered thus far have been peaceful, timid people, content with giving gold for cotton. He describes them as almost childlike. But from the native’s perspective, it’s easy to understand why they would be apprehensive if three giant, heavily armed ships, filled with people they’d never seen before and weapons they didn’t know existed showed up on their shores. I think you hear the voice of scared people in the pages of Columbus’ letters, you also hear tales of the extorted. I don’t really think the natives were handing over riches as if they didn’t know the value, I think they were terrified of the guns and the ships, and likely knew it was better not to resist.

  14. Columbus states that the natives are “very liberal with everything they have… even themselves inviting [Columbus’ crews] to ask for things”(25). Here, the voice of natives bleeds through in the way that they are fearful and desire to make peace with these new arrivals in their land. They are willing to trade as a means of establishing a mutual relationship with the Europeans. Columbus misinterprets this kindness as submission to the Europeans, which he says will make them easy converts to Christianity. He also takes some of the natives captive as a method of exerting control over them. Columbus then states that the natives are “satisfied even with a very small return”(25). While Columbus may believe that he is receiving possessions that are of more value than the ones that he gives, the natives do not see their actions in this light. All of the materials they receive are practical to them and no less valuable than the ones that they give. Columbus’ ethnocentrism is abundantly apparent in these interpretations of the native’s kindness.

  15. The natives of the lands display their fear and forced cooperation in the passage which reads “yet when they perceive that they are safe, putting aside all fear, they are of simple manners and trustworthy, and very liberal with everything they have, refusing no one who asks for anything they may possess, and even themselves inviting us to ask for things” (25). When I consider what is being said, I believe that their fear is being mistaken for generosity. If I were in their shoes and strange men showed up from seas over to conquer me, I would probably give them whatever they wanted so I wouldn’t get hurt. What is gold and cotton to me if I’m afraid of being maimed, raped or murdered?

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