Book Review of New World Encounters, edited by Stephen Greenblatt
Written by Joanne Greig, December 1994
This book is a collection of fourteen scholarly essays highlighting different aspects of the early encounters between the American peoples and the first Europeans to come to the Americas. They are written from a range of perspectives, including: history, literary criticism, gender analysis, comparative religion and anthropology, the authors being mainly university professors of history, literature or human sciences. Most of them make extensive use of contemporary sources, such as the letters of Columbus and Raleigh, and the poetry of the Aztecs.
The essays reveal, through their analyses, the inherent complexity in such encounters. Each of the respective peoples viewed events through their own cultural values, world views and perspectives which were often so completely different as to preclude any real understanding between them. All too often, the resulting conflict was resolved by violence and culminated in exploitation.
In Greenblatt's introduction, he explains the essays' theoretical perspective. He contrasts the two most popular and opposing views of the "discovery" of America, and in turn, points to a third. The first of these views is the one most commonly espoused by traditional western historians, " the vision of the victors." This position is epitomized by Samuel Eliot Morison in his study The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, 1492-1616, who viewed the voyages as both secular and religious epiphanies:
The main conception and aim of Columbus, to carry the Word of God and knowledge of His Son to the far corners of the globe, became a fact: Christ had been made manifest to a new race of Gentiles... To the people of this New World, pagans expecting short and brutish lives, void of hope for any future, had come the Christian vision of a merciful God and a glorious Heaven.
On the other hand, critics of the colonists reject any suggestion of a religious motive, and ascribe only the motive of greed to the discoverers. A famous passage from Gulliver's Travels well describes this position:
A Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither; at length a Boy discovers Land from the Top-mast; they go on Shore to Rob and Plunder; they see an harmless People; and entertained with Kindness, they give the country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives...Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity; the Natives driven out or destroyed, the Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust; the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: and this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.
In contrast, the essays in this book provide a kind of alternative history, encompassing competing accounts of events which include "the vision of the vanquished" and the "vision of the victors". The position is taken that it is not possible to take a simplistic view of the Europeans as either civilizers or predators. The indigenous peoples were neither savages nor pure and innocent beings living in a peaceful state of nature. The essays present a fascinating, if somewhat confusing, view of events in an attempt to reveal the motives and experiences of the historical actors. In my opinion, this is a healthy approach to historical analysis -- to refrain from painting villains and heros in a simplistic sense. Whilst students should clearly see the results of past actions, it should also be realized that, at the time, most of the actors probably thought that they were right in their actions, from their own historical, cultural and class perspectives. This kind of analysis also invites the reader to critically examine his or her own world view and analytical framework.
The essays have a number of shared critical principles, that bring together the different perspectives of history, ethnography, and literary criticism. These are not easy concepts to appreciate without careful thought, however I will attempt to explain them as I understand them: firstly, an assumption of textual opacity. This means the reader can not expect to understand the absolute truth of a matter from historical sources. Since "..the discourses of colonialism actually do much of the work of colonialism," we should not take source material at face value, but try to appreciate the socio-economic context in which it was written and what aims the writer sought to achieve. The second principle is a recognition of textual complexity. This refers to the fact that even the official European accounts of the "discovery" are not complete and lack internal consistency. Each different source has its own perspectives, and in some cases, these may present competing views of events. As de Certeau put it, rival discourses can "destroy one another as soon as they touch: a shattering of mirrors, the defection of images, one after the other." Thirdly, a search for textual otherness. This refers to the reader's struggle to somehow contact and understand the writer through his or her writing. Lastly, a questioning of textual authority. Put simply: just because something is written, does not mean it must be true. This is particularly so in early European writings about America. The immense distance between those lands and Europe, in space and understanding, as well as the many conflicts between the writers and elements of the social hierarchy back home, tended to distort at least some of their accounts. Greenblatt puts it succinctly: "At the moment that Europeans embarked on one of the greatest enterprises of appetite, acquisition, and control in the history of the world, their own discourses became haunted by all that they could not control."
I have selected three essays examining different themes, and have shown how they relate to the themes of this course. The first is Margarita Zamora's translation of Christopher Columbus's "Letter to Sovereigns": Announcing the Discovery. This letter is a translation of a recently published transcription from an authenticated sixteenth-century copy of Columbus's Libro Copiador. It differs from the other "official" version in that it had not been "sanitized" for public consumption by the contemporary Spanish authorities. (This has started a discussion on the "Discovery" from within its own sources over which one is authentic.) The better known letter lacks a number of elements which are present in the more recent transcription and translation: i.e., information which could serve contemporary colonial competitors; comments which might put the expedition in a bad light; petitions that the Crown grant Columbus personal favours for services; and plans to link the enterprise to a projected reconquest of the Holy Land. The letter gives us a first-hand view of what Columbus might have seen of America. He describes the natural beauty of the land, and the beauty and virtue of the people there. After his description of the voyage, landing and conditions, the letter takes a more chilling turn, giving an insight into the perhaps the real reasons for the colonial drive -- the search for wealth and raw materials:
This island is in a place...where I hope His Majesty will give Your Highnesses as much gold as you need, spicery of a certain pepper [to fill] as many ships as Your Highnesses may order to be loaded, and as much mastic as you may order to load, which today can by found only on the island of Chios, in Greece, and the government sells it as they see fit, and I believe they get more than 45,000 ducats for it each year. And as much lignum aloe as you may order to be loaded, and as much cotton as you may order to be loaded, and so many slaves that they are innumerable; and they will come from the idolaters. And I believe there are rhubarb and cinnamon.
Latin America was conceived of as the object of exploitation by the Europeans right from the start. Ever since the Conquest, it has produced commodities for export -- coffee, tin, oil, sugar, and has largely used the proceeds for importing manufactured goods, or to service debt. The view of the Indians as a population for enslavement and later low-cost labour, proved to be persistent, and some elements of it can still be found in the entrenched social system in Latin America, where Indians are at the bottom of the class hierarchy, and the dominant elite are still of Spanish extraction. During the 500 years since the arrival of Columbus, the commodity trade has exacted enormous social costs. The Spanish forced the Indian labourers to work the mines and plantations under inhuman conditions, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths from dust, poor food and disease. In view of this, it is indeed questionable whether the "discover