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| 30.12.02
The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s first Voyage to America: 1492-1493, Oliver Dunn and James E. Kelley, Jr., trans. Abstracted by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas.

Dunn and Kelley’s translation of the diario is very useful to both the Spanish and non-Spanish speaker, in that it provides a modern English translation side-by-side with a faithful rendering of the Spanish original. While some typographical problems presented themselves in rendering a manuscript filled with ambiguous characters, deletions, and postils written on large folios into a comprehensible book, Dunn and Kelley have managed to do this without “cleaning up” the text of the manuscript or purging valuable information. By stating exactly what changes were made for the sake of continuity and clarity in the preface, the reader is not left wondering where alterations in the original text begin and the actual manuscript ends.

The diario, however, is highly problematic in and of itself as an historical document. What we term Christopher Columbus’ diario is in fact a rendering of the original by Bartolomé de las Casas, a Franciscan friar who lived in roughly the same period as Columbus. While parts of the diario are rendered in what appears to be a word for word transcription of the original, other parts are clearly paraphrased by las Casas. In some instances it is difficult to tell where “The Admiral” leaves off and las Casas begins. This makes the diario’s use as a primary source doubtful.

The audience for the which the diario was written also casts doubts on the verity of the statements therein. Columbus was keeping the record for the express (expressed in the prologue) purpose of detailing his voyage to king Ferdinand and queen Isabella. His descriptions of New World inhabitants as “good intelligent servants,” (67) “very naive about weapons” that “can be made to do whatever one might wish” (76) can be seen as primarily statements made to justify his voyage and its expense. Likewise, Columbus’ constant mentioning of the native’s lack of any sort of religion seems to emphasize the need for converting the Indians, again justifying more voyages. While Columbus did not bring back much of anything of value on the first voyage to the New World, the diario is constantly speaking of “mastic,” “aloe,” and “a thousand other good things.” Columbus exaggerates to the point where “a loaf of wax” become the signifier of hidden riches beyond imagine. (189)

There appears to be a dichotomy in the diario between the manner in which Columbus wanted to treat the Indians, and the manner in which they were actually treated. Columbus wanted the Indians to be remunerated for everything which his men traded for. “But the Admiral, seeing the openheartedness of the Indians, who for six glass beads would give and do give a piece of gold, for that reason ordered that nothing should be removed from them without giving them something in payment.” (265) In addition, on October 15, 1492, Columbus gives an Indian a ride onboard ship in an attempt foster goodwill between the Indians and the Europeans for future visits. (85) However, after the initial contact with the Indians, fear seems to be the rule rather than the exception. When there was no gold in great quantity to be found in the new lands, Columbus resorted to capturing Indians to return to Spain as slaves. On Wednesday, December 17, 1492 part of the entry reads, “Finally they captured one woman --for they could catch no more-- because, he says, I had ordered them to catch some [people] in order to treat them courteously and make them lose their fear, which would be something profitable since it seems that the land cannot be otherwise than profitable, judging by its beauty.” (219)

It is clear from the diario, however, that Columbus believed that he was sailing towards, and had indeed discovered, a new route to the “Indies.” Repeated references to the “Grand Khan” and “the end of the Orient” where the fabled “terrestrial paradise” is said to be reveals to us that although Columbus never encountered any Asian civilizations, he always believed that he was in the East. (383)

In brief, the diario reveals to us three main motivations for Columbus’ journey: God, gold, and glory. Las Casas and Columbus both refer to Columbus as “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” a title Columbus had fought to attain for both himself and his descendants in perpetuity. Columbus sought gold, not only for himself and for his sovereign, but also so that he could “prepare to go conquer the Holy Sepulcher; for thus I urged Your Highness to spend all profits of this my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem.” (291) Thus it would appear that not only did Columbus desire to Christianize the native, he also wanted to start a Crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims.

The main problems with the diario, however, remain the following. How accurate is it as a document which reflects what actually happened on the voyages? Given its audience, the manner by which it comes to us through time, and the motives of its author, it seems that any statements substantiated by the diario must be carefully examined in light of the above considerations.

PUBLISHER: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

In Search of Columbus

| 29.12.02
In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the first Voyage, by David P. Henige

In In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the first Voyage, David P. Henige effectively criticizes the diario (Columbus' ship log for the first voyage), showing that as a primary source it is very problematic. Henige argues from the viewpoint that the diario is primarily a work by Bartolomé de las Casas, and as such is a corrupted source at best. ...The text we have is, by the transcribers own admission, largely a paraphrase of another secondary text. (7)

The problem with the diario as a primary source is thus made apparent. The copy of the diario that we have in our possession today is in fact two, or even possibly three times removed from the original source. To trace the history of the diario helps explain this problem. To begin with, there must have been an original diario, the ships log that Columbus kept on his first voyage to The Indies. Then the picture begins to become ambiguous. According to some sources, it is possible that Columbus made a copy of the log for the sovereigns instead of handing over the original copy, which Columbus would have kept to help substantiate his future claims as Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Then it is known that the royal scribes made copies of the diario. One of these copies was used by las Casas, who in turn made the transcription that is known as the diario we have today. (22,23)

Henige believes that there are many reasons to believe that the original text of the diario was altered. The scribes may have doctored the numbers to make the new lands fall into Spains domain under the Treaty of Todesillas with Portugal. (104) There is even more reason to believe that las Casas may have incorporated changes into the work. In comparing las Casas diario with Ferdinand Columbus Historia de las Indias, Henige found that the December 25, 1493 diario entry concerning the beaching of the Santa María exaggerates the role of the Indians, and their willingness to help. (44) Henige goes as far as to state that, the later it [the diario] was transcribed, the more Las Casass increasingly impassioned views on the Spanish treatment of the Indians would effect the character of the work, which is, after all, largely paraphrase. (19)

Henige cites many other examples in which it appears that the diario has been altered as well. Henige doubts the validity of the October 11, 1492 entry in which Columbus reports seeing a light that later proves to be land based on the following observations. First, the story of Columbus seeing the light occurs in the text subsequent to an entry in which land has already been sighted. Secondly, the story of the light has only Columbus word to back it up, since the two witnesses mentioned in the entry are among those who are later left at La Navidad, where they perish. (107) In sum, the passage [of the sighting of the light] bears every mark of being an ex post facto abuse of Columbuss monopoly of the log. (171)

Henige sees the motivations behind the diario we possess today to be threefold. First, it was a propaganda device for Columbus. Second, as a marital account, it was a subterfuge to beguile the Portuguese. Finally, it was an instrument to Las Casas, for his world view, and for his opinions concerning the treatment of the Indians by the Spanish. (122) If we accept these conclusions, the ramification for Columbus study are great. In essence, the diario is discredited as an accurate source of Columbus route to the New World, his treatment of the Indians, and of practically any observation about the lands and peoples Columbus encountered.

Henige uses the inaccuracies in the diario as the centerpiece to an argument highlighting Columbus research in general. Henige believes there is a tendency to pick and choose testimony from the diario solely to satisfy particular modern predispositions and in subservience to grand designs. (285) He states that there is a natural tendency to grant critical immunity to sources that provide unique access to major historical occasions (2) and that as such a source the diario has been given a place in the literature that is more than its due.

The major problem with Heniges study is that it criticizes effectively, yet doesn't provide an answer to the question: What then can we believe about Columbus with any degree of accuracy? Henige manages to impeach most of the major sources used in Columbus studies, yet provides us with no alternative source of information. If it is indeed endemic in this field to see arguments based upon faulty and partial evidence, Henige does not provide a way in which to say anything about Columbus with accuracy. Henige has been accused of hyper criticism and has been labeled a Pyrrhonist critic. (284) Perhaps this is overstating, but Henige leaves us with no answers about Columbus or his motivations. There are only questions.

PUBLISHER: Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1991.

The Conquest of Paradise

| 28.12.02
The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, by Kirkpatrick Sale

Kirkpatrick Sale’s monograph The Conquest of Paradise tells the Columbus story as the conquest of noble, peace-loving peoples that live in harmony with the environment by a brutal, savage, medieval Europe of which Christopher Columbus is a product. Because of the horrible effects of the black plague, and the European cultural tendency to war against the environment instead of coexist with it, Sale speculates that Europeans had been hardened towards death and killing, and enamored with property and personal wealth, to such an extent that mutual understanding between Native Americans and Europeans was practically impossible. Sale argues that Columbus was not seeking a route to the Far East, but rather that he intended his mission to be one of discovery and conquest. The fact that Columbus and Europe dominated the Amerinds is an ecological one. Disease, which Europe had coped with in the Black Plague, decimated the island populations upon which Columbus landed. Sale paints the Amerinds as peoples who lived in perfect harmony with the environment, while Europeans are depicted as a people who are at war with nature.

It seems that Sale wants to depict the Indians as “noble savages,” a simple folk innocent and at peace with their environment. He tends to ignore the fact that great Native American civilizations had existed and declined prior to the arrival of Columbus to the New World. In addition, Sale neglects to mention that even Amerinds warred with one another (something that is mentioned many times in the diario). It would seem that Sale’s involvement in the Green Party, and other ecological organizations, predisposes him to see the lifestyle of “noble savages” as superior to that of the conquering Columbian hordes. We are almost told outright that the world would be a better place today had the expansion of European culture, first implemented by Columbus, not taken place. In Sale’s conclusion, it becomes apparent that at the very least, Conquest of Paradise is history with a strong didactic twist.

PUBLISHER: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.

Columbus: The Great Adventure

| 27.12.02
Columbus: The Great Adventure, by Paolo Emilio Taviani

Taviani paints a complex yet sometimes contradictory image of Christopher Columbus. Unlike other scholars who portray Columbus as a medieval stereotype hearkening the modern age, Taviani gives us the dual image of Columbus the Renaissance man, and Columbus the medieval man. Through this use of the Italian Renaissance Taviani attempts to claim Columbus as a great Italian navigator, even though Columbus was Genoan and Italy as a nation did not exist during Columbus’ time. Thus this historical work, while detailed, has nationalistic underpinnings.

Taviani supposes that Columbus had a “grand design” of discovery. Because Columbus, as an expert navigator, had empirical knowledge of the Atlantic trade winds before his first voyage to the new world, he deliberately chose the south west route on the outbound voyage, and the north east route back to Spain. Taviani cites trips to made to Iceland as a youth as the source of Columbus’ knowledge of the proper routes. (41) Yet while one would think that Columbus would also have heard rumors of the New World in Iceland, Taviani holds firmly to the notion that Columbus believed he was sailing towards Asia, even after he arrived at his destination and began to see negative evidence with his own eyes. Naked natives, no iron working technology, no cities, no “Grand Khan”-- nothing Marco Polo outlined in his account of the Orient. “Why? Because the Discoverer was obstinate and ruled by ambition and pride.” (108)

This is the crux of Taviani’s Columbus. A modern man on the one hand, who used the Old Testament, the classical texts, his own observations as a navigator and the writings of Toscanelli to buttress his argument for making his voyages to the scholars of the royal courts of Europe (66) while on the other hand Columbus “was the man who would open the door to the third age, that of the Holy Spirit, prophesied by Joachim of Floris.” (256) Taviani states it best when he characterizes Columbus’ motivations as “ambition, pride, scientific curiosity, a spirit of adventure, a fascination with the unknown, and a mystical feeling of being chosen for a divinely inspired mission.” (128)

Taviani’s book also attempts to give the reader a background into the cultures that Columbus encountered on his first voyage. Drawing upon archeological data he portrays the tainos as having a stratified matrilineal society based upon three classes --nobles, commoners, and slaves. The chiefs (caciques) held the power of life or death over their subjects. (121) Like the diario, he differentiates between the gentler tainos and the caribs, who, according to records made by Dr. Chanca and Michele de Cuneo on Columbus’ voyages, consumed human flesh. (147) Taviani uses the existence of at least two separate indigenous cultures to help justify the difference in treatment Columbus gives to the Indians from the first to the second and subsequent voyages.

On the whole, Taviani is generally sympathetic in his interpretation of Columbus. Columbus is a great navigator, a daring adventurer, and issues such as his enslavement of the Indians and his mismanagement of the colony at La Isabella are conveniently consigned to “the times” or politics. On the slavery issue, Taviani says “Columbus lived in his own time, was a man of this own time, thinking like the leaders --and others-- of his time, not like the saints.” (103) On Columbus’ leadership at La Isabella, the author states that “. . .anything he did to defend the Indians and punish the Spanish would be interpreted by the Spanish in Nationalistic terms.” (176)

Yet Taviani needs Columbus to be a forward thinker in order to tie him in with Italian nationalism. “Without the Italian Renaissance there would have been no modern age. Christopher Columbus symbolizes the creative genius of Italy shaping the beginning of the modern age.” (263) Taviani is correct in portraying Columbus as a complex historical figure, operating from many different and sometimes contradictory motivations. However, by claiming Columbus as the first Italian, Taviani weakens the rest of his argument considerably.

PUBLISHER: New York, Orion Books, 1991

The Harp and the Shadow

| 26.12.02
The Harp and the Shadow: A Novel, by Alejo Carpentier

On a thematic level, The Harp and the Shadow is a novel dealing with masks, deceptions, and hidden truths. Specifically, the main action of the story centers around the issue of whether Christopher Columbus should be canonized as a saint. On the one hand, a St. Columbus could be a symbol that ties together disparate parts of the Catholic church in Europe and America. On the other hand, that symbol might be tainted, through accusations of adultery, slavery, and personal greed. As the novel progresses, we are taken past the layer of “the Harp”, the image of pure motives for family, God and country that Columbus attempted to leave behind, and instead descend into the depths of “the Shadow”, or the reality behind Columbus, his voyages, and his motivations behind them. Through the presentation of some substantiated historical material, some “myths” long part of the Columbus legend, and some outright fabrication, Carpentier provides an image of Columbus as an egotistical, self-styled Christo-phoros, or Christ-bearer, who lies, steals, enslaves --all for the vain goal of “pursuing a country never found that fades away like a castle of enchantments. . . [following] vapors, seeing things that never become intelligible, comparable, explicable, in the language of the Odyssey or in the language of Genesis.” (126) Carpentier’s Columbus is a man obsessed with his own personal glory and how history will remember him.

One of the most exaggerated portions of Columbus’ life depicted the novel is his reputed sexual relationship with Queen Isabella. This charge is not substantiated in the documents we have for Columbus, yet it plays a major part in the novel. According to the story, Queen Isabella pawns her jewels to purchase the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María only after she and Columbus make love. (68) Later, after the first voyage, Isabella doesn’t believe that Columbus discovered the Indies, yet finances a second voyage after a night of intense passion. (106) On one level the sexual interaction between Isabella and Columbus symbolizes the way in which Columbus treats the new lands he has discovered --as something to be dominated and conquered in his quest for personal glory. Columbus will say or do anything to further this end and enhance his own position. “I speak of gold mines where I know of none. I speak of pearls, many pearls, merely because I see some mussels that ‘signal their presence.’ I say only one thing that is true; that the dogs here seem not to bark.” (87)

Carpentier, like Sales, has Columbus hoping that he has discovered new lands, as opposed to the Indies. Proof of this is inferred from the cargo on Columbus’ ships --one would not bring trinkets to the orient. (81) Carpentier also maintains that there was no distinction between the tainos and the caribs except that Columbus wished to characterize them differently to serve different purposes. (110) When Columbus wants to emphasize the wealth to be had in slaves, the Indians are depicted as gentle, easily domesticated folk. Later, when Columbus needs to justify harsh treatment towards the Indians, they become bloodthirsty cannibalistic savages.

The Harp and the Shadow concludes with the decision that Columbus is no saint. The move for his canonization has failed. As the decision still rings in the air, the image of Columbus the saint --the image Columbus himself tried to perpetuate according to Carpentier, starts to fade away. The point the author seems to be making is a simple one; if we probe the myth of Columbus, we will penetrate the fiction of Columbus “the harp” and discover for ourselves “the shadow” that is the man behind the myth.

PUBLISHER: San Francisco. Mercury House, Inc., 1990.

The Jefferson Image in the American Mind

| 19.12.02
The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, by Merrill D. Peterson

As the title suggests, Merrill’s work shows, sometimes in excruciating detail, the differing, convoluted, and oftentimes contradictory interpretations people have given Jefferson’s ideas and ideals throughout American history. In a manner very much akin to quoting Scripture to prove a point, early Americans venerated Jefferson and his writings, and quoted them with authority to support their arguments. Over time, Jefferson’s writings were used to support such disparate and contradictory views as states rights, emancipation of the slaves, and Jacksonian democracy.

Merrill sees it as symbolic that Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. This day, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, also marked an “era of good feeling” in which Americans were proud of what the revolution had accomplished, and proud of its founding fathers. Histories written around this time venerated the figures involved with the revolution --including Jefferson. Thus the image of Jefferson was first created as a forward thinker, an example of the Enlightenment, and a proponent of individual liberties and freedoms for all people.

Ironically, however, this image clashed violently with what had actually happened in American politics. The Constitution (first ten amendments excluded) read more like English laws and institutions transplanted than the revolutionary document of the Declaration. Far from being democratic, the executive branch was elected in a process that excluded the landless. The institution of slavery was retained, seemingly contradicting the high ideals of the framers. In addition to this was the question of state’s rights. Many felt that the federal government was usurping more power than it was entitled to, and that individual states should have the power to “nullify” laws set forth by the federal government which interfered with state interests. When the interests of state’s rights, the masses, and abolition clashed, they all drew upon the Jefferson image to bolster their arguments.

Merrill states that Jefferson’s popularity stemmed from his unique political and philosophical outlook. He represented a train of thought that can be traced to the Philosophes of the Enlightenment, yet he retained a respect for the common man characteristic of agrarian, pre-revolutionary America. His ideas were thus very individual and Enlightenment oriented, and very radical compared to those of the other Founding Fathers. Jefferson was subsequently not pleased with the way post-revolutionary America had turned out, and his writings provided ammunition for those who wished to press for change. However, when employed in the political framework that existed, his ideas conflicted with each other.

PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Diary of Samuel Sewall

| 18.12.02
Diary of Samuel Sewall, edited by Harvey Wish

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) was born in England of a well-to-do family of the merchant class. At age nineteen, however, Sewall moved with his family to New England, where they lived on a plantation that Samuel's father had started in 1634. There Samuel attended Harvard from 1667-1671. The strict Harvard regimen, including prohibitions against card playing, profanity, the wearing of long hair and wigs, along with his Calvinistic upbringing, proved to influence him later in life as he served as a Boston magistrate and merchant. Concern over doctrinal orthodoxy and his own personal worth as God's servant are major themes that run through Sewall's Diary, which includes the years 1673-1729 (with a mysterious gap from 1677-1684).

Sewall's Diary is valuable as an historical source because it is a personal, unguarded account of events and issues large on the New England political and social landscape of his time. From his perspective as a merchant and landowner, we see the effect on the people of New England when the crown revokes its charter, and the overall loyalty of the colonials to England despite the revocation. From his perspective as a Puritan magistrate during the Salem witch trials, we see how he was initially caught up in the sense that justice must be dispensed in combating witchcraft --only later realizing "the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men..." (80) From his perspective as a devout Puritan, we see how distressed he was at the disruptive presence of Quakers in the Sabbath meetings, and the constant threat of Anglican Church influence, as evidenced by swearing oaths on the Bible, use of the cross in worship, the observance of Christmas as a holiday, and the battle between Anglicans and Puritans over who could use the town meeting house for church services.

Aside from these, however, perhaps the greatest benefit of the Diary to us is that we are given the opportunity to glimpse the spiritual groaning of a man deeply committed to his Puritan faith, yet constantly unsure of his spiritual worth. For Sewall, everyday events and acts of nature often took on supernatural meanings. After a hailstorm which knocked out the windows in many Boston houses, including his own, Sewall could not help but wonder if God wasn't making His displeasure known to him. In a separate incident, when Sewall's house was broken into, Sewall saw it as divine retribution, for he had been feeling "listless as to Spiritual Good" just a day before. (114) Upon the death of his wife, Hannah, he attributed the cause as divine wrath brought down upon himself. These types of accounts, frequent throughout the Diary, make it very tempting to count Sewall among the "second generation," as outlined in Perry Miller's "Errand Into the Wilderness."

Yet Sewall exhibited some characteristics not shown in even the most progressive Puritans. In "The Selling of Joseph," Sewall's diatribe against slavery, he convincingly refuted many of the Biblical underpinnings of slavery, while still adhering to the literal school of interpretation. Later, in a Diary entry, he wrote, "I essay'd June, 22, to prevent Indians and Negros being Rated with Horses and Hogs; but could not prevail." (152) As the Diary portrays it, Sewall stood virtually alone in these opinions. On a more personal level, we are given entries that show Sewall during tender moments --praying with his children, comforting them with Scripture against their fear of death from the "Small Pocks." Altogether, the Diary of Samuel Sewall portrays a full picture of a Puritan man, his immediate society, and his struggle to relate Divine principles into his everyday life.

PUBLISHER: New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1967.

The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America

| 17.12.02
The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America: 1735-1789, by Brooke Hindle

As the title indicates, Hindle attempts to trace the birth and growth of science in America during the period prior to the Revolution. Specifically, Hindle draws connections between the pursuit of science in Europe of this time period (especially Europe’s interest in the plant and animal life of the New World) and the advent of American scientific exploits in their own right.

Simply stated, Hindle’s story of science in the Americas is thus: Europe had books, libraries, universities, great thinkers, and a tradition of classificatory science. America did not. Yet America did have the previously unknown species of flora and fauna --experimental data, if you will, to fit into the theories of the Europeans. Thus the early story of science in the Americas was one of observers and collectors, taking samples and making sketches to be sent back to Europe, where they would be classified and studied by the experts.

As the period progressed, however, Americans made efforts to establish a scientific community of their own --one that made its own advances and insights, and did not rely on Europe for all its ideas. This scientific community in America was mostly made up of physicians, as they were among the only people with sufficient background or inclination to study natural science. This community languished because of lack of popular support (i.e., merchants and others did not fund scientific undertakings) and lack of intellectual resources.

This malaise changes when Benjamin Franklin enters the scene. Called a “prodigy” by Hindle, Franklin and his electrical experiments represent science that more easily could have been developed in Europe, yet is discovered by Americans first. Coming at a time when electricity is very much a fad, Franklin’s experiments and theories have the twofold effect of popularizing science among the masses, and forcing Europe to recognize at least one American scientist on equal terms.

PUBLISHER: University of North Carolina Press, 1956

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