European encounters with “new” (to them) peoples and places took many forms and extended over a long period of time. I will focus on the encounters between the first European explorers to “discover” the “New World” and the indigenous peoples they met. I’m going to insist on putting words like “discover” and “new” in quotes to remind us that there were people already living in the places Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and later explorers visited.
Columbus is frequently credited with “discovering” America, but the first places he landed and described were actually islands in the Caribbean. The first place Columbus landed after he left familiar ports was a small island in what is now the Bahamas. He landed on October 12, 1492, and made contact with the inhabitants. The local people called the island Guanahaní, but Columbus renamed it San Salvador (after Jesus Christ).
I will discuss what Columbus wrote about the peoples he encountered in Guanahaní. But I want to start with what modern historians have been able to discover about these people, based on archaeological and other evidence. The people Columbus encountered were the Taino. They were wiped out within a century of their first meeting with Columbus. They survive today only in the attenuated sense that intermarriage (and other sexual relations) between Europeans, Taino and slaves brought from Africa produced people of mixed racial heritage. Thus, there are people today in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) whose ancestors may include Taino people. But as a distinct group they were decimated in the sixteenth century by brutal military campaigns, forced labor, and exposure to new diseases for which they had no natural immunity.
The Taino people had migrated to the Caribbean islands from the South American mainland several hundred years before Columbus arrived. Between about 600 and 1200 CE they developed complex, stratified societies. The Taino were organized in chiefdoms (cacicazgos), each ruled by a chief (cacica or cacique). Chiefs could be either male or female. In some cases, chiefdoms, which might consist of as many as 5000 people, were joined together with other chiefdoms and subordinated under the authority of a higher-level chief. On the eve of Columbus’s arrival, the largest polities in the Caribbean encompassed tens of thousands of people. Below the chiefs were nobles (nitaínos), shamans (behiques) and at the bottom of the social hierarchy, commoners (naborías). Within these categories there were a wide range of specialized political and social roles. The local agriculture was dominated by plants. The staple food was cassava. Sea food was an important source of protein. There were no large domesticated animals (like cattle or sheep). As the presence of shamans as an important social group indicates, the Taino had a highly developed spiritual life. Not surprisingly, their beliefs and rituals had little correspondence with European understandings of religion. These then, in broad strokes, were the people and the culture Columbus and his crew encountered in 1492.
When Columbus landed on the island of Guanahaní, and then made his way to various other islands in the Caribbean, he encountered the Taino. He described these people to his patrons, the King and Queen of Spain, and to other Europeans. But what Columbus “saw” when he observed and interacted with the Taino was strongly shaped by his beliefs about what was “civilized” and “natural.” These ideas were, of course, profoundly Eurocentric. Further, Columbus (and other Europeans) drew on a set of intellectual resources to try to make sense of the people they encountered in the Caribbean. I will highlight three important intellectual resources, the first two drawn from the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the third drawn from medieval writing.
The first of these intellectual resources was the depictions of monstrous races in Pliny. The ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 CE) composed a giant work called Natural History (Naturalis Historia). This book contained descriptions of all aspects of the natural world – the heavens, the earth, and the human inhabitants of the earth. Pliny’s work is an encyclopedia – arguably the first such book. He does not present original ideas or research in this book (although he does include his own observations in places). Rather, the Natural History is a compendium of everything known about the natural world. Pliny claimed to have read over 2000 books in order to write the Natural History. Although the language of learning in the Roman Empire of Pliny’s day was Greek (recall that Ptolemy and Galen wrote in Greek), Pliny wrote the Natural History in Latin. This made the book accessible to a much wider audience, since Latin was the vernacular language of ancient Rome. It also meant that the text continued to be very important in the European Middle Ages. Before the translations of other ancient philosophers (like Aristotle, Ptolemy and Galen) from Arabic into Latin, Pliny was one of the main sources Europeans had for Greek ideas about the natural world. The Natural History was one of the first books to be printed in fifteenth-century Europe. It was translated into various European languages. And stories from Pliny’s Natural History appeared in a range of books all over Europe in the medieval and early modern period.
In the Natural History, Pliny provides a non-technical, non-mathematical account of the geocentric cosmos. He also describes plants, animals, minerals, geological formations, and a variety of technologies. Most important for our purposes here, he described the strange races of people who inhabited distant lands. Here are some of the bizarre types of peoples in the Natural History:
The Sciapodae had just one leg and foot, but that foot was so large they could use it as a sunshade. The Blemmyes had no head and their faces were on their chests. The Cynocephali had bodies like other humans, but heads like dogs. The Gegenees were giant and had six arms. The Hippopodes had hooves like horses instead of feet. The Panotioi had giant ears, so big they could wrap themselves in their ears to protect themselves from the cold. The Machlyes were a race of hermaphrodites – everyone was half male and half female. Among the Gorgodadea, all the women were covered in fur. The Anthropophagi were among the most fearsome of the races of humans because they were cannibals.
The second important set of stories about a fabulous race of people was even older than Pliny’s Natural History. This was the story of the Amazons, a tribe of women warriors. It first appears in the poet Homer (ca. 8th century BCE), and is discussed by the historians Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BCE) and Plutarch (45-120 CE). The Amazons lived entirely without men and were highly skilled with weapons and fierce fighters. These women met once a year with a nearby tribe of men. Of the resulting babies, all the males were sent to live with their fathers, while the girls were raised with their mothers and trained to be warriors.
Finally, the third intellectual resource Columbus and other explorers drew on was medieval stories about wild men. Wild men and women were said to live in the forests of Europe. They were the antithesis of civilized society. They were naked. Often they were covered all over with hair that protected them from the elements in lieu of clothes. Wild women were very ugly – hairy all over with large pendulous breasts. Wild men were aggressive and violent, with great physical strength. Wild people generally could not speak, and they lacked agricultural technology – they were hunters rather than farmers. Finally, they were believed to be sexually voracious. By the early modern period, some stories of wild people made them out to be simple and innocent, rather than violent and promiscuous. In these stories, wild people were used to critique the perceived corruption of modern society. Their rustic existence was compared to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Did all Europeans believe all these stories about dog-headed men and cannibals and Amazons and wild men? Probably not. Pliny was regarded as a good storyteller and the Natural History was what we would today call “edutainment.” Many people, even Pliny’s contemporaries, criticized him for being too gullible and for putting everything he read in his book without any critical reflection. I believe these stories of monstrous or bizarre races out beyond the edges of the known or the civilized world were similar to stories about aliens today. Of course, there are some people who believe that there is extraterrestrial life and some who even claim to have seen aliens. But even people who don’t believe that aliens exist or are at best agnostic on the subject “know” what an alien looks like. It’s either a humanoid creature with greenish grayish skin and very large eyes, or an enormous insect-like creature. If it’s humanoid, there’s a chance it’s peaceful (but you should still approach it with extreme caution). If it looks like a giant insect, it’s going to kill you, or impregnate you with its young and then kill you. Similarly, when Europeans ventured out of the world they knew, they had a set of ideas about what strange people might look and act like. And they knew it would be worse to meet an Anthropophagus or an Amazon than a Sciapoda or a Blemmyes.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus sent a letter back to the King and Queen of Spain detailing his experiences on the various islands he visited and trying to convince his patrons that these islands were ripe for Spanish exploitation. You can find an English translation of this letter here. His descriptions of the landscape and people were clearly shaped by his European understanding of the meanings of “nature,” “culture” and religion.” They were also shaped by his knowledge of European categories of strange and different people at the margins of civilized society. Columbus begins: “I found very many islands peopled with inhabitants beyond number. And, of them all, I have taken possession for their Highnesses, with proclamation and the royal standard displayed; and I was not gainsaid.” One of the first islands he reached was known to its inhabitants as Guanahani. Columbus renamed it San Salvador. He gave all the islands he visited Spanish, Christian names and claimed them for the Spanish crown. He described the Caribbean islands in glowing terms as having abundant natural resources:
There are wonderful pine-groves, and very large plains of verdure, and there is honey, and many kinds of birds, and many various fruits. In the earth there are many mines of metals; and there is a population of incalculable number. Española [or Hispaniola, the island that now contains the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic] is a marvel; the mountains and hills, and plains, and fields, and the soil, so beautiful and rich for planting and sowing, for breeding cattle of all sorts, for building of towns and villages. There could be no believing, without seeing, such harbors as are here, as well as the many and great rivers, and excellent waters, most of which contain gold.
Note that one of the natural resources of the region was its “population of incalculable number.” At the end of the letter, Columbus offers to send the Spanish crown gold, spices, cotton, aloe wood (a valuable medicine), “and slaves as many as they shall order to be shipped.” Indeed, one of Columbus’s first actions when he reached these islands was to capture and enslave some of the first inhabitants he encountered. He writes:
And as soon as I arrived in the Indies, in the first island that I found, I took some of them by force, to the intent that they should learn [our speech] and give me information of what there was in those parts. And so it was, that very soon they understood [us] and we them, what by speech or what by signs; and those [Indians] have been of much service.
He clearly saw the people he encountered as inferior to Europeans. First, he noted that they were all “naked,” or very lightly clothed. Nakedness was strongly associated with a lack of civilization and culture. Like the “wild people” allegedly running around the forests of Europe, the inhabitants of the Caribbean were naked and thus clearly uncivilized. Second, “They have no iron or steel, nor any weapons; nor are they fit thereunto; not because they be not a well-formed people and of fair stature, but that they are most wondrously timorous.” The “cowardice” of the men is something Columbus comments on repeatedly. While resistance to the Europeans was described as “savagery,” cooperation was taken as a sign of deficient masculinity, and a lack of a sense of honor. Third, they had no proper religion. Not only were they not Christian, but they appeared to him to worship the sky. However, he did tell the Spanish monarchs that he believed the people were “well disposed” to convert to Christianity. (His second expedition included priests who were brought to convert the natives.) Although Columbus acknowledged some positive qualities in the people he encountered (he praised their generosity and called them “men of very subtle wit, who navigate all those seas”), he judged them by European standards of civility and character and culture and found them wanting. Also, we might question how much he actually observed and understood of local customs and social structure if his only “translators” were recently enslaved natives.
Columbus informed King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he had not found any of the monstrous races described by Pliny and others, with two exceptions. Columbus claimed to have found Anthropophagi – or cannibals – and women very like the Amazons.
Thus I have not found, nor had any information of monsters, except of an island which is . . . inhabited by a people whom, in all the islands, they regard as very ferocious, who eat human flesh. These have many canoes with which they run through all the islands of India, and plunder and take as much as they can. . . . Amongst those other tribes who are excessively cowardly, these are ferocious; but I hold them as nothing more than the others. These are they who have to do with the women of Matinino – which is the first island that is encountered in the passage from Spain to the Indies – in which there are no men. Those women practice no female usages, but have bows and arrows of reed such as above mentioned; and they arm and cover themselves with plates of copper of which they have much.
Columbus’ letter was printed almost immediately, and went through numerous editions. It was also translated into most European languages. Images of the peoples of the “new world” as cannibals spread all over Europe. Indeed, this became a standard way of depicting them. The European belief that the Taino were cannibals has no basis in archaeological or other evidence. It served the purpose of justifying the slaughter and enslavement of the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean (and later other parts of the “new world”). For more on this issue, see here.
A few years after Columbus, the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), also in the employ of the Spanish crown, sailed across the Atlantic to the “new world.” Vespucci’s descriptions of his voyages became even more popular than Columbus’s. For a partial English translation of his letter describing his first voyage, see here. Vespucci describes the Taino and other peoples of north and south America as cannibals. He claims all the natives ate their enemies, and considered it strange that Europeans did not do likewise. Further, he added a number of sensational stories about Taino cannibalism that were widely disseminated in Europe. One of these stories was that a young man from his ship had gone ashore to talk with some of the locals. Three attractive women surrounded him and chatted him up. While they had him distracted, another woman came up behind him and clubbed him to death. Then the men came out and cut him to pieces and the whole group ate him, while his horrified comrades looked on from their ship.
In addition to bolstering claims that the inhabitants of the “new world” were cannibals, Vespucci asserted that they were sexually licentious, and gave numerous salacious examples of native sexual practices. He claimed that, “the men have as wives those who please them, be they mothers, sisters, or friends, therein they make no distinction.” The women were very beautiful – he comments explicitly that their breasts are NOT sagging, as one would expect of “wild women.” The women were if anything more sexually voracious than the men. He reports that some of them put poisonous insects on the penises of their men to make the organs larger for their own sexual pleasure. You can see why Vespucci’s writing was popular all over Europe and reprinted time and time again. He had it all – sex, violence and exotic locales! The beauty, lustfulness and sexual availability of native women became a repeated trope in travelers’ reports. America herself was personified as a naked woman opening herself to European penetration. (If this seems like a remnant of a distant past, consider that in modern America the rates of rape and sexual assault among Native American women are twice the national average.)
Susi Colin, “The Wild Man and the Indian in Early 16th Century Book Illustration” in Christian F. Feest (ed.), Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays (Aachen: Rader, 1987), 5-36.
B.W. Higman, A Concise History of the Caribbean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Peter Mason, “Reading New World Bodies,” in Florike Egmond and Robert Zwijnenberg (eds.), Bodily Extremities: Preoccupations with the Human Body in Early Modern European Culture (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 148-167.