Monday, February 19, 2018

February 19, 2018: Anti-Favorites: Columbus’s Letter

[On Valentine’s Day, I gave a Fitchburg State University Harrod Lecture on my book in progress: Exclusion & Inclusion: The Battle to Define America. These histories and stories couldn’t be more important to me these days, so I wanted to spend the next couple weeks highlighting some of them. Starting with this year’s version of my annual non-favorites series, focused on exclusionary moments from across American history. Add some of your least favorite histories, stories, or figures for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances!]
On an easily overlooked exclusion in a letter that helped originate far too many of them.
Given that in this January 2017 post I compared Christopher Columbus’s perspective and voice in his famous February 1493 letter from the Americas back to his Spanish ally and backer Luis de Santangel to those of none other than Donald Trump, it’s fair to say that I’ve already made my opinion on Columbus and his letter pretty clear. Moreover, for this past fall’s Columbus Day I had the chance to contribute to Bryan Brown’s really interesting Junior Scholastic magazine article on “Challenging Columbus,” and made the case there that in this letter specifically, and in many of his initial choices and actions overall, Columbus helped the stage for (if he did not indeed directly originate) such horrific atrocities as genocide and slavery. For example, Columbus begins one paragraph in the letter “I understood sufficiently from other Indians, whom I had already taken, that this land was nothing but an island” a clear reflection of his willingness to kidnap and use native peoples for his purposes of exploration and conquest.
So it’s fair to say that Columbus’s letter is exclusionary in some central and sweeping ways. But it’s just as exclusionary in seemingly smaller aspects of its language and perspectives, ones that I would argue also helped originate particular ways of thinking about the Americas and our cultures and identity that have likewise echoed down across the subsequent centuries. I would focus especially on a crucial turn of phrase in the letter’s opening paragraph, where Columbus is describing his voyage and initial encounter with “the Indies” to Santangel. He writes, “And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” In the sentence’s first clause Columbus directly acknowledges the existing native peoples (and indeed just how many of them there are), but in its second clause he literally elides their identity as separate cultures; the fact that it’s not clear whether he means the islands or the people or both with the phrase “of them all I have taken possession” is, to my mind, precisely the point. These innumerable people are just part of the landscape, at most an inoffensive obstacle to be overcome in the taking of that setting for Spain.
That attitude of course made the horrific histories of genocide and slavery that much easier to both perpetrate and justify. But I would argue that it also contributed to less aggressive but also destructive effects such as the development of the Vanishing American narrative. As I have written in posts such as this one, the concept of the Vanishing American was even adopted by reformers who imagined themselves to be “Friends of the Indian,” as a way to mourn the destruction of Native American cultures but see it as both inevitable and (by the 19th century, at least) largely completed and past. Adopting that narrative depended in significant measure on linking Native Americans to a broader American past, seeing them as a part of the continent and hemisphere’s origin points rather than its ongoing and evolving present and future identity. That perspective overtly excludes Native Americans from contemporary definitions of America, and makes it far more difficult to consider their stories and voices, communities and identities, in our own moment. And like so many other destructive attitudes, we see that form of exclusion in Christopher Columbus’s initial response to the Americas and their cultures.
Next anti-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other anti-favorites you’d highlight?

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