Beasts or Brothers?

J.H. Elliott

  • The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus by David Abulafia
    Yale, 379 pp, £25.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12582 5
  • Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil edited and translated by Neil Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier
    Duke, 206 pp, £12.99, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 8223 4231 1

David Abulafia ends his engaging survey of the first encounters between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the New World with the words of the prophet Malachi: ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?’ This question, with its corollary, ‘Why do we deal treacherously, every man against his brother, profaning the covenant of our forefathers?’ looms large in his book, just as it did in the minds of more thoughtful 16th-century Europeans as they became aware that the world was more diverse and more crowded than their forefathers could ever have imagined.

Medieval Europeans had, of course, known that they shared the world with peoples of other races and religions. Some of these groups, notably Jews and Muslims, either lived among them or were close at hand, and the proper response of Christians to their presence was a subject of continuous debate. Others as far away as China had been visited in their own countries by merchants or missionaries who reported, with more or less accuracy, on what they had seen in the course of their travels. Still others were known through the writers of classical antiquity, above all Herodotus and Pliny, whose mixture of fact and fiction had peopled the world indiscriminately with real races and tribes, like the Scythians, and monstrous peoples, always just over the horizon, like the headless Blemmyae and the dog-headed Cynocephali.

It was, however, the increasingly bold incursions of European mariners and merchants into the Atlantic from the mid-14th century onwards that dramatically widened the horizons of Christendom and confronted it with societies and peoples of which it had previously known nothing or, at best, was only dimly aware. European voyages along the west coast of Africa are known to have taken place from the 1340s, and it was in the same period that expeditions sent out from Portugal rediscovered the Canary archipelago (known to classical antiquity as the Fortunate Isles) and encountered the uninhabited islands of Madeira and the Azores. The 15th century would see a great escalation of this maritime activity. Portuguese mariners probed further and further down the African coast, passing in 1434 the terrifying barrier of Cape Bojador, and preparing the way for the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 and Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the Indian Ocean ten years later. The first steps towards Atlantic colonisation were taken by the Portuguese in the 1420s and 1430s, with the occupation and settlement of Madeira and the Azores. The Canary Islands were extensively inhabited, but this did not prevent Castile and Portugal competing for their possession, nor their gradual conquest and colonisation by Castilians over the course of the century. Columbus was well acquainted with the Canaries and, drawing on his knowledge of the winds and currents of the eastern Atlantic, chose the archipelago as the starting point for his Atlantic crossing in 1492.

His landfall in the Bahamas on 12 October marked the first known contact between Europeans and indigenous inhabitants of America since the time of the Vikings. The story has often been told. ‘Soon they saw naked people,’ as the journal of the first voyage recorded. Columbus and his two fellow captains went ashore with royal banners and, in total ignorance of where they might be or on whose territory they had stumbled, took possession of the island in the names of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. It was the beginning of the drama – and tragedy – of encounter, intrusion, conquest and settlement that culminated in the 1520s and 1530s in the Spanish overthrow of the empires of the Aztecs and the Incas.

Many accounts have been written of the process by which Spain acquired its ‘empire of the Indies’, the most recent in English being Hugh Thomas’s vivid and comprehensive Rivers of Gold (2003), which ends the story as Hernán Cortés prepares to embark on his epic conquest of Mexico. The purpose of Abulafia’s book, which ends at around the same moment, is very different. His concern is with the nature of the initial encounters between Spaniards and other Europeans, and the indigenous peoples with whom they came into contact as they ranged into the Atlantic and found what for them was the New World of America.

For the first European explorers, those encounters raised enormous questions about the nature of the New World’s inhabitants: what sort of people were they; and indeed, were they people at all, or did they belong to those monstrous races described by Herodotus and Pliny, whose existence, apparently validated by the traveller’s tales of John Mandeville, haunted the medieval imagination, including that of Columbus? If they were in fact rational human beings, in the full sense of these words, why had they never heard of the Christian gospel, which, it was assumed, had been preached to the ends of the earth? Why did some of them walk around naked, and apparently without shame? Did they share in the innocence of Adam before the Fall, or did the absence of shame mean that they were nearer to beasts than to humans? What criteria were available for assessing the degree of their rationality, if indeed their natures were more rational than bestial? What right did Europeans have to settle in, and occupy, their lands, and how should they be treated and brought to knowledge of the true faith?

The answers to these questions would go a long way towards determining not only the fate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but also Europe’s conception of its place in a world that was at once rapidly expanding and shrinking. By the second half of the 16th century, as a result of the conquest and colonisation of large areas of the American hemisphere, and the growth of contacts with the peoples of Asia and Africa, Europeans were becoming aware both of the relative smallness of the now circumnavigated world, and of the infinite variety of the peoples who inhabited it. In the words of Jean Bodin: ‘all men surprisingly work together in a world state, as if in one and the same city-state.’ The first stages of this startling realisation came with those Atlantic encounters that Abulafia has set out to capture.

The undertaking can hardly be described as a new one. Over the last half-century a vast literature has been produced on European contacts with, and reactions to the non-European peoples of the world, and especially on the questions provoked by Columbus’s landfall in America. There has been an enormous amount of discussion about the impact of the overseas discoveries on the European consciousness – the interplay between the power of tradition and the shock of the new – and also about the evolving attitudes towards the hitherto unknown peoples of America, as Europeans, and Spaniards in particular, tried to establish criteria for assessing their rational capacity and to find arguments that would justify their domination and exploitation. Columbus’s real and imaginary worlds, and his reactions to the indigenous peoples he encountered, have been endlessly examined. The writings of explorers like Vespucci, conquistadors like Cortés and Cabeza de Vaca, and friars and missionaries like Bartolomé de las Casas, the ‘apostle of the Indians’, have been extensively analysed, interpreted and sometimes overinterpreted, especially by those anxious to document and excoriate the ‘colonialist’ mentality of the Western world.

Although he has assimilated this vast secondary literature, Abulafia wants to get behind it and recover something of the immediacy and sense of wonder in those first New World encounters. His method is, wherever possible, to go back to the original texts; and his endnotes, which are tiresome to consult, refer overwhelmingly to these primary sources. This gives the book a freshness it might otherwise seem to lack, insofar as its contents will be largely familiar to those who know the literature and have followed the debates. He shows little interest in engaging in those debates, however, preferring to evoke the sights that met the eyes of the first Atlantic voyagers, and to explore the ways in which they sought to understand and interpret the physical appearance, behaviour and customs of peoples who seemed so different from themselves.

Coming to terms with difference is Abulafia’s essential theme, and it gives his book a unity and coherence so often missing in such accounts. He tells his story well, and readers will find themselves carried smoothly over the waters of the Atlantic in the wake of the early European voyagers and settlers, who all too often experienced rough crossings or perished in storms. They will also, more surprisingly, find themselves staying longer at the victualling point of the Canary Islands than they might have anticipated, but it will soon become clear that their time has not been wasted.

Although unusual, the amount of space Abulafia devotes to the Canaries and their inhabitants is fully justified. It has long been appreciated that the islands served as a laboratory for the later conquest and settlement of the Americas, but Abulafia shows in vivid detail why and how the first contacts of Europeans with the Canaries’ original inhabitants proved crucial for all that followed. This, as he makes clear, was the first encounter of late medieval Europeans with a ‘Stone Age’ culture. The inhabitants of the seven populated islands were Berber speakers, but they were isolated not only from north-west Africa, where their ancestors originated, but from each other. Early Spanish accounts, together with the archaeological evidence that Abulafia brings into play, indicate that the islanders lacked a common culture, and that the most sophisticated were to be found on Grand Canary. What were Europeans to make of these people who spoke incomprehensible languages, went around in what to Europeans were various states of undress, knew nothing of metalworking and practised bizarre pagan rites?

Part of the fascination in reading about Europe’s encounter with this Neolithic people lies in the fact that it attracted the attention of two great precursors of the Renaissance, Boccaccio and Petrarch, who interpreted contemporary reports of the character and customs of the Canary islanders in very different ways. To Boccaccio these primitive beings inhabited an idealised classical landscape, where they lived innocent lives uncorrupted by the vices that wealth and luxury brought in their train. For Petrarch, on the other hand, the islanders lived in solitude, ‘without refinement in their habits and so little unlike brute beasts that their action is more the outcome of natural instinct than of rational choice’. These contrasting images were, as Abulafia shows, to be constant and competing companions throughout the early stages of Europe’s discovery of the peoples of the Atlantic world.

The uncertainty and ambiguity were understandable. The first European observers and commentators could make sense of the unfamiliar only by drawing on the familiar. This meant that they instinctively resorted to a motley stock of inherited images, which included the biblical image of prelapsarian man, the classical image of a long lost Golden Age, and the ‘wild men’ who roamed the forests of contemporary Europe. They were aware of the advanced civilisation of China, which Columbus expected to reach very soon, and drew a firm distinction between themselves and those who had ignored or rejected the Christian gospel. But as they moved into the Caribbean and on to the American mainland, they were puzzled and disturbed by the presence of peoples who seemed to have no knowledge of a higher being and who indulged in such bestial practices as cannibalism and incest.

A growing acquaintance with the Canary islanders, who were not entirely subdued by the Spaniards until the close of the 15th century, added a new, and in some respects more realistic, stock of images. Although he imagined, on crossing the Atlantic, that he had reached the fringes of Asia, Columbus was at once put in mind of the Canarians when he encountered his first islanders in the Bahamas: ‘None of them are dark, but rather the colour of Canary islanders, nor should one expect anything else, since this island is in the same latitude as the island of El Hierro in the Canary Islands.’ But the conquest of the Canary Islands also raised the question of the inhabitants’ rationality: something that would resurface when the Spaniards found themselves among the Taínos of Hispaniola, Cuba and Jamaica.

This was to be the subject of passionate debate for the next half-century, among Spanish friars and settlers, and in Spanish universities. Abulafia largely steers clear of it, no doubt judging that it has been endlessly rehearsed and examined. But though his principal concern is with first reactions rather than subsequent discussion, the division is hard to maintain. Some of the friars who became evangelists in America developed into perceptive ethnographers as they sought to understand the rites and customs they were so anxious to eradicate. Their writings in turn helped diffuse attitudes and ideas that themselves began to influence perceptions. Abulafia thus finds himself moving forward to the very end of the 16th century, a hundred years after the completion of the conquest of the Canaries, because crucial evidence about the character and customs of the Guanches of Tenerife is provided by Fray Alonso de Espinosa, a Dominican who formed part of a circle of men of letters in Las Palmas. But Espinosa was a latecomer to the Canaries, and his background was not European but American: he was brought up as a child of Spanish parents in Guatemala, and took to the Canaries a vision of the islanders that was mediated by his experience of the Indies. Above all, he was imbued with the pro-Indian attitudes of his fellow Dominican Las Casas, and shared his determination to prove the rationality of the indigenous peoples and their capacity to assimilate Christian doctrine.

Where Columbus viewed the Taínos through the mirror of the Canaries, Espinosa viewed the Canary islanders through the mirror of the Aztecs and the Maya. He also had his own agenda. How far, then, can he be relied on to give us an unbiased interpretation of Guanche rites and beliefs? This is the kind of problem that faces any historian of early European encounters with the non-European world, and Abulafia is well aware of the dangers. Reflected images can rapidly turn into refracted ones, and first reactions are all too easily overlaid with second thoughts. The innocent eye is never as innocent as we’d like to believe.

Abulafia weaves his way deftly through such problems, as he moves from a pre-programmed Columbus to a mendacious Vespucci and on to the first Europeans to encounter the Tupí Indians of Brazil. Again, he is more concerned with first impressions than with later interpretations, and has little to say about the well-known accounts of the Catholic missionary André Thevet and his Protestant opposite number, Jean de Léry. But Brazil, as he makes clear, is crucial to the development of Europe’s image of America because it raised in an acute form the fraught question of cannibalism. Eight years before Cabral landed on the coast of Brazil, Columbus picked up from the Taínos reports of their terrifying neighbours, the flesh-eating Caribs. On hearing the word cariba or caniba, he naturally associated it with the Latin canis and the dog-headed people of mythology, although he soon found it more convenient for his own mental geography to associate it with the Great Khan and the marvels of Cathay. But this first encounter gave Europe a new word in cannibal, and with it an image that would haunt the European imagination for centuries to come.

Attempts have been made to exonerate the indigenous peoples from charges of cannibal practices, and to present these as the invention of Europeans eager to find arguments to justify colonial rule. Abulafia has little patience for these claims, and it is indeed hard to dismiss all the reports as figments of an overheated or malign European imagination. One such eyewitness report was provided by Hans Staden, to whom Abulafia devotes a single paragraph. A German soldier serving with the Portuguese, Staden spent nine months in captivity among the Tupinambá of Brazil in 1552, and was not only, according to his account, several times in imminent danger of being roasted and eaten, but saw a number of his companions subjected to this unappetising fate.

Staden’s True History, which last appeared in English in 1929, has now been retranslated. Staden, too, had an agenda: as a good Lutheran, he was eager to emphasise the redemptive power of his God and Saviour. At the same time, those who read his narrative – which, even ‘revised’ by a German academic, retains an engaging naivety – are likely to come away with the impression that they are being given the first-hand view of an observer-cum-potential victim, who may not have understood all he saw, but who tried to describe it as he saw and experienced it. The result, as Neil Whitehead points out in his sometimes opaque introduction, is a unique document among European accounts of life among the indigenous peoples of the New World in the early stage of contact.

This account proved to be immensely influential in shaping the European vision of America, not only because of the gripping story it told, but also because, when it was published in Marburg in 1557, it was accompanied by 56 crude woodcut illustrations, all reproduced in this new edition. As Whitehead comments, these illustrations, which move in unison with the narrative, add enormously to the effectiveness of the text. But it was the reworking of 28 of them in copperplate engravings by Theodor de Bry that implanted the image of the Brazilian cannibal indelibly in the European consciousness, even though it deprived the illustrations of part of their context and immediacy.

Visual images did much to introduce 16th-century Europeans to the strange peoples of America, but – as with Staden’s True History – they were inspired by the first-hand accounts of voyagers, conquerors and clerics who were struggling to make sense of a world that, just a few decades earlier, was not even known to exist. Those overseas voyagers carried with them, as Abulafia’s lively story makes clear, a vast quantity of assorted mental baggage. Some of this was jettisoned in the light of personal experience; some of it was retained, while further pieces were added. But those first personal encounters, whether with the Guanches of Tenerife, the Taínos of the Caribbean or the Tupinambá of Brazil, were decisive. If they often generated stereotypes that would display a remarkable staying power, they also encouraged a number of Europeans to embark on the hard process of rethinking the world in which they lived. This, as they began to appreciate, was a single interconnected world, made up of peoples infinitely diverse in colour, creed and customs. Yet, amid the diversity, there was a central unity, never better expressed than in the words of Las Casas: ‘All the nations of the world are men, and there is only one definition of all and each of them, which is that they are rational.’