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Encounter, The: A Time for Celebration?

by Charles Weeks

              To celebrate or to mourn--is that the question? News about "The Encounter," the forthcoming observance in 1992 of Columbus's first voyage to America, suggests that it is. The Roman Catholic Church in a pastoral letter on the evangelization of the Americas has determined that we should celebrate the event, one that in its judgment began a major expansion of Christianity. (Time 26 November 90) The National Council of Churches of Christ decrees mourning, because what Columbus initiated, in its view, was a long period of Christian complicity with racism and exploitation (Time 26 November 90); and the Congress of American Indians, describing 1492 as the beginning of the "Western Hemisphere holocaust," plans to celebrate 1991 as the quincentenary of the Indians' "last best year" before the European invasion. (Jackson Clarion-Ledger 28 December 90). Thus while the Vatican wants to celebrate 500 years of evangelization, Indian leaders in the Americas repudiate the triumphal tone. (Jan Rocha, Manchester Guardian Weekly 5 May 91)

              One has only to sample what we shall call here the literature of the encounter (those writings in the form of letters, diaries, narratives, polemical essays, histories, and scholarly treatises that describe the coming together In America of three major groups of people--those wrongly called "Indians" by Columbus, Europeans, and Africans—and their interaction with the environment) to see that the issue of celebration or mourning was present from the start. The question was and remains a significant one for both individuals and groups, and, as we approach the quincentenary of Columbus's first voyage we would do well to examine its history in the literature. It is here, rather than in public manifestations of either celebration or protest, that we can confront the substantive historical and moral significance of what Columbus began.

              It is not surprising that the Roman Catholic Church has opted for celebration in 1992. Important sources of that perspective are in the narratives that many Spaniards wrote about what for them, whose culture had been molded to a large extent by a crusade against Moslems in the Iberian peninsula lasting many centuries, were extraordinary accomplishments presenting even more extraordinary opportunities: the exploration and subjugation of much of the American continent. Some of these narratives themselves are remarkable literary achievements and make good reading.

              Two of them describe epochal events in the region of Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico: the Fernando Cortés expedition in Mexico from 1519 to 1521, leading to the downfall of the Aztec empire, and the Hernando de Soto entrada into the Gulf South from 1539 to 1543. In 1552, Francisco López de Gómara published his History of the Indies, followed shortly by its second part, History of the Conquest of Mexico. Gómara's vivid account of the Cortés expedition is available to American readers as Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary. Its position on the significance of Cortés and his expedition is unequivocally positive and adulatory. "The conquest of Mexico and the conversion of the peoples of New Spain," he wrote, "could and should be included among the histories of the world, not only because it was well done but because it was very great..." Why? Because Cortés was a great man, for he "conquered so vast a land, and put an end to so much sacrifice and the eating of human flesh."

              Unlike the expedition of Cortés, that of Hernando de Soto through much of the Gulf South was a disaster, culminating with the death of the leader and a fast retreat back to Mexico by the survivors. Nevertheless, it attracted the attention of one who is generally regarded as America's first great writer, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Born in Peru of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador, the Inca, as he preferred to call himself, went to Spain after the death of his father and there immersed himself in the Bible and other religious books, Greek and Roman classics, and the poetry and prose of the Italian Renaissance. Hearing much about the expedition Florida and, as he puts it In his preface, "convinced that when such heroic actions as these had been performed, it was unworthy and regrettable that they should remain in perpetual oblivion," he set about to write its history. The result was The Florida, completed in 1599 and first published in 1605.

              The Florida makes a better case for the Indian than Gómara's Cortés, but in the end it repeats many of the same views with regard to the basic importance of the enterprise, one that others, the Inca urged, should take up. Proclaiming himself a Peruvian and an Indian, the Inca depicted the Indian as the equal or even the superior of the Spaniard. Yet he concluded by saying that "never has there been gathered together for any other conquest of all those which until today have been made in the New World such a magnificent and dazzling band of people or one so well armed and arrayed, or again such a great number of horses as were assembled for this one." A heroic undertaking for a noble end: spreading "the light of Evangelical doctrine in this land," bettering the moral life and perfecting it "with those arts and sciences which today flourish in Spain."

              Such words were expressed over and over again in the Spanish world, and, in time, the French, the English, the American, with regard to European expansion to America. Not all agreed, however. Early on, Spaniards, mainly those of such religious orders as the Dominicans and Franciscans, began to sound notes of discord, to mourn and to protest the so-called conquest, particularly as it affected the people Spain found living in America. That challenge began dramatically when, in 1511, before a congregation of Spaniards living on the island of Hispaniola, a Dominican, Antonio de Montesinos, preached a sermon attacking Spanish enslavement of the Indians. A fellow Dominican, Bartolomé de Las Casas, found Inspiration in these words and for almost half a century led one of the great debates of world history on human liberty, one which logically required an assault on the whole Idea of conquest and one that Indianists today in Latin America find useful to further their cause. The history of this debate is well told by the American historian Lewis Hanke in his Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America.

              And, it should be noted, the so-called Indians were not quiet. In their stories, their chronicles, and their art they lamented the devastation being inflicted upon them by the European invasion through military and religious conquest and the advent of diseases against which they had no immunity. From early on this material became available to the European world through the efforts of such pioneer ethnographers as Brendan de Sahagún, who made use of native informants and artists , to write the General History of the Things of New Spain. It is perhaps testimony to the success of the conquerors that little of this early material is readily available to readers today in satisfactory form. Unfortunately, Miguel León-Portilla's little book based on indigenous accounts and codex paintings, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, falls short of being an adequate balance to Gómara's and other Spanish versions of the conquest. Included in this anthology are three elegies written by post-Conquest Aztec poets, the first beginning "Our cries of grief rise up/ and our tears rain down,/ for Tlatelolco is lost," and continuing "Weep, my people:/ Know that with these disasters/ we have lost the Mexican nation./ The water is bitter,/ our food Is bitter." More of this material should be made available in carefully edited and good translations for 1992.

              The question was thus posed early and responses provided. The conquerors could, and did, celebrate; and with good justification, the victims and their advocates could and did mourn. The cant of conquest continued, however, as Europe and then the newly-independent United States expanded and modernized. A nineteenth-century American Gómara emerged in the person of Francis Parkman, who, in 1865, began publishing a series of volumes on the theme of the struggle of France and England for control of North America. One needs to read at least some of Parkman to experience his talent as a master

of narrative and to know his view of the encounter as it was entering its last phase in North America.

              Parkman added substantially to the literature of celebration. Indeed, he went further and provided a significant addition to a negative view of the native and his culture that justifies supplanting it. One sentence that follows a discussion of native cultures in The Jesuits in North America says it all: "Ascending the St. Lawrence, it was seldom that the sight of a human form gave relief to the loneliness, until Quebec, [where] the roar of Champlain's cannon from the verge of the cliff announced that the savage prologue of the American drama was drawing to a close, and that the civilization of Europe was advancing on the scene." For Parkman, the "savage," the "primitive," the "untutored" Indian had no place in the new order beginning on the American continent. The notion of the Indian yielding his old barbarian ways to a new civilized order was only the "dream of rhetoricians and sentimentalists." Another New England historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, sustained the Parkman tradition and bias in our century by concluding his two volumes on the European discovery of America with similar words: "To the people of the New World, pagans expecting short and brutish lives, void of hope for a future, had come the Christian vision of a merciful God and a glorious Heaven."

              Words and works such as Parkman's lent the sanction of high literary art to the final assault on the American Indian taking place on the Great Plains. As in the time of Gómara and the Inca Garcilaso, however, there were people like Montesinos and Las Casas to challenge the expansion and conquest taking place at such great cost. While Parkman was writing and rewriting his books, Helen Hunt Jackson published a major indictment of the treatment of the Indian In A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes, and more recently Parkman clearly has met his Las Casas in the person of Francis Jennings, former director of the Center for the Study of the American Indian in the Newberry Library in Chicago. Jennings looks at colonization from the point of view of the Indian, and he does not like what he sees, especially in the form of histories such as those of Parkman and Morison. Jennings, who as a student had read all of Parkman and concluded that something was horribly wrong, has devoted a good bit of his career to attacking such views. His Invasion of America: Indians, Colonists, and the Cant of Conquest should be a starting point for anyone interested in obtaining an Indian perspective on the events of the past several hundred years.

              It is an attempt to get an Indian perspective—indeed, to write history that accords a place to the Indians as human beings with cultures, world views, and histories of their own—that has occupied ethnohistorians for the past half century, as they seek something other than the stereotypes invented by the white man as detailed in Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr.'s The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. For them there is plenty to mourn with regard to the so-called conquest and its consequences; perhaps the fact most deserving of grief is the disregard for historical data by historians such as Parkman and Morison, a neglect often caused by prejudice. Indians and other non-Europeans are often viewed, according to anthropologist Eric Wolf, as "people without history." Ethnohistorians have set out to demonstrate that Indians and others indeed do have a past that can be written about. Good introductions to the opportunities and the challenges of writing Indian history can be had in James Axtell's The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America, and a collection of essays edited by Calvin Martin entitled The American Indian and the Problem of History.

              If Indians suffered "the encounter" begun by Columbus, so too did Africans who were forcibly brought to America as slaves. The devastating effects of European disease on native Americans, a subject discussed by Alfred Crosby in his Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, so reduced their number that Spaniards and other Europeans turned to Africa as a source of people to do the work they found distasteful. The literature on the African slave trade—one of the monumental horror stories of our past—is vast; that about societies and cultures where the slaves originated less so, as African history virtually did not exist as an academic discipline in the United States before the 1960s. Nevertheless, an engrossing book telling the extraordinary story of an African prince who was captured and sold into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi, but gained his freedom and returned to Africa is Terry Alford's Prince Among Slaves.

              In our brief survey of writings about "The Encounter" and its consequences, we have tried to illustrate how the question of celebration or mourning was early raised and has continued as a topic of discussion and debate to our own day. What seems quite clear is that from the perspective of the Indian and the African there is little to celebrate in 1992, and, indeed, as Europeans and those of European descent contemplate what their expansion has wrought in a physical and moral sense, perhaps they should join the ranks of mourners. With regard to the environmental consequences of 1492, two books merit perusal: William Cronon's pioneering Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England and Timothy Silver's A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1800, a work that takes both Cronon and Crosby as models. Certainly, as we read and hear about the forthcoming quincentenary, we also observe the continuing physical destruction of indigenous cultures and their physical environment in places like Brazil. Closer to home, we note the inexorable demise of trees and fields, the end of much of the nature of the American South that so inspired William Bartram in the 1770s and through his Travels the English Romantic poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge— before the builders of highways, "parkways," housing developments, shopping strips and malls, and the acres of asphalt that adjoin them. The best way to celebrate in 1992 might be to pause from our everyday getting and spending, when often we lay waste our world as well as our powers, and reflect on the issues of the ongoing encounter and their importance. 


Alford, Terry. Prince Among Slaves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Axtell, James. The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Garcilaso de La Vega, The Inca. The Florida of the Inca. Trans. and ed. by John Grier and Jeannette Johnson Varner. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1988.

Hanke, Lewis. The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1955.

Jackson, Helen Hunt. A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes. New York: Harper, 1881.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonists, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: Norton, 1976.

León-Portilla, Miguel, ed. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Trans. by Angel Maria Garibay K. and Lysander Kemp. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.

López de Gómara, Francisco. Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary. Trans. and ad. by Lesley Byrd Simpson. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1966.

Martin, Calvin, ed. The American Indian and the Problem of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, A.D. 1492-1616. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Parkman, Francis. France and England In North America, 2 vols. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Silver, Timothy. A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Rain Forests, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Van Doyen, Mark, ed. Travels of William Bartram. New York: Dover Publishers, Inn., 1928.

Wolf, Eric. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1982.


Originally published in Focus on the Humanities (July 1991) by the Mississippi Committee Humanities Council.  MCH is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The original had images which are not reproduced here.