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Caliban’s Gift

First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old

edited by Fredi Chiappelli
University of California Press, 2 volumes, 996 pp., $75.00

Columbus: His Enterprise

by Hans Koning
Monthly Review Press, 128 pp., $6.50

One by-product of the bicentennial of 1776 seems to have been a revival of interest in 1492 and the perennially fascinating question of relations between Europe and America. In February 1975 the University of California at Los Angeles organized a conference “devoted to the initial impact of the New World on the Old,…on the repercussions which modified the lives and thought of Europeans in the centuries to come.” It must have been quite an occasion, leading to two large volumes adding up to over 900 pages; and even they do not include all the papers delivered at the conference.

The contents of First Images of America are consequently wide-ranging in subject matter and in quality. Some papers contain mere snippets of information or bibliographical surveys; others make a serious contribution to knowledge. Some lead up to helpful (or less helpful) fresh generalizations; others catalogue the conclusions of others. Crucial to the discussion was the recent argument by Professor J.H. Elliott that the contribution of the New to the Old World in the century after Columbus’s voyage has been exaggerated, and was in reality pretty slight. Professor Elliott defends his view in First Images, and it is supported by some contributors; others criticize it. It is one of those delicious historical arguments in which final and decisive proof on either side is impossible. No one can document precisely the slight shifts in thinking which may have arisen from consciousness of the existence of America; and the shifts, if any, occurred in so many branches of human thought and experience that to add them up in a meaningful sum is impossible. New emphases may occur in old categories. No qualitative technique has so far been devised for measuring human imagination: all that we have is the imagination of the historian—or, in the case of historians with whom we disagree, the prejudices and preconceptions of the historian.

Easiest to demonstrate is that certain sixteenth-century literary works took cognizance of and in some cases were stimulated by the discovery of America. This is the subject of some of the most interesting articles contained in First Images. Professor Arthur Slavin, for instance, takes issue with Professor Elliott, arguing that the discovery of the New World had an “immediate and revolutionary impact” on political thought as well as on practical politics. More’s Utopia took its starting point from Vespucci’s letters describing the New World and in particular the practice of communism there. Professor Aldo Scaglione places Montaigne’s essay Des Cannibales in the same historical setting, and Professor Slavin and others relate Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Shakespeare’s The Tempest to reports of the New World, of which verbal accounts must have been as widespread as the printed word, though they are no longer available to historians and therefore are more difficult to assess. American influences can similarly be found in the writings of Giordano Bruno and Tommaso Campanella; they continue down to John Locke.

That the physical existence of the New World led to changes in the Old is clearly visible in the political rivalries between the great powers, in the sphere of international relations. There are suggestive hints for the continuing debate on connections between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism in Professor Benjamin Keen’s article on Urbain Chauveton, a Huguenot pastor. Professor Keen suggests that the Huguenot call for an anti-Spanish colonial policy in the 1570s and 1580s appealed especially to the Norman and Breton commercial bourgeoisie, interested in the fisheries, furs, and dye-wood of North America, and in capturing Spanish treasure ships. Bordeaux and La Rochelle were centers of Protestantism and resistance to the crown as well as of trade with the Protestant powers and the New World, and of piracy. Huguenot pastors found it easy to persuade themselves that former pirates could be admitted to the Lord’s Table on expressing proper penitence, even if they had unfortunately been unable to make restitution of their ill-gotten wealth. Huguenots also favored a more active colonizing policy, as a means of getting rid of idle and rebellious members of the population.

This was also used as an argument in favor of colonization in England. Professor Woodrow Borah produces interesting figures which suggest that the rate of emigration in England between 1630 and 1700 averaged 7,000 per annum of a population of some seven million: an even higher rate of emigration per head of the population than prevailed in Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England it was generally believed that the country was over-populated. But Professor Borah produces Thomas Starkey who in the 1530s rejected the idea of overpopulation. Fortrey, Petty, Davenant, and others argued similarly in the later seventeenth century. This does not however justify Borah’s conclusion that “clearly opinions were divided.” In the century and more between Starkey and the late Stuart economists there had been a consensus that England was overpopulated. In so far as we can make this sort of judgment, it seems to have been correct to believe that in England before the Revolution of 1640 there was overpopulation in relation to the employment opportunities then available. During this revolution obstacles to the development of capitalism were removed. Henceforth colonial trade and the re-export trade in colonial goods were successfully monopolized by English merchants (backed now by the state); English manufacturers also monopolized the expanding colonial market for consumer goods. During the century after 1660 the cry went up for more hands for English industry.

Over- and underpopulation are concepts which must be related to the economic organization of the country in question. The possibility of absorbing the unemployed was achieved among other things by the English Commonwealth’s war against the Netherlands in 1652-1654, victory in which was necessary to enforce the exclusion of Dutch merchants from trade with the English colonies. This war also undermined Dutch supremacy in the Atlantic trade, and prevented the Dutch from completing their conquest of the Portuguese empire in Brazil. The Anglo-Portuguese alliance of 1654 was the first step by which the aggressive new British Empire took the declining old Portuguese empire under its protection.

There are interesting articles in First Images on the effect of America on the art and languages of Europe, on botanical and medical knowledge. On the whole the yield in the latter is rather small: quinine was added, late, to apothecaries’ remedies. (The ravages of syphilis were the New World’s revenge on the Old for the rapes and seductions of Columbus’s sailors and the conquistadores.) More important were the additions to the Old World’s food supply—the tomato, the pineapple, chocolate, vanilla as relative luxuries; maize and the potato as basic foods whose importance is not yet exhausted. Tobacco was added to the Old World’s poisons. Plundered gold and slavemined silver first rescued Europe’s circulating currency from the doldrums, then helped to precipitate what then appeared a severe inflation, with farreaching social consequences. Some have regarded this inflation, particularly the inflation of profits consequent on the failure of wages to rise as fast as prices, as an important contribution to the development of capitalism. Professor Earl Hamilton, the protagonist of this view, argues that a main economic consequence of American silver was its use to pay for imports from India and the Far East, and so to the development of trade with those parts.

On these questions historians disagree among themselves. What is interesting is that nevertheless common themes emerge from these very disparate contributions. The overwhelming one is the sense of guilt which European and especially North American scholars feel about the whole affair. This is shown most clearly in Hans Koning’s short but powerful book Columbus: His Enterprise, which bears no relation to the UCLA conference. After starting off as a straightforward biography, Mr. Koning’s book undergoes a sea-change as Columbus’s ships approach America. “But knowing what came after this voyage, I now find myself reading the log of those late days at sea with very different eyes. For me they acquire the drama of the murderer coming ever closer to his unsuspecting victims.” From then onward the author consciously and deliberately emphasizes the negative aspects of the conquest, the greed, cruelty, and treachery of the conquistadores, their utter contempt for the rights of the native peoples. As a corrective to the bland assumptions of biographers like the late S.E. Morison, this makes fascinating reading. Mr. Koning does not pretend to be objective, to hold a balance between right and wrong, justice and injustice. He writes unashamedly from a “third world” point of view. His conclusion links Columbus and the conquistadores with American policy in Vietnam to suggest that “what sets the West apart is its persistence, its capacity to stop at nothing. No other race or religion or nonreligion ever quite matched the Christian West in that respect.”

It is interesting to put Mr. Koning’s account of the way in which the Catholic religion was used to justify murder and torture side by side with the extreme naïveté of Father Miguel Battlori, S.J., who told the California conference that “one can scarcely doubt the genuinely religious intent of Alexander VI and of the Spanish rulers” in their approach to the conquest of the New World. Pope Alexander VI was Alexander Borgia! Mr. Koning tells us that he has not found “one grade school or high school book that does not treat Columbus as the great hero he was not.” If this is true, his short tract should be compulsory reading for all brought up on the books of Admiral Morison, which “make Columbus and his men sound like hearty, gallant Chamber of Commerce trade boosters, carrying good sense and jolly Christianity to a new continent.”

For the most part the contributors to First Images of America are not as passionate as Mr. Koning. But few are so insensitive as Father Battlori. The somber themes recur of European destruction of the pre-Columbian civilization and art as well as of Indian lives, liberties, and opportunities for pursuing happiness. Early reactions were not all unappreciative. When in 1520 Dürer saw the looted treasure of Montezuma he “marvelled at the subtle ingenuity of people in strange lands…. All the days of my life I have not seen anything that gladdened my heart as these things did.” Cortes himself, the looter,

was filled with wonder at the beauties of Mexican craftsmanship, and actually attempted to preserve the pre-Conquest temples which the friars were busily destroying. But such behavior was too unconventional for contemporaries, and incurred the comments of hostile witnesses in the 1529 inquiry into Cortes’s conduct. Clearly, Christianity took absolute precedence in any area of potential conflict between the religious and aesthetic.

Spanish Catholic Christianity appears to have been every bit as iconoclastic in practice as Puritanism was to become in later legend. The Spanish conquest of Mexico

resulted in the widespread and systematic destruction of original works of pre-Columbian art…. The “spiritual conquest” that followed effectively cut off the further production of “things pagan,” as their continued manufacture would tend to preserve the native religion and pre-Conquest life-style which the Spanish crown intended to suppress.

And whereas Charles V had displayed Mexican art treasures in Brussels for Dürer and others to see, Philip II, under Counter-Reformation influences, confiscated writings which tried to reproduce and record pre-Conquest art. In Spain “policy would seem to have dictated a conspiracy of silence. Public display of native art would have been public acknowledgment that Spanish religious policy and conversion had failed.”

This attitude was part of a general reappraisal. Professor Elliott stresses the contrast between the generation born before c. 1510, who “seem to display a greater degree of sympathetic understanding for the Indian, and a deeper insight into his predicament, than the hard-faced clerics and officials of the later sixteenth century.” A meeting of the clergy of Mexico in 1532 “emphasizes the spiritual capacity of the Indians”; but “the first Mexican Provincial Council of 1555 depicts them as feeble and inconstant creatures with a natural inclination to vice, and the picture that emerges from the third Mexican Provincial Council of 1585 is almost uniformly dismal.”

The same point is made by Professor Aldo Scaglione, who refers to the “typically Counter-Reformist mood” prevailing in Italy from the mid-sixteenth century, which condemned the natural state and praised “the civilized urban societies” of Europe. Professor Hayden White, whose subject is the Noble Savage, argues that the primary intention of the radicals who later used this myth was to undermine the concept of “nobility” in Europe rather than to gain better treatment for native peoples.

Treatment of and attitudes toward American Indians worsened as the economic advantages of exploiting them became more apparent. The Comunero rebels in Spanish towns in 1520 inserted into their manifesto a demand that Indians should not be treated as infidels and slaves. But, with the honorable exception of a few men like Bartolomé de Las Casas and Bernardino de Sahagan (whose writings Philip II suppressed), the church did little in practice to protect the native peoples. Pope Paul III in 1537 rejected the view that Americans “should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service,…incapable of receiving the Catholic faith,” and there were mass baptisms. But the creation of an Indian priesthood was forbidden in Mexico in 1555. When a few Indian priests were accepted in the seventeenth century, it was to look after the humblest cures in rural parishes. There were two classes among the clergy as in lay society: poor Indians and very rich Spaniards. In the Philippines the story is the same: Filipino clergymen “were rarely permitted to occupy ecclesiastical positions above parish assistants,” and the first Filipino bishop was appointed in 1905, after the American conquest. Those Catholics who advocated greater equality for Indians were radicals like Las Casas and Campanella.

In one of the more interesting papers in First Images Professor Stephen Greenblatt analyzes some of the lines of thought which led to abandonment of the initial idyllic picture of “golden age” Indians. Again and again Europeans stress the nakedness of the Indians. “To a ruling class obsessed with the symbolism of dress, the Indians’ physical appearance was a token of a cultural void. In the eyes of Europeans, the Indians were culturally naked.” Their vagrant habits and their different sexual mores also offended those who came from countries where wandering vagabonds seemed a social threat, and where the essence of civility seemed to be living monogamously in settled households. “Shakespeare even appeals to early seventeenth-century class fears by having Caliban form an alliance with the lower-class Stephano and Trinculo to overthrow the noble Prospero.” As Professor Slavin shows, “Caliban is a powerful symbol of the natural state,” and Gonzalo’s projected commonwealth is a primitivist utopia in which there would be social equality, no subjugation, no private property, no state, no trade. Shakespeare poses primitivism versus barbarism relatively objectively. But we are not meant to admire Caliban, as perhaps More did intend us to admire his Utopians. A century later the philosopher John Locke defended the lawfulness of Negro slavery.

Historians disagree about the origins of the color bar. Some believe that it antedates slavery, and evidence of emotional hostility to colored people can be produced from a very early date, black being traditionally the devil’s color (for whites). But in sixteenth-century England cultural contempt is expressed much more strongly for the Irish whom the English invaders were dispossessing and exploiting. Professor Borah concludes that “racial discrimination based simply on skin color appears to have developed principally in America, to a lesser degree in Asia and Africa. It appeared later in Europe as an import from the regions opened up during the Renaissance and succeeding centuries of exploration.”

This confirms my own casual reading, which does not seem to suggest a color bar before the late seventeenth century anything like as unpleasant as the attitude toward the native Irish shown by gentle poets like Spenser and Sir John Davies. (Hugh Peter in 1646 indeed compared the American Indians to the wild Irish.) There are many friendly poems about black boys and girls, one by Sir John Davies himself, others by Henry King, Cleveland, Collop, Revett. Ben Jonson, Middleton, Massinger, Cokayne deal with differences in skin pigmentation in a neutral, factual way; so does Othello. Pocahontas had been treated as a human being, and Mrs. Behn’s Oroonoko positively idealizes the noble savage. Francis Bacon deplored Spanish ill treatment of the Indians, and in 1655 this was given as one of the justifications for Oliver Cromwell’s declaration of war on Spain.

We may take this last with a grain of salt. But Sir Francis Drake freed captured Negro slaves. In 1603 Sir Christopher Heydon believed that the children of blacks turned white in England. Christian doctrine made it difficult to deny that Indians and Negroes were children of Adam and therefore potentially equal. Joseph Hall in 1630 said: “It is not for us to regard the skin but the soul.” From the 1650s there is evidence for Negroes attending Quaker and Baptist meetings. Roger Williams proclaimed racial equality as a point of principle, and Richard Baxter opposed the slave trade. There had of course always been exceptions. Around 1600 American Indians were described as the children of Satan, and a parson in 1609 assured the Virginia Company that they had a right to confiscate the land of American Indians. The Laudian Peter Heylyn believed that Negroes were racially inferior.

A change came, a historian of anthropology tells us, in England between the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the first quarter of the eighteenth, when traditional Christian doctrines of the equality of man began to be replaced by theories of racial inferiority.* Heylyn’s views become even more unpleasant in the 1660s. It is difficult not to associate this change with England’s expanding share in the slave trade, which followed the conquest of Jamaica from the Spaniards in the war which Cromwell had justified in terms of racial equality! Thereafter, though John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury in the 1690s and Daniel Defoe in 1702 attacked the slave trade, the tone gradually changes.

By the end of the seventeenth century Thomas Rymer could rebuke Shakespeare for not showing enough racial consciousness in Othello. We find slave-owning Quakers from the 1680s, and early in the next century the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel owned slaves in the West Indies and refused to allow them to be instructed in the principles of Christianity lest they should get ideas above their station. There is intense irony in the fact that ultimately the most important legacy of the New World to the Old was not gold or silver, not maize or tomatoes, tobacco or syphilis, not even a sharper scientific curiosity, but the poison and guilt of racism.


Syphilis & Pineapples February 17, 1977

  1. *

    Margaret T. Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), pp. 408, 422-423.

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