• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Rediscovery of America

1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History

by Robert Royal
Ethics and Public Policy Center, 203 pp., $18.95

European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism

by Anthony Pagden
Yale University Press, 216 pp., $25.00

The Spanish Frontier in North America

by David J. Weber
Yale University Press, 579 pp., $35.00

The Middle Ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650–1815

by Richard White
Cambridge University Press, 544 pp., $19.95 (paper)

The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries

by James Lockhart
Stanford University Press, 650 pp., $60.00


Now that we have bid a last lingering adiós to Columbus and his quincentennial,1 we can look back on a noisy, and sometimes productive, encounter. “Encounter,” indeed, has been the quintessential quincentennial word, displacing the once respectable but now suspect “discovery,” and firmly placing the emphasis, not (as in 1892) on the superiority of Western science, technology, and civilization, but on the global confrontation between European and non-European. In a round-up of work generated by the quincentennial, and included in Beyond 1492, a lively volume of lectures and essays itself generated by the same event, James Axtell lists conferences, books, and exhibitions bearing such titles as Early European Encounters with the Americas, American Encounters, Cannibal Encounters, Rethinking the Encounter, and Maps and the Columbian Encounter. Of the making of encounters there is, it seems, no end.

Encounter,” writes Axtell breezily,

has much to recommend it. Encounters are mutual, reciprocal two-way rather than one-way streets. Encounters are generally capacious: there are encounters of people but also of ideas, institutions, habits, values, plants, animals and microorganisms. Encounters are temporarily and spatially fluid: they can occur at any time in any place, before or after 1492, around the globe. And, while natives, critics and activists may not approve, encounters are morally neutral; the term does not prejudge the nature of the contact or its outcome. In sum, encounter is a spacious description that jettisons normative baggage to make room for disinterestness [sic] and parity. It is a salutary word for our conflicted postmodern commemoration of a conflicted protomodern event.

Over the years, Axtell himself has done valuable work in analyzing the encounter between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of North America.2 The essays printed in Beyond 1492 are very much pièces d’occasion, and, following hard on a previous and weightier volume of essays, After Columbus,3 give some impression of scraping the bottom of the barrel. But for those who want a readable and informed introduction to some of the concerns of contemporary Encounter historians, this is a good place to begin. Behind the sometimes folksy writing is to be found a shrewd and level-headed scholar, one, moreover, who is unusual in his ability to convey to his readers a sense of the deep enjoyment that he derives from a subject sometimes viewed these days as a cause for unrelieved gloom. If there is an underlying message in his volume of essays, it is the importance of historical imagination. Citing, in his opening essay, “History and Imagination,” George Steiner’s characterization of history as “exact imagining,” Axtell properly insists on the need, when studying the meeting of past cultures, to “imagine the imaginations of all the participants, not just an easy or select few.”

It is precisely this lack of historical imagination—the inability to enter sympathetically into the thought processes and instinctive responses of those participants to whom one is not sympathetically drawn—that has vitiated so much of what has recently been said and written about the Columbian Encounter. “If,” writes Axtell, “we can take our itchy fingers off the trigger of moral outrage for a spell, we might be able to view the human phase of what is being called the ‘Columbian Encounter’ less as an excuse for passing judgment than as a vehicle for understanding.” David E. Stannard, in American Holocaust, not only has his finger on the trigger of moral outrage but he pulls it, in the obvious hope of creating a mighty reverberation.

This hope is likely to be disappointed. Moral outrage makes for good manifestoes, but less good history; and, as for manifestoes, anyone in search of a powerful denunciation of European behavior in the New World would do better to go back to source, and read Bartolomé de Las Casas’s A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which has recently been republished in an excellent new translation.4 It is not that Stannard has failed to do his homework. On the contrary, he has read widely, and is well versed in the most recent monographic literature. Nor is it that the story of the European conquest and colonization of America lacks the material of tragedy on a vast scale. The acts of barbarism committed by conquerors and settlers, whether in Iberian or British America, are so horrific as to be mind-numbing, even for a generation that has lived through the experiences of the twentieth century. If it is thought necessary to rehearse these horrors yet again, so be it, although there can by now be few who are unaware that the invasion and settlement of America by the Europeans was far from sweetness and light. But Stannard takes the easy way out by turning his book into a highpitched catalog of European crimes, diminishing in the process the effectiveness of the message he wants to convey.

In particular, his emotive vocabulary seems self-defeating. “Holocaust,” “genocide,” even “racism,” carry with them powerful contemporary freight; and while Stannard goes out of his way to justify their use in relation to European treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, his choice of such words seems to me to impede rather than assist genuine understanding. “Genocide,” as used of the Nazi treatment of the Jews, implies not only mass extermination, but also a clear intention on the part of a higher authority. While it is not difficult to identify specific cases of a determined attempt by European settlers—as in the Pequot war of 1637 in Connecticut—to wipe out villages, or even whole tribes, it debases the word to write, as Stannard writes, of the “genocidal encomienda system,” or to apply it to the extinction of a horrifyingly large proportion of the indigenous population through the spread of European diseases. Those conquerors and settlers who were fortunate enough to have been allotted Indians in encomienda by the Spanish crown wanted them alive, not dead, since their interest lay in the tribute and labor services of a subject population. If conditions among the encomienda Indians weakened their resistance to European epidemics, this was the unintended, and unwanted, consequence of an Indian vulnerability to disease which the Europeans understood as little as the Indians themselves (although some might find a post hoc justification for Indian mortality in the designs of providence).

In an age when, by dint of repetition, such expressions as “ethnic cleansing” all too quickly lose the power to shock, “holocaust” and “genocide” can only suffer further debasement through indiscriminate use. By obscuring essential clues to the understanding of a specific historical context, they obfuscate rather than clarify; and Stannard’s book, for all the historical information he has so conscientiously assembled, does exactly that. Like so many of the contributions to the quincentennial debate, it sets up a one-sided contest between a largely virtuous pre-Columbian America and a Renaissance Europe bereft of redeeming features. The Renaissance, indeed, has all too little to do with the avaricious, corrupt, plague-ridden, and sexually repressed continent from which Columbus is depicted as setting forth on his voyages.

Above all, it would seem, Stannard’s Europe suffers from the original sin of being a Christian civilization. For this reader at least, his book is shot through with a hostility to Christianity which distorts his characterization of the late medieval and early modern European world, and leaves him unable to imagine any but the basest imaginings of the European participants in an encounter which is portrayed as an unmitigated catastrophe. Of Columbus, for instance, he writes that

he was a secular personification of what more than a thousand years of Christian culture had wrought. As such, the fact that he launched a campaign of horrific violence against the natives of Hispaniola is not something that should surprise anyone. Indeed, it would be surprising if he had not inaugurated such carnage.

Such strident comments help us to understand neither Columbus nor medieval Europe.

Stannard describes the disparaging remarks of the Dominican Tomás Ortiz on the dietary and other habits of the Indians as a litany of “Christian hate,” but significantly fails to adduce no doubt equally extravagant assertions by other friars about the angelic character of their Indian charges as examples of “Christian love.” Perhaps this is not surprising, since “Christian,” for him, appears to be a uniquely pejorative word. After citing the pleas of Cotton Mather and a fellow minister to track down the Indians, “those Ravenous howling Wolves,” he continues: “For two hundred years to come Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and other leaders, representing the wishes of virtually the entire white nation, followed these ministers’ genocidal instructions with great care,” and then throws in as a final comment: “It was their Christian duty as well as their destiny.” With such an explanation to hand, what need to look for more?

This kind of approach is duly castigated in Robert Royal’s 1492 and All That, a book that examines and dissects some of the misrepresentations and misunderstandings that have surfaced in the course of the quincentennial debate. Royal’s study is more a commentary on our own times than a disquisition on the conquest and colonization of America, and does not get us very far in its professed aim of “examining what happened when widely divergent cultures—each with its share of humane individuals and cultural riches, as well as ruthless tyrants and cultural monstrosities—met and mingled.” For such an examination, readers would do better to turn to one or another of the monographs reviewed below. What the book does do is to cut through the cant, and expose some of the absurdities and evasions that arise from efforts to view the past through the lens of such contemporary preoccupations as environmentalism and multiculturalism.

Royal’s challenge to the prevailing wisdom, while no doubt evoking fervent admiration in some quarters, will earn him a good deal of obloquy. He certainly gives hostages to fortune, as when he unfashionably proclaims that Western civilization “owes no little debt of gratitude to the first Christian missionaries in the New World,” or asserts of the conquest of Mexico that “whatever evils the Spaniards eventually introduced—and they were many and varied—they at least cracked the ageold shell of a culture admirable in many ways but also pervaded by repugnant atrocities and petrification.” Such terminology might, after all, be applied with equal justification to late medieval Europe. In any event, “petrification” hardly seems the most appropriate word for the dynamic and still evolving Nahua society of preconquest Mexico. But Royal’s book, like Stannard’s, provides more insights into the present than the past, and offers a melancholy chronicle of some of the more egregious follies of our age.

This in itself makes for rather dispiriting reading, but the most dispiriting feature of the whole exercise is that a situation has developed in which such a book should be felt to be necessary. The pronouncements of the city council of Berkeley, or the information purveyed in some grade-school newsletter, are hardly matters of lasting moment. Here, however, they are exposed to the full panoply of judicial review by a judge who leans over backward to establish his impartiality before coming up with the not unanticipated verdict of “guilty of the political manipulation of history”—for example, in relation to the now fashionable representation of pre-Columbian America as an environmentalists’ paradise. The exercise is laudable, but this kind of thing needs to be done with wit and lightness of touch if it is really to hit its target. I must confess to preferring the jaunty good humor of Axtell to Royal’s judicial solemnity.

  1. 1

    See Kenneth Maxwell, “Adiós Columbus,” The New York Review, January 28, 1993.

  2. 2

    Notably in The Invasion Within (Oxford University Press, 1986).

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1988.

  4. 4

    Edited and translated by Nigel Griffin with an introduction by Anthony Pagden (Penguin Books, 1992). The politically correct decision of the translator to render Las Casas’s “Indians” (Spanish indios) by “Amerindians,” “natives,” or “local people” seems to me a mistake, since it takes us one remove further from the world of sixteenth-century Spaniards, who lumped the indigenous peoples of the Americas indiscriminately together under their chosen brand name.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print