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9-08-2015, 15:53

Europe in the world, 1450–1600

On the return voyage from his trip to what he thought were islands off the coast of Asia, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to Lord Luis de Santángel, the secretary of the Aragonese royal treasury and one of his key supporters. A storm drove his ship into Lisbon in early March 1493, and Columbus sent the letter by land from there to Barcelona, where Isabella and Ferdinand were holding court, so that it would arrive before he got there. I have decided upon writing this letter to acquaint you with all the events which have occurred in my voyage, and the discoveries which have resulted from it. Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz [on October 12, 1492], I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled. Of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarchs, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners. To the fi rst of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of the blessed Savior [San Salvador], relying upon whose protection I had reached this as well as the other islands. Describing the physical features of the land, Columbus wrote, “All these islands are very beautiful, and distinguished by a diversity of scenery; they are fi lled with a great variety of trees of immense height … There are very extensive fi elds and meadows, a variety of birds, different kinds of honey, and many sorts of metals, but no iron.” Turning to the people, he commented: They are naturally timid and fearful. As soon as they see they are safe, however, they are very simple and honest, and exceedingly liberal with all they have … the women seem to work more than the men. I could not clearly understand whether the people possess any private property … I did not fi nd, as some of us had expected, any cannibals among them, but on the contrary men of great deference and kindness. 1 Columbus’s letter was immediately passed on to a printer in Barcelona, who published it in Spanish, the language in which he wrote it. By the time Columbus reached the Spanish court, a copy of the letter had already been sent to Rome, where it was translated into Latin and published in several editions. By the end of 1493, Latin editions had also been published in Basel, Paris, and Antwerp, some decorated with woodcut images of ships and voyages copied from earlier books such as the illustration opening this chapter, but with captions labeling them as Columbus landing in the “Indian Sea.” The fi rst Latin translation was subsequently translated into a rhymed Italian version, printed in Rome and Florence with a title-page woodcut of King Ferdinand looking out over Columbus landing on an island. (The printers’ introductions in many editions, and the visual images that accompany the texts, omit any mention of Isabella.) By the end of the year, educated people all over Europe had access to Columbus’s letter, and it formed the basis of their fi rst impression of what would soon be understood as a “New World.” Columbus may have sailed off into waters that were unknown to European sailors, but he carried with him fi rm ideas of what he would fi nd, as his letter indicates. He expected cannibals, but found none, though he reported that people told him there were cannibals on a nearby island. He expected to fi nd Amazon-like women, and found none, but again heard that on another island there were women who “dwell alone … and employ themselves in no labor suitable to their sex, but use bows and javelins.” He expected to fi nd gold, and found a little, though was told there was another larger island nearby “which abounds in gold more than any of the rest.” He expected to be well received, and reported that at each new island the native men he had captured and brought on his ships cried out “with a loud voice to the other Indians, ‘Come, come and look upon beings of a celestial race.”’ Whether this is indeed what the men were saying we will never know. Columbus had captured native men “in order that they might learn our language and communicate to us,” but does not report that he or his men learned the local language. Columbus’s actual encounters thus did little to alter his preconceptions; if something he expected was missing, it must be on the next island. Examining the ways in which Columbus’s cultural assumptions shaped both his own and other Europeans’ responses to the New World, the Mexican historian and philosopher Edmundo O’Gorman coined the phrase the “invention of America.” The America that took shape in Europeans’ minds – and which in turn infl uenced their subsequent relations with indigenous peoples – was a blend of expectations and actual encounters. Those expectations were based on notions of cultural difference that were the product of centuries of trade, warfare, missionary activity, and other encounters across much of the “Old World.” In those encounters, people confronted others of different ethnicity, race, language, and religion, and they had to develop ways of understanding these differences. Some scholars describe this process as “creating the Other,” “defi ning the Other,” “constructing the Other,” or sometimes even “Othering.” In creating “the Other,” groups also came to defi ne themselves. The encounter between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the New World was thus a continuation of a long-established process, but also something radically new and shocking, for these were people and lands unknown to the ancient Greeks, the source of the greatest wisdom in Renaissance Europe. “Constructing the Other” was a many-sided process, but in many parts of the world European responses to non-Europeans left far more sources, both written and visual, than the opposite. As we have seen with Columbus’s letter, those sources can sometimes tell us as much about the Europeans who wrote them as about the non-Europeans they were encountering. Some scholars would argue, in fact, that such sources are so shaped by preconceptions that they can reveal little or nothing about the people described, so that the only possible focus of scholarly study is the text itself. Others fi nd this approach limiting and unsatisfying, and consider European observations, imperfect and biased as they are, as nonetheless valuable for analyzing other cultures. They, too, stress, however, that we must be extremely careful and not simply take the available sources at face value. In the fi fteenth century, the world began to become interconnected in a way it had not been before. The pattern of that interconnection was directly shaped by existing lines of contact, however, so that to view Columbus and the impact of his voyages in context, we must fi rst understand his competition.

METHODS AND ANALYSIS 6 Post- colonial, transnational, and Atlantic history

European relations with the rest of the world used to be studied separately from Europe itself, as what was termed “overseas history” or “colonial history” that was affected by, but did not infl uence, developments in Europe. Studies of individual colonies and of Europe by itself have certainly continued, but it has become increasingly clear that the histories of Europe and its colonies – colonies and “metropole” are the common terms – are completely intertwined. Relations between Europeans and non-Europeans were not simply discoveries or conquests (though they were both of these), but cross-cultural encounters involving exchanges of people, material goods, and ideas, and they began in classical or even prehistoric times. This recognition of global interconnections has come in an era when most former European colonies have become independent states, so this more integrative approach is often termed “post-colonial.” The Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci has been especially important in post-colonial studies, particularly in his notions of “hegemony” and “subaltern.” Hegemony means the control or domination of one person or group or nation over another, but Gramsci emphasizes that this is often achieved by granting special powers and privileges to some individuals and groups from among the subordinated population, or by persuading them that the new system is benefi cial or preferable. This can explain why small groups of people have been able to maintain control over much larger populations without constant rebellion and protest. “Hegemony” is now used to discuss many types of hierarchical relations, though some scholars also note that emphasizing hegemony downplays the ability of subjugated peoples to recognize the power realities in which they are enmeshed and shape their own destiny. “Subaltern” refers to people who have been subordinated by their race, class, culture, gender, or language as part of the process of colonization and imperialism. Colonies contain many different subaltern groups, but so do the colonizing countries, and insights drawn from subaltern studies are now being applied to the study of “subaltern” groups such as racial and ethnic minorities in Europe and the United States. Just as the study of colonies and metropole is increasingly linked, so is that of various countries and regions within Europe and in parts of the world that were never colonized. Many historians emphasize that a number of political, economic, and social phenomena cut across borders, and that no one region or country should be studied in isolation. A better approach, they note, is one that is “transnational,” focusing on connections, exchanges, intercrossings, movements, and mixtures. Areas along the developing political, linguistic, and religious boundaries of early modern Europe are increasingly being studied as “transnational” borderlands, although some scholars wonder whether the concept “transnational” is really applicable to this era, when most national boundaries were not yet fi rmly fi xed. Whether they use the term “transnational” or not, over the past several decades a number of historians of the early modern period have increasingly defi ned their geographic area of focus not as a single nation or region, but as the “Atlantic world.” This Atlantic history, championed by Bernard Bailyn, Jack Greene, and others, developed to some degree because of political circumstances after World War II that linked North America more closely with Europe. (The same circumstances led to the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO.) More importantly, however, scholars increasingly found that telling the story of the lands that bordered the Atlantic and the islands that were situated in it separately was not as interesting as telling a story that tied them together. Atlantic history examines connections and comparisons, and has paid particular attention to certain topics, including voluntary and forced migrations, pan-Atlantic commerce, the spread and hybridization of ideas, and racial and ethnic relations. It initially focused more on Europeans, but has increasingly emphasized the role of Africans and peoples indigenous to the Americas. Some Atlantic historians have seen other regional approaches, such as hemispheric, transnational, or continental history, along with world and global history, as competition to Atlantic history, while others have viewed all of these as complementary.

 

 

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