Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Columbus & de las Casas, Exploration & Exploitation

Please do not respond to all of these questions. It is preferable that you respond to one more substantially.

--Columbus writes in the form of letters, personal expressions from one person to another. In what ways do these letters reflect the conventions of what you expect to find in a letter? How do they differ from what you think letters do?

--What do you notice about the way Columbus describes the new world in his letter to Santangel? In what ways is it defined in relationship to the old world or on its own terms?

--Both Columbus (in his letter to Spanish royalty) and de las Casas in his "Relation" describe conditions of Spanish colonies after the initial discovery. What is their complaint or critique of behavior of the Spanish colonists and the colonial project more generally?


  1. Both Columbus and de las Casas discuss the adverse effects the rapaciousness of Spanish colonizers have wreaked upon the human populations of the New World colonies. Columbus, writing from more personal motives, castigates the colonial project in the same pejorative terms that he castigates his enemies, and it is implicit in the text that he is not overly critical of the political and economic state of affairs in the New World other than his diminished ability to influence them. He asserts that were individuals like himself in charge, motivated by allegedly more noble aims of fealty to the crown than economic avarice, the strain upon the New World's populations and environment would be lessened.

    More lucid in their respective descriptions of colonial abuses, de las Casas' compositions express altruistic goals and ascribe to a humanitarian worldview derived from their author's religious piety. Notably, though a devout Catholic himself, de las Casas in the excerpt from "The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies" does not hesitate to label the colonies' capricious Spanish overlords not by their nationality, but instead their cultural heritage, i.e. Christianity. This implies that he is making an indictment of his own religious tradition, possibly illuminating the irony that Christianity's evangelistic zealotry has been transmuted into immoral bloodlust when its adherents are unleashed upon the New World's virgin lands and peoples.

    This is effectively captured in one of de las Casas' more polemical passages, framing well his attack upon the colonial project: "And because all the people who could do so fled to the mountains to escape these inhuman, and ferocious acts, the Spanish captains, enemies of the human race, pursued them with fierce dogs they kept which attacked the Indians, tearing them to pieces and devouring them." The excerpt sets a strong Conradian tone, effectively conveying the utter moral bankruptcy of the Spanish colonial enterprise.

  2. The first thing that I notice about the way Columbus describes the new world in his letter to Santangel is the grandiose nature of the whole letter. Columbus seems genuinely ecstatic when he writes about his new discovery and will occasionally delve into quite a bit of detail when describing it. He speaks of the new world as if it were an undiscovered paradise. The letter gives a great insight into Columbus' energy. I could tell that Columbus was eager to explore more of the new land to see what he could find.

    Columbus describes the new world in a way that makes it fairly incomparable to the old world. He places the new world on such a pedestal that it becomes beyond comparison to anything he has ever seen. It is probably because of this idealization of the new world that his next letter to Ferdinand and Isabella appears to be almost the polar opposite to his letter to Santangel. In the ten years that passed between the letters, Columbus becomes disenchanted by the new world and is forced to face the difficulties of settling in new territory. The fire and excitement that came from discovering the new world has died within him and he practically begs to leave.