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When Worlds Crash— The Posture and Philosophy of Discovery and Conquest

Columbus Before the Queen.

Columbus Before the Queen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the nineteenth and twentieth century European historical romance of the New World, national interests were manifested in the actualization of colonization and conquest. Colonization and conquest were not random and benign acts of discovery and exploration. Ships with emblems of sovereignty bore expeditions with purpose. Symbols of conquest (such as naming territory, planting flags, etc.) were displayed. Vessels carried designs of the wealth and power of Kings and Queens who supported and encouraged colonization plans. Grants and patents were issued, investment companies formed, insurance purchased, noble men seized opportunities, less-than-noble men dreamed of their fortunes across the seas. And clergy accompanied for followed the warriors who would ultimately subdue the population, people who didn’t know that their future existence rested inside of the imagination of the conquerors. One historian gave a picturesque, sweeping narrative of the landing of Christopher Columbus:

“What effect did this splendor of color and glitter of armor produce upon the natives? When they first saw the ships, so huge in comparison with their Own slight canoes, they had been filled with wonder; as the day dawned, they beheld the vessels more plainly, and that they were borne along, apparently without effort, while the great white sails seemed to them like wings. As the boats were launched, and came toward the shore, their astonishment was changed into terror of the strangers; and they fled into the woods.

Meantime, Columbus had landed; and kneeling upon the earth, he kissed the soil of that new world which he had been first to discover, surrounded by his now devoted followers. Then he rose and drew his Sword, and solemnly took possession of the newly discovered country in the name of the sovereigns of Castile. He then called upon all his followers to take the oath of allegiance to him, as Viceroy and Admiral, the representative of these sovereigns.

As the natives witnessed these ceremonies from their hiding-places on the edge of the woods, they gradually regained confidence and drew a little nearer the strange white men. When they saw that the new-comers seemed to have no intention of injuring them, they approached and made signs of friendship. These were responded to, and the natives came still nearer, and .stroked the beards of the Spaniards and examined their hands and faces, evidently wondering at the whiteness of their skins. All these demonstrations were preceded and accompanied by frequent prostrations and other signs of adoration. To the simple-minded inhabitants of the island, it seemed that these men had come in their great winged vessels straight from the blue heaven which bent over their island, and touched the ocean all around them.

As Columbus supposed that he had reached India, it was natural that he and his followers should speak of the natives of the newly discovered country as Indians; a name which was so much used before it was fully ascertained that he had reached another continent, that reason has never been able to displace it.

The Indians wore no clothing, but had their bodies painted with various colors. Their only arms were lances with heads of sharp flints or fish-bones, or hardened at the end by fire. They evidently had no knowledge of sharpened iron or steel, for one of them took hold of a sword by the edge and cut his hand. They received with eager gratitude the trifles which Columbus and his followers presented to them, offering in return balls of cotton yarn, tame parrots, and cassava bread. These, however, were not the articles of traffic which the Spaniards had come so far to procure; the small golden ornaments which some of the natives wove in their noses were of much greater interest than their twenty-pound balls of cotton, and Columbus at once made inquiry regarding the source from which they were derived.

He learned that these precious ornaments came from the southwest, where there dwelt a king who was always served in vessels of fine gold. Much more has the great discoverer set down of the same kind, but it is probable that he deceived himself in much of what he understood them to tell him by signs. He felt assured that he had now reached the outlying islands of Asia, and was near the countries of fabulous riches of which Marco Polo had written; and he readily believed that the gestures of these naked Indians indicated much more than the savages tried to express. The island, which Columbus thoroughly explored, was named San Salvador. Around it lay beautiful and fertile islands, so that he was at a loss which to choose as the next to be explored. He set sail two days after landing, taking with him seven of the natives, to whom he proposed to teach the Spanish language, that they might serve as interpreters. As these became better able to communicate with him by signs, and understood more clearly what information he wished to obtain, he learned that he was in the midst of an archipelago, numbering more islands than the limited arithmetical skill of the savages could reckon. They enumerated more than a hundred, and gave him to understand that they were all well peopled, and that the inhabitants were frequently at war with each other. All this was in full accordance with what Columbus had heard of the islands about the eastern coast of Asia.”

(From Exploration, Discovery And Conquest Of The New World Containing The Thrilling Adventures Of Christopher Columbus, Americus Vespucius, John And Sebastian Cabot, Etc. Describing Their Voyages In Unknown Seas, Encounters With Terrible Storms And Shipwrecks, Discovery Of Strange Lands, Curious People And Rich Mines; Their Desperate Combats With Savages And Wild Beasts, Struggles With Mutinous Crews, Wanderings In Swamps And Forests, Unveiling The Glories Of The New World To The Astonished Gaze Of All Nations, Etc. By D. M. Kelsey, Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1910, 90-91.)

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