The New World
That idea of a distant paradise on earth shaped the way Europeans came to think of America after Columbus and his successors reported their discoveries. For example, the following mythic lands may have served as inspirations for the alluring idea of America as a place of joy, ease, riches, and regeneration: a. the Garden of the Hesperides of Greek myth b. the Elysian Fields described by the poet Homer c. the Islands of the Blessed, described by Hesiod, Horace, and Pindar d.
Atlantis, described by Plato in the Timaeus and the Critias e. the Garden of Eden f. the Fortunate Isles, described in the Voyage of St. Brendan (ninth century) g. the enchanted gardens of Renaissance literature Columbus’s discovery of America has been described as “perhaps the most important event recorded in secular history. ” On the other hand, it has been pointed out that had Columbus not discovered America, it would soon have been discovered by some other explorer.
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Edmundo O’Gorman, in The Invention of America (1961), asserted that America was not discovered but was invented by Europeans in the 16th and following centuries.
The contrary idea of America as a place of degenerated plants, animals, and humans was also held by Europeans long before it was set forth by the French naturalist Buffon (1707–1788) in the early volumes of his Natural History (1749–1804). Thomas Jefferson made effective reply in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), but remnants of the idea continued to persist in the European popular mind. Modern readers are often surprised to learn of Columbus’s never-ending insistence, even in the face of contrary evidence, that he had reached the coast of Asia, not a new continent.
That mistaken certainty was in large part caused by his faith in faulty calculations showing the earth’s circumference to be about 18,000 rather than 25,000 miles. The ancient geographer Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with nearly perfect accuracy in the third century BCE. But Columbus, as did the best navigators of his time, relied on charts based on measurements made by the second-century-CE astronomer Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus). The calculation of the earth’s circumference presented in Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography (published, in Latin, in 1409) was off by more than 25 percent.
Had the calculation been accurate, Columbus would have been correct in assuming that after sailing west for 33 days, he had indeed reached the Orient. Columbus’s writing style is spare and unornamented. In contrast, the letters (the first published in 1504) of Amerigo Vespucci, reporting his voyages to the New World from 1497 to 1504 (he claimed four,historians credit him with two), were filled with vivid and titillating details describing the new land and its inhabitants. As a result, Vespucci’s reports received greater attention throughout Europe than the reports (as distinct from the discovery itself) of Columbus.
Because of Vespucci’s renown and because of his real accomplishments, the German geographer Martin Waldseemuller, in making his influential map of the new continent (1507), applied the name “America” to South America. Eventually, through popular usage, “America” came to be used for the North America as well. Vespucci’s voyage of 1501–1502 (under the flag of Portugal) along the coast of South America was the first extended exploration of the coast of the New World and the first to show clearly that the new lands were not a part of Asia but a new continent.
That discovery is said by Vespucci’s partisans to justify naming the new continent America. Nevertheless, Vespucci has been vilified as a braggart and a windbag. Doubt has been cast on his accomplishments, although in recent decades they have in part been verified and shown to be substantial. Columbus’s first letter was printed and published in nine versions in 1493, and by 1500 it had appeared in nearly twenty editions. Yet his reports did not inspire the immediate outpouring of writing, personal and public, on the New World that might be expected.
Indeed, from the last decades of the fifteenth century to the beginning decades of the seventeenth century, “four times as many books were devoted to the Turks and Asia as to America, and the proportion of books on Asia actually increased in the final decade” of that period (J. H. Elliot, The Old World and the New  12). When Columbus died in Vallodolid, Spain, in 1506, his death went unrecorded in the city chronicle. His fall to obscurity was in part caused by the fact that he was overbearing and irascible, creating many enemies.
In addition, the stories of his failures and his greed as a colonial administrator diminished him in the eyes of his contemporaries, further discouraging the celebration of his name in poems, romances, dramas, and histories. Columbus had failed to produce the expected supply of riches. He had failed to provide his voyages with effective chroniclers who could glorify his achievements, and he had no ability to effectively glorify himself in his written reports. Nor was he associated with a singular dramatic achievement—such as the conquest of the Aztec empire that raised Cortes to the stature of an epic hero.
In the sixth century BC the Greek mathematician Pythagoras declared that the earth is a sphere. By the fifteenth century AD that fact was believed by the vast majority of educated Europeans. Yet a longstanding myth holds that Columbus was almost alone in believing that the earth is a sphere and for that belief suffered the ridicule of his learned contemporaries. The myth survives today, preserved in popular histories, tales, and even in popular song lyrics that proclaim: “They all laughed at Christopher Columbus /When he said the world was round.
In reporting that he was the first to see a light in the distance, on the night of October 11, before the actual sighting of land on October 12, Columbus appears to claim that he was the first to see the Indies. Note also Columbus’s solicitation of support for further exploration, his offering, if “their highnesses will render… very slight assistance,” to provide gold, spice, cotton, mastic, “aloe-wood,” and “slaves, as many as they shall order to be shipped.
The explorers and conquerors of the New World in large measure based their justifications (stated or implied) for conquest on a. the cultural superiority of the conquerors; b. the physical and mental inferiority of the conquered; c. the backwardness of the Americans’ culture and technical development; d. the obligation and the ability of the intruders to make better use of the land and its resources; e. the duty to bring Christianity to the heathen. Columbus does not use all such justifications. Note his report that the Indians are “of a very acute intelligence. ” Modern critics of Columbus assert that his treatment of the Indians showed a disregard for their natural rights.
But the popular idea that individuals have natural rights (much less “unalienable” natural rights) did not arise for several centuries. Columbus took possession of the newly discovered land “by proclamation made and with royal standard unfurled. ” His act was not a dramatic gesture meant to awe the natives but a formal step (compare the flag planting by the American astronauts on the moon in 1969) to establish, according to the international law of the day, that the lands and their inhabitants were now the possessions of Spain and subject to Spanish authority.
Having taken formal and legal possession of the land and its inhabitants for Spain, Columbus assumed that he, as a royal official, was therefore justified in capturing six Indians and returning them as exhibits to the Spanish king and queen, just as a royal official could order the lives of men and women in Spain itself. Because he believed that he had landed in the Indies, Columbus used the word “Indians” to describe the people he saw. In recent years the word has been attacked as inaccurate and demeaning, although Columbus did not intend it to be so.
The substitute “Native American” has been advanced, and is the most widely preferred term. The term “Siberian American” has been offered in its place as a more accurate term, but it is seen as derisive by some and remains unpopular. Columbus reported of the Indians, “With 50 [European] men all of them could be held in subjection and can be made to do whatever one might wish. ” Columbus was wrong. The attempt to coerce and enslave the men and women of the New World eventually failed.
Yet the alluring idea of forcing native inhabitants to work for their conquerors long endured. For instance, John Smith reports of North American native inhabitants that they could be brought “all in subjection” and exploited by “forty or thirty” Englishmen. Discovery narratives traditionally report on the technical backwardness of the people of the discovered lands. In Columbus’s age the lack of technical development and the absence of metals such as iron and steel were taken as signs of primitive inferiority.
In later ages, especially after the rise of the idea of the Noble Savage, a lack of technical achievement was taken as a sign of virtuous simplicity, of a life free of the dominance of the machine and the technological horrors that accompany it. Columbus describes the technical ignorance of the inhabitants and their unfamiliarity with metal-edged weapons: “I showed them swords and they took them by the edge and through ignorance cut themselves. ” Compare John Smith’s report of the Indians’ fear of gunpowder and firearms their amazement at the movements of a compass needle.
The technical ignorance of a reportedly benighted people has often been and is still used to justify their subjugation and colonization by a technically superior culture that asserts its right to conquer, usually because it can “make better use of the land. ” In addition, there was recourse to the religious justification for colonization—the argument that Christians have the right and the duty to lead (by force if necessary) those living in spiritual darkness into the light of religious truth and to the blessings of heaven.
The religious justification is offered as a benefit to the pagans themselves. The technological argument is not. Rather its end is the fruitful exploitation of the land and its natural resources for the colonizers. But even the technological argument for exploiting the land has its biblical justification in the declarations that the land exists for the benefit of man, who therefore has an obligation to exploit and “subdue” it (Genesis 1:28). That Columbus was a sincere believer in Christianity is not in doubt.
His devout faith is evident inthe names he gave the first islands he encountered in the New World: San Salvador and Isla de Santa Maria de Concepcion. Yet his religious motives for colonizing the lands he discovered have sometimes been dismissed as a disguise for his true motives: greed for gold and desire to extract riches from the land. The desire for religious conversions and for gold is evident in almost all the early narratives of New World discovery. Columbus hoped to bring Christianity to the heathen by establishing the religion of Spain in the new lands.
He had no desire to promote religious liberty and would have strongly resisted the idea. John Smith similarly believed that the English lands in North America should be colonized under the protection of an established church—the Church of England. It is worthwhile to compare the views of Columbus and Smith to the views of the Pilgrims and the Puritans who wished to escape what they believed to be an oppressive established church—though they themselves then demonstrated an oppressive narrowness with respect to departures from the confines of their views.
Notice the appearance in Columbus’s reports of themes later apparent in American literature: a. America as a land suited to Christian evangelism and the ultimate coming of “the church triumphant” b. America as a paradise of exotic landscape and people and of simple and innocent life c. America as a place for economic, political, and spiritual opportunity and personal fulfillment. THOMAS HARIOT Thomas Hariot was among the first British explorers to arrive in the New World. Unlike Columbus, he was at least as much a scientist as an explorer.
He was particularly interested in astronomy, optics, and the study of mathematics. Hariot’s A Briefe and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia gives perspectives on the New World that differ from Columbus’s in accordance with his intellectual interests, as well as his nationality and the part of the world (Virginia, as opposed to the West Indies) that he visited. The third, and final, part of his report, presented in the anthology, offers another view of the inhabitants of the newly discovered land. JOHN SMITH
John Smith has been described as the author of “the first English book written in America” (for his A True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia ), and his work is seen as a forerunner of a native, American literature. Smith’s accounts are also an early example of New World writing that emphasizes human qualities commonly thought to be typically American. Note his references to a. Practicality; b. Boastfulness; c. dislike of showy elegance; d. desire to exploit the environment.
Smith’s description of New England combines two images of the New World that were current in Europe in the seventeenth century: a. the image of America as a paradise, a voluptuous land of easy riches b. the image of America as a land that would reward those showing the Protestant virtues of enterprise and willingness to work hard. The first image draws upon ancient myths that describe gardens of ease, joy, and eternal life. The second derives from the ideals of the capitalist middle class that rose to power with the end of feudalism in Europe. A third image, of America as a New Jerusalem, as a place for religious salvation, is not evident in Smith’s writings.
Consider the rise to prominence of that third image after 1630 and the coming of the Puritans to Massachusetts Bay. Note how Smith writes of the visible, material world—describing plants, animals, and men—rather than the immaterial, speculative world of philosophy and theology. Smith assumed that the New World is for man’s exploitation, for his physical enjoyment, and for his earthly fulfillment—an assumption at odds with the Puritans’ view of the New World as a place of spiritual testing and of preparation for a fulfillment to be achieved only in heaven.
Smith is often contrasted to the Puritans (and the Pilgrims), but there are these similarities: a. Both saw America as a place where individual men and women could escape from Old-World restraints and traditions. b. Both celebrated the possibility of communal, as well as individual regeneration in the lands claimed by England in the New World. c. Both condemned luxury and emphasized the virtues of hard work, abstinence, and enterprise. d. And both saw a life of ease and luxury as a sign of decay that portends inevitable destruction.
Smith made no mention of religious freedom as a reason for colonizing. His own motives for colonizing (and what he believed to be the prime motives of others) were secular and materialistic: “For I am not so simple as to think that ever any other motive than wealth will ever erect there a commonwealth. ” General History and his Description of New England are propaganda for colonization as much as they are descriptions of the New World. That is evident in the number and the variety of advantages he cites for colonization: a. profits for investors—”satisfaction of the adventurers”.
Markets for English manufacturers—a letter survives, written by Smith to the London Society of Cordwainers (shoemakers) to point out that the Cordwainers, in their own self-interest, should support the settlement of Virginia because the rough land and the shell-strewn beaches of the New World were certain to wear out many shoes c. glory for the colonizers and their monarch—”eternizing of the memory” d. abundant raw materials, especially timber and naval stores.
Some of the essentials for colonizing success set forth by Smith in A Description of New England (“provided always that first there be… ”): a. potent local government b. housing c. means of self-defense d. adequate provisions e. trained craftsmen Many reasons have been offered to explain why the Jamestown colonists failed to exert themselves sufficiently in establishing their colony: a. that too many of the colonists were “ne’er-do-wells” and gentlemen who were unused to hard work b. that the colonists were weakened by hunger and disease c. that the “communal basis” of the settlement discouraged individual enterprise.
That many of the early colonizing reports, especially those written by the Spanish colonizers, encouraged the expectation that riches would be quickly found and profits quickly earned, that the “naturals” could be forced to supply the colonists with food, and that therefore diligent labor was unnecessary e. that the colonists expected their needs to be met by their London backers Note that none of the above explanations suggests that the English colonists, lacking government support such as the Spanish enjoyed, failed because their attempt to colonize Virginia at that time and place was simply beyond their abilities.
Smith attributed the difficulties at Jamestown to dissension, weak government, lack of organization, and mistaken attempts by a central governing body (in London) to exert control at long distance. Such problems of government and society arose partly from human characteristics that later came to be considered distinctly American: a. radical individualism b. disrespect for law and governments c. hostility toward distant, central governments d.
Contempt for traditions of rank, privilege, and authority Note how such characteristics were prominent among the causes of the American Revolution, 170 years later, and how those same characteristics win popular praise today. It is also notable that the American environment and its great distance from Europe prohibited the easy transfer to America of England’s a. feudal class structure; b. widespread belief in the worth of a noble class and an idle gentry; c. upper-class contempt for those in “trade” or whose jobs required hard, physical labor; d. high valuation of the contemplative, intellectual life;
Customs of labor, farming, law, and political organization. The travel literature of the 16th and 17th centuries commonly reported incidents in which New World savages were awestruck by examples of European science and technology. When Powhatan’s followers captured Smith, in December 1607, he was first exhibited before neighboring tribes. Smith’s description of events permits the conclusion that the Indians displayed him as a great trophy because he was a noble warrior (for his brave resistance) and a mighty wizard (for his tricks with a compass).
Perhaps a better reason for the exhibition before local sub-tribes and their chiefs was revealed in 1845 when a manuscript letter (written in 1608) by Edward Maria Wingfield, former President of the Colony (and Smith’s enemy), was discovered and published. Wingfield wrote: … having him prisoner, [they] carried him to [their] neighbors… to see if any of them knew him for one of those which had been, some two or three years before us, in a river amongst them northward and [had] taken away some Indians from them by force. At last [they] brought him to the great Powhatan (of whom before we had no knowledge) who sent him home
to our town the 8th of January . Pocahontas’s formal, tribal name was “Matoaka. ” The nickname “Pocahontas” (meaning “playfulone”) was given to her by her father, Powhatan. Such nicknames were common among the Native peoples in Virginia. Powhatan himself had the tribal name of “Wahunsonacock,” the name “Powhatan” later takenfrom the name of the region in which he ruled. At the time of their adventure, Smith was 28 and Pocahontas 12 or 13. She died in 1617 while on a visit to England, well before any detailed description of her rescue of Smith was published.
It is not known whether Smith saw Pocahontas while she was in England, and little is known of her true character. In his History of Travel into Virginia Britannia (1612), William Strachey described Pocahontas as: a well featured but wanton young girl, Powhatan’s daughter, [who], sometimes resorting to our fort, of the age then of 11 or 12 years, [would] get the boys forth with her into the market place and made them [cart]wheel, falling on their hands turning their heels upwards, whom she would follow, and [cart]wheel so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over….
It is interesting to consider what qualities in Strachey’s “wanton young girl” and Smith’s savior helped make her the first heroine of American myth and folklore. Some points to note: a. Pocahontas’s similarity to ancient mythic heroines, daughters of kings who protect a heroic stranger renounce their native lands and people, yet fail to marry the hero—heroines . b. the similarity of Pocahontas’s experiences to those told in the various medieval romances c.
Pocahontas’s similarity to historical American Indian heroines, such as Sacagawea (who served as guide and interpreter for Lewis and Clark) and Malinche (interpreter for Cortes in his conquest of the Aztecs) d. Pocahontas’s early appearance in literature, first referred to in Ben Jonson’s play Staple of News (1625) and then the subject of later works, such as (1) The Female American (1767), a novel published in London and described as “a second Robinson Crusoe”, and (2) The Indian Princess (1808), an American play, the first of many Pocahontas dramas, and the first of the vastly popular “Indian Plays” of the nineteenth-century American stage.