Thursday, October 12, 2006

October 12

ncd02187b"Soon they saw naked people" -- these words, taken from Bartolomeo de las Casas' account of Christopher Columbus' initial voyage to the Western Hemisphere, describe the first moment of contact between two worlds, neither of which was new. On 12 October 1492, the Genoan-born "Cristoforo Colombo" -- whose given name meant "Christ-bearer" -- disembarked from the Santa Maria and traveled to the shore of Guanahani in an armed boat. Along with Martin Piunzon, Vincente Yañez, Rodrigo de Escobedo, and Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia among an otherwise nameless crew, Columbus encountered these "naked people" and promptly announced "in the presence of everyone, [that he] was taking, and in fact had taken, possession of that island for his lords the king and queen." To clarify the transfer of possession, Columbus renamed the island San Salvador. Soon enough, las Casas reported, "many people of the island gathered at that place," where they were most certainly puzzled to see a strange unfurled banner bearing a green cross and the letters "F" and "Y," which declared the land as the property of Fernando and Ysabel, the reigning monarchs of Spain. In the first of many misconceptions, "the Christ-bearer" supposed he was not far from "Cipangu," the Chinese name for Japan that Marco Polo had used in his own travel narrative. He also supposed there was an island packed with gold, a short journey south from San Salvador.

After the Santa Maria sank along the coast of La Española on Christmas Day, Columbus ordered the construction of a large moat and fortress on the island. He explained that fortifications were not necessary to protect his men from the islanders, whom he described as "naked and without weapons and cowardly, beyond remedy." Rather, he explained, a tower would be needed "so that the natives may recognize the ingeniousness of your highness' people and what they can do, so that out of love and fear they may obey them." On his trip home to Spain, Columbus penned a brief letter to the King and Queen, predicting among other things than the "Indians" could be conquered with little expense and effort. Within a few short years, a wave of disease eradicated 90% of the native Caribbean population, giving some measure of truth to Columbus prediction.