Sunday, February 26, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part III

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Columbus was not the last European to transport Native American slaves to Europe. In 1501 the Portuguese mariners Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real sailed to Labrador, explored the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and claimed the lands they had "discovered" for Portugal. They assumed that these territories lay to the east of the demarcation line established in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, in which Spain and Portugal had divided the world between them. (Portugal received all the lands east of the line, including Brazil, Africa, and India.) In Nova Scotia Miguel Corte-Real encountered a large party of Micmac Indians who had come down to the shore for their summer fishing. Like Columbus, Corte-Real decided to see if the new territory could be turned into a source of slaves. Accordingly, he captured 50 Indians and shipped them back to Lisbon, where they were sold. (David Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements [New York, 1977], 123; see also William Goetzmann and Glyndwr Williams, The Atlas of North American Exploration [New York: Prentice-Hall, 1992], 20-21.)

The fate of those 50 slaves is unrecorded. We may speculate that those who survived the voyage wound up as servants or laborers in Lisbon, where 10% of the population were slaves in the early 16th century. As for the Corte-Reals: Gaspar's ship was lost during the return voyage to Portugal in 1501, while Miguel was lost during a subsequent voyage in 1502. Indians were not the only people for whom early trans-Atlantic voyages could be hazardous.

[The photo above is of a reconstructed 16th-century caravela redonda, courtesy of that academic's bete noire,]

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Voyagers to the East, Part II

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Hagiographers of Christopher Columbus have avoided drawing attention to the navigator's second voyage to America (1493-1496), an expedition featuring 17 ships and 1,500 men (mostly soldiers). That's because Columbus's actions on this voyage made it plain that he was a conquistador and a slaver, as well as an explorer.

Upon returning to Hispaniola, Columbus discovered that Indians had killed the 39 men he'd left on the island. The admiral used this as an excuse to make war on the Caribs and Tainos. For the next two years Columbus's men, with the help of their war dogs, hunted and killed hundreds of Indians, and forced thousands of others to work for them as gold miners and servants. The adventurers also decided to see if they could create a market in Europe for Native American labor. In February 1495 they herded 1,600 Indian captives into the settlement of Isabela and selected 550 men and women for transport to Spain, where they would be sold as slaves.

Michele de Cuneo, an Italian nobleman who accompanied Columbus, reported that the slave ships ran into contrary winds during their return voyage and did not reach Spain until April 1495, by which time 200 of the 550 Indian slaves had died. "I believe [this was] because of the unaccustomed air, colder than theirs," de Cuneo wrote. "We cast them into the sea." Of the remaining 350 bondsmen, half were sick by the time the fleet dropped anchor in Cadiz. "They are not working people," de Cuneo derisively observed, "and they very much fear cold, nor have they long life." (de Cuneo to Hieronymo Annari, 28 Oct. 1495, in Samuel Eliot Morison, ed. and trans., Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Columbus [New York: Heritage Press, 1963], 226-227.)

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela were not pleased to hear of the enslavement of their new Indian subjects. They ordered that the surviving Indians be freed and returned to the Indies, though if half of the 350 survivors were already sick when they arrived in Spain it is unlikely that more than 150 ever made it home.

Columbus himself returned to Spain in 1496 with 30 more Indians aboard his ship, whom his crewmen had threatened to eat when supplies ran low. Ferdinand and Isabela henceforth forbade Columbus to enslave Indians, and according to accounts of Columbus's third and fourth voyages he did not bring any more Indians with him to Spain. (Morison, op. cit., 247, 250-251, 318.)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Voyagers to the East: Indians in Europe, Part I

Last semester my students and I were discussing Alfred Crosby's term "Columbian Exchange," first used in his 1972 book describing the exchange of people, animals, plants and diseases between the Old World (Eurasia and Africa) and the Americas. We observed that most of these exchanges were one-way: the spread of diseases and domestic animals from Europe to the Americas far outweighed the spread of American microbes and animals to the rest of the world. The exchange of people was the most uneven: about 15 million people journeyed from Africa and Europe to the Americas between 1492 and 1850, while few Native Americans made the journey in the other direction.

It occurred to me that there were so few Indian travelers to Europe that it might be possible to write accounts of nearly all of those for whom we have records, and to construct a preliminary census. So today's post will be the first of a series on these "voyagers to the east" and their historical significance.

Christopher Columbus, of course, bears the responsibility for starting the Columbian Exchange, and it was he who first carried Native American travelers to Europe. On November 11, 1492, while sailing along the coast of Cuba, the navigator decided to take several Taino Indians to Spain so that they could learn the Spanish language and religion, and act as translators and missionaries to their people. Language and faith would serve as tools of empire, making the peoples of the West Indies easier to govern and exploit, though Columbus opined in his diary that the Tainos were already so "timid" and "trusting" that they were nearly ready-made servants. (Robert Fuson, trans., The Log of Christopher Columbus [Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing, 1987], pp. 106-107.) "They are suitable to be governed and to be made to work and sow build villages and be taught to wear clothing and observe our customs." (ibid, 138)

Columbus apprehended 20 people -- 10 men, 7 women, a boy and 2 girls -- from Taino villages in Cuba and Hispaniola. He took women and children along in order to ensure the good behavior of the men, for all-male groups tended, in his experience, to be dispirited and unruly. Columbus had done this sort of thing before: in the 1480s he took several men from the Guinea coast of western Africa to Portugal in order to train them as translators. The absence of women in the African group, however, had made the men ill-tempered. (ibid, 107)

Most of the Tainos who returned with Columbus after his first voyage were involuntary passengers. 3 men whom the captain picked up on Cuba escaped before Columbus left the Indies. One man, the father of the three children, volunteered to go, doubtless because his children were hostages. There may have been other volunteers, but the captain did not make note of it, which tells us a great deal about his attitude toward Indians. Columbus notes in his log that the Indians on his ships did try to make the best of their situation by fishing or swimming when they got the chance (pp. 110, 179).

Columbus presented at least 6 of his passengers to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella when he arrived back in Spain in the spring of 1493, but as to whether any became translators or Christians, or ever returned to the Western Hemisphere, he does not say. We may guess that at some of the 17 Indian voyagers perished of disease en route or in Europe, beginning a long and grim story.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Undaunted Puppy Flinging

2006 concludes a four-year commemoration of the bicentennial of Lewis & Clark's overland journey to the Pacific Ocean. The two explorers have been back in the public eye for nearly a decade, owing to Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and Ken Burns' PBS series. The Lewis & Clark bicentennial commission has sponsored commemorative events along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, and the U.S. Mint has issued a series of commemorative nickels displaying a keelboat, a peace medal, a buffalo, and the Columbia Gorge. Naturally, our public remembrance of the explorers has been adulatory, emphasizing their courage, their scientific curiosity, and their sympathy for and good relations with the western Indians.

I think it is useful to remember that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were only human, and that their personal shortcomings became particularly pronounced as they entered the last year of their journey. By 1806 Lewis and Clark were flea-bitten, footsore, exhausted, and homesick, and had lost all patience with the nominally-friendly Indians, even though their commission from President Jefferson had assigned them the dual role of explorers and diplomats. The highly strung Captain Lewis complained about acts of petty theft committed by members of the Waclella and Eneeshur nations (in northern Oregon), whose beliefs about personal property -- i.e., that friendly people shared their goods with one another -- were very different from his own. In April Lewis beat up an Indian man who tried to steal "an iron socket of a canoe pole" and threatened his kinsmen with fire and sword if it happened again (John Bakeless, Journals of Lewis and Clark, 306-307).

A few weeks later, on May 5th, there was an even more noteworthy confrontation, stemming from Meriwether Lewis's acquired taste for dog meat. A young Nez Perce man "very impertinently threw a poor, half-starved puppy nearly into my plate by way of derision for our eating dogs, and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence." Rather than behaving diplomatically, Lewis responded violently: "I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and threw it with great violence at him and struck him in the breast and face, seized my tomahawk, and showed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tomahawk him." (ibid, 313). The Nez Perces' replies to Lewis's action are not recorded. Neither is the puppy's.

Somehow, I doubt that Lewis's bloodthirsty threats, the fistfights, or the flung puppy will make it onto coins or into future television programs on the expedition. Americans need their myths, and the tale of the Corps of Discovery is the closest thing to the Odyssey that we have. On the other hand, a reader familiar with this story at least knows one fact that differentiates Meriwether Lewis from the more phlegmatic William Clark, whom most Americans otherwise tend to confuse with one another.

(There are some very good Websites on the Lewis & Clark expedition, including "Discovering Lewis & Clark.")


I've been thinking of starting a weblog for two years now, and have finally decided to take the plunge. Since there are several million English-language weblogs currently in existence, some degree of specialization seems appropriate here. I will therefore use this space primarily to post interesting stories I've come across in the course of my research and reading in American and Native American history. (I will make occasional detours into movies and current events, but for the most part this will be a history blog.) I plan to post once per week, but you know the saying about best-laid plans...

The illustration at right is a detail from Johannes Vermeer's "The Art of Painting" (1666), depicting Clio, the Muse of History. The trumpet in her right hand reminds us that Clio is often a long-winded muse.

Update, 5 October 2011: It appears that Clio now has her own Facebook page. Can't say I'm terribly surprised.