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 and...to 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.

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