Thursday, June 14, 2007

Voyagers to the East, Part XIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

In discussing Christopher Columbus's shipment of 550 Indian slaves to Europe (Voyagers to the East, Part II, 2/21/06), I neglected to mention that his contemporary, Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, also engaged in the Indian slave trade, and from a very early date. In 1499 Vespucci undertook a reconnaissance voyage to the eastern coast of South America on behalf of the Spanish Crown. In a subsequent letter to Lorenzo de Medici (18 July 1500), Vespucci reported on the many wondrous things he and his companions had seen: new species of serpents and songbirds, new stars and constellations (Vespucci was the first modern European to see Alpha Centauri, which is only visible from the Southern Hemisphere), and many different nations of Indians, speaking at least 40 different languages. Some of the Native Americans whom Vespucci encountered were friendly and gave gifts, some the explorers fought. He opined that the lands he explored had to belong to an entirely new continent, owing to the many varieties of land animals he had encountered – an observation that had eluded his predecessor Columbus, even though Columbus had also explored the South American coast.

After thirteen months of voyaging, around May 1500, Vespucci observed that his men were exhausted and short of food, and so he determined to return home. Before doing so, he resolved to bring back one last treasure: 232 human slaves, procured from "certain islands" off the Atlantic coast of North America. Vespucci did not identify these islands, but he and his followers had just sailed 600 miles north of Hispaniola, through "a shoal of islands, more than a thousand in number" that were probably the Bahamas. These may have been the "certain islands" to which Vespucci refers.

In any event, Vespucci reported that he and his companions made the voyage back to Cadiz in 67 days, during which time about thirty of the captives died. The explorers sold the surviving 200 Indians as slaves, but apparently the transaction wasn't very profitable: Vespucci wrote that "After deducting the expense of transportation we gained only about five hundred ducats, which, having to be divided into fifty-five parts, made the share of each very small." (Frederick Ober, Amerigo Vespucci [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907], pp. 109-124, quote 122.)

It's worth mentioning that one needs to take all of Vespucci's travel accounts with a large grain of salt, as he tended to embellish his stories with exaggerated or entirely fictional details. (For instance, he claimed that he and his men had encountered a tribe of giant female warriors in the South American interior, and that some of the other Indian peoples he encountered showered the explorers with gold and precious gems.) It is quite possible that Vespucci also invented his story of bringing Indian slaves back to Spain. But it seems unlikely that he would have lied about this particular incident. When Vespucci embellished or bent the truth, he usually did so to glorify himself or add color to his story. There was nothing particularly colorful or glorious about slave trading, an enterprise regarding which Ferdinand and Isabela had already expressed their displeasure. On the contrary, Vespucci's report on his slave-trading is quite mundane and bare-boned: he tells us nothing about the slaves except their numbers, how many survived the voyage, and how little money he obtained for them. One might find Vespucci's inability to identify the precise provenance of his Indian prisoners a little suspicious, but then, such vagueness was common in early narratives of exploration, and to be expected given the absence of good maps. Vespucci appears to have had no motive for lying about his enslavement of Native Americans, and so one may assume that he was telling the truth, and that he did indeed destroy the lives of over 200 people in the interest of making his second exploratory voyage a "success."

For the next entry in this series, click here.