Monday, October 13, 2014

1592 and All That

By 1592, a century after Columbus’s first voyage and nine decades after his death, Spain had created an empire as vast and ruthless as the Mongols’. Spanish officials and soldiers ruled much of the Western Hemisphere, from Florida to Peru, and Spain’s banners flew over much of western Europe as well. By then, too, Spain’s imperium was beginning to suffer from imperial overstretch: King Felipe II’s finances were deteriorating, his New World subjects were dying en masse from smallpox and enslavement, and Dutch rebels and English heretics preyed on his European provinces and American treasure ships. It was in this context that the engraver Theodore de Bry published one of the more influential visual representations of Columbus’ “discovery.”

De Bry (1528-1598) made the picture for a series of illustrated volumes on the European voyages of discovery. It shows a well-dressed Columbus, accompanied by soldiers, encountering a party of Indians, who present him with gifts of jewelry. To one side several Europeans erect a cross, legitimizing the Spanish conquest, while in the background other Indians flee from other disembarking explorers.

I learned of this engraving from a recent article by Michiel van Groesen, who notes that De Bry’s engraving established an iconic image of Columbus’s landing that recurred in European illustrations throughout the eighteenth century. Van Groesen suggests that De Bry wanted an illustration that appealed to Europeans’ superiority complex, emphasizing their material culture (clothes, weapons, ships) as well as their more confident bearing and Christian faith. At the same time, though, De Bry had a less-than-favorable view of the Spanish, having been driven from his native Liege for practicing a faith (Calvinism) that Spain considered heretical. Hence, there are at least a few subversive elements in the picture: some of the Indians are clearly frightened by the intruders, and their offering of gold reminds viewers of Spain’s greed. Since De Bry was publishing his books for Europeans of all confessions and nations (so long as they could read Latin), he didn’t want to alienate Spanish or Catholic readers, but there is at least a whiff of the “Black Legend”* in this ostensibly celebratory engraving. 

* Introduced by the reformed encomendero and slave-owner Bartolome de Las Casas, whose accounts of Spanish cruelty in the Caribbean De Bry covered and illustrated in his series.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Giving Currency to Native American Women

Indian Country Today has proposed removing Andrew Jackson from the 20-dollar bill, on the grounds that Americans should not so honor an Indian hater and genocidaire, and recommends replacing him with a Native American leader. Though I believe many other people deserve the blame for Indian Removal, I have no brief for Jackson and no problem finding new heroes for our national currency. I do, however, find ICT's list of suggested replacements a bit dispiriting, even stereotypical: ten Indian men, mostly from the West, nearly all of them war leaders. Perhaps the authors were looking for well-known people and figured most readers could not identify Native women or civil leaders, but there is something to be said for using currency to popularize less well-known leaders who nonetheless reflect useful virtues: endurance, business acumen, organizational ability, political activism, and artistic virtuosity. To this end, let me propose the following substitutes:

Matoaka, alias Rebecca Rolfe, alias Pocahontas. Powhatan chief's daughter, endured captivity under the English, converted to Christianity, and became a diplomat and traveler – one of the first Native Virginians to visit London.

Weetamoo, or Wettimore, Wampanoag sachem, wife of sachem Quannopin, co-leader of the insurgency known as King Phillip's War (1675-77). Captive Mary Rowlandson described her as haughty but a snappy dresser, which, given Rowlandson's Puritan worldview, is probably an exaggeration.

Nonhelema, or Catherine Grenadio, Shawnee businesswoman who provided intelligence to the Americans during the Revolutionary War, sold cattle to the Continental Army, and attended the Fort McIntosh (1785) treaty council.

Gertrude Bonnin, alias Zitkala-Sa, Sioux activist who attended Earlham College, taught at Carlisle Industrial Training School, later proponent of cultural preservation and organizer of the National Council of American Indians.

Maria Martinez, Pueblo ceramicist who rediscovered the thin-walled, shiny black pottery-making technique for which Pueblo potters would become famous.

Wilma Mankiller, author, Alcatraz occupier, and first female principal chief of the western Cherokee Nation.

Mildred Loving, Rappahannock woman, identified as black under Virginia law, who became one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case Loving versus Virginia (1967), legalizing interracial marriage. Putting her on American currency would cause Sean Hannity's head to explode.