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.