Voyages of Exploration and Discovery From Columbus to Captain Cook The Age of Discovery



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ENGL6080 – Travel Writing and Culture

Notes, Reading and Discussion Topics for Weeks 3

Voyages of Exploration and DiscoveryFrom Columbus to Captain Cook
The Age of Discovery

The Early Modern Period in Europe (also referred to as the Age of Discovery) can be said to begin with Columbus's 'discovery' of the Americas in 1492. Although it was Vasco da Gama in 1497-99 who fulfilled the medieval dream of finding a direct trade route to the riches of the Orient. Columbus, Vasco Da Gama and other western explorers were greatly assisted by the work of Henry the Navigator of Portugal (d. 1460). Henry began the modern development of navigational method that would enable European maritime powers to cross the oceans, circumnavigate the world and eventually dominate the globe. The Caravel was the generic design of boat that came to be identified with this period of exploration, and although a western product, it combined and improved on features from the Chinese Junk and the Arab Dhow, both of which had proven ocean-going capabilities.

Columbus's discovery of what was to become known as the New World, was a breakthrough in European geography and mapmaking. It also marked a shift towards a more secular, more scientific and more 'modern' society. The Old World of religious certainties and Classical knowledge gradually gave way to new systems of knowledge based on the witnessing and measurement of empirical data, the construction of charts, tables, taxonomies: science and rationalism, as the basis for a system of knowledge about the world. Columbus was hardly a man of science, and in his Journals we find considerable reference to God, providence and destiny, but he is a useful marker for the beginning of the early modern period.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the quest for knowledge and the spirit of modern enterprise often led to greed, patriotic fervor and a will to power manifesting itself in five hundred years of European expansion and colonialism. In the 16th century, European explorers continued to explore and colonise North and South America, and to press further East along the sea routes charted by the Portuguese around Africa to Goa, Malacca and Macao. By 1600, Portuguese colonies were strung out along the sea routes around Africa, to the Middle East, India and China. This empire of islands and coastal enclaves were trading posts and Christian missions in equal measure were established – the beachheads of colonialism.

In South America, the Portuguese and Spanish colonists ventured further inland, destroying most of the indigenous population (see De Las Casas’s account below). Here, as later in North America, the Europeans swept away local resistance, claiming the whole continent for Christendom. There was fierce competition between Spain and Portugal, and later France and Britain for these possessions which often changed hands between European powers.

Where Polo and Mandeville saw wonder and marvels in the Indies and the Orient, post-Columbian colonialists promoted the New World, as a virgin land, peopled by 'primitive savages' generally depicted as cannibals, or living in wretched poverty, or childlike and in need of protection and education. In the first phase of colonialism, the new Christian rulers were mostly concerned with finding gold and pressing forced labour from indigenous peoples (and brutally crushing resistance) – there would of course be exceptions, but this was the general rule.

Between 1500 and 1600, much of the East (East Indies, India, China) and the West (West Indies, North and South America) was opened up to European shipping. Maps and charts (often jealously guarded) were produced to enable shortest routes to be plotted between Europe and her colonies. Only the Great Southern Land - Australia and New Zealand had not yet been fully mapped, although the Portuguese had certainly 'discovered' the North coast of the Australian continent in the 17th century by sailing south from their colonies in the East Indies. But it was Captain Cook's expeditions in the 1770's that really put the South Sea Islands, New Zealand and Australia on the map. Cook’s maps and charts were state-of-the-art representations of the world, especially of the Southern Hemisphere, a good deal of which he had sailed across. Cooks’ mission was not, in the first instance, one to colonize, but to survey, map and establish bases where the English maritime fleet could stop for provisions and refitting. Cook was very critical of the colonization of the Americas, and saw no advantage in subjecting the people of Australia and the South Seas to a similar fate.

The Discourse of Discovery and Exploration

In the writings of Columbus and Cook (see also e.g. Ralegh and Barbosa below) we can see the development of a particular kind of travel writing - the supposedly factual accounts of discovery by Europeans of hitherto unknown lands (Terra Incognita). As new lands were discovered, they would inevitably fall under the imperial gaze of European travellers – at least this is how postcolonial discourse has come to view the whole body of exploration narratives during the colonial period. The general argument is that exploration is the outward manifestation of a will to power, and the knowledge gained through such travel is the pathway to achieving domination over the territory surveyed. Accepting this general argument, we need to look then at the variations and the exceptions within the discourse of travel, and at the different ways in which that discourse has been subsequently construed.

In looking at the writings of Columbus and Cook, we are looking across several hundred years of colonialism, and the considerable shift in style, tone, and language we find can be related to the shifting history of empire, especially the accumulation of scientific knowledge and the evolution of modern ideas, aesthetics and philosophies that shaped western modernity.

Discovery and Wonder:


For Columbus, the description of the Indies presents a huge problem. Although these lands and people have never before been represented in the West, Columbus has convinced himself that he has reached the Earthly Paradise in the East, and is close to Cathay. He is deluded, and for some critics, Columbus is not a modern explorer because his rationalism and empiricism is often overtaken by preconceptions and stubborn faith. Rather than describing simply what he sees, Columbus appears to embellish his accounts, turning the Indies into a new Earthly Paradise, or Garden of Eden. It was common for artists and writers to represent the Indies as a new and unfallen world. Columbus sometimes evokes romantic images of Spain to describe the Indies, and there is an unreal, dreamlike quality to his vision of the Indies within the context of Spanish empire. Columbus seems quite capable of self-delusion as his search for Cathay and the Kublai Khan (and his gold) becomes an increasingly hopeless quest. Although he will always be associated with the discovery of America, his actual achievements were limited to a few landings in the West Indies and South America. He never set foot in North America, and although he names places in his Journal, these names were superseded by later explorers who produced more accurate charts, and little practical information was ever derived from his voyages.  

Columbus's accomplishments are principally those of discovery and conveying wonder then, and his language and style tend towards this narrative mode (note that the more matter-of-fact parts of the log are not written by Columbus, whose narrative begins when land is finally discovered). We can think of Columbus more as a late medieval traveller than a modern explorer, because although he may have stumbled into America, he seems incapable of translating his findings into a modern worldview. He didn’t so much discover America as stumble across it in the mistaken belief that he had rediscovered Polo’s Cathay.

Exploration and Knowledge.


Columbus never had the chance to capitalise on his discoveries, as did later explorers and opportunists such as Sir Walter Ralegh who pressed on into the interior of South America, describing and quantifying the land and its peoples. Ralegh's description of his journey up the Orinoco seems well-informed and life-like. Where Columbus seems overawed by the beauty of the landscape and overwhelmed emotionally by what he has achieved, Ralegh enters the landscape heroically, but with a level head, rowing up the Orinoco river, communicating with the natives (compare with Columbus who tries to 'read' the signs of the natives, but in a kind of dumb show, open to mistranslation and misunderstanding) and gaining practical knowledge about the place and its people. Ralegh's exploration is not, however, innocent, nor is it written in plain scientific language. Ralegh uses his considerable literary skills to impress the court of Elizabeth I, where literary prowess could still be the mark of a Soldier/Knight. Literariness is turned to propaganda here to incite British colonisation of the Indies. (e.g. p. 163)



Science and Surveying.


Cook is a prime example of the modern scientific explorer. Of course, his voyages come nearly three hundred years after Columbus, and his motives are not primarily political or financial gain, but rather the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Such knowledge is still part of imperialist thinking, and the Royal Society and the Admiralty in England, sponsored many scientific expeditions, at least in part for political and military reasons. Given the geopolitics of the time, (American War of Independence and war with France), it is difficult to separate Cook’s explorations with England's imperialist ambitions. The maps, charts and other scientific data on currents, weather systems as well as flora and fauna would provide invaluable practical information for colonization. Even the project of mapping, charting and classifying the world, its people, and wildlife, can be construed as essentially that of an imperialist mindset and worldview. The first British settlement in Australia was called Botany Bay, indicating how important was the business of 'botanising'. Note Cook's great disappointment when the goats and sheep he has brought all the way from England die almost immediately from eating poisoned plants, so dashing his attempts to bring English agriculture to the South Seas.

Christopher Columbus

Who was Christopher Columbus? 
Most scholars believe that Columbus was originally from Genoa (in present day Italy), probably the son of a weaver. His family background is sketchy, however, and he never revealed much information about his origins, possibly because of some scandal.  Like Venice, Genoa was a major commercial centre for trade with the East and North Africa. Columbus took part in several trading expeditions across the Mediterranean, and later, when he moved to Portugal, Columbus sailed with the Portuguese down the African coast, and later sailed to Britain and Iceland. He spent ten years studying the problem of getting to the Indies (the East via the Western passage). After much effort, he persuaded Queen Isabella of Spain to sponsor him.

What was Columbus Searching For? 
 - Cathay. He was convinced of a Western Route to the Indies and China. The main goal of Columbus's expedition was to discover, and then presumably to claim by force, the East for his Spanish sponsors. The main prizes were gold (Europe needed more gold currency) and spices (highly lucrative trade) also silks, pearls, jewels etc. The commodities were known to exist in the East as they had been traded for some time overland (along the Silk Route) and via sea routes between Arabia and India.

The land route to the East, via present day Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan was closed by a curtain drawn between East and West by the Ottoman Turks (1345), and China closed its borders as the Mongol Empire retracted after Chinese nationalism expelled the descendants of the Grand Khan in 1368 (rise of Ming dynasty). Sea routes to India and the East were still used, but there was no direct sea passage for Europeans - goods had to be carried overland between the Mediterranean and the Arabian port of Hormuz. The direct sea route via Africa was forged by the Portuguese (see above), while Columbus was still floundering in the West Indies and the coast of South America.

So there were a number of reasons that made taking a western sea route to China attractive. Columbus became obsessed with the idea, persuading himself and others, against the weight of contemporary geographical evidence, that such a voyage was feasible.

Columbus and Geography 
Columbus believed in the spherical earth, as did most western geographers since the time of the Greeks. Aristotle noticed the earth made a circular shadow on the moon - Pythagoreans believed that only a perfect spherical figure could encompass the world - Ptolemy first attempted to map the globe, but without accurate longitudes, with insufficient trig points, and too small a spheroid model.

Columbus took an incorrect measurement of the circumference of the earth (18,000 miles instead of the 25,000 plus miles that Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) had calculated. He also over-estimated the land mass of Asia as it extended eastwards, calculating that there were only 3,500 miles between the Canaries and Kinsai (Hang Chow) (6-8 weeks journey?).



Columbus and the Pull of the East 
Columbus was so determined to prove his theory that he seems to have deliberately overlooked or ignored contemporary science. His estimate of the distance from Spain to China was hopelessly inaccurate, depending on a false estimate of the size of the earth, a false estimate of the land mass of Asia, PLUS some further reductions. It is just possible that Columbus knew that it was not possible to sail to China, but guessed (rightly) that there was another land mass before China. But in order to ‘sell’ the expedition, Columbus had to capture the imagination of his sponsors with promises of grabbing the treasures of the East. It is also just possible that Isabella knew that Columbus was wrong, but was nevertheless prepared to back the possibility of finding new lands to colonise. The Spanish expelled the Moors (Muslims) from Granada (in southern Spain) in 1492, the last stronghold in their own land, and were seeking to emulate the Portuguese who had taken the fight against the Muslims to North Africa and had already begun to expand their territories abroad.

There can be little doubt that the representations of the East produced by Polo and Mandeville had some impact on the imagination of explorers and sea adventurers like Columbus. The prize of eventually finding the legendary Cathay exerted a considerable pull.



The Journeys

First expedition:

Columbus set off with three boats from Spain on 3 August 1492. These were the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. Pinta’s rudder broke after three days. Stopped at Canaries for three weeks. Left on Sept. 6th - saw land on Oct. 12th. The land was probably San Salvador (Watling Island) in the Bahamas. He explored several islands and moved on to Cuba, thinking he had reached an island off China. He sent messengers to the Grand Khan. Santa Maria was wrecked off Hispaniola and the captain of the Pinta went off on his own, leaving the small Nina – this forced Columbus to leave 39 of the crew behind to form the first Spanish colony, which was later wiped out by Indians. He later caught up with the Pinta, was attacked by hostile Indians and set off with leaky boats to Spain.

Second expedition: 25 Sept 1493 - 17 ships 1500 men.

Third expedition: 1 Aug 1498, Columbus reached Trinidad and the shores of Venezuela - still apparently convinced he had discovered the East, Columbus wrote that he believed the Orinoco to be the river that flows from the Earthly Paradise.

Clinging desperately to his original theory that the islands he had discovered were part of Marco Polo’s world, Columbus set off on a fourth voyage.

The “High Voyage” (1502-04):

The king and queen of Spain made it clear this time that Columbus was to search for gold and silver, precious stones, spices and other riches. Columbus’ fleet set sail from Cadiz on 9 May 1502 in what was to be “Another voyage in the name of the Holy Trinity,” as he stated in a letter to the Pope. His son Fernando, age 14, and brother Bartolomeo accompanied Columbus on this fourth and final voyage.  Because of ill health and poor eyesight, Columbus could not captain his fleet. What began with exhilaration over the fastest crossing yet, just 20 days, ended with the loss of the entire fleet off the coast of Jamaica.

Columbus headed for the Spanish colony of Hispaniola where he dropped anchor at Santa Domingo on June 29.  Following a hurricane, in which 24 ships were lost and over 500 people were killed, Columbus sailed southwest, past Cuba, until he reached Central America. Skirmishes with the Indians, intense storms, and damaged ships meant that he had to head back to Hispaniola in December, 1502. Losing two ships, 130 men were crowded onto the remaining, barely sea-worthy, ships. Realizing that Hispaniola was too far to reach, Columbus turned north to Jamaica which he had discovered on his second voyage. The ships were in such bad condition that they were beached. Columbus would remain marooned here with his men for over a year. One half of the men mutinied when Columbus tried to instill order and discipline, and tired of dealing with the Spaniards, the Indians decided to stop supplying food. One loyal sailor, Diego Méndez de Salcedo, agreed to cross the open channel by canoe to reach Hispaniola. The island was over 100 miles away but in five days Méndez and one other sailor made it to Hispaniola in two canoes paddled by natives. At the end of July the rescue ship arrived, and on August 13 the shipwrecked sailors arrived in Santo Domingo. Not feeling welcome in the city, on 12 Sept 1504, Columbus took his last voyage across the ocean, this time as a passenger. On November 7, 1504 he, his son, and his brother arrived in Spain.

The Journal as Travel Writing:

Travel Writing, History and Literature

It has been said that Columbus's journals tell us more about the European imagination than they do about the actual events of history. In other words, these 'historical records' are not accurate records of events, but posthumous reworkings of events into a momentous narrative, a mythology about the origins of America.

In the writings of Columbus, and later, Amerigo Vespucci and Sir Walter Ralegh, certain literary techniques are at work, and literary references can be detected, which connect these writings to a literary tradition. It is the careful analysis of such writings that reveals not just what happened, but how the imagination of a whole readership operated, and how that imagination might be fed and manipulated.



Authorship and authenticity
The letters and journal of Columbus are highly dubious documents. The journal was not released by the Spanish until the 19th century as they considered it contained strategic information valuable to Spain. Authorship of the journal is clearly, like Polo's Travels, a collaborative effort, and we can assume that what we read today in a modern English translation has been much altered since the words actually written and spoken in 1492.

If we look closely at the 'Journal' we find that there are at least two 'voices' - that of an unidentified narrator/historian, who seems to be interpreting the actual ship's log; and that of the Admiral, Columbus himself, narrating events in the first person.



The Journal Form

The journal as a form purports to be a much more ‘objective’ report of a journey, than the prose writings of Polo and Mandeville. The day-by-day form seems to offer the direct witnessing of events as they happen. The sea log is intended as a scientific document supplementing maps and charts.

The journal of Columbus offers a fairly matter of fact day-to-day account until the momentous discovery of land. This moment has been retrospectively built into the 'beginnings' of America - a myth of origins. 1492 marked the beginning of the European settlement of the Americas and the systematic annihilation of its indigenous people. It has now been appropriated as the defining moment in the creation of America (note Columbus day on 8th October).



The structure and 'narration' of 'The Journal of Christopher Columbus'
The supposedly objective day-by-day form here looks very constructed. (Note that the extract we are using has missing days marked by asterisks - there should usually be an entry for each day). It was common for ship's logs to be 'polished up' for publication, but this one seems to have been greatly altered and embellished. The journal begins with a foreword by the Admiral addressed to his sponsors the King and Queen of Spain. The foreword anticipates the voyage, but it is almost certainly written after the voyage, and so it maintains a fiction (that the voyage is yet to come).

There are then short entries from the beginning of the voyage to first (real) sight of land. These entries record the distance covered and the direction sailed, but even here there are discrepancies, as the 'narrator' sometimes seems to assume the voice of the Admiral and at other times refers to him in the third person. (see for example, 30 Sept. to 8 Oct).

When land is discovered (11 Oct) long narrative passages are introduced 'in the words of the Admiral' himself. The journal then opens out into what we can describe as 'discovery narrative' or 'first encounter narrative'. Such narratives were to become extremely popular among European audiences who were captivated by stories of island paradises, exotic fruits and birds, naked or near naked Indians, and thrilled by tales of cannibals.

Discovery Narratives
In common with all 'first encounter' or discovery narratives, the encounter or discovery is all one-way - i.e. it is entirely as seen by the Europeans. There is little evidence that the Europeans concerned themselves with what the Indians might want or expect from the encounter. The Indians were regarded as curiosities first and then as providers of food, gold and labour.

For Columbus, the 'discovery' narrative is complicated by the fact that he desperately wants to 're-discover' Cathay and meet the Great Khan. The justification for the voyage was to return with riches from the East. His 'bag' of a few Indians, and a little gold and cotton from America must have been a great disappointment.

Although the journal is important as the first story of European beginnings in America, for Columbus this is not America, it is the Indies (Spain continued to call the ‘New World’ the West Indies until the 18th century). His eyes see America, but his mind sees the ‘East’ of Mandeville and Polo.

The Dumb-Show and the Silent 'Other'
We can see Columbus’s disappointment at seeing the tiny ‘primitive’ villages being slowly displaced by an increasingly delusory idea of ‘lost cities’ as he frantically searches for gold mines and evidence of the Great Khan’s empire. The place of the natives in all of this is increasingly secondary as the greed of the Europeans reduces them firstly to the insignificant ‘helpers’ of the heroic Columbus - their sole function being to point towards the place the gold comes from (or to send the foreigners off on a wild goose chase just to get them out of their village), secondly they become childlike objects of interest (sexual?), and are translated into the ‘noble savage’, or the inhabitants of an Earthly Paradise. But at the same time, the presence of the ‘grotesque’ and ‘monstrous’ East as described by Mandeville becomes evident, as stories of natives that eat the flesh of other men begin to circulate and the cannibal is located here.

So, this well-documented ‘first encounter’ of Europeans and native Indians, which has become the narrative of ‘discovery’, finds the European imagination assimilating what they see of native people with expectations largely informed by myth and fantasy (the grotesque and monstrous natives of Greek mythology via Mandeville).

BUT unlike Mandeville’s narrative, there is no dialogue with the natives, and certainly no attempt to understand the natives ‘on their own terms’. Clearly the natives, without any voice (there can be no dialogue as none of the Europeans can speak their language) are continually shaped by the Europeans. From potential helpers, pointing the way to an Exotic East, full of promised gold and riches, they become the irritating savages hiding their gold from the Europeans. From helpers to hinderers from noble savages to cannibals, the Indians are shaped according to the desires and aspirations of the Europeans.

Columbus as the Hero of his own Fable
We can see some influence from Polo and Mandeville and their literary heritage in Columbus's story of discovery. Columbus believes he has entered the Eastern extremities of the Indies described by Mandeville, and this is a veil obscuring the evidence of his eyes. Literary heritage also alters the telling of the story. The journal is not an objective account at all, but the story of a hero, Columbus - a latter-day Odysseus, Jason or Sinbad. The author is the hero of his own fable and what we read is often the subjective account of Columbus, telling us something about his state of mind as well as what he might have actually seen. What is ‘discovered’ is shaped by Columbus’s imagination, and as we have already seen, this is an imagination capable of considerable self-deception (the size of the earth, also not believing the actual readings of his actual position and sailing off in the opposite direction on a whim). And it is an imagination very much influenced by literature, for a medieval explorer, this is perhaps not so surprising.

Columbus in Paradise
It seems that Columbus's voyage becomes wrapped up with his destiny. There is self-representation in the Journal, and we find out about the man directly and indirectly through his writing (assuming it is his writing). We sense that Columbus is emotionally involved in the journey and the discovery of Paradise, as seen in his descriptions of landscapes. In the writings of Mandeville and Polo, descriptions of landscape rarely suggest aesthetic response to the beauty of the landscape, but Columbus describes an Arcadian Paradise (an idyllic rural utopia from the place and poetry of Classical Greece, but a strong theme in late 15th and 16th century European literature). The literary referents as well as mention of the countryside of Spain shift the imagery to Europe and suggest an aesthetic appropriation of the New World. This shift in register is sometimes read as a kind of romanticism in which Columbus’s own state of mind, (the euphoria of arrival) is projected onto the natural scenery.

Apart from actually being the first European to sail directly from the European mainland to the Americas and record the voyage (and repeat it), Columbus has little to do with the 'reality' that the New World was to become. It was another explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who can be said to have discovered America as an actuality. It was his name (feminised) - Amerigo/America - that was chosen by European geographers for the New World (although the Spanish continued to refer to the West Indies, a name now reserved for the islands that were indeed the first to be explored by Columbus and his contemporaries). Vespucci re-captured the imagination in his writings by describing the New World as a new beginning, a ‘real’ and visitable Earthly Paradise, not the mythical paradise of the East described by Mandeville (although of course in a sense it is the same idea, re-mythologised and re-located).



New World Reality
In this New World of Vespucci’s, the natives are problematic. The New World seems to be a place for new beginnings almost entirely of a monetary nature, backed by official religion. It is not in the first instance a place for new beginnings of a moral or humanist nature (although this would come in time as various persecuted religious groups and utopians would try to establish communities in America). Mandeville’s veiled critique of the West through his representations of the East as a plural and religiously tolerant realm, and his delight in the variety and difference within the human race, entirely devoid of racism and prejudice is blown away in the European, militaristic Christian grab for land. Almost immediately the natives of the West Indies and South America, who, for Columbus were the same natives Mandeville describes so affectionately, were represented as savage cannibals and subject to systematic genocide.

In the New World, the European imagination is freed to wander at will, redefining nature and people in terms of their use-value first, and their monetary value second. Travel writing of the time is generally imperialist in that it erases existing native places, projects new geographies on them, and incorporates them into European-centred history and systems of knowledge. In the Americas, more so than in other colonies, the imperial project is followed up by the brutal reality of imperial genocide. So the 'fabulous reality' of diverse peoples reported by Mandeville is incorporated into this imperialist singularity.

Unlike medieval pilgrims, merchants and missionaries, Columbus took heavily armed soldiers on his voyages. His main intent might have been the challenge of crossing the ocean, and proving his theory that China could be reached by a Western route (a theory which was rather flawed) - he may have been primarily an ambitious and professional sailor, but he also acted for and on behalf of the Spanish King and Queen who sponsored him, and as such, he worked to their orders and design, which were expansionist and imperialist. Columbus acts for and helps realise the imperialist ambitions of Spain, and his main concern after finding land is to assess the possibilities for exploiting it and imposing colonial power over the native population. This interpretation is supported by the letters and journals, although we have to recognize that these may not be altogether authentic or reliable (but then what is?). 
 

The Texts:

The Letter to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain (c. 1494)

The letter shows Columbus's intent to claim the island of 'Espanola' (Hispaniola, Cuba) as a Spanish colony. He outlines how the colony might be administered and how arrangements should be made for exploitation of the island, specifically the handling of gold. Convinced he has reached China, he mentions travelling on to 'Guisay' (Kinsai - Hang Chau), and sending letters to the 'Great Can'.



The Journal

Note the form of this travel writing - the ship's log, a daily account of events which suggests accurate observation and recording of events, as they occur. Actually these logs were always rewritten afterwards to reflect what happened (or what the captain wanted us to think happened) rather then events as they unfolded.

Columbus uses scientific observation and reads and interprets nature as it presents itself (e.g. 16-17 Sep), but in 'reading' the signs of land, the captain is perhaps turning empirical evidence into what he wishes to see. In fact, when land is first ‘sighted’, the ships are still two weeks away from landfall.

Some examples to consider in class:

1. Columbus as the 'hero' of the journey (23 Sept). Columbus sees himself as the biblical character Moses, leading Europeans to a new promised land. Note the sinister undertones: ‘naked’ as subjugation (sexual and imperial?). The representation of the natives shows an intent to dominate them. Natives are firstly naked and childlike, lacking authority and (patriarchal) command. But later they are represented as savages and cannibals, so 'justifying' the genocide that is to come when they refuse to cooperate with the colonialist invaders.

2. Possession (11 Oct) - Columbus renames local places, so incorporating them into European space and time. Local places, culture and history are swept aside as European history appropriates them.

3. Self-delusion (9 Sept) - Columbus deliberately falsifies scientific measurements.

4. Aesthetics and profit (19 Oct) - beauty in nature, but also in exploitation

5. To find Cathay (China) (21 Oct) - Columbus still expects to find the world of the Great Khan that he has read about in Polo and Mandeville.



Further Reading:

For the full texts of the letters and journals check the internet – these are widely available.

See also Mary B Campbell, The Witness and the Other World.

Bartolome de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account

Published in Spain in 1552, Las Casas's account of the Spanish mistreatment of American Indians provides evidence of the brutal facts of colonization, and this makes a sobering postscript to Columbus's triumphalist and imperialist accounts of discovery.

Las Casas was born in 1484. His father accompanied Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, and in 1502 he went to the West Indies himself where he was initially involved in the Spanish conquests there. But by 1514, he had become so disillusioned with colonialism and so concerned for the well-being of the native population that he began to preach against slavery, and released those slaves formerly given to him. By questioning Christian morality in the Spanish colonies, he introduces a counter discourse against imperialism, and in 1520 he explained his views to Charles I of Spain. Although he persuaded the king that mistreatment of the native population was not ultimately in the interests of Spain, and that the devastation of the Indies was lessening humanity rather than promoting Christian and humane values, the process of devastation continued. Publication of The Devastation of the Indies caused controversy in Spain. Its accounts of genocide portray an evil empire intent on greed, masked by the signs of Christian faith, but without the fundamental principles of Christianity. This is a criticism that echoes Mandeville.

According to Las Casas, some fifteen million of the native population of South America and the West Indies were killed by the Spaniards in the forty nine years following Columbus's voyage. Note the language used by Las Casas - the natives are like sheep, humble, patient, most devoid of wickedness and have no desire to possess worldly goods - they are indeed, perfect candidates for conversion to the Christian faith, Las Casas suggests. The Spaniards, on the other hand, behave like "ravening wild beasts, wolves, tigers, or lions ... killing, terrorizing, afflicting and destroying native peoples" (29). And the reason for this behaviour among the Spanish Christians? - greed for gold. For this, the Spanish slaughtered and enslaved the native peoples.


James Cook (1728 - 1779) - The Journals of Captain Cook (extract from the 2nd voyage 1772-1775)

James Cook led three famous expeditions to the Pacific Ocean: the first from 1768 to 1771 (around the world, Tahiti, New Zealand and Botany Bay and up the Eastern Australian coast), the second from 1772 to 1775 and the third from 1776 to his death in Hawaii in 1779. These three voyages capped centuries of European exploration in the Pacific. Since Magellan's voyage round South America to the Phillipines (1519-21), the Great South Land (Terra Australis Incognita) was the focus of attention. The continent was originally thought to extend from South Africa to South America. The Dutch were probably the first to reach Australia in the early 17th century. They reached Tasmania and the south island of New Zealand.


Cook is perhaps remembered most for his 'discovery' of New Zealand and his exploration of the East Coast of Australia, which led to the founding of a British settlement at Botany Bay. But his claim to fame lies not so much in his 'discoveries' as in his brilliant scientific mapping of the South Seas. His sponsors were not kings and queens, or even merchants, eager for gold, but rather the Royal Society and the Admiralty, who issued Cook with instructions to make astronomical measurements in Tahiti and to find, if it existed, the Great Southern Continent. Cook was a thoroughly 'modern' explorer - rational, scientific and (on the surface at least) humanist.

However, the history of modernity is not only one of science and enlightenment, it is also one of colonisation and imperialism, and looking back at Cook's writing through the glass of postcolonial criticism we are bound to see imperialist intent in Cook's seemingly objective and scientific reports. Or are we?
Cook was killed by natives on his return to Hawaii on his third voyage. On his first voyage, he was treated as a God, arriving at a time and in a manner which appeared to fit the predictions of the island's priests who proclaimed him the deity 'Lono' they had been expecting. Although Cook was a celebrated figure at home and in the South Seas, he appears from his journals to be a rather serious, detached and down-to-earth character. Historians have usually regarded him as a humanist and a tolerant man who took good care of his men and treated the natives fairly. But as with Columbus, when characters are involved in such epic voyages, which seem to stand for so much more than the journey itself, the main character is to some extent shaped by the ensuing legend. There is some evidence to suggest that the story of Captain James Cook is not quite as straightforward as the historical caricature usually presented.

The Journals

Cook wrote up his journals for the first two voyages in England in the year or so between voyages, which also gave him opportunity to extend his family before setting off again. The journals for the first and second voyages were written up by Cook himself in England, taking advice from his editors. But to Cook’s chagrin, other journals and part-fictionalised accounts of the voyages were written up and published by other officers on the voyages and by professional authors. These proved highly popular, but Cook was incensed by their inaccuracies.

But even Cook’s journals, which we are examining here, were written after the event, as well as the original manuscripts, all show much editing, erasing and rewriting. For the journal of the first voyage, Cook appears to have borrowed from the log of Joseph Banks, a scientist on the voyage, whose own account was also published (and rather better received by the public). In the journals of the first two voyages, Cook appears to have taken care to preserve the day-to-day accuracy of his log books from which they derive. On the third voyage on which he was killed, the log breaks off abruptly on 17th January 1779 where Cook begins to describe the ceremony during, or after which, he was probably killed. The journal of this third voyage is more novelistic in form, describing episodes stretching across several days at a time. It appears that Cook was attempting to turn this voyage into a book.



But there is a sense in which Cook's accounts are frustratingly incomplete. His contact with the native people is so often in passing. Time and again, the natives disappear into the interior, perhaps to appear later in another place (e.g. p. 262). For Cook, the contact zone is a narrow strip at the foreshore where the Europeans come to repair and supply their ships and to take away scientific samples (pp. 262-3). Even when Cook does have the natives in his company, he seems rather incurious about their lives, politics and customs, and rarely refers to them by name.

He discusses the natives 'on reflection' rather than in direct conversation (pp. 274-5), as though he is for some reason holding off direct contact with them. Perhaps this is in part due to Cook's nature, as a rather serious, detached, professional seaman. Perhaps it is partly due to the fact that he was censoring what he wrote, for his audience, firstly, the Admiralty, and then the members of the Royal Society, and the public, among whom there was a growing market for stories of all kinds about the South Seas. It appears that Cook did not wish to sensationalise his accounts, and may have deliberately under-reported what really went on between himself, his men and the native people. It appears he wanted to give the impression of being a highly moral, correct and disciplined officer, as well as countering the fanciful narratives of the South Seas with the facts.

Further Reading:


'The Journals of Captain James Cook' - three (rather old editions in the library). We are using the modern Penguin Edition. 


For background on the representation of the South Seas in travel writing and literature, see:

Neil Rennie, Far-fetched facts : the literature of travel and the idea of the South, (1995) in HKU library.
Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (1985)
Barbara Stafford, Voyage into Substance.
Nicholas Thomas, The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook (2003)

Points for discussion in class:

1. Cook has been described as a thoroughly modern explorer, 'a detached observer and objective recorder for whom science holds the key to the mysteries of the world'. How effective is this form of describing the world –what does leave out?

2. Columbus has been described as the last medieval traveller, 'vague, romantic, superstitious and informed by ancient learning rather than modern rationalism'. Consider Columbus’s use of texts to confirm the reality he experiences.

3. Take one example of first encounter (meeting the natives for the first time) from Cook and one from Columbus. What kind of image of the ‘other’ is formed in their descriptions, and in what ways do these differ?

Paul Smethurst (11/9/2012)

EXTRAS [Not included in the lectures]
Duarte Barbosa A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar

While the focus of attention for European explorers and colonists in the 16th century may have switched to the New World of the (West) Indies and America, the Portuguese continued to colonise enclaves all along the sea routes between Europe and the Far East. Their major colonies were set up for the purposes of trade in East Africa, Malabar (South East India) and Malacca (Southern tip of Malaysia). For much of the 16th century, the Portuguese controlled access to the East by sea, by holding Malabar and Malacca. By 1600, the Dutch and British had discovered the Portuguese routes to the East and began to bypass Malabar and started to set up their own colonies in the East Indies.

Duarte Barbosa was a cousin of the explorer Magellan. He sailed to South East Asia with the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century, spending sixteen years in the region and returning to Portugal in 1517. He was sometimes critical of the tactics and the zeal with which the Portuguese established trading posts and missions, but he was never as forthright as Las Casas in condemning colonialism and the behaviour of his compatriots. Of course, the situation is very different in Asia, as the colonialists were, initially, concerned with trading with the peoples of Asia, rather than establishing extensive colonies there. Most of the Portuguese possessions were enclaves, settled around strategic port locations.

Barbosa produced an account of his experiences on the sea voyages from Portugal to the Far East and his life in Malacca and Malabar. This makes interesting comparison with the medieval accounts of Polo and Mandeville. We can find a number of similarities in style and observation in their narratives:


- concern for language and religion 
- reference to "islands" which are not islands in the modern sense 
- emphasis on products and trade 
- lack of personal details and subjective/sentimental narrative


But Barbosa's account is more modern in that it is presented as first-hand experience, plainly told. For example, the details of Chinese eating habits and dress, which he presumably studied first-hand in places like Malacca where the Chinese and Formosans (Taiwanese) came to trade. The common misunderstanding of how porcelain is made shows how well-kept was the secret of this process. It would be some time yet before the Europeans were able to copy the fine porcelain products of China. The lack of information about China contrasts with considerable detail on Africa and the Middle East and Malabar, and this is evidence of just how closed China was at this time to Westerners. Since the land routes were no longer open to Westerners, cultural exchange was limited to contact in sea ports such as Malacca, and later Canton. And such exchange does seem to be limited to the necessities of trade only.



Walter Ralegh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (1596)

English travellers of the 16th century began to play an important part in establishing England as an imperial power. Ralegh's description here of Guiana in South America is a piece of propaganda for English colonialism. America did not immediately offer rich pickings for settlers from Europe, and travellers were at pains to paint a positive picture of their discoveries, in part not to disappoint their patrons.


This is an account of England's increasing confidence as a naval power. Ralegh describes how he came to Guiana via Trinidad, having taken and burnt the Spanish capital San Jose and taken the governor, Antonio Berreo captive. One objective of Ralegh's journey was to seek the legendary city of gold, El Dorado, but his writing also shows an ambition to extend the empire of Elizabethan England for glory itself as much as for material gain.
The travel literature of the 16th century English travellers such as Ralegh also played a major part in the history of English literature, providing rich material and feeding the imagination of many writers, including Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare. The depiction of the New World often fell back on common motifs from earlier writings, such as Biblical, Classical and medieval images of Paradise, and the idea of the journey as a heroic quest. As we have seen, Columbus cast himself in the role of hero, and Ralegh takes a similar line, although not quite regarding himself as the exceptional being Columbus does.

Ralegh is at pains to engage the reader, not just impress him/her with the facts. In this sense, he does not stand apart, but carries the reader along with him, as 
did Polo/Rustichello. Ralegh is also not quite so burdened with preconceptions as Columbus had been. Columbus does not discover the New World, 
but rather the Paradise he was expecting in the Far East - it is all familiar to him as Paradise, translated into familiar European and Classical terms where 
possible. Columbus offers a false narrative of encounter which has the quality of a dream.


But of course Ralegh is not having to describe Guiana for the first time. El Dorado existed in the minds of the Spanish explorers before he arrived, and his task is to witness the reality of the place and the feasibility of colonising it. The reference to Guiana as a "Countrey that hath yet her Maydenhead" (196) is usually regarded as an incite to the 'manly' English to take it - i.e. a challenge to the manhood of Englishmen.
In speaking of the native people, a major contrast can be seen with Columbus's descriptions of dumb, meek, undifferentiated and childlike Indians. Ralegh 
descibes the politics, customs and appearance of different tribes, suggesting that far more dialogue took place, and a greater degree of communication was now possible. (pp. 158-9).
In describing the beauty of the Indies, Ralegh still refers to the stock motifs of Paradise from ealrier literatures, here with an especially English flavour (the green parklands and deer drinking at the water's edge – p.163). But here they have more credence because they are interleaved with realistic accounts of weary and hazardous journeying through less attractive prospects. There is lack in the landscape as well as plenty, giving a more rounded and more realistic picture. (p.161)

Paul Smethurst 16.9.2009


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