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Imperialism vs. the Indigenous Perspective - by Zackary Vignali

Student: Zackary Vignali

Instructor: Ellen Perry

Class: American Literature I

Written date: 20 October 2019

Imperialism vs. the Indigenous Perspective in “The Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca” and Columbus’s “Letter of Discovery”

The American societies that exist today are much different than they were five hundred years ago. Looking at the first European conquests of the New World it becomes clear that some of the major objectives to such explorations were rooted in staunch desires to acquire the rich wealth they had believed to be there. This Imperialistic notion undermined the already existing cultures of the land which caused conflict to the indigenous communities as well as to the environments and ecosystems of which they inhabited. The imperialistic views of the first explorers would ultimately set a paradigm which would continue late into the twentieth century with ideas like slavery and deep segregation. Despite the harsh results of European conquest in the Americas, it should be noted that there were, within the ranks, individuals who valued and sought to understand and learn from the natives rather than to enslave and terminate them. In that regard, this paper will examine the differences between Alvar Nuñez’s point of view using tone and word choice in The Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeeza de Vaca and that of Columbus in his “Letter of Discovery.”

In the opening chapter Alvar Nuñez’s piece he writes a letter to the Christian clergy demonstrating that he is an adamant Christian and European at heart. However, it is obvious that the nine years he spent travelling around Texas and Northern Mexico humbled his initially imperialistic ideals. For example Nuñez writes:

I can say for myself that I undertook the march abroad, on royal authorization, with a firm trust that my service would be as evident and distinguished as my ancestors’,[…] But my counsel and constancy availed nothing toward those objectives we set out to gain, in your interests, for our sins. (73)

The imperialistic mindset is represented as Nuñez writes about the royal authorization which he had initially set out with. The fact that he admits to his failures demonstrates a humbler outlook in contrast to Columbus’s self-righteousness. Columbus in his Letter of Discovery begins with recording his great success and his acquisition of slaves: “And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me.” (59). The difference in their opinions could also be due to the vastly different outcomes of both Columbus’s and Nuñez’s voyages. And, in this regard Columbus’s imperialistic ignorance was never able to be unwound like Nuñez’s was.

To look at the credibility of both pieces it becomes clear that Nuñez’s information regarding the indigenous communities is more qualified because of the intimate relations he shared with the tribes he lived with. Nuñez was shipwrecked and washed ashore where he lived with various indigenous tribes for nine years until rescue. Nuñez’s piece reflects this as it is written like a personal narrative which revolves around the “I” perspective, this directly contradicts the judgmental view point that Columbus takes in his letter. Columbus however, immediately acquired wealth and his journey was initially considered a success. Columbus immediately portrays the natives as timid and meekly:

“They have no iron or steel weapons, nor are they fitted to use them, […] because they are very marvelously timorous.” (60). The tone under which Columbus describes the indigenous populations is condescending whether intentionally or not, and this view of them, could further support the imperialistic ideals that manifested themselves throughout the New World. Columbus further writes about how the indigenous people were “guileless” and “savages” and speaks as though they loved him like they would love a God: “They are always assured that I come from Heaven.” (Columbus 61).

Nuñez on the other hand seldom directs adjectives towards the indigenous populations and cultures he encounters and instead focuses on describing his own personal experiences. This strengthens the credibility of his claims as he was able to describe his first-hand encounters of what he witnessed instead of expressing dogmatic beliefs about an unknown people.

To approach the works of both Columbus and Nuñez’s pieces from a literary standpoint the vast and beautiful array of description that Columbus uses to express the New World should be noted. In this regard the letter succeeds at grasping the reader’s attention to the wonders of an unknown and foreign land. It can be demonstrated when he describes seeing present-day Dominican Republic for the first time, writing:

Its lands are high, and there are in it very many sierras and very lofty mountains, beyond comparison […] All are most beautiful, of a thousand shapes […] filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, and they seem to touch the sky. And I am told that they never lose their foliage […] for I saw them as green and as lovely as they are in Spain in May, and some of them were dowering, some bearing fruit, and some in another stage, according to their nature. (Columbus 60).

This beautiful description of the New World also has a potentially symbolic element to it, especially when considering how Columbus has describes the indigenous peoples. The way that Columbus depicts the world and then the peoples draws parallels to the Garden of Eden.

He says of them: “All go naked, man and women, as their mothers bore them.” (Columbus 60). The lushness in the scene above is described as though it were a paradise. The description of the timorous and naively loving ways of the natives could also be deemed as symbolic for the gentle and innocent ways of Adam and Eve whilst in the garden. Nuñez in his writings does not utilize any such verbosity and approaches his work in a more pragmatic manner almost as though he were writing an anthropological study. These differences in style further emphasize the difference in perspectives between both Columbus and Nuñez.

One of the most significant differences between the two works is how blatant Columbus’s imperialistic attitude is towards everything around him. Throughout “Letter of Discovery” Columbus speaks of the world as though it were a land to be conquered and besieged rather than a land to be learned about and traded with. This is demonstrated through Columbus’s entitled tone of voice as he takes it upon himself to name each island he comes across in honor of Christendom and the Monarchy: “And from that cape I saw another island distant eighteen leagues from the former, to the east, to which I at once gave the name ‘Española.’” (60). Columbus’s imperialism is also emphasized as he continuously mentions the islands in terms of value and wealth: “[…] the plains and arable lands and pastures are so lovely and rich for planting and sowing, for breeding cattle of every kind, for building towns and villages.” (60). This is also accentuated when talks about the native’s reaction to his crew’s trinkets: “They took even the pieces of the broken hoops of the wine barrels, and like savage, gave what they had.” (Columbus 61). In comparison, Nuñez’s speaks against this perspective, as he shares the thoughts of his indigenous counterparts:

The Indians paid no attention to this. Conferring among themselves, they replied that the Christians lied: We had come from the sunrise, they from the sunset; we healed the sick, they killed the sound; we came naked and barefoot, they clothed, horsed, and lanced; we coveted nothing but gave whatever we were given, while they robbed

whomever they found and bestowed nothing on anyone. (79)

Seeing the indigenous perspective offers a contrary opinion to the idea that the natives were “timid and meek” people. The perspective that Nuñez confers in this quote shows the disdain that the indigenous had towards the Europeans which is hard to comprehend from solely reading Columbus’s letter.

Reading these pieces together offers two very distinct points of view on the Early Modern cultures of the New World. Based on the two totally different experiences of both Columbus and Nuñez; two conquistadors under the name of Christendom were able to have totally separate perspectives regarding the cultures of the New World. This comes to show how one’s experiences are more relevant to their perceptions on the world than their ethnicity or culture are. Showing ultimately that regardless of someone’s background it is truly the experiences that they have which defines them. In that way the comparison of these works highlights the importance for one to seek a rich and diverse cultural experience as it is the only way to shed the cultural ignorance that separates mankind. The effects of imperialism have been felt into the twenty first century, the world is still heavily divided by cultural beliefs and backgrounds, but as Alvar Nuñez showed, it is possible to understand a completely foreign culture by simply, living in their shoes.

Works Cited

Columbus, Christopher. "Letter of Discovery." The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865. 9th ed. Vol. 1. Eds. Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 59-64. Print.

Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca, Alvar. "The Relation of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca." The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1865. 9th ed. Vol. 1. Eds. Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 73-79. Print.