- What did you think of Columbus before you looked at his account?
As a student from Australia, my knowledge of Columbus is limited, however, having learned about the fall of the Aztecs due to the efforts of the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés, my impression of the Spanish in the ‘early days’ of what is considered ‘modern’ Latin America is overwhelmingly negative. Furthermore, from exposure to American media, my negative perception of Columbus has persisted, owing to the horrendous treatment of and atrocities committed against the indigenous Latin Americans during and well after colonisation, including genocide, enslavement, forced conversion to Catholicism, and the destruction of culture and society.
- How did your thoughts change after reading about events in his own words?
After reading Columbus’ first-hand account of the expedition, it is difficult to say that my opinion has changed significantly. Due to the fact that the account was written by Columbus himself for the King and Queen of Spain, it is easy to doubt its credibility. Indeed, Columbus may have (and most likely) intended to glorify and exaggerate his feats, and sell to the King and Queen the benefits of his expedition. In this account, Columbus painted himself as benevolent towards the Natives and refers to them paternalistically, however, I am doubtful that the Natives would have seen him in such a noble light as he himself had suggested. He also repeatedly refers to the natives as “cowards,” “faint-hearted,” and overall bad at fighting.
Thoughts on the Readings
What I found particularly interesting about the two readings was the drastically dissimilar ways in which both authors described the events that transpired, as well as the light they chose to portray them in, particularly with regard to (1) the pursuit of valuable resources, and (2) the way in which the Natives received the Spanish.
- Pursuit of Valuable Resources
In Columbus’ account, he makes various references to particularly important resources, such as gold, precious stones, pine (for building ships), and fresh water. It is clear that he is attempting to sell the benefits of the land in his account to the King and Queen of Spain. As I continued to read the entries, I became increasingly aware of the significant references he makes to gold (a quick ctrl + f found over 40 references to gold). Indeed, finding a source of gold seemed to be a paramount objective of the expedition, and Columbus notes that he became angry at his men for not bargaining for a piece of gold they had seen in a dog’s nose.
Guaman Poma’s account, however, portrays the Spanish pursuit of gold in an overwhelmingly negative light, commenting on the all-consuming greed of the Spanish Captain Generals. Whilst I am also doubtful of the accuracy of his claims (especially regarding one where they apparently “could not eat for thinking of gold and silver”), it is clear that Guaman Poma was attempting to provide an alternative account of the conduct of the Spanish in Latin America following Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the region.
- Relationship with the Natives
Another point of contention in the accounts that struck me was the overwhelmingly different ways Spanish treatment of the Natives was portrayed, as well as the relationship that the Spanish forged with the Natives. In Columbus’ account, he insists that the Natives were treated respectfully, and further suggests that the Natives received them warmly and were quick to tell others that they meant no harm and “were good people.” I severely doubt that was the case, and it is almost humorous to read Columbus’ inferences about the way in which the Natives perceived them. The account also details that six (or seven) Natives were taken by the crew for the purposes of teaching them Spanish and presenting them to the King and Queen. He writes as if he means them no harm; as if they are diplomatic guests, but goes on to refer to them as “prisoners” in later accounts – which I found rather jarring given his previous references to the Natives.
In contrast, Guaman Poma provides what seems to be a more historically accurate account of the events that took place and the state of the relationship between the Spanish and the Natives (or at least, more in line with the narrative I have become accustomed to). Rather than welcome the Spanish generously, Guaman Poma recounts that the Incan Atagualpa with the Spanish “did not have to make friendship, as he too was a great lord in his kingdom.” Additionally. whereas Columbus made the observation that the Natives “were people who would be more easily converted to our Holy Faith by love than by coercion,” Guaman Poma suggests that religious tensions between the two groups were far more severe. Indeed, the simple act of an Incan Atagualpa throwing the Bible onto the floor seemingly led to a massacre of the tribe due to the perceived disrespect of the Catholic religion.
Overall, I am still generally confused about the accuracy of both of the accounts, however, it is clear that this confusion regarding the true events that transpired following the Spanish ‘discovery’ of Latin America have contributed to the myth of Columbus and the character dichotomy of hero or villain.