Week 2: On Columbus and Guaman Poma

Columbus’ journal and Guaman Poma’s chronicle are narratives of two separate historical events, yet they are essentially the same. Whether it’s Columbus exploring around Cuba, or the Spaniards taking over Peru, we see the encounter of two worlds, the invasion of a more civilized, more technologically and economically advanced, capitalistic world to a primitive and resources-abundant world.

The invasion seems natural to me. The westerners’ avarice for gold and the will to subject and evangelize the Indies do not infuriate me, nor do the Indies’ gullibility and doomed fate grieve me. They once did, but now cease to provoke much emotion. Such encounter and invasion are endlessly repeated in history and even nowadays, only in slightly altered forms.

The readings easily made me think of my country’s history, the period when the dynastic China was decaying and the capitalist world blighted China. Particularly, I relate the meeting between Atagualpa and the Spaniards to the meeting of Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty with the British ambassador. Qianlong mandated that the British ambassador kowtow to him and refused the proposition of making a treaty for commerce, believing he was the one and only majestic ruler of the world and that China abounded in everything. Although Qianlong did not share Atagualpa’s fate of imprisonment and seeing his people decimated, China’s later sufferings was not better than that of many Latin American countries. As a Chinese I used to wish for a “better” history for my country. If only the emperors were more open-minded and less complacent… but there is no “if” in history.

As for today, invasions take on a more civilized and courteous facade. In China there are incidences of exploiting ethnic minority’s residential area, mainly for tourism. Urban people and businessmen want to make money from the picturesque nature and fascinating cultural atmosphere, and for the locals’ sake, they claim, to boost the economy in those usually poor areas. Unlike colonizing, there’s no massacre or enslaving, but the local people’s lives and living environment also change dramatically. Modern technology, customs, and beliefs seep in, but who can guarantee that it’s for the better?

Another thing I found interesting from Columbus’ journal is the division within the explorers. For instance, the captain of one caravel sailed away without Columbus’ permission, driven by greed for gold. Although a common pursuit unites people, desires make people selfish ultimately.

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