week 2: the meeting of two worlds

As someone who couldn’t remember much background knowledge about Columbus, reading his journal was fascinating.  It was interesting to see how ingrained the colonial mindset was to him. Everything was for the servitude of the King and Queen. Seeing how Columbus essentially conditioned the islanders into admiring him and his men felt sleazy to read, as though he was preying off their unawareness.

The fact that their relations were so cordial at all took me by surprise as I am accustomed to hearing only the violent side of Columbus. Obviously since this is his journal there is a high degree of bias. The video mentioned that his journal was an exercise in self-justification, so it’d make sense that he would embellish the trip. Even so, he must have retained some form of accuracy as the intended audience for the journal would be a documentation for the queen. As someone who likes the subject of history, these are all good considerations when assessing Columbus’ journal as a source. But the fact remains that whatever was yet to come, reading Columbus’ peaceful interactions and enthused observations of the islands was something I hadn’t even considered before. That initial period of contact has largely evaded me as opposed to the subjugation that comes later.

When he describes the foliage of the islands as beautiful and even compliments the islanders as intelligent, it’s sad to realize that all of this comes with greedy ambitions. The islanders are only as intelligent as they are susceptible to be converted into Christianity. The beauty of the islands is mostly exotic eye-candy meanwhile the resources are ripe for the taking. It was admittedly satisfying to see this greed backfire on Columbus himself, such as when Martin Alonso Pinzon set sail for his own personal gain. Nonetheless, reading Colombus’ journal frustrated me because it felt like the potential for more genuine and peaceful relations were there, but the imperialism of that time prevented that from happening. By the same token, reading the Guaman Poma text revealed another perspective which pointed out these vices that I myself noticed. The Spaniards were portrayed as greedy and manipulative, happy only with the conquest-potential of the islands, whilst groups like the Incas Poma called generous.

In the end, my initial impression of Columbus was a simple man operating within the morality of his historical moment and who, by accident, had a large impact on history. My thoughts on him haven’t changed much; he was a product of his environment, which back then was in a expanding empire that held no regard for the lives of its subjects. But more so then before, I think Columbus largely failed at his task, especially when considering his next three voyages.

I am left with a question for discussion. What are the costs of running an empire as brutal as Spain’s? When I reflect on the way Columbus and his successors treated the indigenous population, I can only assume the brutality stems in part from the fact that slavery and other abuses are, practically speaking, profitable. It was the most pragmatic and self-preserving way of continuing Spain’s power. That being said, could there have been an alternative way for Spain to run its empire that would both benefit it in the long run whilst also treating its subjects with dignity?

From my knowledge, almost all cases of modernity being imposed on other nations have been violent and lopsided. But I do have a Portuguese friend who mentioned Lusotropicalism (not because he agrees with it but just for me to check), which argues Portugal was a more benevolent colonizer than other European nations. If anyone has something to say about that I’d love to hear it (but to clarify I know next to nothing about the theory).


4 thoughts on “week 2: the meeting of two worlds

  1. mirella reichenbach livoti

    Hi David,

    I have some thoughts regarding your discussion question. Personally, I don’t think there was ever means for Spain to run its empire in a financially beneficial way while treating the native population/ the colonized with dignity because European colonial enterprise was rooted in the belief that their civilization was superior justifying the “conquest” of other regions. The power dynamics of colonialism is inherently unequal and its consequences can be seen today when we talk about the Global North and Global South/ Global Periphery.

    In terms of this idea that Portugal was a more benevolent colonizer, I disagree completely. Portugal’s colonial enterprise in Brazil was based on the rape of indigenous women and African slaves. I don’t think it is fruitful to compare colonizers in terms of who was the most/ least benevolent.

    In addition this summer I read a book by the Brazilian sociologist Jessé Souza in which he criticized Gilberto Freyre, the intellectual behind the concept of Lusotropicalism, for his constructions of national myths that idealize Portuguese colonization and its legacy found in Brazilian society. I would suggest you look into these two intellectuals to understand how some of the national myths of Brazil have been constructed and criticized.

    From Mirella 🙂

    1. David Darbinian Post author

      Hi Mirella,

      I appreciate the response! I’ll definitely look into the two people you mentioned because I myself have only heard about lusotropicalism as a layman, and was a bit surprised to hear the word in the first place because naturally I was skeptical. I also agree with you that European colonization could not possibly have treated its subjects with dignity because, by definition, European colonization was a supremacist and religiously zealous endeavor. I still am wondering to myself though:
      What were the costs of running an empire as brutal as Spain’s?
      Even though the empires of that time operated brutally for (from what I can tell) profitable (and racist) motives, how much of that brutality in the end hindered the empire’s productivity and profit?

      1. mirella reichenbach livoti

        Hey David!

        I get why you still have these questions and I find them extremely valid!!! Do you think that the brutality hindered productivity and profit or was the brutality that made the empire’s wealth possible? I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which Spain, Portugal, and the other European colonial powers would have become as rich and powerful as they did without brutality. I can tell you though that the consequences of this brutality to the societies that were colonized is very much present to this day in the language and in social relations. Hope we can further discuss this in class 🙂

  2. cynthia lightbody

    Hi David!

    I was also frustrated reading the journal. There was definitely the potential for more genuine, peaceful and less violent relations. But like you say in your post, Columbus was a “product of his environment” who wanted to protect his image and maintain his confidence. In order to do so, he simply continued to justify his actions, both to the crown and to himself, and didn’t seem to care about anything else. It’s super hard to think about all the devastation caused by some of Columbus’s actions.


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