Discovering America or Inventing It?

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On October 12, many people in the Americas and in Spain celebrate the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, who was subsequently dubbed by Queen Isabella the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” Yet, the results of this so-called “discovery” decimated the indigenous populations of America that had “discovered” the Americas thousands of years previously.

Christopher Columbus, “Orbis Terrarum,” and “Indians”

The Europeans who subsequently followed Columbus often saw the Native Americans, (called “Indians” because Columbus was essentially lost when he stumbled upon them), as less than human and fair game for exploitation and enslavement. Indeed, the New World was largely seen by Europeans as a source of raw materials and, eventually, a market for manufactured goods. In short, most Europeans saw the New World not for what it really was or the people for who they really were, but for what the Europeans expected or hoped to find. In other words, America, as perceived by Europeans, was at least as much of an invention of the European mind as it was a discovery.

When Columbus first sailed from the realm of Queen Isabella of Castile y Leon and King Ferdinand of Aragon, he was bound for India and Cathay (modern-day China) in the hopes of establishing a trade route that would avoid the complications of Mediterranean piracy and the Silk Road across Asia. Tea, silk, sugar, spices, and opium had come into demand in Europe through these routes, and the linen cloth of northwestern Europe was desired by Near East traders who sent the cloth on its way across Asia.

The question of the distance traveling west from the Mediterranean to Cathay was one that was badly underestimated by Columbus. There was an argument going on at the time, not regarding whether or not the world was flat, rather the debate was over how big the known land mass, often called “Orbis Terrarum” — modern-day Eurasia and Africa — was in relation to the “Ocean Sea.” Was the land mass much greater than that of the sea? If so, as Christopher Columbus believed, it would not be that far to Cathay and India, and it could be reached from Spain. On the other hand, if Columbus was wrong and the sea was much larger than Orbis Terrarum, any ship sailing to the west would likely never be heard from again.

As we now know, Columbus was dead wrong, and it was only the presence of the Americas that kept him and the crews of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria from being lost forever in the vast Ocean Sea. Indeed, he did not even go halfway when he found the people he misnamed “Indians” welcoming him and his entourage into their realm.

The “Monstrous Races”

Europeans had a lot of ideas about what existed in the world beyond their experience when they began to venture forth in pursuit of resources and markets. Classical writers, particularly the Greek geographer Ptolemy, had written of the so-called “monstrous races” that inhabited the outer reaches of the world. The “blemmye,” (no head, face in chest), the dog-eared man, humans with horns and hooves, or doubled limbs, or a giant foot for shade; these were what many expected to find beyond the known world.

That these notions were implanted in the minds of many Europeans is an important part of why it could be said that America was “invented.” When Europeans encountered people who were strange to them, many of their fears were projected onto the unwitting peoples of America and what they actually saw was not Native Americans as they were, but sub-human “monsters” who had no religion (no churches), no government (no king), and no morals (little clothing in warm climates). The indigenous people of the European mind were not the same as real indigenous people. In other words, they were invented.

Three Schools of Thought in Renaissance Europe: Classicists

In Europe at this time, there were basically three schools of thought among those who were literate and had had some formal education, (a very small percentage of the population). First were the Classicists. These were people who put great stock in the Greek and Roman texts that had recently been discovered in the Near East by crusading Christians and brought back to Europe. Some thought that the classical writers knew essentially all there was to know, and all that needed to be done was find and translate their works.

Scholasticists

Another school of thought in this Renaissance period was that of the Scholasticists. They were probably the largest group of the three and had arisen from the monasteries in modern-day France, England, Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere. The French king who had nurtured these schools in the eighth and ninth centuries was Charlemagne. He caused colleges and universities to be constructed in and around these monasteries.

Scholasticists were essentially apologists; that is, they sought out biblical passages that were difficult to explain or reconcile with either classical texts or experience and tried to explain them in a logical manner. They were committed Christians, and believed that the Bible was basically true, so any discrepancy had to be explained. Apologists for Christianity and the Bible remain, of course, common to this day and have modern colleges and universities of their own.

Humanists

The third major school of thought in Renaissance Europe was that of the Humanists. These were the “wild-eyed radicals” of their day. They thought that yes, possible the classical texts were accurate, and yes, the Bible was possibly accurate, but there is no substitute for human perception and empirical experience. In other words, they put their own lived experience and experimentation on a par with, and even ahead of, the writings of both the classical authors and the authors of the Bible.

It was dangerous to be a Humanist in this period; one could lose one’s head or be burned at the stake if one’s claims were considered a threat to the established order of the church or monarchy. Nevertheless, it was the humanist view that held forth eventually and the scientific method became a renowned institution in the modern world.

Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci

These different schools of thought played a significant role in the unfolding age of the “merchant adventurer” and colonization of the New World. As mentioned above, classicists might expect some sort of sub-human creature on two (or more) legs to emerge from the forests of the New World. But for many years Europeans could not agree even on whether or not they were looking at a New World or if it was, as Columbus claimed, Asia.

Primary source documents found by the Mexican scholar Edmundo O’Gorman point to the fact that Columbus suspected but was unwilling to publicly admit that the lands he had found were not Asia. Columbus was a scholasticist; the Bible said nothing of a New World and he was not ready to fully embrace the possibility of its existence.

On the other hand, another Italian sea captain – Amerigo Vespucci – in the service of Isabella and Ferdinand sailed down the coast of South America on the assumption that it was the modern-day Malay Peninsula. Europeans knew roughly what the east coast of Asia was like, and that the southern reaches of it were tropical. They believed that there was a peninsula they called the “Golden Chersonnese” that, if one found the way around it, would lead into the Indian Ocean.

This route was the one Vespucci searched for in vain for weeks. Sailing south out of the tropical regions, he knew from his knowledge of maps of Asia that the Golden Chersonnese could not extend into temperate waters. Being a humanist, Vespucci was more able to simply state that the lands he observed had to be Novus Mundus — a New World. Another humanist, Peter Martyr living in what is today Italy, wrote as early as 1493 that Columbus had found a New World. Martyr, a scholar in his own right in a world where such people were very rare, had calculated the circumference of the earth and concluded, correctly, that Columbus had not even gone halfway.

Professor O’Gorman believed that Columbus went to his grave unconvinced that the Americas were not in fact Asia. But his labeling of the “Indians” is only one example of how the Europeans invented and continued to invent what they saw as time and colonization progressed. It could be argued that people of European extraction still don’t totally comprehend the lands they now call home; the land is often treated as something to be plundered and exploited. This “colonial” attitude did not disappear with the rise of an indigenous population of colonists. This remains an important point of departure for numerous political and philosophical debates that can be traced back to “discovery” or “invention.”

Sources:

Grafton, Anthony with April Shelford and Nancy Siraisi. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

O’Gorman, Edmundo. The Invention of America: An Inquiry into the Historical Nature of the New World and the Meaning of Its History. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1961.