H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 2

In some ways, the sixteenth century — after Columbus “discovered” “America” in 1492 and before England colonized Jamestown in 1607 — saw a dramatic collision of cultures and consequent alteration in the world.  In other ways, these new collisions were a continuation of already longstanding long-distance trade relationships between and within Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and within the Americas.  Adding a new hemisphere, North and South America, to the European equation made an already complex world that much more complicated, and prompted Europeans to examine not only their sense of others but also their sense of themselves.  One concrete result was new patterns of trade.  Another was new practices of violent conquest, which were for many Europeans very tempting and for some quite troubling.  Portugal led in establishing wide-ranging new trading routes; Spain led in conquering vast swathes of territory and people; at first Holland, England, and France lagged behind, uncertain how to compete against their Iberian rivals.  Meanwhile, indigenous peoples in coastal Africa and Asia found themselves presented with new trading partners, as they were strong enough to prevent Europeans from entertaining any thought of conquest.  Some indigenous peoples in the coastal Americas, on the other hand, found themselves confronted by outsiders who soon ruthlessly switched from trade to conquest and expropriation.  Tragically, the greatest toll came not from murderous killing, but from disease rampaging through and decimating Native American communities.  This week we will look at efforts on all sides to grapple with startling cultural difference, and especially with the eruption of shocking violence and destruction.


Columbus, Letter (1493):  This published letter by Columbus rapidly became the equivalent of a bestseller in Europe, since the reading public (socially elite, because literacy rates were extremely low, and books were a luxury good) was eager to learn about the remarkable new places that had been “discovered” on the other side of the world.  What were the deficiencies Columbus perceived in the New World?  What were the attractions?  Did Columbus significantly doubt his ability to communicate with or understand the Native Americans he encountered?  Did he ever wonder about his ability to understand the meanings of his actions?

Requerimiento (1513):  This document was incorporated into an elaborate ceremony employed by Spanish conquistadors to fortify their sense of legal title over territory, simply upon arrival in a new place, prior to any subsequent military conquest.  It was read aloud, in Latin, on the beach wherever a Spanish ship landed.  What authority did the document cite to construct a sense of “rightful” dominion over territory?  What would be the consequences of resistance by indigenous peoples who might oppose such claims of dominion over their lives and lands (assuming, ridiculously, that they understood Latin!)?


Sepulveda, Democrates Alter (1547):  Sepulveda, a Spanish intellectual who never traveled to the Americas but who had political influence, drafted this document in response to murmurings of dissent among the Spanish political elite against the aggressive military conquest of indigenous peoples in South and Central America.  How did Sepulveda justify such destruction as rightful?  What justification did he cite from European cultures?  What justication did he cite from indigenous cultures?  In what ways did indigenous cultures resemble European cultures?  In what ways did they seem, to Sepulveda, fundamentally different?

Las Casas, Brevissima Relacion (1552):  Las Casas was one of the rare voices of (partial) dissent in the Spanish political community.  Invited in 1550 to debate Sepulveda at the royal court at Valladolid, he was unable to sway officials to change their imperial program or to end the violent conquest of indigenous peoples.  In contrast to Sepulveda, Las Casas had spent many years in the New World and witnessed firsthand the clash between Spaniards and Native Americans.  How did he criticize that destruction as unjust?  What arguments did he marshall from European cultures?  What arguments did he marshall from indigenous cultures?

Harriot, A briefe and true report (1590):  An astronomer who had traveled to North America, Thomas Harriot drafted this report to counter skepticism on the part of English investors disappointed in a disastrous earlier English colonial venture at Roanoke — the so-called “Lost Colony” where everyone disappeared.  Harriot sought to tempt skeptical investors first with a catalogue of natural commodities (other than gold) which might potentially be extracted from the east coast of North America.  He then suggested how the terrible toll of disease might be manipulated by future English colonizers to establish a kind of superiority over Native Americans resident in North America.  Did Harriot explain why such superiority had NOT been apparent before — and without — the toll of disease?  Did he give any indication that Native Americans had been resisting English incursions in North America?  Did he expect such resistance to continue?  Why or why not?