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America Illusion And Reality
No event in the history of Western man provided so profound a shock as the discovery of America
August 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 5
America was an experience man could only have once. Knowledge of China, knowledge of Africa, festooned as it was with the Spanish moss of myth and legend, had penetrated Europe from the days of Imperial Rome and beyond. When discovered, the animals of Australasia were stranger by far than America’s, and the aborigines and the bushmen of Tasmania were more primitive, even more uniformly naked than the Caribs whose appearance was so startling to Columbus. By then the strangeness of the Americas had destroyed the sense of novelty. There could only be one New World.
When confronted by novelty, men try to domesticate what is strange and alien; they attempt to fit the exotic into their cherished intellectual schemes and to absorb it into their interpretation of the world and its past. They retain, as it were, a husk of strangeness in which to take delight, or to weave fantasies, or worse still to construct rationalizations of their own evil intentions. The discovery of America had all of these effects and more, for no event in the history of Western man provided so profound a shock to the imagination or to the mind. And yet one might argue that the most important results of this discovery were far more mundane—maize, tobacco, gold, fur—the never-ending abundance of the land that led to the rape of a continent which became a golden pasture for human locusts.
Columbus, amazed, unsure, reluctant to accept that he was not in the Indies, found it easier to fit the Caribs into the legend of the Golden Age. As Peter Martyr, the friend of Columbus, wrote in the early 1500’s, they “seem to live in that golden world of which old writers speak so much, wherein men lived simply and innocently without enforcement of laws, without quarrelling, judges and libels, content only to satisfy nature.” This was the beginning of that ever-lengthening legend of the innocence of America which shifts from island to the mainland, from Caribs to noble Indian chiefs. It took many centuries to die; indeed, it is hardly dead yet, for nowadays the innocence has been transferred to the wilderness, to the desert, to the primitive land still unscarred in the West.
The theory that the naked Caribs lived in innocent bliss was soon dispelled. The Spaniards learned with horror that the Caribs hung up the hams of men and women to cure in the sun like sides of bacon. They relished the taste of human flesh; for them it was a gourmet’s revenge on an enemy. When the Spaniards began to root themselves inefficiently in Hispaniola, the denizens of the Golden Age rapidly became subhuman. The Spaniards stressed their cannibalism, their nakedness, their fornication, and their frequently deviant and public sexuality. This savage paganism made their salvation imperative and their servitude justifiable.
The Caribs wanted neither salvation nor servitude. Killed, hunted, tortured, beaten, and worked to death, they soon began to vanish, until genocide was virtually accomplished. Today scarcely any remain, but before they almost totally disappeared they had woven themselves into the imagination of Europe, as Hugh Honour has shown us in his recent book The New Golden Land , which is a brilliant discussion of the way the discovery of America haunted the European artistic imagination.
These Caribs, however, did more than stimulate the imagination. The brutal treatment accorded to them unleashed the passion of Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose bitter pen damned Spanish cruelty to a believing world of French, British, Germans, and Dutch—who, however, behaved no better themselves once they got a foothold in the New World. But Las Casas’ fiery words and the undeniable truth of his tale of the brutalities, the killing, the torturing, and the wholesale destruction of primitive peoples started an enduring theme in America’s history that still resonates in our own day. It is a long, bloody, bitter, and sad road that leads from Hispaniola to the slaughter at Wounded Knee or the atrocities in the forests of Brazil. Innocence and betrayal, fascination and disgust, illusion and reality, these have so often been the dual response of Europeans to the primitive peoples of America.
The discovery of America led to an appalling destruction of human life—probably over twenty million died in a half century—a fact all too rarely depicted in the artistic vision of America. It was the strangeness, the exotic nature of the people, the ornaments, their color that entranced the artist. They might pose them like classical heroes, but they dressed them in their own feather headdresses and feathered skirts or left them stark naked. For the first two decades these natives remained amorphous, exotic yet somewhat unreal, like strange Europeans. Many artists who painted them had never seen an Indian, although from Columbus’ first voyage a few men and women had been ripped from their homes to be displayed as curiosities in the courts of Europe.