The Great Divide
which they were very pleased and became so friendly that it was a wonder to see. Afterwards they swam out to the ships’ boats where we were and brought parrots and balls of cotton thread and spears and many other things, and they bartered with us for other things which we gave them, like glass beads and hawks’ bells. In fact they took and gave everything they had with good will, but it seemed to me that they were a people who were very poor in everything. They go as naked as their mothers bore them, even the women, though I only saw one girl, and she was very young.’ After describing the people (now known to be Tainos) physically, and how they painted their bodies, Columbus went on, ‘They do not carry arms and do not know of them because I showed them some swords and they grasped them by the blade and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron: their spears are just shafts without a metal tip, and some have a fish tooth at the end.’
This date – 12 October 1492, and this encounter, between an Italian acting under royal Spanish auspices, and a people now known to have spread north from South America, near the Orinoco River in Venezuela – comprise an event of almost unrivalled importance in world history: the first meeting between the Old World and the New. Yet Columbus’s Journal , this part of it certainly, is a relatively tame document and even allowing for the fact that Spanish wasn’t his first (or even his second) language, it is not hard to see why. Columbus himself had no real idea of what he had discovered, or its significance. This is underlined by the fact that, even today, we don’t know where, exactly, this island was, or is. We know that it was in what are now called the Bahamas, and we know that the native name for the Bahamas was Lucayas. We also know that the native name for that particular island was Guanahaní but nothing more. Many islands in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos group fit Columbus’s description and, in all, some nine locations have been suggested. The most likely, according to modern scholars, are Watlings Island or Samana Cay.
Columbus and his crew were relieved to reach land, not least for the fact that they could take on fresh water. But he moved on quickly, the following day, on the afternoon of Sunday, 14 October. At that time it was not yet a legal requirement in Spain for ships’ captains to keep a log (that only happened in 1575), so we are perhaps fortunate in having anything at all in Columbus’s hand. But his style is very repetitive, his observations are very general and, as Barry Ife has observed, the admiral’s first aim seems to have been to make everything familiar – he constantly compared the terrain he had discovered with rivers and landscapes in Seville or Andalusia, rather than specifying what was new or exotic (though he did this later). ‘Columbus’s response to the natural beauty of the islands is undoubtedly genuine, but it is also strategic. Each island is the most beautiful that eyes have ever seen. The trees are green, straight and tall, fragrant and full of singing birds. The rivers are deep, the harbours wide, wide enough to embrace all the ships of Christendom . . . what Columbus describes is not so much what he saw, as the sense of wonder with which he saw it.’ 6
There is, therefore, hidden in Columbus’s account, a sense in which he was disappointed in what he found on the far side of the Atlantic. This may seem strange to us, who are the beneficiaries or the victims of his achievement, but Columbus’s disappointment relates – of course – to the well-known fact that, to the end of his life, he maintained ‘that he had reached the “Indies” he had set out to find. He had landed on islands close to Cipangu ( Japan), and on the mainland of Cathay (China).’ 7
This insistence shows that all manner of historical forces were represented by Columbus, whether he knew it or not. In the first place, his voyages were the culmination in a mammoth series of navigational triumphs that had begun centuries earlier. Some of these voyages had been much longer than Columbus’s, and no less hazardous. In some ways, they collectively represent humankind’s most astounding characteristic: intellectual curiosity. Man’s medieval ventures into the unknown are, save for space travel, simply impossible for us to share and therefore separate us from Columbus’s time in a fundamental way.
Low-key as Columbus’s landfall
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