Historical Perspective: Chronology to 1600 50,000 - 12,000 B.C. – No one is quite certain as to when Asians first migrated to North America. These dates represent the extreme earliest possible date of entry and the extreme latest possible date of migration. Perhaps as early as 8,000 B.C. the migration had reached the southern tip of South America. Estimates range as to the population of the Americas in the late fifteenth century, when the first important contact was made with Europeans. Some scholars believe that as many as 100 million people lived in Central and South America at this time, while others believe about 10 million dwelled in those areas. Population estimates for North America, above Mexico, are less extreme, with estimates ranging from 4 to 10 million. In 1492, some estimates state that the population of Hispaniola, the island where Columbus landed, was home to between 7 and 8 million inhabitants – a population roughly equivalent to that of Spain at the time. This estimate too varies, with a low of about one million.
1001 A.D. – Leif Ericsson establishes a settlement in Newfoundland, but word of the settlement, which he calledVinland, never reaches Europe and he soon abandons the site. 1275 – 1295 – Marco Polo travels to China from Italy. The exotic goods with which he returned inspired voyages of exploration, as merchants were anxious to find a faster, safer route to the Orient. Accounts of Marco Polo’s travels were not published until 1477, more than 150 years after his death, but at a time when navigational skills and technology had improved to the point that exploring a sea route to the Orient became a possibility.
c. 1300 – Rise of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs, who invaded central America, built on the achievements of the Mayas, who had built cities with palaces, bridges, aqueducts, baths, astronomical observatories, and temples topped by pyramids. Mayan priests developed a written language; their mathematicians discovered the zero, and their astronomers devised a calendar more accurate than any other then in existence. During the 1300s, the Aztecs created an empire of several million people with a capital city, Tenochtitlán (current-day Mexico City), which featured the Great Temple of the Sun in its center. Through canals, the thriving capital transported gold, silver, exotic feathers, cocoa, and millions of pounds of maize. While the Aztecs conquered other peoples primarily to obtain slaves, human sacrifices (thousands would be killed annually when priests sliced open chests to offer the sun god a still-beating heart), and wealth, and while they developed an elaborate administrative, educational, and medical system comparable to the most advanced in Europe at the time, they did not force conquered city-states to take their language and customs nor did they station their people in conquered areas. Yet these conquered areas bitterly resented Aztec rule. Thus by the arrival of the Europeans around 1500, the Aztec empire found itself vulnerable to division within and attack from abroad.
1347 – First outbreak of the Black Death, a catastrophic epidemic of the bubonic plague, wipes out perhaps as much as half of the population of Europe. 1492 – Columbus discovers America. Commanding ninety men and three ships (the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria), Columbus left Spain in August and on October 12 set anchor on the island he called San Salvador. He assumed he had reached an island off Asia.
1497 – John Cabot (born in Genoa as Giovanni Caboto) explores North America under the sponsorship of King Henry VII. Cabot discovered Newfoundland and told of the tall trees that could be used in ship building and of the plentiful codfish off the island’s coast. In 1498 Cabot set sail to search for a Northwest Passage to Asia; he and his five ships were never heard from again.
1517 – The Protestant Reformation begins in Germany when Martin Luther posts his 95 theses challenging basic practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church. Luther, a Catholic priest, was excommunicated, but the influence of his theses spread rapidly throughout Europe. He believed that every individual should read and interpret the Bible for himself and that human nature was innately evil; he himself despaired of leading a life that gained salvation. Salvation, he argued, was a “free gift” from God to undeserving sinners. The ability to live a good life could not be the cause of salvation but its consequence, once individuals believed they had been granted saving faith. Luther’s ideas greatly influenced the Puritans.
1518 – 1530 – Smallpox decimates Indian populations. Native Americans were tragically vulnerable to such illnesses as influenza, measles, typhus, and above all, smallpox – diseases to which Europeans had, over time, developed at least a partial immunity. Populations were virtually wiped out. On Hispaniola (Domincan Republic and Cuba), where Columbus established a colony, perhaps millions of Native Americans were destroyed, so that within a few decades, the Native American population fell to 500. In the Mayan areas of Mexico, as much as 95% of the population was destroyed within a few years of the natives’ contact with the Spanish.
1519 – 1522 – Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese sailing under the Spanish flag, conducts the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan himself died in a conflict with the natives in the Philippines in 1521, but his sailors completed the circumnavigation.
1521 – Tenochtitlán surrenders to Cortés after a siege of eighty-five days. The Spanish conquistadors, by just about all accounts, were brutal and greedy. They conquered the sophisticated Aztec empire and later, under the Pizarro brothers, conquered the Incas. The Spaniards took advantage of superior technology, the edge of surprise, disease, and political disunity in the Indian empires. The sight of ships, the explosion of guns, men on horseback (whom the Indians first thought a single creature), terrified the Indians. In addition, the conquistadors found eager allies among resentful tribes ruled by the Aztecs and Incas.
1524 – Giovanni da Verrazzano explores the eastern coast of the present-day United States, discovering the mouth of the Hudson River. 1528 – Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca arrives in Tampa Bay under an ill-fated expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez. Cabeza de Vaca would later write about his eight-year life among Indian tribes.
1550s – Conquistadors, led by the Pizarro brothers, sail along South America’s Pacific coast and conquer the Incas in Peru, a civilization as impressive as the Aztecs, and claim Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia for Spain. The conquistadors, it should be noted, resented the Spanish monarchy and had hoped to establish themselves as a colonial nobility independent of Spain. The monarchy did not allow their idea to take root, and sent imperial officials to rule the colonies.
1558 – Elizabeth I becomes queen of England. 1565 – St. Augustine, Florida founded. The modest Spanish fort of St. Augustine represents the first permanent settlement in the present-day United States. The settlement was little more than an outpost and headquarters for unsuccessful missionary campaigns.
1576 – 1578 – Martin Frobisher’s search for a Northwest Passage to Asia is unsuccessful. He returns to England with an Eskimo, whom he took with a kayak right from the Atlantic Ocean, and a large black stone, which he futilely hoped would be gold ore.
1584 – 1590 – The English attempt to establish a colony on the island of Roanoke. With Queen Elizabeth’s support, Sir Walter Raleigh sent a small group of men on an expedition to explore the North American coast. After their return, Raleigh named the area they explored Virginia, after Elizabeth, who was unmarried and called the “Virgin Queen.” An attempt to establish a settlement first failed in 1586 after conflicts with the Indians. Frustrated and dispirited colonists abandoned the island. Raleigh was undeterred and tried again in 1587. John White was appointed governor, but upon arrival fighting again broke out with local Indians. Seeking reinforcements, White returned to England on the ship that brought him. However, by the time he arrived home, England was at war with Spain, and White had to put off his return to Roanoke for three years. When he landed on the island next in 1590, he found Roanoke deserted. There was no clue as to the fate of the settlers except for the cryptic inscription “Croatian” carved on a post. The mystery of the “Lost Colony” has never been solved. (See John White’s painting, Natives of Roanoke Island, in the center section.)
1588 – The English defeat the mighty Spanish Armada as it sails to attack England. The smaller English fleet was able to outmaneuver the much larger Spanish fleet. The English victory ended Spain’s domination of the Atlantic Ocean and its threat to English colonization in the New World.
late 1500s – Powhatan overcomes many difficulties to form an Indian confederacy numbering over 9,000.
Approaching the Literature of Exploration
Giovanni da Verrazzano
Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
Samuel de Champlain Students will need a brief historical overview of what led up to the era of exploration and what characterizes the literature of exploration. Reviewing even a brief chronology, like the one in this manual, is generally helpful, as many students have an inadequate sense of the historical context. I also stress the significance of a rising merchant class in Europe, a class anxious especially for goods from the Far East, which commanded high prices on the European marketplace. The navigators who crossed the Atlantic in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, like Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, were seeking a sea route to Asia that would prove quicker and safer than the overland journey through Europe or the voyage around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
But these voyages could only be considered because Europe was being reorganized into larger units and monarchies were rising in power. At the time of Leif Ericsson’s voyage, Europe was primarily comprised of small principalities that could not possibly have afforded such risky navigational enterprises. But in the late fifteenth century, monarchies now had the financial and human resources to undertake expeditions, and, in time, when the discovery of the trade route to Asia grew unlikely, they saw the New World as a place to develop empire.
I also emphasize a few points about the literature of exploration:
― The explorers were first and foremost navigators and explorers, not writers. As a result they struggle with finding the right words, specifically a language with which they can convey the new or the unfamiliar. Their readers were in Europe and, in most cases, had never previously seen or heard of the New World’s wildlife, flora, food, or inhabitants that these seamen were trying desperately to describe. Furthermore, the explorer did not usually have an illustrator available who could provide a visual aid. How these early writers try to solve this difficulty is a feature of the literature worth considering. It helps to account for the frequent comparison to things and places European or familiar to Europeans in these writings. When no suitable Old World analogue could be found, the writers often resort to vague superlatives. (Verrazzano writes of one location that he “found the country as pleasant as is possible to conceive.”) To dramatize the explorer’s difficulty, display a familiar object (anything from a food item like a roll or a pretzel to a piece of chalk), and ask students to describe it to an audience that has never seen or heard of the item before.
― The explorers had a specific audience in mind: more often than not their investors. As a result, often in the most positive of tones, the explorers depict a fascinating and potentially (but assuredly) profitable world. They always seemed to be writing to establish a pretext for their next mission.
― From the beginning what came to be known as the American Dream is evident in these writers. America is held out as a potential location for financial and spiritual rejuvenation, even though that spiritual rejuvenation included domination of the Indians.
― Even at its most sympathetic, the literature of exploration, implicitly and explicitly, considers the Indians not just different, but inferior. The sense of these early Europeans that America is theirs for the taking and theirs to dominate culturally has left its imprint on first colonial and later American consciousness, with its complex reverberations still felt today.
― The literature of exploration is a record of history in the making, a document of the events that befell these early explorers. However, this is not to say that all their reports are accurate. Again, they were first explorers and they were writing frequently for a very specific audience of investors. History was not their prime objective in writing. Nor were these writers cultural anthropologists interested foremost in depicting Indian culture. Readers are often frustrated by the lack of attention given the tribes, who are often treated with broad brush strokes.
Franklin, Wayne. Discovers, Explorers, Settlers: The Diligent Writers of Early America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979. Franklin examines early New World travel books to study the link between language and event, word and thing, person and place, links which reveal the writers’ own minds as well as the cognitive character of their culture.
---. “The Literature of Discovery and Exploration.” Columbia Literary History of the United States. Gen. ed. Emory Elliott. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. 16-23. This chapter provides an overview of the literature with perceptive comments about its language and themes. The essay includes a brief passage on Cabeza de Vaca’s irony, understatement, spiritual struggle, great loss and final victory.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. New World Encounters. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. The essays in this volume, new historicist in approach, view New World
explorations from the point of view of the diverse range of cultures and individuals that the European explorers encountered. Of particular interest, given the selections in the anthology, are Rolena Adorno’s “The Negotiations of Fear in Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios,” and Louis Montrose’s “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery” (which focuses on Walter Raleigh in its discussion of the discourse of European patriarchy and its effacement of indigenous peoples, especially women).
Hallenbeck, Cleve. The Journey and Route of Álvar Núñez, Cabeza de Vaca. 1940. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1971. This work provides a paraphrase of the narrative of Cabeza de Vaca and traces the route he followed across the continent. The introduction discusses Cabeza de Vaca’s life, the cures, his accomplishments, the accuracy of his narrative and translations of his work.
Jara, Ren‚, and Nicholas Spadaccini, eds. 1492-1992: Re/Discovering Colonial Writing. Minneapolis: Prisma, 1989. This volume of essays reexamines exploration and colonial literature through a bifocal perspective: that of the present-day world and that of the time frame in which the conquest and colonization occurred. As a whole, the collection demonstrates that the domination of the New World was ultimately achieved through writing, as colonial writing had hegemonic and propagandistic intentions, namely to establish and strengthen the institutions of the Empire. In “Science and Writing: The History of the Conquest,” Beatriz Pastor sees Cabeza de Vaca as a demystifying figure who breaks the limits of the discourse
of domination, making way for a criticism of the conquest and a presentation of the American reality that characterizes it in its own terms; in Cabeza de Vaca, the merchant and the conqueror seem to yield to the ethnographer and the missionary.
O’Gorman, Edmundo. The Invention of America. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1961. This seminal study challenges the then almost universal belief that Columbus “discovered” America; instead O’Gorman argues that the “idea” of America appeared as a result of Columbus. The study argues that the Spanish part of the invention of America liberated Western man from the fetters of a prison-like conception of the physical world, while the English part of the invention liberated him from subordination to a Europe-centered conception of his historical world.
Page, Evelyn. American Genesis. Boston: Gambit, 1973. Page argues that for structure and form, the voyage, which governs the exploration literature of the sixteenth century, provides the distinctive pattern for American literature. Genesis includes discussions of Cabeza de Vaca, Champlain, and, less extensively, of Verrazzano.
Rabasa, José. Inventing A-m-e-r-i-c-a. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1993. Building on poststructuralist strategies, Rabasa studies how the European explorers did not approach the New World as a natural entity to be discovered, revealed, or understood, but rather as a production to be semiotically created. This book offers an alternative history, which attempts to undermine the general acceptance of the subjective European history of the New World not with factual contradiction but by
examining exploration texts for “blind spots.”
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Harper, 1984. Trans. of La Conquête de l’Amérique. 1982. This book considers sixteenth-century Spanish exploration literature (including Cabeza de Vaca), focusing on the Spanish perception of Indians. With regard to assimilation of the other or identification with him, Cabeza de Vaca reaches a neutral point (using the terminology of Blanchot and Barthes), which is to say he is no longer a Spaniard, but he does not become an Indian. His experience prefigures that of the modern exile, who, surrounded by “the others,” lives in a double exteriority when he loses one country without acquiring another.
Turner, Frederick. Beyond Geography. New York: Viking, 1980. This study contends that the true story of Western exploration is a spiritual one with its root in the progressive decay of Christianity from a living mythology to a historically oriented state religion, which came to neglect the interlocking cycles of animate and vegetable life, of water, of sun, and even stones. An absence of such a living mythology created a spiritual vacuum in the West, resulting in a restlessness that led to exploration, conquest, and conversion.
Wroth, Lawrence C. The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970. A comprehensive study of Verrazzano’s voyages, the text provides information on Verrazzano’s biography, his voyages (including his prior geographical knowledge and his elaborate preparations), his historical reputation (including a chapter on the nineteenth-century controversy which debated whether his voyages actually occurred or not), and many sixteenth-century maps.
1. Compare Verrazzano’s description of the New World landscape with William Bradford’s description in Of Plymouth Plantation (particularly Chapters IX and X, from Book I).
2. Compare Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative and Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity as at once similar and different captivity narratives. Consider the experience of each in captivity and their perceptions of the Indians.
3. Compare Champlain’s views of the Indians with Thomas Morton’s in New English Canaan.
Videos for “Exploration” America: A Personal History of the United States. Alistair Cooke. Vol 1. The New Found
Land. 1972. 52 min. Produced by the BBC, distributed by Ambrose Video. After
focusing on what America was like before the Europeans arrived (the varied landscape, flora and animal life, the Indians), Cooke discusses the early explorers, concentrating on Columbus.
Cabeza de Vaca. Directed by Nicolás Echevarria. Spanish with English subtitles. 1990. 108 min. This feature film will give students a visual sense of the desolation, confusion, and fear confronting Europeans upon arrival in the Americas. Of course, Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow sailors’ experience might have been more intense because of their shipwreck and small number. Consider showing a scene or two, perhaps Cabeza de Vaca’s experience on a raft before reaching Florida; his and his fellow sailors’ first contact with Indians, resulting in death to most of the shipwrecked survivors; or his monologue delivered before his captors, revealing his self and cultural pride and his strong will. Any of these scenes will motivate students to read the text.
Sample Examination Questions Five-minute quiz
1. The selections from Verrazzano’s Voyage concern his explorations on the Eastern coast of North America. What is the southernmost point of exploration considered in these selections? Identify with the name of a present-day state. [North Carolina]
2. During his land explorations, Verrazzano and his men come upon, in hiding, a very old woman, a young girl, two infants, and a boy of eight years. What does he decide to do with the boy? [Take him to France.]
3. Although Cabeza de Vaca was a captive of the Indians on the island of Malhado (Chapter 16), he was allowed to trade fruits or items from the sea with inland tribes. Why didn’t the Indians on the island trade with these inland tribes themselves? [“Incessant hostilities” p.21; conflict would result if they journeyed inland.]
4. After his escape from this tribe, Cabeza de Vaca and three fellow Spaniards and a black slave find themselves among the Avavares. Alonzo del Castillo began curing the Avavares of various illnesses. How did he accomplish this? [By making the sign of the cross and saying a prayer over them – Chapter 21.]
5. What area in North America is under discussion in the excerpts of Samuel de Champlain’s Voyages? [New England, Massachusetts, Cape Cod or Cape Blanc would all be adequate responses.]
Full-period, short-answer examination
1. List three specific references in Verrazzanno’s Voyage that would have been appealing to his investors.
2. What portrait of Cabeza de Vaca emerges from his narrative?
3. Contrast Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences with two different tribes of Indians.
4. Apply two characteristics of the literature of exploration to Champlain’s Voyages.
5. Was Champlain’s treatment of the Indians disdainful? Explain with two illustrations to support your answer.
Essay questions or writing topics
1. Discuss the rhetorical strategies that Verrazzano, Cabeza de Vaca, and Champlain employ in explaining and describing the New World. Refer to specific passages. (Of course, you can limit this and the following questions to just one or two authors.)
2. Discuss the similarities and differences in how these explorers present Indians. Is one explorer more or less sympathetic than another?
3. The explorers were always conscious of writing for current and potential investors. What impact do you think this had on their narratives? Refer to specific passages when answering.
4. Discuss the self-portraits of the narrators-explorers that emerge from the excerpts studied in class.
5. Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative can be read as the first chronicle of an American immigrant’s experience. Explain this statement and Cabeza de Vaca’s ability to assimilate and acculturate in his quest for survival. Compare his experience to the American immigrant experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.