Intimacy and Intimidation
The colonization of the “New World” formed a unique opportunity for two completely different cultures to come together. The potential for forging alliances, spreading knowledge and inspiring wisdom seemed lost amid the mad dash for resources and validation of claim. There can be no doubt, even from the earliest writings, that the natives were considered expendable. However, a few settlers let themselves try to understand the people who had survived in this land for so many years. This created an interesting contrast of those native people and their landscape based solely on perspective of the witness.
“With royal standard unfurled” (25), Christopher Columbus landed and gave us our first glimpses of this new and exciting land which he considered to be “a marvel.” (26) Columbus bragged that the land was “very fertile to a limitless degree” (25) and possessed “many rivers, good and large” (25). Cabeza De Vaca also commented on the “beautiful rivers and brimming springs” (35). Both men write of fruit bearing trees, and of land that could yield crops. Columbus ensures that “in the interior are mines of metals” (26) and De Vaca does not fail to mention that “there are gold- and silver bearing ores” (35). Christopher Columbus and Cabeza De Vace both understand the value of the land to which they have travelled.
There is a difference; however, in the way the two men view the people who inhabit the new world. One man stormed the beaches, ran off the natives, and claimed the land. The other man walked among the indigenous people as a prisoner. Columbus believed it was his duty and right to own and lord over all of the wonders that his eyes fell upon; however, De Vaca scrounged to keep from yielding to starvation. The differing perspectives are clearly defined.
By the time Christopher Columbus gets into the second sentence in his letter to Luis de Santangel, he is already making it very clear how he plans to handle the native people of this new land. “I found very many islands filled with people innumerable and of them all I have taken possession.” (25) The native people had no concept of land ownership. They believed in a certain unity with the land, and could not even fathom that the land could belong to one person and not another. Therefore, the conquering Columbus faced absolutely no resistance in his endeavor. He writes, “they all fled immediately,” (25) “and no opposition was offered to me.” (25).
Even if the natives would have somehow found the drive to fight these invaders from their shores, they still lacked the weaponry. “Their only weapons are bows and arrows, which they use with great dexterity.” (30) No matter how great the dexterity of the native bowman, they stood no chance against the metal armor and weapons of the Europeans. This type of violence did not seem to be much of an issue in these first encounters. Certainly, the foreign nature of the large ships and strange attire took the natives by surprise. Columbus seemed to take advantage of the lack of conflict, and once again began to take the new world. “I understood sufficiently from other Indians, whom I had already taken”. (25) Not only does Columbus physically take the Indians, but he also takes their knowledge and understanding of the new landscape which was foreign to him.
This should not come as a surprise as we read further into Columbus’ letter. It is clear that the conqueror believes the indigenous people to be little more than just another resource for him to exploit. He sends scouts out to find the great cities or some semblance of a king, but they did not find that which they sought. Columbus once again reminds us of the value he places on the people of this new world. He writes that his men, “found an infinity of small hamlets and people without number, but nothing of importance”. (25) Columbus quickly realizes, or seems to finally be ready to admit the true value he places on the native americans. As he is listing the bountiful resources this new world has to offer, he is sure to mention once again that “the population is without number”. (26)
Cabeza De Vaca, on the other hand, “came naked and barefoot” (35) into the hands of the natives as opposed to those who appeared “clothed, horsed, and lanced”. (35) He spent two years as a prisoner to the Han and Capoque clans. Over time, De Vaca worked his way into a merchant role within the tribe and became known as a healer. However, the beautiful land did not easily give its spoils and he spent the majority of his time gathering food and other materials needed for survival. In this crucible of self-preservation, Cabeza De Vaca found himself viewing the natives from a very different perspective.
Where Columbus viewed the natives as a resource, De Vaca started to take a more anthropological approach. He was treated as one of the tribe. “We lived as free agents, dug our own food, and lugged our loads of wood and water.” (32) De Vaca did not seem to believe himself to be any greater than the men that surrounded him. “We always went naked like them and covered ourselves at night with deerskins.” (32) Living like one of the tribesmen meant that he suffered from hunger in the same way as the others of the tribe. Throughout his writings, De Vaca mentions the scarcity of food and the rigorous manner in which it was accumulated. Yet he survived.
Unlike the conquering Europeans, who seemed set on taking as much as possible, the native people had a far better system which promoted community. “The people are generous to each other with what little they have. There is no chief.” (31) De Vaca tells us that in times of death, which seemed more often during these times, that food would be given to the family of the deceased during their time of mourning. All of these ideas and customs showed that these people were not uncaring savages, but a prideful people who cared for one another deeply and understood the value of customs. They did not need some great conqueror to let them know how to live a good life.
Cabeza De Vaca studied many of the habits of the tribes he had taken in with. He even attributes them as capable of love. “These people love their offspring more than any in the world.” (30) He comments that they will even carry a brother or a son on their back if that person falls behind and is in danger of being left for dead. Once again, the differing perspectives become clear. These people, who loved greatly and took care of their own, were nothing of importance to Columbus unless perhaps as a numerous resource to be used at his leisure. As Cabeza De Vaca leaves these people that have become, in some ways, a part of him, “the Christians were but poising to pounce.” (39)
As we shift between the perspectives of Christopher Columbus and Cabeza De Vaca, it is clear that one man understood the true value of human life. Columbus died never fully gaining the type of riches and fame he sought. Yet, I can’t help but believe that an exiled De Vaca truly found and understood that the new world’s greatest resource was, indeed, its people.