Inventing the Caribbean: Columbus’s Creation of the Other
Columbus’s invasion of the Caribbean in 1492 brought Native American and European cultures together for the first time in a startling encounter that reshaped the worldviews of both groups. In The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, Tzvetan Todorov seeks to understand the ways in which the Spanish worldview shaped Columbus’s perception of the natives of Hispaniola, as he fashioned an other from his own sense of self. In Todorov’s model, the other is defined in terms of its correspondence, or lack thereof, to different facets of the self, including culture, language, physiognomy, religion, and knowledge; ...view middle of the document...
Todorov contends that real interactions between the self and the other only occurred in the realms of the natural and human spheres, wherein Columbus related to the material world and to living beings; while no direct communication occurred in the divine sphere, the beliefs and values associated with it ultimately affected Columbus’s interactions with nature and man by creating a predisposition for certain interpretations and judgments. The divine sphere of Columbus’s worldview exercised a preeminent influence on the other spheres as his faith, belief, and premonition served to create an environment in which “the concrete experience [of nature and man] was there to illustrate a truth already possessed” by way of faith (Todorov 17). Todorov finds that the material realms of man and nature were forcibly interpreted to correspond to Columbus’s preconceived ideas and expectations. Although the invasion of the Caribbean brought the European self and the Arawak other into contact for the first time, Todorov argues that Columbus’s “discovery” and creation of the other was ultimately a validation of what he already “knew” he would find.
Columbus’s writings reveal that religious devotion and faith were central facets of his identity and, indeed, may have been the impetus for his adventure to the Indies. Todorov finds that Columbus undertook his mission in the service of God and King and hoped that the material gains of his journey would be used to fund a second crusade to Jerusalem in order to liberate the city from Muslim control. Columbus felt himself to be on a divine mission, the course of which was preordained by the Bible itself; in 1501 he wrote:
I have already said that for the execution of the enterprise of the Indies, reason, mathematics, and the map of the world were of no consequence to me. It was a matter of the fulfillment of what Isaiah had predicted (Todorov 22-23).
Indeed, reason, mathematics, and the world map were of so little consequence to Columbus next to his faith and conviction that he died believing he had found the Indies and not the Americas. This unshakeable faith necessarily clouded his perceptions and shaped his observations, allowing him to confirm the existence of mermaids, cannibals, and a Cuban mainland where there were none because he only sought “confirmations of a truth known in advance” (Todorov 19).
Columbus’s faith affected his understanding of the human and natural elements he encountered and directly contributed to the creation of the other, as the Arawak were judged according to Christian standards. Using his own Catholic faith as a positive benchmark, Columbus found that the native peoples had “no religion” (Columbus 38). In The Caribbean, Franklin W. Knight presumes that Columbus only meant that they were not Christians (14), but elsewhere Columbus states that he “found among them neither idolatry nor any other religion” (Todorov 41); this observation indicates that Columbus...