In the year 1503 July 7th, Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to the king and queen of Spain concerning his fourth voyage. This he wrote from Indies, in the Island of Jamaica. In this letter, he narrates his experiences and encounters, both good and bad, throughout his voyage as well as laying requests for supplies from the king and queen. This letter was sent during the New World era when Christianity had been introduced to the Indians by the Spaniards. It is in the same period of the New World era that Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish historian, and a social reformer wrote notes which he called The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation in the Indies, where he narrated the ordeals that the Indians were being subjected to by the Spaniard Christians. Columbus letter and Las Casas notes portray several themes which inform the idea of colonization of the New World. This essay will discuss these key issues from these two texts as well as reasons why they are regarded as Renaissance texts.
Several key themes are portrayed in Columbus letter. First, there is a theme of struggle and suffering which seem to dominate the entire letter. Columbus narrates how they were hit by a terrible storm that almost killed all of his entire crew, (Columbus, p. 1492-1655). Columbus states that the storm tore his ships apart, separating the people in his voyage and leaving them with no other hope but death. He struggled with a strong current and a terrible storm for eighty-eight days in which he says he saw neither sun nor stars. In fact, he says that he had experienced many tempests before, but none had been so long and terrible. This theme of struggle is also evident in de Las Casas writings. He describes the sufferings the Indians go through in the hands of the Spaniards Christians. The Christians take women and children from their families and subject them to ill use, (de Las Casas, p. 1542). They take food from the Indians, more than they are offered as well as committing acts of force and violence. Las Casas narrates how he has witnessed Indian people and their nobles being tormented and tortured to death without any mercy from the Christians in Hispaniola. This made some Indians escape to the mountains, but that doesnt help since the Spaniards catch up with them with their dogs which tear them up to death. He also tells of how captives are taken to do hard labor in mines and others in pearl fishing, activities which subject them to unexplainable agony and eventual death.
Another common theme in these two texts is conquest. Despite the devastating tempest encountered by Columbus, he manages to come out alive together with his crew. He also manages to discover and take possession of new areas in which he had set to explore, (Columbus, p. 1492-1655). He discovers new lands, gold mines as well as new cultures which exercised a different kind of trade from which he was familiar. His men collect large quantities of gold from vast lands that they were shown by the Indian guides. Columbus also manages to battle his illness despite being on the verge of death. Additionally, throughout his illness, he still managed to guide the course of the voyage, and this demonstrates his conquering spirit. In Las Casas notes, conquest is seen on the Spaniards who have overpowered the Indians in their native land. The Spaniards exercise authority over the Indians, mistreating them all through and conducting endless massacres.
Bitterness is another theme portrayed in these texts. Columbus expresses this feeling when he says that he was forbidden land and harbors which he had conquered for Spain through sweating blood. He also says that he had received little profit for his twenty years of service, during which he had served with great labor and perils, (Columbus, p. 1492-1655). This he says because he had no roof over his head where he could go when he needed to eat or sleep. He also had to leave his son Diego in Spain with no one to cater to him but says that he hopes the king and queen will restitute him with an increase. Las Casas notes depict bitterness of the Indians towards their colonizers the Spaniards. The unjust acts of the Christians make the Indians realize that they were not from heaven and therefore began to seek ways in which they could throw them out of their land, (de Las Casas, p. 1542). They take up in arms but their tools are too weak to defend them, and this leads to the merciless massacre by the Spaniards.
Another theme in these two texts is religion, specifically Christianity. In Columbus letter, the king and queen are referred to as the most Christian. Columbus also quotes biblical phrases in different sections of his letter. He continuously claims that God led him throughout his voyage and even brought his health back. He mentions biblical characters such as Job, Moses, Abraham and David, and even narrates how a voice spoke to him about the scriptures when he was too weak from his illness and thought he would die, (Columbus, p. 1492-1655). The idea of Christianity as seen in Las Casas writings is however contrary to the religions ideal. The Christians who were supposed to show compassion are seen as ruthless, killing Indians in the worst ways possible that put them in the most intensive agony. They kill everyone, men, and women, young and old including infants and the noble. In one instance a noble Indian had to watch a Christian rape his wife. Christianity as a theme, therefore, is depicted differently in these two contexts.
These two texts are a clear correspondence to the idea of colonization. Columbus who is Spanish sets on a voyage to explore and conquer the New World for Spain. Before this adventure, he had conducted others in which he had taken advantage of the natives of the New World who seemed uncivilized to the Europeans. He used cruel methods of exploiting them, methods which were carried on by other Europeans who colonized the New World. The main aim why Columbus conducted his explorations was to discover the treasures in these new lands which were the main interest of the colonizers. Las Casas gives a vivid description of the idea of colonization as exercised by the Spaniards over their subjects the Indians. The Indians have absolutely no authority over anything in their native land, including the food that they produced. The Christians take pleasure in mistreating their subjects even though their religion demands acts of kindness and love towards fellow human being. Casas says that the Christians who threw infants into rivers cursed them to boil there, calling them the offspring of the devil, (de Las Casas, p. 1542). Indians were subjected to hard and risky labor which led to their eventual death. The lands of the New World which had been overly populated before the arrival of the Spaniards were depopulated due to the massive massacres of the indigenous people. These two texts depict the idea of colonization as it was.
The European colonization of the New World was informed on the vast treasure that lay in that land. Columbus says that there were so many places in the seacoast that had extensive lands of mines and gold. He says that in the area of Veragua he saw greater evidence of gold in two days than in Espanola in four years, (Columbus, p. 1492-1655). He says that when he discovered Indies, he realized there was the richest dominion in the world with gold, pearls, precious stones, spices, and the trade and markets. The Europeans used religion to colonize the New World. Christianity is at the center of the colonization scheme with the initial claim of the colonizers being the spread of the religion to convert the natives. The indigenous inhabitants of the New World were seen as uncivilized by the Europeans and such could be taken advantage. The mines and gold in the most provinces of the New World and their trade formed the key agenda of the Europeans invasion. Columbus conducted his expeditions with the aim of conquering land for the king and queen of Spain and being made governor of the lands he conquered. The colonizers converted their subjects into slaves with families being separated from each other and sold to ruthless masters. Las Casas tells of how these masters persecuted these captives, leaving them without food or water for days and throwing them into the sea once they die. He says that a Spaniard once told him that the ships could operate without a compass simply by following the trace of the bodies of dead Indians floating on the sea that had been thrown by earlier ships.
The colonizers also saw cheap and easy labor in their subjects. Casas says that the Spaniards brought to the island of Hispaniola and San Juan more than two million captives who were made to work in the mines, labor that caused many of them to die. The Spaniards also used the Indian slaves in pearl fishing, a dangerous expedition. The pearl fishers were made to dive into deep waters, staying for many minutes inside the water without proper breathing, tearing the oysters out of their rocky beds where the pearls were found, (de Las Casas, p. 1542). The divers did this from sunrise to sunset without resting. If any showed signs of fatigue and wanting to rest, he was given a beating and thrown back into the water to continue with the hard labor. At night they were chained to prevent them from escaping. These divers could not survive long and would die either of cold and waterborne diseases or killed and eaten by sharks which infested those waters. All these show the cruelty of the European colonizers on their subjects.
Columbus letter and Las Casas notes are considered as major Renaissance texts since they were written during that period. The Renaissance was an era in the history of Europe which was regarded as a cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. This period occurred between the 14th and 17th century, beginning in Italy and later spreading to the rest of Europe. It was termed as the European civilization era which occurred immediately after the Middle Ages. This period was characterized by explorations of other continents, the Copernican system of astronomy was substituted by the Ptolemaic system, feudal system declined, and commerce grew, and inventions and applications of earlier innovations such as paper and printing. The scholars of that time also revived their thinking and artistic works, following an extended period of cultural stagnation and decline.
Columbus and Las Casas are among the personalities of the Renaissance era. Columbus was a great explorer, well known for discovering the New World and conquering parts of it for Spain. He conducted four voyages and died convinced that he had found Asia. Las Casas is one of the scholars of the time. His writings about the European colonization of the New World and the experiences of the natives in the hands of the colonizers give insight into the state of affairs of European colonies during the Renaissance period.
To sum the discussion up, the works of Christopher Columbus and Bartolome de Las Casas depict a picture of the New World and informs on the idea of the European colonization on this place. Columbus letter gives insight into the key drivers of this colonization which was the mines and gold buried in vast lands in the New World. The cruelty of the colonizers is well described by Las Casas, who is Spanish but is full of concern over the misery the Indians were going through in the hands of their Spaniards colonizers. Both Columbus and Las Casas are some of the key players during the Renaissance era.
Columbus, Christopher. "Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella." King and Queen of Spain 1494 (2009): 1492-1655.
de Las Casas, Bartolome. "Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies." Three Sources on the Conquest of Mexico. Ja...
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