Statue of Columbus in the Library of Congress, Main Reading Room
In June I wrote an entry about my friend and former college roommate, Mike McCann, who has been teaching for many years at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. Mike acted as a terrific sounding board for me when I was writing A Little History of the United States. He is now using the book with his high school students and zipped me an email about what he had done as the term opened, focusing on Columbus’s first native contacts in the Americas. As I am hoping to write a bit more periodically on the subject of education and history, this "first encounter" seemed like a good place to begin. I’m hoping Mike will send me more dispatches as the school year progresses.
I had commented in an earlier email how I’d been struck by Columbus’s boundless confidence in his ability to master the essentials of the Taino language after only a few days’ exploration. He reports that as he traveled from one new settlement to the next, the natives he had taken with him would run “from house to house, and to the towns around, crying out, “Come! come! and see the men from heaven!” Ah yes—perhaps an all too human temptation for Columbus to suppose that he and his fellow Europeans were seen as no less than gods by these people. It turned out that Mike was using the same primary sources to help students explore some of the less obvious crosscurrents in Columbus’s account of his first encounters with the Taino people. Mike’s report:
As George Bush might have said, between Columbus and the Taino there was a bit of misunderestimation going on regarding cultural superiority. (Or perhaps I should say misoverestimation?) For students new to such primary sources, it’s easy to glide along without noticing at first some of the contradictions and underlying crosscurrents. I had a good deal of fun writing about the same problem, except instead of Columbus's recollections, I used Captain John Smith’s account of meeting the Powhatan Indians, in a book I did with Mark Lytle, After the Fact: the Art of Historical Detection. There, we discuss the long-contested question of whether readers can trust Smith’s version of his adventures. To quote from After the Fact:
And then we go on in After the Fact to speculate about what’s really going on when Pocahontas “saves” the life of Captain Smith. Smith tells it pretty much as a kind of adventure romance: hero saved by young damsel. (And this is not the first time he’s told such a tale. He narrates a similar adventure about his earlier travels in eastern Europe.) But Powhatan may have had his own reasons for threatening Smith’s life. Indeed, he may not have been intending to kill Smith at all, but merely subjecting him to a test of courage and making it clear that Smith and these strange new people from across the ocean were Powhatan’s vassals, not his superiors. When two differing cultures first meet, the chance for misunderestimation always remains high.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors