Columbus's Outpost among the Tainos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493-1498

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Overview

"In 1493 Christopher Columbus led a fleet of seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men to found a royal trading colony in America. Columbus had high hopes for his settlement, which he named La Isabela after the queen of Spain, but just five years later it was in ruins. It remains important, however, as the first site of European settlement in America and the first place of sustained interaction between Europeans and the indigenous Tainos." Kathleen Deagan and Jose Maria Cruxent now tell the story of this historic enterprise. Drawing on their ten-year archaeological investigation of the site of La Isabela, along with research into Columbus-era documents, they contrast Spanish expectations of America with the actual events and living conditions at America's first European town. Deagan and Cruxent argue that La Isabela failed not because Columbus was a poor planner but because his vision of America was grounded in European experience and could not be sustained in the face of the realities of American life. Explaining that the original Spanish economic and social frameworks for colonization had to be altered in America in response to the American landscape and the nonelite Spanish and Taino people who occupied it, they shed light on larger questions of American colonialism and the development of Euro-American cultural identity.
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Editorial Reviews

Irving Rouse
La Isabela,founded by Columbus during his second voyage,was the first Spanish settlement in the New World. Kathleen Deagan and J.M. Cruxent are uniquely qualified to discuss this important event. Their book is based on sound scholarship and its style is clear and readable.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300090406
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Columbus's Outpost among the Tainos

Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493-1498
By Kathleen Deagan

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09040-4


Chapter One

Columbus and La Isabela

Christopher Columbus's departure from Cadiz in 1493 on his second voyage to America was a jubilant affair, in striking contrast to the sailing of his first expedition a year earlier. Instead of the three small, meagerly outfitted vessels that left in 1492 under a cloud of public skepticism, in the second fleet he commanded seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred eager men, infused with what Spanish historian Antonio Ballesteros Beretta has called the ilusion indiana, dreams of "the wild lands, the exuberant vegetation, the sweet climate, the fragrant flora, the landscape of marvels, the new animals ... the tobacco and the thousand plants unknown to the Europeans ... and the hopes they inspired of finding many more marvels."

Columbus and his comrades planned and outfitted the second expedition in the spirit of these hopeful dreams, but they lacked any substantial knowledge of the Americas other than the often misconceived notions acquired during the brief shipboard sojourns of the first voyage. Their intent was to establish a royal factoria, or trading settlement, based on those of the Portuguese in West Africa, but one that would establish a hereditary governorship for the Columbus family. In December 1493 they settled on what is today the north coast of the Dominican Republic and called their town La Isabela, after the queen of Spain (figure 1.1). Just four years later, both La Isabela and their dream were in ruins.

La Isabela was the first intentional European colonial venture in the New World leading to permanent occupation. Norse settlements had been sporadically present before the sixteenth century in the northern reaches of the North American continent, but it was not until the Columbian voyages of exploration that the Old and New Worlds sustained regular and significant cultural and biological exchanges. Those exchanges began at La Isabela in 1493 and had almost immediate (and enduring impacts on the social, economic, religious, and political spheres of both Europe and the Americas. And as historian John Elliott has so elegantly illustrated, the human and environmental responses to these exchanges were profoundly influential on both sides of the Atlantic, producing the social, intellectual, and environmental changes that led to the development of the post-1500 modern world .

The site of La Isabela provides the only direct physical evidence for the organization of this first, intrusive European colonial venture in the Americas. Even though the settlement itself was short lived, the material world of La Isabela reflects Columbus's and the Spaniards' expectations for America, and how they thought best to master the continent. The site offers a critical material baseline from which to assess not only the first European attitudes toward American colonization but also the nature of cultural change and exchange in the critical first decades of European entry into the Americas. For these and other reasons, La Isabela is an intensely important place for anyone interested in the encounter between Europe and the Americas.

Curiously, despite La Isabela's primacy and its seminal role in the creation of a Euro-American culture, the town itself has received little focused historical attention apart from the work of a handful of Spanish and Dominican historians. La Isabela has generally been overlooked and insufficiently studied as a functioning community by modern historians, who have instead tended to relegate their treatment of the settlement to brief and disparaging comments about its poorly protected harbor, its unhealthy environment, its aridity, its infertile land, and its general unsuitability for colonial life. The site of La Isabela has often been invoked as evidence for Columbus's poor judgment as a colonizer, and the underlying cause of the material poverty, hardship, illness, and hunger that led to the settlement's abandonment within four years.

While there is no doubt that La Isabela's residents suffered from hunger, sickness, and fatigue, modern archaeological research at the town site has revealed facets of the colony previously unknown to either historians or archaeologists, and these cast a new light on both the settlement strategy implemented by Columbus and the conditions of life in the town. The new information suggests that the plan for this first colony was, in fact, carefully and appropriately conceived, given the perceptions of America in 1493 and the experience of Spain in the late fifteenth century. The failure of the colony resulted less from the geographical and material conditions of life at La Isabela than from the inability or unwillingness of the first Spanish colonists to accommodate the material and social actuality of life in America. As combined historical and archaeological research in a number of sixteenth-century Spanish Caribbean towns has demonstrated, the experience of La Isabela taught the Spaniards lessons that led to a markedly different way of life after 1500, expressed in social, ideological, and material contours previously unknown in either Spain or America.

This book is concerned with the conditions and practices of life in fifteenth-century La Isabela, particularly those that shaped and directed subsequent Spanish colonial experience in the Americas. It is not about Christopher Columbus the man, as many volumes have already been devoted to the person and motives of Columbus. Nor is it a recounting of the dramatic events that occurred during the first five years of Spanish presence in the Americas, although obviously both Columbus and those events provide an essential narrative structure for any consideration of La Isabela.

Instead, our intent is to recover, explore, and interpret the material expressions of life as lived by the earliest Europeans in America and to reveal how their experience influenced the transformation of Spain in the New World. We emphasize the material expressions of lived experience at La Isabela because, like most historical archaeologists, we believe that only material expressions reveal action and agency on the part of all actors in the past, including those who could not produce written or iconographic accounts. An understanding (however imperfect of this "on the ground" agency is essential to the larger understanding of both the internal dynamics of the colonial venture and the true impact of the encounter between Europe and America in its historical, cultural, and ecological aspects.

Our view of the structure and organization of that encounter has been deeply influenced by five centuries of often distinguished historical scholarship. Yet, despite some notable exceptions, the scholarship has been largely restricted to the perspectives of the literate Spanish elites who controlled colonial policy and organization, and it has done relatively little to explore local circumstances in the earliest American colonies that provoked adjustments in the colonial structure itself. This unbalanced focus evolved in part because of the nature of historical sources. Most documents were produced by members of a literate elite minority, usually to further in some way their own causes. The experiences and perspectives of the majority of people-the non-elite Spaniards and Americans who were willingly or unwillingly caught up in the early colonial arena-are not recorded primarily in written accounts but are found instead in the material expressions of local experience, that is, in the archaeological record.

This local experience was not trivial. It determined the outcome of the Columbian project and led within one decade to the recasting of Spain's approach to America as an imperial venture rather than a mercantile one. After the collapse of La Isabela, local non-elite experience and agency continued to provoke changes in the expressed structure of empire and, we believe, were at least as influential as the core imperial institutions in the genesis of a multicultural Spanish-American culture.

La Isabela was a consciously constructed experiment that failed, but changes in response to that failure (both locally in the Spanish Americas and at the imperial center in Spain were central to the creation of a Spanish-American cultural tradition after 1500. Archaeological evidence from La Isabela offers us one of the few sources of information about the original configurations of the experiment, as well as the local circumstances that provoked the earliest changes in the colonial project. It allows us to examine the interplay between local experience and the structure of colonialism, which can lead us to a more refined understanding of such broad theoretical issues as ethnogenesis in the modern world, the transition from medieval to Renaissance patterns of society, and the interplay of hegemony and heterogeneity in the development of the diverse cultural mosaic of the post-1500 Americas.

Our interest in these questions has undeniably been influenced by the social and political circumstances of research at La Isabela, which took place in the context of the quincentennial observation of Columbus's voyages of discovery. That event provoked an exhausting amount of debate and confrontation in both the scholarly and the popular media, and as the place most tangibly associated with Columbus in America, La Isabela provided a focus for much of the debate. Research at the site has unavoidably been colored by the diverse and often conflicting symbolic meanings attributed to La Isabela, which have inevitably led to a certain amount of not unhealthy intellectual tension. For example, among the many contested representations of La Isabela are the view of the settlement as the point of entry for the violent invasion of America by Europe versus the view of it as the point of entry of European science, technology, and literacy; as the point of introduction of Christianity to the Americas versus the beginning of forced conversion and eradication of Native-American belief systems; as the cradle of hispanidad and modern American society versus the nursery for the annihilation of Caribbean Indian society; as the initiation of large-scale slavery and class exploitation versus the introduction of capitalism (leading ultimately to democracy) and the incorporation of America into a world system; and even as the beginning of ecological destruction in the Americas versus the introduction of new animals and plants and techniques to increase food production.

It is not our intent to seek resolution of these contrasts in the meaning of La Isabela, as clearly they cannot be satisfactorily resolved except from individual perspectives constructed by experience. Archaeology rarely illuminates such questions of personal meaning in a way that is useful to the larger community of researchers. These questions have, however, colored the political context-and thereby the organization-of research at the site. While the intellectual research aspects of the program have been characterized by an acceptance of the ambiguities that are inevitable when admitting multiple perspectives, this has not necessarily been the case with many of the interests involved in the local and national communities.

From the perspective of the Dominican government and the local community, for example, the work at La Isabela was explicitly carried out in support of economic development through tourism. A principal objective of that tourism-as well as of the government-sponsored archaeology-has been to communicate to the global community an important symbol of national identity and source of considerable national pride. We are both sympathetic and committed to this local perspective and have tried throughout the book to balance interpretations derived from archaeological material with those derived from contemporary consciousness. Other kinds of methodological tensions have been presented by the complexity of the project at La Isabela, and we have detailed these in chapter 3 of our companion volume, Archaeology at La Isabela (hereafter referred to as Archaeology).

We shall revisit many of the oppositions mentioned in the preceding paragraphs, treating them as acknowledged points of dialogue in our efforts to recover, explore, and interpret the material evidence of life as lived by the earliest Europeans in America. The first part of the book establishes a narrative structure within which to consider the documented circumstances that shaped life at La Isabela. In chapters 2 through 4 we consider the historical antecedents and cultural contexts of the settlement, and in chapter 5 we discuss the events that influenced what we know about La Isabela after its abandonment. Chapter 6 recounts the discovery of La Isabela's true configuration and assesses its role in the larger context of landscape. In the second part of the book (chapters 7 through 10), we examine the material expressions of life at La Isabela as revealed through the overlaying of archaeological and documentary information. The final chapter considers the impact of La Isabela on the subsequent imperial expansion of Spain in the Americas, at both structural and local levels, and reconsiders the questions raised earlier in this chapter.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Columbus's Outpost among the Tainos by Kathleen Deagan Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface
1 Columbus and La Isabela 1
2 The Historical Setting 7
3 Reluctant Hosts: The Tainos of Hispaniola 23
4 "Hell in Hispaniola": La Isabela, 1493-1498 47
5 The Hand of Vandals and the Tooth of Time: La Isabela, 1500-1987 71
6 The Medieval Enclave: Landscape, Town, and Buildings 95
7 A Spartan Domesticity: Household Life in La Isabela's Bohios 131
8 God and Glory 163
9 Commerce and Craft 179
10 Aftermath 201
11 Destinies Converged 213
Appendix 229
Note on Historical Sources 233
Notes 237
References 259
Acknowledgments 283
Index 287
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