Reading Columbus

Reading Columbus

by Margarita Zamora



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520080522
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/29/1993
Series: Latin American Literature and Culture Series , #9
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.25(w) x 9.23(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Margarita Zamora is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the author of Language, Authority, and
Indigenous History in the Comentarios Reales de los

Read an Excerpt

Reading Columbus

By Margarita Zamora

University of California Press

Copyright © 1993 Margarita Zamora
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520082977


Los niños con los juegos, los mozos con las letras, los mancebos con los deleites, los viejos con mil especies de enfermedades pelean, y estos papeles con todas las edades. La primera los borra y rompe, la segunda no los sabe bien leer, la tercera, que es la alegre juventud y mancebía, discorda. Unos les roen los huesos que no tienen virtud, que es la historia toda junta, no aprovechándose de las particularidades, haciéndola cuento de camino, otros pican los donaires y refranes comunes, loándolos con toda atención, dejando pasar por alto lo que hace más al caso y utilidad suya. Pero aquellos para cuyo verdadero placer es todo, desechan el cuento de la historia para contar, coligen la suma para su provecho, ríen lo donoso, las sentencias y dichos de filósofos guardan en su memoria, para trasponer en lugares convenibles a sus actos y propósitos. Así que cuando diez personas se juntaren a oír esta comedia, en quien quepa esta diferencia de condiciones, como suele acaecer, ¿quién negará que haya contienda en cosa que de tantas maneras se entienda?
(Rojas, Celestina )

Children with their sports, boys with their books, young men with theirpleasures, old men with a thousand sorts of infirmities, skirmish and war continually; and these papers with all ages. The first blots and tears them; the second knows not well how to read them; the third (which is the cheerful livelihood of youth, and set all upon jollity) doth utterly dislike them. Some gnaw only the bones, but do not pick out the marrow, saying there is no goodness in it—that it is a history, huddled, I know not how, together, a kind of hodgepodge or gallimaufrey; not profiting themselves out of the particularities, accounting it a fable or old wife's tale, fitting for nothing save only for to pass away the time upon the way. Others call out the witty conceits and common proverbs, highly commending them, but slighting and neglecting that which makes more to the purpose and their profit. But they for whose true pleasure it is wholly framed reject the story itself, as a vain and idle subject, and

gather out the pith and marrow of the matter for their own good and benefit, and laugh at those things that savour only of wit and pleasant conceit, storing up in their memory the sentences and sayings of philosophers, that they may transpose them into such fit places as may make, upon occasion, for their own use and purpose. So that when ten men shall meet together to hear this comedy, in whom perhaps shall happen this difference of dispositions, as it usually falleth out, who will deny but that there is a contention in that thing which is so diversely understood?1

Reading is a contentious practice, Fernando de Rojas affirmed in the prologue to Celestina , a work published during Columbus's third voyage to the Indies. For the act of reading is never perfectly smooth; it is usually carried out in tension with the text as well as with other readings. As Rojas could have predicted, the ink from Columbus's pen was hardly dry when Isabella and Ferdinand expressed their dismay, in September 1493, over the report on the voyage he submitted to them upon his return from the first navigation.2 Clearly, what they had anticipated reading was different from the text they received.

Since then, scholars have made careers and reputations out of arguing about what exactly Columbus meant by what he wrote. No aspect of his writings has been more controversial than the question of the Discovery itself. In one corner are those who insist that Columbus died believing he had found a new route to Asia and had in fact landed on the Asiatic mainland. But other scholars, using the selfsame texts for evidence, claim with equal vigor that Columbus knew all along, or very early on, that he had found a new continent. Only slightly less controversial are such topics as the route Columbus followed, where he made landfall, the authenticity of the texts attributed to him, the nature of the enterprise, and Columbus's views of the Indians. The Columbian texts have something to say about all of these issues, but they say different things to different people and, apparently, in different ways.

The essays in this volume approach Columbian writing precisely at its historical stress points; that is, they revisit those aspects of the texts that have caused readers the greatest anxiety or have resulted in significant disagreements among scholars of the Discovery. Doubtless, my arguments and interpretations will provoke further disagreement and dissent. But I trust that my interrogations of both

the Columbian texts and the assumptions made by previous readers will provide new vantage points from which to reconsider persistent questions about Columbian writing.

Typically, the Columbian texts have been under the purview of scholars working in disciplines devoted to determining the nature of the past. They treat the texts as evidence, and their readings are based on particular assumptions about the texts' authenticity, reliability, and accuracy. To date, there is no consensus: the Columbian texts have been deemed both very reliable and largely untrustworthy testimonies on the Discovery. All the essays here consider this problem, either implicitly or explicitly. But rather than focus on the relation between the texts and the events they refer to, I approach the texts as texts and emphasize the mediated nature of reading and writing.

For just as every text arises in a particular context and a specific set of circumstances, so do readings of that text. And although we cannot reconstruct those contexts in all their complexity and specificity nor approach writing and reading as if they were only responses to circumstances, to disregard the contexts within which texts become meaningful is to ignore an important aspect of how writing and reading help make history. The results of an interpretation that treats the mediated character of a text's mode of existence as a central focus of the analysis can be unsettling to those who feel most comfortable with the positivist assumption that the past can be essentially reconstituted in the present through the study of documentary sources. Yet if mediation is not taken into account, one runs the risk of producing a flat, static picture of historical writing.

In putting these differences between two critical perspectives on Columbian writing in such stark terms, I am overstating the problem somewhat in order to draw a clear distinction between two ways of reading that differ in purpose and emphasis. One can read to understand the past or to understand how stories about the past are told. Both these manners of reading require an awareness of the nuances and ambiguities of language, of the plural condition of meaning, of the importance of exegesis and interpretation in understanding the written word. But a historical reading seeks ultimately to recreate what really happened, through an archaeology of the word. Instead, the essays in this volume seek to understand the ways in which writing about the past makes it meaningful.

Several of the essays, for example, concern the pragmatics of Columbian writing; that is, they consider how a text may have been used by its author and readers, under what circumstances, and with what consequences. They focus, in other words, on the rhetorical rather than the referential qualities of writing. The readers to whom a text is explicitly or implicitly addressed, the circumstances surrounding the act of writing, the author's intentions, and the reader's expectations are only a few of the kinds of mediations that affect how information is selected and conveyed and, of course, the meaningfulness or usefulness of that information to those who receive it.

Such rhetorical inflections are most evident in the case of so-called creative writing. But in fact every text, even the most ostensibly objective of legal documents, can be shown to respond inventively to its circumstances, if only in the determinations the writer makes regarding exactly what information would be relevant to readers and most appropriate to the situation, and the form in which that information should therefore be presented. The creative dimension of historical writing and its relevance to the study of the past has been a recent focus of studies exploring the relation between historiography and literary criticism, history and the language arts.3 These essays, however, strive to move the discussion beyond the specific fields of history and literature in order to consider the effects of other modalities of expression, including nonwritten forms, on Columbian writing's representation of the Discovery.4 Such an approach necessarily transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries, touching as it does on a variety of fields in order to explore the cognitive bridges between them. Its object of study, however, is the text. It is, therefore, literary in the larger (and today archaic) sense conveyed by the Latin litterarius —of reading and writing. It does not distinguish between "literary" and "historical" texts. Indeed, as I will argue, in the analysis of Columbian writing the notion of disciplinary boundaries is highly questionable, if not obsolete.

In this regard these essays pose an alternative to the two traditions in the study of Columbian writing, history and literary criticism, by raising the types of questions that cannot be explored with a single methodology alone. The essay " 'This present year of 1492,' " for example, considers the influence of the medieval notarial

arts on the articulation of the enterprise of the Indies, as well as the circumstances that dictated the norms of the exchange between the writer and his addressees. "Voyage to Paradise" takes up the vexing question of Columbus's destination by looking at the relations between the Columbian texts' representation of the journey of discovery, its geography, and the cartographic paradigms to which they respond. "Gender and Discovery" approaches Columbian writing as a response to the contractual documents of commission issued by the Crown on the eve of the first voyage, and then evaluates gendered imagery in the Columbian texts in relation to the commercial and political goals of the enterprise as expressed in the royal contract.

Another important stress point in the interpretation of the Columbian texts concerns their transmission to later readers. The part reading plays in perpetuating writing is perhaps too obvious for comment. A text that is not read at least once stands little chance of survival. But the role of reading in transforming writing is generally not recognized as a significant problem in the study of texts. As Rojas had already pointed out in the fifteenth century, the relations between readers and texts are usually more complicated than simple, more combative than congenial. The three stages he identified in the life of the text as an object of reading suggest that it is an invasive activity. The "Carta a Luis de Santángel" (15 February 1493), announcing the Discovery, illustrates this point. Within a few months of Columbus's return, the letter (the only Columbian text to be published in his lifetime) appeared in Spanish, Italian, Latin, and in Italian verse. A manuscript copy in Santángel's hand is preserved in the Archivo General de Simancas. None of these versions are identical. The Latin editions, for instance, are addressed not to Santángel, the keeper of the royal privy purse, but to Gabriel Sánchez, the general treasurer of the kingdom of Aragon, whom the texts misidentify as Rafaél Sánchez. The versions differ from each other in other small ways, in part because all but the Spanish text are translations, and they differ quite significantly from the text that was probably their common matrix, the "Carta a los Reyes" of 4 March 1493, also announcing the Discovery.5

Moreover, a comparison of the letter to Santángel and the letter addressed to the Crown the following month suggests that the "earlier" version was probably derived from the later one and that the

February letter was at least substantially revised, if not completely composed, by someone other than Columbus. As it turned out, the derivative February letter not only modified but actually took the place of—or, more precisely, masqueraded as—the original announcement of the Discovery for almost five hundred years. Samuel Eliot Morison's assessment of the letter's authority and privilege is representative of the esteem in which most scholars have held it: "This letter is the first and rarest of all printed americana. It tells not only what the Admiral himself thought, but the most important things he wished the sovereigns to know. . . . Columbus composed this letter on board the caravel Niña, on his homeward passage" (Morison, 180). The 4 March letter, lost or suppressed for half a millennium, was known to have existed at all only because it was mentioned in a postscript to the 15 February version.6 The consequences of this censorial reading and rewriting are taken up in more detail in the opening essay, "Reading Columbus."

Two other essays focus on the decisive mediation of Bartolomé de Las Casas, who copied, edited, paraphrased, and commented on a significant number of Columbus's writings, some of which survive only in Las Casas's versions. Conversely, the Columbian texts that remain lost today, including the diarios of the second, third, and fourth navigations, are, in part, unavailable because Las Casas did not transcribe them.7 Thus, much of our understanding of the Discovery, much of what we know of what Columbus thought or said, as well as what we do not, is the result of Las Casas's intervention in the transmission of the Columbian texts. Although neglect, scribal error, official suppression, and foul play may also have contributed to the deformation and attrition that Columbus's words have suffered since their original inscription, nothing has had as comprehensive and profound an effect on them as Las Casas's hand. The scope and character of Las Casas's editorial interventions in the reconstitution of his source, the since lost diario of the first voyage, is the subject of the essay " 'All these are the Admiral's exact words' "—a phrase that appears frequently in Las Casas's edition of Columbus's journal. "In the Margins of Columbus" considers the effects of Las Casas's mediation in the transmission of Columbian writing by examining the annotations and commentary he inscribed in the margins of the Columbian texts.

I use the phrase "Columbian writing" throughout these essays

in recognition of the problems inherent in the notion of authorship and, especially, in acknowledgment of the mediated condition of the texts under consideration. From this perspective, Reading Columbus is an ironic title, since not only is it impossible to determine with absolute certainty which portions of these texts are Columbus's "very words," but the very signature "Columbus" must be seen as an aggregate, a corporate author as it were.

Discourse appears frequently and prominently in the pages that follow. The term has a long history: In Latin discurrere means "to run back and forth," a purely physical action. In its evolution through medieval Latin and into the modern European languages, however, the word retained of the original sense only the connotation of movement to and fro, and it came to designate intellectual activity, specifically, the process of reasoning or argumentation. More recent usage has branched into seemingly antithetical directions, with the twin senses of formal presentation or discussion (in Spanish discurso means "speech") and dialogue or exchange.

Upon further consideration, however, the one meaning implies the other. A lecture or speech may be performed as a monologue, but it is inherently dialogical insofar as it is a reaction to the current state of knowledge or opinion on the topic. Moreover, every lecture or speech addresses someone (even if only implicitly) and, perhaps most importantly, seeks to elicit a response (even if only to squelch dissent). Knowledge is not created by an individual genius working alone; it is the product of intellectual give and take, of the movement of ideas back and forth, of conversations comprising many voices.

To speak of the "discourse of the Discovery" then, suggests an exchange. Using the analogy of conversation or dialogue helps to underscore that the Discovery was a dynamic process constituted not by persons acting and speaking autonomously, but in formal official exchanges in the public sphere, situations that were inherently contractual—that is, dialogical in a figurative sense.

These essays consider the Discovery, then, not as a single and unique event, but as a process defining how Europeans were to relate to the newly found peoples and the territories they inhabited. In these terms, the Discovery and its discourse continued for decades, even centuries, after Columbus, as Las Casas's treatment of the Columbian texts illustrates. The exchange in question, however, was not between Europeans and Indians, but rather almost exclu-

sively among Europeans themselves. The indigenous peoples of the New World suffered the Discovery, resisted or collaborated in various ways, but they were not participants in defining the terms of the Europeans' discourse. Neither Guacanagarí, the Haitian cacique who helped Columbus recover from the Santa María disaster on Christmas Day 1492, nor Cahonaboa, who subsequently destroyed the Spanish settlement established with the aid and protection of Guacanagarí and named La Navidad in commemoration of that first collaboration, were able to affect the essential European character of that process. The most significant contribution of the indigenous peoples—their resistance—constituted a rejection of the Europeans' definition of the Discovery and its implementation—but they were not allowed a voice in the discourse. Cahonaboa was eventually duped, captured, and sent to Spain in shackles. Guacanagarí remained a faithful ally of Columbus even in the face of the ever-increasing devastation inflicted by the discoverers on the other tribes of the island. Yet neither indigenous collaboration nor resistance have a say in this encounter. When the indigenous peoples speak through the Columbian texts at all, it is only because others do the talking for them.

One final clarification. Each of the essays in this book probes the tensions and contradictions in the discourse of the Discovery from a different perspective. But each new vantage point, by definition, also limits the angle of vision, by restricting the types of questions raised and, thereby, the character of the responses. Thus while each essay affirms a position with respect to the object of study and the issues raised, the volume as a whole does not resolve the complexities, incongruities, and tensions that inhabit the Columbian texts into a totalizing theory that would be compelling in its homogeneity. Such a perspectivistic strategy is heterogeneous not out of a relativistic reluctance to "take a stand" but, rather, out of a conviction that a critical stance is itself, like the texts it addresses, the contingent product of interactions at a particular time and place.8


Excerpted from Reading Columbus by Margarita Zamora Copyright © 1993 by Margarita Zamora. 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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews