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Analysis of “European Discovery of America” by Todorov Essay

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Updated: Sep 25th, 2021

Introduction

The book by Tzvetan Todorov is a piece of classic literature that is in actuality a study of Old America when it was a New World to the explorers of the time. The author discusses the history of the region and the roles that the explorers who journeyed to America played in shaping the course of history as we know it today.

The aspects that are covered in the book pertain to the discovery of the then New World made by Columbus and how the actions initiated by him and the consequent followers affected the lives of the aboriginal people living in the region. He depicts in his book how the actions undertaken by the Spanish in the past have created a trend that has trickled into the future. “The history of the globe is of course made up of conquests and defeats, of colonisations and discoveries of others, but as I shall try to show, it is in fact the conquest of America that heralds and established our present identity.” (Torodov, 1984, p5)

The exploration journeys of the Spanish to the regions of Mexico and Latin America before the discovery of America are also critiques and analyzed by Tzvetan Todorov. The author analyses the behavior of the Spanish explorers to the region and the resultant behavior and changes that were faced by the local people in the region, namely the American Indians and the Aztecs in detail. Through the book, he puts forward his opinion that the clash of the cultures of the Spanish and aboriginals in America resulted in the almost extinction of Mesoamerica’s American Indian population.

Todorov’s Quantitative and Qualitative Narratives of the Decline of the Indigenous Population

In his book, Todorov narrates quantitatively, stating numbers and figures when it comes to reporting the decline in the indigenous population. He mentions that at the hands of the Spanish and the explorers, the population of the Aztecs and the Indians suffered a great deal coming to a state of near extinction. Simultaneously he also uses qualitative adjectives, figures of speech, and metaphors to depict the decline of the indigenous Red Indians and the Aztecs under the Spanish. He uses his qualitative writing technique to present detail and engage the reader, while the quantitative technique is used to provide facts to the reader and support his qualitative analysis.

Todorov’s General Thesis, and “the question of the other”

The general thesis that is proposed by Todorov is that the explorations of the New World were made on religious grounds and the way these explorations were managed was driven by the explorers’ religious principles. While many historians who have written on the history of the American continent tend to overlook the religious aspect of the discovery of the New World made by the European explorers, it is proposed that the explorations by the Europeans for America were made based on their religious beliefs which were central to the explorations.

The thesis by Todorov is supported by the evident behavior of the Europeans in America in terms of their interactions and their management of the American Indians which eventually led to the reduction of the American Indian Population. His thesis depicts that the concept of the superiority of the white race, and the superiority of the Christian religion above the other religions was what made the European explorers force themselves and their religious beliefs upon the American Indians.

The subtitle of his book “the question of the other” represents the others or the Native Americans. It points out that while the history of the discovery of America is generally recorded as the turning point for the World, the plight of the Red Indians and the native South Americans at the hands of these explorers is often ignored. History records and recalls them as ‘savages’, while the real ‘savages’ were the European explorers and the European settlers who harshly treated the aboriginals to make them conform to the customs, religions, and beliefs of the Europeans.

Todorov’s Interpretations of Columbus

Todorov interpreted Columbus as a great explorer. “Columbus’s courage is admirable (and has been admired many times over), Vasco da Gama and Magellan may have undertaken more difficult voyages but they knew where they were going” (Torodov, 1984, p5) He depicts him as the person who discovered America as the person who had a religious motive to discover the new land. He depicts Columbus as having a religious purpose to spread the religious word to the aboriginals.

The thirst for gold has also been highlighted by Todorov as one of the purposes that Columbus and his comrades were perusing in newfound America to increase the riches of the church. However, he depicts that as this purpose is highly controversial to the image of the church, many accounts of history published and written by others do not take these factors into account when relating the Indian Americans as savages while it was the White settlers and the explorers to the region who treated the aboriginal Americans as savages and looted their land and riches from them.. He emphasizes that the Christianity and the self-image of the westerners from Europe were what provoked Columbus to act he did in America.

Todorov’s Interpretations of Cortes

Todorov conducts a very graphic interpretation of Cortes where he puts Cortes as an opportunist. He states that Cortes was a highly intellectual and skillful person who used to manipulate the psychic of the people.

He depicts in his book that Cortes exploited the psychology and the principles of the Indians to implement and execute his plans to take over the land and rule over them. Through his interpretation of Cortes, Todorov depicts him as a callous and Machiavellian man who is after the goal of Gold. According to his interpretation, Cortes sets about a trend which was followed by the Spanish in the colonial times to use the gold available in the new land as a means to increase his wealth as well as his powerful influence and status back home as well as in the new world. He acknowledges Cortes for being able to identify the Indians as valuable for the production of the resources but not for the fact that he did not recognize the value of the Indians themselves.

Todorov’s Interpretations of Las Casas

Las Casas was a Dominican priest who had a reaction of horror to the violence that was enacted by the Spanish people against the Indians in the new world. This was the first public representation of the sympathy that was shown by prominent Europeans when it came to the Indians and their plight at the hands of the Spanish. Todorov’ recognizes the attempts that were made by Las Casas to protect the Indians and become their savoir from the Spanish.

He admires the campaign that was set up by Las Casas to fulfilling his mission of protecting the Indians. However, Todorov then goes on to mention that the main underlying principle behind Las Casas’s efforts was also the same as that of the other Europeans. According to him, Las Casas did not make any real attempt to save the Indians, and instead through that the only way they could be saved was to convert them to be Christians.

Todorov’s Interpretations of Sahagun

Sahagun was a person from Francisco who became prominent because of the fluency that he achieved in the Nahuatl. He is known in history for his efforts regarding the construction of the Florentine Codex, which was made possible as a result of his fluency in Nahuatl, and the contribution put in by his students towards his work. The Florentine Codex was an account of how the Aztecs conducted their daily activities and led their lives before the arrival of the Spanish invaders and Explorers to the region. Todorov recognizes Sahagun as a person who hoarded data and collected all the information that he could gather.

However, Todorov accuses Sahagun of simply gathering the data and not spending any time interpreting and understand it. He also claims that the high degree of involvement by Sahagun in the storing and restoration of data took so much of his time and efforts that he failed to recognize that the Spanish were destroying the Aztec society and the way they led their lives. However, Todorov does recognize that he was monumental in preserving how Aztecs lived their lives and even interprets him as one of the few people who was surprisingly against the Spanish rule in the region of Mexico as he regarded that Aztecs ruled by Spanish would not be a good thing to happen to these people.

How Todorov’s Interpretations Relate to his General Thesis

Except for the interpretation of Todorov regarding Saghagun, the interpretations of Todorov of the explorers, specifically Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, and Bartolomé de las Casas are directly related to his general thesis.

The general thesis of Todorov was that all the explorers in history have based their missions on their religion of Christianity with little or no regard for the aboriginals. Christopher Columbus was concerned with the salvation of the world as well as that of the Indians while on an actual level he was only interested in what the new world had to offer him. He tried to provide the Indians salvation by teaching them Christianity and forcing them to become men of faith. Similarly, Cortes also based his mission on gathering as much gold and riches as possible and furthering Christianity.

Las Casas and his saving the Indian race from the Spanish by making them christen is simply put by Todorov as using a different tactic to get the same results that others wanted. Sahagun however was not in favor of converting the Aztecs or Spanish ruling the Aztecs; however, his absorption in the past and his negligence to the present was not favorable for the Aztecs.

Conclusion

The work of Todorov as in the book titled ‘The Conquest of America. The Question of the Other’ is one of the most controversial ones which put the great Spanish explorers who discovered America in a negative light. This makes his work not applicable to the contemporary world. However, students of literature, religion, anthropology, and history can gain much from his works as they represent a different point of view.

References

Todorov, T., 1984, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, Texas: Harper & Row.

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