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In his book Renaissance Self-fashioning (1980), the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt argues that writers of the 16th and 17th centuries tried to “fashion” or create an identity for themselves by, among other strategies, “submission to an absolute power or authority situated at least partially outside the self-God, a sacred book, an institution such as church, court, colonial or military administration”; Greenblatt further argues that Renaissance writers achieved this self-fashioned identity “in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile. This threatening other-heretic, savage, witch, adulteress, traitor, Antichrist-must be discovered or invented in order to be attacked and destroyed.” This paper examines the chronicles of Columbus on his first voyage and examines if the theory of Greenblatt holds good.
Discussion of First Voyage of Columbus
The translation by Jane Smith of the first voyage of Columbus reveals the struggles and the perils that Columbus faced during his voyage. It must be noted that commoners as well as nobles of 16th century Europe lived on the fickle whims of the Kings and the Church and the royalty could in an instant turn a commoner into a noble and a noble into a commoner though the former has happened very rarely. Columbus was thoroughly obligated to this King who had provided the required funds, ships, sailors and royal protection to the sailor. This for Columbus, the king was the ultimate symbol of authority and he regarded him as the ultimate provider. This is evidenced in the very first sentence of the letter where he addresses the kings. This passage appears to be what Greenblatt has proposed. The whole passage reveals the deep obligation Columbus had for the king: “I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies with the fleet which the illustrious king and queen, our sovereigns gave to me. And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable and of whom all I have taken possession for their highness, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled and no opposition was offered to me”.
Columbus’s fascination of the new land and its comparison with the land of Spain continues and he is of the opinion that the new lands are much more bountiful and beautiful in their splendor. All the new sights of the world are being continuously relayed to the King, trying to paint a picture of wealth and beauty, fruits, trees and also of gold. In a few words, the explorer is trying to assure the king that the decision to send him on the voyage was sensible and would surely turn profitable, He also mentions the magic word of gold, which was sure to gets the kings attention. In these words, Columbus is trying to ingratiate himself to the king and at the same time, the underlying word ‘I” cannot be missed and he is trying to make the king see that it was he Columbus who has discovered the new lands.
When the native Indians see the Spaniards, they think that these beings have come from the heavens and are fascinated by their looks, clothing, weapons, hair, ships and the manner of walking talking and behavior. The explorer comments:
“They all believe that power and good are in the heavens and they are very firmly convinced that I with these ships and men come from the heavens and in this belief they everywhere received me, after they had overcome their fear. And this does not come because they are ignorant, on the contrary, they are of a very acute intelligence and are men who navigate all those seas, so that it is amazing how good an account they give of everything, but it is because they have never seen people clothed or ships of such kind”.
The fascination that the people have for Columbus and his men seems to have created a sort of an alter ego for the explorer. He has captured a few of these people and they willingly move around with him as he sets out to explore the lands. The native Indians are still convinced that Columbus is indeed from the heavens for whenever they go to a neighboring village, they seem to go from house to house, urging the people to come outside and have a look at the people from heavens. Subtly this sort of adulation seems to be getting to his head and Columbus basks in this new role of a divine being. All the Columbus is interested in at this juncture is in transporting the riches of the country to Spain and turning the natives into Slaves.
Discussion of John Smith
Barbour (1988) has provided an edited work of the publications of John Smith, the Englishmen who helped to set up Jamestown and colonize Virginia in the 16th century. The author has provided a brief biography of the Sailor and from all accounts he was an unsavory man, given to fighting, brawling and unpredictable. He also managed to escape the gallows on a few occasions and it was by stroke of fortune that he managed to live. The biography also reveals the utter disregard James had for authority and even the king and how he attempted to create an aura of invincibility about himself. In the biography, the tale of Pocahontas, the legendary princess of the Indians who supposedly rescues him when he as kidnapped by the Indians is also mentioned. The biographer has questioned the very incidents and leads us to believe that much of the story was made up by John Smith who wrote the story to become famous.
The narration of Jones is totally different from what Columbus had written about the land and life in general but that is to be expected as Columbus was a gentleman while Jones was at best a brigand and at worst a murderer. In all the narratives he tries to portray himself as an adventurer who has undergone innumerable sufferings, torture and pain.
“While the ships stayed, our allowance was somewhat bettered by a daily proportion of biscuits which the sailors would pilfer to sell, give or exchange with us. But when they departed, there remained neither tavern, beer house nor place of relief but the common kettle. Had we been as free from all sins as we were free from gluttony and drunkenness we might have been canonized for saints”.
Smith also speaks of the run in hey had with the natives the first time they went to the villages of the Indians. The Englishmen were a sorry and famished looking lot and the Indians treated them with contempt, offering them token amounts of bread for their swords and muskets. Smith and his men initially fired a few volleys and ran for cover. The Indians then attempted to rush tem, armed with clubs, sticks, stones and other such weapons and they also had their god, what Smith calls an Okee that was mostly related to witches and it was made of hides, furs and other stuff but the Indians obviously held it in great reverence and when they charged the Englishmen, they were gunned down and the remaining fled, throwing the Okee down. Treating this object of witchcraft very derisively, Smith offered to return provided the Indians helped them. The Indians helped them to their boats, gave them food, meat and a semblance of trade was established. It can be seen from the passage that Smith was indeed what Greenblat had propositioned and that the rage against witchery, black magic is evident.
There is a poignant narration of the manner in which Smith is captured by the Indians. Though surrounded by more than 200 savages, he managed to put on a brave fight and it is obvious that the Indians did not want to kill him as they shot small allows more to disable and scare him them to kill him. Smith tied his guide to his body and continued to fight off the savages till at last he was captured. Smith is finally tied and taken before the king of the Pamukey, Opechancanough. Smith presents his compass and for sometime the savages are overawed with the spinning dial and to them it a strange kind of wizardry as the cannot tough the compass needle though they can touch it as the glass prevents access. Smith then attempts to explain how the stars in the skies are arranged, how the world is placed and other things but all that seems to be lost on the Indians and to them, the world is flat and they live in the center in a mud hole. The savages are ready to shoot him down but the King stops them and he is taken to great king Orapaks. The inner unrest of Smith is evident here and obviously his tales and skills of fighting have reached the savages because a whole guard of giant soldiers, with drawn and notched arrows stand between him and the King and this is the imagery that Greenblatt speaks of. Surprisingly, Smith is treated very well by the King and given plenty of food and drinks. Utter lavish hospitality is shown to him and it is presumed that he is safe. But the Indians do not totally trust him and employ a series of witches and black magicians or medicine men as they are called. Their task is to find out if Smith is safe and can be befriended. The following narrative explains the process by which Smith was subjected to the watchmen’s attentions.
“Not long after, early in a morning, a great fire was made in a longhouse and a mat spread in the one side as on the other, on the one they cause him to sit and all the guard went out of the house and presently came skipping in a great fellow all painted over with coal mingled with oil and many snakes and weasels skin stuffed with moss and all their tails tied together so as they met on the crown of his head in a tassel and round the tassel was a coronet of feathers, the skins hanging round about his head, back and shoulders and in a manner covered his face with a hellish voice and a rattle in his hand. With most strange gestures and passions he began his invocation and environed the fire with a circle of meal which done, three more such like devils came rushing in with the like antics tick, painted half black, half red but all their eyes were painted white strokes over their black faces. At last they all sat down right against him, three of them on the one hand of the chief priest and three on the other. Then all with their rattles began a song which ended the chief priest laid down five what corns then straining his arms and hands with such violence that he sweated and his veins swelled, he began a short oration at the conclusion, they all gave a short groan and then laid down three grains more. After that began their song again and then another oration, ever laying down so many corn as before till they had twice encircled the fire, that dome they took a bunch of little sticks prepared for that purpose continuing still their devotion and at the end of every sing and oration they load down a stick between the divisions o corn. Till night neither he nor they did either eat or drink and then they feasted merrily with the best provisions they could make. Three days they used this ceremony the meaning whereof they told him was to know if he intended them well or no. The circle of meal signified their country the circle of corn, the bounds of the sea and the sticks his country.
The above narrative shows the manner in which the savages attempted to subvert Smith to their religion. The author has suggested previously that all this elaborate ritual was nothing but a simple welcoming ceremony and has expressed surprise that Smith wrote this account so accurately after almost 15 years and suggests that all these narrative were merely elaborately padded up events that smith wrote late in his life so that he could become a celebrity. Smiths also mentions the help given by Pocahontas and the faith and trust he reposed in her. The princess offered to die in his place when the Indians wanted to rush his head and for that he was indebted to her.
Smith is forced out of Virginia and returns to New England where he presumably stays for the rest of his life contemplating on the life he lead and the God he never prayed to and the officials with whom he always fought.
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The paper has examined two works, that of the first voyage of Columbus and the other which is the story of Smith, the British who helped to set up the colony of Virginia. There is a marked contrast in the manner in which the two stories are narrated and the way in which they relate to the theory of Greenblatt. Columbus was a god-fearing person who was obliged to the King for all his possessions and his very life. But still, when the Indians regard him as a being from the Heavens, he does not say anything to discourage this thought. On the other hand, Smith is a brigand who desperately has tried to create his own identity, does not fear or obey god and is in fact always fighting with the authority.
- Barbour Philip. 1986. The complete works of Captain John Smith
- Jane Cecil. 1988. First Voyage of Columbus.