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Close Reading. And the Spanish Colonial System.

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close reading

Close Reading

And the Spanish Colonial System


In Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci\'s accounts of their exploration and encounters with the Indians, there is a prevailing focus on the physical and material differences between the explorers and the Indians. The explorers place importance on clothing and possessions, using the nakedness of the Indians to distinguish themselves as superior to them. Because of the Indians lack of material goods, they see the explorers as God like creatures, placing them on a pedestal based off of mere physical appearance.


In Amerigo Vespucci’s letter to Pier Soderini, Confalonier of the Republic of Florence, the reader becomes engrossed by a first-hand account of an explorer in the New World. While much of the content is pure description, a closer read reveals the sentiments behind the words Vespucci choose. The natives are explained in great detail, and though Vespucci tries to be objective, his claims often come across as far-fetched and erroneous. By examining the language used to describe Vespucci’s first impressions of the natives, the way Vespucci claims the natives view the explorers, and the reason Vespucci wrote the letter, it becomes clear that not everything is what it seems to be. The lack of understanding between the natives and the explorers, while minor at first, escalates until an entire culture is almost obliterated. Analyzing the first encounters between the two groups will show the reader that the problems were there from the very beginning.


In Christopher Columbus\' letter to the King and Queen of Castile (first voyage) and Amerigo Vespucci\'s letter to Pier Soderini, Donfaloniere of the Republic of Florence, each author describes what they outline to be a "truthful" account of their experiences in the uncharted lands they have discovered. Each passage addresses quite different yet ultimately correlated encounters with the native peoples of these lands. Although Columbus\' account outlines a peaceable and weak population, willing to be converted to Christianity, while Vespucci describes various tribes who seek violence againt the European invaders that must be suppressed, the language of each explorer suggests an attitude and expectation of ultimate domination over the natives. Through a closer examination of the rhetoric used by each author, it becomes clear that although each man sought a different type of domination over the Indians, their desired ends were the same.


Throughout the letter, Vespucci chooses to identify his European party as "Christians." His decision to classify based on religious affiliation may be reflective of the missionary motive behind America\'s colonization. Religious devotion as well as the growing influence of the Catholic Church during this era is quite evident. There is a sharp contrast between Christianity and the Native\'s supposed "God-less" society, which may be used as justification for conquest. Similarly, Vespucci\'s constant mention of a divine power in contexts such as, "it pleased the Holy Ghost to save us" and "God be thanked", delineate the European belief that God was on their side. Vespucci\'s words are overcome with a tone of superiority.


It is difficult to challenge [what] the history textbooks teach us, as we may speculate forever about historical factuality without actually revealing any absolute truths. The story of Christopher Columbus is one that American children have grown up with for hundreds of years, and to this day the reality of his story has been muddled and remolded according to historians’ beliefs. Fortunately, we are provided with various first hand documents which enable us as modern readers to catch a glimpse of actual literary reality of the time. In the document entitled "Letter to the King and Queen of Castile (first voyage), 1493", Christopher Columbus recounts his journey from Spain to the Caribbean Sea and the shore of what will become America. In his letter, he emphasizes the beauty, diversity, and vastness of the new land he has come upon. However, more interestingly than the vivid description of scenery he provides is the immediate and severely ignorant impression he gives of the inhabitants of the land, or the Indians. Columbus describes the Indians as exceedingly timid and fearful, which is interesting considering the fierce way in which the Indians allegedly fight to protect their land and people. Columbus states, “This timidity did not arise from any loss or injury that they had received from us; for, on the contrary, I gave to all I approached whatever articles I had about me, such as cloth and many other things, taking nothing of theirs in return: but they are naturally fearful and timid.” (Jhelen and Warner, p.13). Columbus appears to have been so ignorant as to not recognize that he was actually taking everything from the Indians. Perhaps not in the immediate material sense of the expression, yet he and his men proceeded to strip the Indian people of their land, dignity, freedom, and humanity. It seems glaringly obvious that these basic human rights are a tremendous amount to seize. Whether or not Columbus was attempting to glorify and expel his own virtue and generosity in his writing, it is incomprehensible that he claimed he took nothing from the Native people of the land.


From almost the beginning of an American’s education, certain historical figures are emphasized and celebrated almost to the point of attaining legendary status. George Washington, the Pilgrims, and Pocohontos are just a few who have been distanced from their historically accurate role and elevated to symbols of American tradition and culture. Another such figure is Christopher Columbus. Columbus is so revered in our society that he even has his own holiday. In all of the myths and celebration it is easy to forget that Columbus was actually a businessman—an explorer depending on government support for funding who happened to make the fortunate mistake of “discovering” America. But Columbus’ letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella describing the new world reveals that he was very much in-tune with his business needs and self-representation, even if that has been lost in history. Columbus portrays the Indians as receptive and gentle—he says “these people are so amiable and friendly that even the King took a pride in calling me his brother” (15) and they are “men of great deference and kindness”. Columbus then goes on to promote himself, saying “they continue to entertain the idea that I have descended from heaven”. He shows his kindness by saying “they bartered, like idiots cotton and gold for fragments of bows, glasses, bottles and jars which I forbade as being unjust, and myself gave them many beautiful and acceptable articles which I had brought with me, taking nothing from them in return” (14). By describing the Indians as childlike, Columbus furthers his own image as he becomes a kind of parental benefactor and, above all importance to the King and Queen, a good Christian. He says he “takes nothing” from the natives, but interestingly enough takes the time to describe land “exceedingly fertile…a great variety of trees of immense height” and land that “abounds in various kinds of spices, gold and other metals” (13), and most significantly that he “took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious monarch” (12). After some more description and self-promotion, Columbus subtly comments that “Although all I have related may appear to be wonderful and unheard of, yet the results of my voyage would have been more astonishing if I had at my disposal such ships as a required” (16). Columbus is a very clever businessman, and probably would have made a deft politician as well. His comment about needing more ships reveals that his letter is really PR—diplomatically and skillfully manipulating events to get what he wants-more business.


Throughout the history of exploration, the explorers

themselves as well as others around thought it imperative to keep

written accounts of the events surrounding their voyages and

adventures. Many times, these written accounts are the only evidence

available to us of their experiences abroad. In the case of

Christopher Columbus, his own journals as well as those of some of

his sailors provide a glimpse into some of the events surrounding his

discoveries. Unfortunately, a good many scholars believe these

accounts to be either exaggerated or completely false, while even the

points that are accurate are drenched with ethnocentrism and, in many

cases, blatant derogation. I, on the other hand, believe that

Columbus, with all of his human faults, gives many complimentary

accounts, and furthermore, displays much respect for the natives in

his writings. In particular, three quotes from his "Letter to the

King and Queen of Castille" positively reflect his native views in

respect to their treatment of people, their overall intelligence, and

their inter-island communication and commerce.


The understanding of American history has changed a great deal thanks to modern historians who began to look at this process starting not with the origins of Jamestown, but long before with the natives who occupied the land. We now learn about our country’s history from both the Indians and the explorers’ point of view, honing in on the feelings of the natives upon white invasion. In our readings from excerpts by Europeans such as Columbus and Vespucci, arguments were stressed about the ignorance and savagery of the native people. Columbus wrote that he had to "teach the Indians to speak"(Jehlen and Warner, 14) when in fact they had their own developed language, and Vespucci condemned their anarchism and secular society, even though a hierarchy and form of religion existed. The exaggerated negative portrayal of the Indians made it easier to conquer a people, for if one dehumanizes an entire race, such as the explorers did, it does not seem wrong to take their land and strip them from their identity. The explorers convinced themselves, and then, through their writings, the rest of Europe, that these “savages” needed to be Christianized and civilized and it was their duty to do so.

spanish colonial system
Spanish Colonial System
  • Conquistadors – Granted Encomiendas
    • Note the importance of the Requerimiento (Doctrine of Just War)
  • Power of Encomenderos challenged by the Crown
    • Didn’t want competition from quasi-feudal lords
    • Used Friars as surrogates
      • Syncretism
    • Gradual move to hacienda system
    • Audiencia—more royal oversight