European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

How did Europeans perceive the new people they encountered and how were they in turn perceived?

When Christopher Columbus encountered the Taino of the Bahamas in October 1492, he was not the first European to step foot in the New World. That designation belongs to the Norse explorers who settled Newfoundland, Canada over four-hundred years earlier. Yet this 1492 encounter transformed European understanding of the “other” who lived beyond their borders and began a centuries-long transatlantic exchange that transformed global history. Columbus’ exploration and exploitation of the Caribbean soon led to new interest in exploring westward across the Atlantic. His initial journey inspired the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés and the Inca Empire by Francisco Pizarro and the discovery of modern-day Brazil by Pedro Cabral. Soon the search for a Northwest Passage, further exploration of Central and South America, and English settlements in North America all brought increasing numbers of European explorers to the New World. As Europeans encountered Americans, they came to the interaction with preexisting ideas about other people and foreign lands. These cultural expectations colored their perceptions of those they met. The native populations also had their own cultural expectations, religious beliefs, and stories of earlier encounters that influenced their reception of the Europeans. Each side tried to make sense of the differences they perceived, often by distorting the reality of the other to fit their preconceived notions of outsiders. European preconceptions of new lands relied on ancient and medieval sources that had described monstrosities in overseas lands like Blemmyes, humans with their faces in their chests, or bizarre amalgams of animal and man, or man-eating humans. Modern scholars question whether the Carib people actually practiced cannibalism, but exotic and scandalous stories shared back in Europe led to perpetuation of these familiar myths as realities in the reports of Columbus and his crew. Meanwhile the Aztec king Moctezuma II saw the arrival of Cortés as fulfillment of religious prophesy. Each society may have originally romanticized the other or been fascinated by their novelty and difference, but as scholars in this section explain, these initially romanticized interactions transformed over time yielding more pragmatic decision-making, but also misunderstandings and conflicts. These later interactions could turn violent as Europeans, still searching for sources of wealth, slaves, land for settlement and even female companionship resorted to force to achieve these goals and native populations responded with violent reprisal. Whether the European explorers truly believed that the people they encountered did not have a claim to their land, or had inhuman practices, or were truly pliable blank slates for European instruction, they used these differences in practice and behavior as justification for expropriation of land, exploitation of resources, forced conversion and forced labor, and even massacres and destruction of cities. The sources in this section consider how pre-existing cultural expectations about one another influenced early encounters between European-born and native Americans. And they consider how these perceptions of one another changed over time to become more pragmatic interactions laced with cultural misunderstanding and violence.