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History is written with surviving documents – how do the documents that historians use to write the early history of Atlantic exploration and ‘discovery’ affect our understanding of

  History is written with surviving documents – how do the documents that historians use to write the early history of Atlantic exploration and "discovery" affect our understanding of this moment?  What accounts do we have that tell us about the experience and intentions of explorers and conquerors – and what accounts do we have about how they were received by indigenous populations? How do mid colonial documents illustrate how radical the changes were between first contact and the establishment of colonial society? 


 Chicago style, 600 words


Primary source:

These two primary sources convey some of what the very early European explorers wrote about what they experienced on their voyages. The radically different contents of the letter have much to do with to whom the letters were addressed, and who each of the authors were and what the expectations of each were



Secondary sources:

Duke University Press

Chapter Title: The First Pirate of the Caribbean: Christopher Columbus Chapter Author(s): Michele de Cuneo

Book Title: The Ocean Reader Book Subtitle: History, Culture, Politics Book Editor(s): Eric Paul Roorda Published by: Duke University Press. (2020) Stable URL:

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The First Pirate of the Caribbean:

Christopher Columbus

Michele de Cuneo

The first recorded pirates of the Caribbean were the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), and the crew of his second voyage to the New World. One of them was the Italian nobleman Michele de Cuneo, about whom little is known, who wrote this letter. It describes the pilfering, homicidal, rapacious be- havior of the approximately 1,200 Europeans who invaded the Caribbean islands in late 1493. That enterprise culminated with the shipment of some 500 enslaved native people back to Spain.

In the name of Jesus and of his glorious mother Mary from whom all good things come. The twenty-fifth of September 1493 we left Cádiz with seven- teen ships that were excellent in all ways, to wit, fifteen square-rigged and two lateen-rigged, and on the second of October we arrived at Grand Canary Island. We set sail again the next night, and on the fifth of the month we arrived at La Gomera, one of the islands called the Canaries. If I were to re- count to you the many celebrations, gun salutes, cannon salutes, and solemn oaths we carried out at that place, I would be too prolix; and this was done because our admiral had been in love in another time with the noblewoman of the said place. In that place we took all the refreshment we needed. The day of October tenth we made sail to continue our voyage on the proper course, but due to contrary winds, we nevertheless took three days sailing between the Canary Islands. The thirteenth of October, on Sunday, in the morning, we left behind the Island of Hierro, the last of the Canary Islands, and our direc- tion was to the west, with the southwest wind. The twenty-sixth of October, the eve of [the feast day of] Saints Simon and Jude, at approximately 4 P.M., a tempest was unleashed on the sea such that you would not believe it: we thought we had reached the end of our days; it lasted all night until dawn, and luckily the ships did not collide one into the other. In the end, it pleased God to keep us together, and the third of November, on Sunday, we saw land, that is to say, five unknown islands.

To the first our lord the admiral gave the name Santo Domenico, for it

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274 Michele de Cuneo

being Sunday when it was found; to the second, Santa María la Galante, in honor of his flagship, named María la Galante.1 These two islands were not large; nonetheless, the lord admiral marked them on his chart. . . .

That same day we left from there and came to a large island that was populated by cannibals, who ran into the mountains as soon as they saw us, abandoning their houses to us. We landed on this island and stayed about six days. .  .  . To this island the lord admiral gave the name Santa María de Guadalupe. . . .2

From this island of cannibals we made sail on the tenth of November, and the thirteenth of that month we arrived at another island of cannibals, lovely and very fertile, and we entered a very beautiful bay. When the cannibals saw us, they fled in the same way as on the other [island] to the mountain, and abandoned their houses to us, which we went into and took whatever we pleased. In these few days we found many islands we did not land on. . . . To these islands, because they were so close and clustered together, the said lord admiral gave the name the Eleven Thousand Virgins, and the above- mentioned that of Santa Cruz.3 One of those days while we were riding at anchor, we saw coming around a point, a “canoe,” that is to say, a boat, which is how they call it in their language, paddling, that seemed to be a well-armed brigantine, in which came three or four cannibal men with two cannibal women and two “Indians” made slaves; the cannibals there call slaves those who are their neighbors on those other islands, and they also had cut them a little from the genital member to the stomach, so that they were still ailing. And we having the captain’s launch on shore, upon seeing the approach of the canoe, leaping without delay into the boat we gave chase to the said ca- noe; when we approached it, the cannibals cut us up badly with their bows, in such a way that, if the shields had not been in place, we would have been ruined; I saw a galley sergeant who had a shield in his hand take an arrow in the chest that went in three inches deep, from which ill fortune he died a few days later. We took the said canoe with all of its men, and one cannibal was wounded by a spear, from which he seemed to be dead; and throwing him into the sea as dead, we saw him suddenly start to swim; so we caught him and hoisted him aboard the ship with a meat hook, where we cut off his head with a hatchet; the rest of the cannibals, along with the aforementioned slaves, we later sent to Spain. Being back on board, I took a very lovely can- nibal woman, whom the lord admiral gave to me, taking her to my cabin, she being nude as is their practice, I felt the desire to take my pleasure with her; and as I wanted to put my desire to work, she, resisting it, scratched me in such a way with her fingernails, that I wished I had not begun, but that being seen, and to tell you the outcome, I grabbed a belt and gave her a good beating, so that she let out unheard-of screams like you would not believe.

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The First Pirate of the Caribbean 275

Finally, we came to an agreement in such a manner that I can say from what happened that she seemed to have been raised in a school of whores.

Translated by Eric Paul Roorda


1. The island of Marie Galante still bears that name; the other island was one of the nearby islands called the Saintes. 2. The island of Guadeloupe. Eleven men from the expedition went ashore “to rob” and got lost in the jungle. Columbus sent 200 men in four squads of fifty ashore to locate them, without success. The 200 returned from the search hungry and exhausted. The Europeans assumed the would-be thieves had been caught and eaten by the natives, whom they mis- took to be cannibals. If not for an old “cannibal woman” gesturing to them where to go to find their disoriented comrades, they would have been left behind. 3. These islands are today the Virgin Islands and St. Croix. The tale of the martyred St. Ur- sula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins is said to have taken place in the late fourth century, when all of them were supposedly shipwrecked and killed by Huns.

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Mistranslation, Unsettlement, La Navidad


Source: PMLA , October 2013, Vol. 128, No. 4 (October 2013), pp. 938-946

Published by: Modern Language Association

Stable URL:

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theories and



Unsettlement, La Navidad


ANNA BRICKHOUSE, associate profes

sor of English and American studies at

the University of Virginia, is the author

of The Unsettlement of America: Transla

tion, Interpretation, and the Story of Don

Luis de Velasco, 1560-1945 (Oxford UP,





serve as translators. The abduction was clearly an act of significant forethought, registering Columbus's intention that these interpret ers "inquire and inform … about things in these parts" (Columbus,

"Letter" 118)—a first step toward the subjugation of all the inhabit

ants of San Salvador, who might one day be "taken to Castile or held

captive" on the island (Columbus, Diario 75). The taking of these in

digenous translators has been no less momentous for contemporary

scholarship, perhaps especially in early modern English and Ameri can literary studies: in the year of the Columbian quincentenary, Ste

phen Greenblatt memorably called it "the primal crime in the New

World … committed in the interest of language" (24); Eric Cheyfitz concurs that "translation was, and still is, the central act of European

colonization and imperialism in the Americas" (104). Yet the concept

of translation as a wholly imperial instrument, as commonplace in Columbus's day as in our own, has limited our thinking in important

ways (Adorno, "Polemics" 20). As ethnohistorians and literary critics

alike have suggested, the interpretive sway of the "linguistic colonial

ism" model can obscure as much about its Native objects as it reveals

about the purported discursive complexity of its European subjects.1

This essay returns to the scene of this primal linguistic crime to

consider its role as the origins story for an alternative history—one

that, as I tell it here, draws on Native American studies' multilayered

concept of sovereignty to reconsider a canonical episode of colonial

history.2 How we frame and comprehend this episode has obvious bearing on how we write the early American literary past, for Co

lumbus's writings inaugurate the Western record of a now largely anonymous body of Native translators engaged in the acquisition and interindigenous dissemination of diplomatic knowledge and political expertise regarding the hemisphere and the early Atlan tic world. The network of intellectual production and transmission

adumbrated by these Native translators has been easy to overlook

» 2013 anna brickhouse

PMLA 128.4 (2013), published by the Modern Language Association of America

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Anna Brickhouse 939

suit of self-determination," much contem- finally sails to Santa María de la Concepción, porary scholarship unwittingly repeats that he does so because "these men that I have had denial by misrecognizing these captives' use taken … kept telling me that there they wear of translation to engage in acts of political very large bracelets of gold" (79). Whether or diplomacy in behalf of a self-determining not he has understood his translators' words, people—and thereby to set "at least some of Columbus has followed the signed indica the terms of the debate" (462). Our prevail- tions of their directions and continues to do ing literary and historical narratives of co- so throughout the remainder of the voyage, lonial settlement in the early Americas are Even so, by the time of their arrival at intimately tied to this critical misrecogni- Santa Maria, Columbus loses some confi tion; working against it is a first step toward dence in his interpreters: "I well believe that recovering what I elaborate below as a history all they were saying [of gold bracelets] was a of American ««settlement. In what follows I ruse in order to flee" (79). Already, then, the offer a speculative reading grounded not in possibility of motivated mendacity on the in Columbus's narrow construal of translation terpreters' part haunts the project of transla as an instrument of (European) empire but in tion for which the seven captives have been a series of motivated mistranslations actively detained. Yet Columbus can envision only a dispatched by the collective of indigenous in- limited horizon of possibilities for evaluating terpreters he regarded as his to control. the information supplied by his interpreters:

they are lying, he reasons, simply because they

Columbus's Diario is a famously medi- are seeking to escape. The logic here is retre ated text: a paraphrase, including some direct active, for while the ship anchors off Santa quotations, written by the Dominican friar Maria two of the San Salvadoran translators Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), who jump overboard and make their way ashore, owned a copy of Columbus's (now lost) origi- Yet the successful flight of these two interpret nal, which was itself a highly self-conscious ers is followed by several events that not only text intended for the Catholic monarchs.4 belie Columbus's logic but also call into ques Even through the opacity of its textual layers, tion the unidirectionality of imperial transla though, and its fantastical projections of co- tion. After the translators have escaped to the lonial desire, Columbus's Diario reveals that island, where they have presumably commu soon after he has committed the kidnapping, nicated their experience in captivity, a new the abducted interpreters in the making are Native interlocutor draws alongside the ship directing the voyage of supposed discovery. in a canoe. When the man is taken aboard, When Columbus is unsure in what direction Columbus understands the event as the cap

to proceed, he turns to his indigenous cap- ture of another interpreter and decides to use tives, who purportedly tell him "by signs that the opportunity of this unplanned abduction there were so very many [islands] that they to stage a release that will win the Spaniards



because of the still dominant critical ten- were numberless. And they named by their dency to understand translation in the co- names more than a hundred" (Columbus, Di- 0 lonial American context primarily as a tool ario 77). If Columbus's ability to understand ~ of empire, a dutiful metonymy of translatio the captives must be viewed with skepticism, imperii.3 If Columbus violates what Scott Ly- it is nevertheless clear that these captive trans- 3

ons calls the "rhetorical sovereignty" of the lators present him from the beginning with ^ Native captives, denying "the inherent right an overwhelming stream of information that » and ability of peoples to determine their own proves singularly unhelpful, even obstructing communicative needs and desires in the pur- the voyage's progress. And when Columbus

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940 Mistranslation, Unsettlement, La Navidad | PMLA

S good favor with the people of Santa Maria that his new interlocutor is carrying two m (81). It never occurs to him that this purported Spanish blancas (silver coins)—"because of a captive might have a tactical motive—raison which I recognized that he was coming from q d'état—of his own for being on the ship. Co- … San Salvador" (85)—his powers of induc x

lumbus plies him with gifts, sends him back tion still do not extend to their logical con

g ashore, watches as he reunites with the Na- elusion: the intermediary has been shadowing ts tives of Santa Maria, and then imputes to the the movement of the ship, traveling with a m former captive a point of view that he believes foreign currency, and has reasons of his own ¡J himself to have generated and manipulated: for boarding the vessel.

If Columbus cannot see this, neither can 0

<u He considered it a great marvel, and indeed it much contemporary scholarship: both suffer £ seemed to him that we were good people and from what Craig Womack notes are peculiar

that the other man who had fled had done us «forms of myopia that undermine sociopo some harm and that for this we were taking soverd t » (358). But once we reCog him with us. And the reason that I behaved . „ . , . „T .. . . . … . . ,. r mze every small engagement of these Native in this way toward him, ordering him set tree , , , , ,

, . . ., . .. , interlocutors as a political act ot diplomacy and giving him the things mentioned, was r r / in order that they would hold us in this es- Premised on self-determination, key details teem, so that… the natives will receive [us] 'n Columbus s story begin to appear in a dif well. And everything that I gave him was not ferent light. Consider an earlier scene from worth four maravedís. (81-83) the voyage, when Columbus explores eastern

San Salvador. Coasting along the shore, the So satisfied is Columbus with his dissimula- ship is hailed by large groups of San Salva tion, and with what he imagines to be his con- dorans, who come down to the beach calling trol of an unequal exchange, that both he and and offering water and food to the famished his future readers lose sight of the obvious: voyagers. Columbus, however, soon becomes Columbus's Native interlocutors share his de- "afraid, seeing a big stone reef that encircled sire to create a diplomatic impression, to ma- that island all around" (Diario 75); the waters nipulate cross-cultural perception in order to near this part of San Salvador are treacherous shape the course of future political events.5 for porting. But more dangerous to Columbus

En route to the next island, Fernandina, is his failure to recognize that the Natives' ges Columbus's ship is approached again by a turing, their communication of apparent hos lone canoe. This time a Native intermediary pitality in summoning the Spaniards toward not only approaches the vessel but virtually the reef, may require more than a literal in offers himself as a potential translator: "He terpretation. Before he has even encountered came up to the ship and I had him enter, their words, Columbus has already failed to which was what he asked" (85; my emphasis). imagine that the diplomacy of the San Sal By this point the initial European act of ab- vadorans, like all international diplomacy duction has become something else entirely: a involving a potentially dangerous opponent, diplomatic engagement initiated by an indig- might deploy the appearance of social niceties enous agent. Columbus nevertheless clings to to effect underlying strategy. As the voyage the unidirectional model of statecraft, outlin- continues, Columbus's inability to conceive ing a plan to carry this new voyager to Fer- of a Native interest in manipulating the flow nandina and "give him all of his belongings of information—to apprehend the multidirec in order that, through good reports of us … tionality of diplomacy that underlies all trans the natives will give us of all that they may lation in this milieu—will continually distort have" (85). Even when Columbus observes his view of what is occurring as the voyagers

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12 8.4 Anna Brickhouse 941

king, like the hospitality-proffering Natives of

San Salvador, deliberately gave directions that

guided the vessel onto the reef, the text reg

other men needed for making a settlement, namely, a physician, a tailor, a gunner, and the like" (86). Students often know the names

. , . _ of Columbus's ships—the Santa Maria, the isters a hint of reproach toward Guacanagari x , , …. , . , ,

, , r Pinta, and the Nina—but they have rarely simply by recording his fervent invitation. , , . .. . „

r ' ' ® heard of the first Christian town, the ear Columbus understood the founding of ,. . . . , ., . . , ,

0 liest American colony, the original lettered La Navidad to be no less momentous than the .. , . . ,. … . r

city of the imperial imagination, to use An kidnapping of the first seven Taino translators. , Rama>s phrase As Columbus's son Fernando Colón explains why? Because La Navidad was gone when in his biography of his father, the admiral Columbus returned in 1493. In the account of

,, , , r. , ,, Diego Alvarez Chanca, the physician on the reasoned that God had caused the shipwreck , p ± ,. . .

,, , , second voyage, first discovery becomes south to pass that he should make a settlement , , . . TT- • 1 « . . .. , 1 , ,. j era gothic as the ship arrives at Hispaniola. there, so that the Christians he left behind ° r , , , might trade and gain information about that ^ Spaniards find two corpses near the bank country and its inhabitants by learning their of the river and tw0 more bodies upstream, language and trading with that village [so and their ship is followed by a canoe of Taino that] when he returned . .. with reinforce- Indians who row away as soon as the Span ments, the colonists would be able to guide iards turn around and try to approach them, him in settling and subjugating that land.6 Columbus orders the lombards to be fired in

y 0 a 0

0 w

!?' VI

pursue an ultimately fruitless itinerary in On his return to Spain from the West Indies, search of gold, back and forth from Cuba to Columbus made careful notations about La S Hispaniola, "according to the indications that Navidad—and not only for his own conve these Indians that I have give me" (109). nience. The notes had a symbolic purpose and

Nowhere is this more apparent than dur- were meant for a wider audience; as Fernando 3 ing the occasion of Columbus's founding of put it, "The admiral thought it well to men La Navidad, the first European settlement tion these facts in order to make known the ft in the Americas. The precise location of this position of the first Christian town founded in

settlement remains unknown, though arche- the Western world" (85). In his famous letter ologists continue to search for it in Haiti, near from the first voyage, dated 15 February 1493, the northern coast where one of Columbus's Columbus announces with fanfare, In this

ships was wrecked in December 1492, cata- island of Hispaniola, I have taken possession lyzing his decision to build a fort using the °f a large town which is most conveniently remains of the vessel. Columbus's Diario situated for the goldfields … and have built blames the wreck on a disobedient steers- a f°rt there. It is perhaps his most profound

man who left the helm to a cabin boy against act °' co'on'a' nam'ng during a voyage based the admiral's express orders, with disastrous on tb's linguistic process. I have named this consequences. But the account later suggests town Villa de Navidad ( Letter 120). a different explanation for the accident when DesPite the Presti§e Columbus invested it introduces Guacanagari, the Taino "king," in this site> few university students today who "had sent to invite and beg [Columbus] could readil? identlfy La Navidad as the first to come with the ships to his harbor" (279; EuroPean settlement in the Americas: one

, . , T ., . . r . ~ that, in Fernando's words, included a fortress my emphasis). In this version of events, Co , , . , « j . 1 along with thirty-six men, a great store of lumbus appears to have been deliberately , , ,

^ r, trading goods and provisions, arms and artil approaching the island, in response to Gua- , , , ,, „ ,

„ …. , .. lery, the ship s boat, carpenters, caulkers, and canagari s summons. Whether or not this / 1 C' »v«n« «ûrt/in/i tv» n Ir 1 n /Y n PûfflûtYlûtit

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942 Mistranslation, Unsettlement, La Navidad | PMLA

2 hope of summoning the Spaniards, "but there can unsettlement, centered on the writings of m [is] no reply" (Chanca 145). The next day Co- failed settlements, lost colonies, disappeared 0 lumbus searches the land and finds the fort colonists, obstructed and abandoned colonial 0 burned and the "village demolished by fire" efforts as well as willfully false and otherwise £



(146). Only at this point will Columbus and failed translations? g his men accept what they have been told by Such a narrative requires a reparative ap ■c one of the captive interpreters, now a seasoned proach to a written colonial archive that we m transatlantic voyager, fluent in Spanish, who think we already know—an approach that * has the information through his own channels seeks imaginative or speculative possibilities

£ of transmission: that the settlers at La Navi- and their consequences rather than the mere « dad are "all dead" (146), destroyed by those exposure of flawed ideological positions. It

whom Columbus had earlier pronounced "the requires moving beyond the hermeneutics most timorous people in the world" ("Letter" of suspicion focused solely on the translation 120). Their translator in chains has known the of empire and the imperial uses of transla violent ending for some unspecified stretch of tion—beyond a new-historicist conception time, perhaps even since the founding of La of translation as the distorting projection of Navidad—but so unsettling is this outcome of the colonizer onto the words of the colonized, the first American settlement that, as Chanca a mere "fiction of translation" on "parade as puts it, "we had not believed the story" (146). linguistic coherence."9 The exclusionary his

torical disposition of the written archive is With this unnamed transatlantic inter- itself a powerful lens onto what Diana Tay

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