Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Substantive post, The Conquest of America

I think that it is commonplace in American culture to place Columbus, and other explorers, on a pedestal of sorts. After all, they "discovered" America and opened the doors for the beginning of what our country is today: a place founded by foreign explorers. This being said, I would think that the majority of us in this class would disagree and follow the another thread of the story: that the explorers conquered a land that was not theirs and perpetrated a genocide against the native people. In the first part of The Conquest, Todorov attempts to explain the initial discovery of the Caribbean islands by Columbus and his crew and one thing struck me as very interesting: The seemingly arbitrary way that Columbus decided whether the natives were "good" or "bad". Todorov shows evidence to support that claim that Columbus is so distracted by the beauty of nature and the physical appearance of the islands, that he neglects to consider the native peoples in any serious way. Todorov shows several experts from different texts that show Columbus's obsession with the physical beauty with the islands. Todorov claims that due to the fact that Columbus focuses on nature first and people second, his communication and interaction with the natives suffers. Columbus makes assumptions about their communication skills, or lack thereof in his opinion, and seems to be fixated on the fact that they wear no clothes. I also thought it was interesting that Todorov links this point to Columbus's decision that the natives have no religion. There is a line the Todorov uses to justify this leap of logic: Columbus would have assumed that any human being wore clothes upon the expulsion from paradise, thus these people cannot possible be civilized human beings. This link between religion, nature, and the natives is one that shows Columbus is clearly evaluating them based upon his own cultural standards, a practice which seems the only logical thing to do in his eyes. This made me think of a moment in The Sparrow, when the riot was started after the Runa children were being taken away: they were acting based upon their own cultural standards, which seemed logical to them, but eventually lead to their downfall.

Another point that I found particularly interesting in The conquest, mostly because it is something I had never considered before, occurred in the epilogue. Todorov states that "This extraordinary success (Western European colonization) is chiefly due to one specific feature of Western civilization...among Europeans thereby becoming proof of their natural suoeriorty: it is, paradoxically, Europeans' capacity to understand the other" What I gathered from the statement is that Todorov is basically saying that the Europeans conquered the natives and not the other way around because they understood the natives better in the end. I am not sure if I believe that this is the case, but it is something that made me stop and think as I was reading. Is it really that Europeans were better communicators? Was it really nothing to do with technological might and infecting the natives with disease, i.e. smallpox? OR is it a combination of these factors that caused history to play out the way it did. Like I said, I don't know the answer or even my own opinion about it but it is a point that I found very interesting to contemplate.

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