Caribbean Discovery & Encounter


Before the dramatic conquests of Mexico (1520s) and Peru (1530s), Spanish settlers colonized the islands of the Caribbean for almost three decades. Almost every thing about the native cultures of the Caribbean islands was alien to the European comprehension of life and nature.

A few observers tried to record their observations of the island cultures of the Caribbean. Unlike the mainland civilizations, these peoples had no written or carved record of their cultures. Fray Ramón Pané, charged by Columbus with the responsibility, wrote the earliest surviving account of the history, customs, and religious beliefs of any native American culture. His Relación of the Taino describes the inhabitants of the island known today as Puerto Rico.

Another cleric, Bartolome de Las Casas, in writing his Aplogética Historia, wrote about the political divisions of the inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola (the seat of Spanish authority in the Caribbean) in his record of the Five Kings of Hispaniola.

In 1590, Theodor de Bry published his book of engravings, Great Voyages, in Frankfurt. It became hugely popular and for many years shaped European notions about the life, culture, and conflicts of Spaniards and native Americans. Though he never traveled to the New World, De Bry had read and even illustrated the works of Las Casas (specifically the Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies in 1570s and 1580s) and other chroniclers of the discovery and conquest of the Americas. Included here are four of his engravings --

Balboa Punishing Indians Guilty of Sodomy
Indians Killing Spaniards, Among them several Clerics
Indians Pouring Molten Gold in a Spaniard's Mouth
Native Women Preparing Manioc for a Feast

What do these texts and images explain about the native cultures of the Caribbean? In what ways do Pané, Las Casas, and De Bry approach their subjects alike or differently? What do the texts and images explain about European attitudes toward natives Americans? What do these texts and images explain about European views about the interaction and relationship between Europeans and native Americans?