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Biblical stereotypes: Columbus's View of the Indians

One of the culturally most striking, and also most painful, examples takes place in the mind of Columbus when he discovered America (Columbus is probably only an exponent of his cultural subconscious). When Columbus encountered the native Americans, he only recognised them as human beings, with their own social traits, to an extremely limited degree. Here are some of the things he had to say about them, and the way these statements can be interpreted:


Naked all of them, men and women, as their mothers bore them [...]

Edenic nature (physical assessment)
2 Very well made, of very beautiful bodies and very good faces. Edenic nature (physical assessment)
3 The admiral says he cannot believe man has ever seen people of such good heart. [...] In the world I believe there are no better people or land. Edenic nature (moral assessment)
4 They [...] do not lust for what is not theirs Edenic nature (moral assessment)
5 And as during this trip I made to Cambao it so happened that an Indian stole something, if you find that any of them steal, punish them also by cutting off their nose and ears, for these are limbs they cannot hide. Post-edenic, degenerate nature (moral assessment)
6 For compared with an Indian, a dog is worth ten men. Post-edenic, primitive nature


As we can see, quotes nr. 1-4 are all similar in that they idealise native Americans by presenting them as part of a paradisiacal nature. Quotes nr. 1-2 do so in physical, quotes nr. 3-4 in moral terms. On the other hand, quotes nr. 5-6 present Indians in much more derogatory terms. They are still nature, or even more primitive than nature, for a dog is worth much more than an Indian, but this nature is viewed in negative terms, as part of the post-Edenic condition of men.

work cited and translated

Todorov, Tzvetan. La Conquête de l’Amérique: la question de l’autre. Paris: Seuil, 1982.
daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann