Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Science of Hanging Out

Cabeza de Vaca ruggedly surveying the land

Cabeza de Vaca has always been my favorite travel writer of the Renaissance period for so many different reasons, one of them being that his name translates to "head of the cow," and the other being that in comparison with the other writers of his period, he was perhaps the most respectful of the Natives he spent time traveling among. There is much about Cabeza de Vaca's travel experience that could be related to modern methods of collecting anthropological data.
By immersing himself in the lives of the Natives, Cabeza de Vaca developed legitimate relationships that allowed him to understand and develop a respect for a people foreign to him. During his travels he learned a great deal about the faith systems of the Native American nations he passed through, even acting as a faith healer in some of them. To recognize them by name and to work within their belief system shows an acceptance beyond the "profound intolerance" which dominated the rest of the Renaissance. Compare the writings of Cabeza de Vaca:

"They came, and we tried to quiet them the best we could and save ourselves, giving them beads and bells. Each one of them gave me an arrow in token of friendship"(Cabeza de Vaca 55).

With the ethnocentric criticisms of Montaigne after observing the divination practices of the Native prophets:

"Divination is the gift of God, the abusing whereof should be a punishable imposture"(Montaigne).

During the Renaissance, a "New World" was significant in that it offered a blank canvas in order for the new ideas of the time to flourish without having to find room among the stagnant years of history. It was about land more than it was about the people who unfortunately occupied what was in actuality an "Old World."

Montaigne, Michel de. Of Cannibals. http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/16century/topic_2/cannibal.htm

Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar. The journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536. New York: Allerton Book Co, 1904. Web.


  1. What do you feel would have changed if the "New World" had sincerely been focused on people rather than land? How would our current society look different today? Or would it?

  2. I really like the quote you included about the arrows "in token of friendship." It just shows how even though the people seemed foreign, they still had ways of relating to the other and still wanted to form relationships with those different from themselves.

  3. I agree in that the New World provided a physical and social space for people like the Puritans and the people in Jamestown, who used that space to experiment with various ways of governing. It made possible the creation of the American government. But I think the New World wasn't entirely blank for the Europeans, either. I think quite a bit of their literature is an effort to convey what they found already there, and another portion is their efforts to interact with it.

    1. I think that you're right that they interacted with the cultures that they found in the New World, but I also think that the Renaissance was absent of the "noble savage" perspective that became popularized in the literature a couple hundred years later. I think that any record of the people they found in the Americas may have stemmed from scientific inquiry or the desire for sensationalized descriptions of the New World, but I don't think it was in an effort to respect or reach out to those people. Consider Columbus' letters which praise the hospitality of their hosts but also cheerfully report how easy it will be to subjugate them. I think that tolerant writing was much more rare.