What Came To Be Called America
By 1492 people had lived in the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years. For
much of this time it is believed that they experienced virtually no recorded, sustained
contact with other parts of the world – Europe, Africa, or Asia.
Millions of people lived in an area some five times the size of Europe. In strikingly diverse habitats and climates they developed possibly the most varied and productive agriculture in the world. Their lifestyles and belief systems differed widely and they spoke hundreds of distinct languages.
Throughout the hemisphere, states and centers of high civilization had risen and fallen. The dynamic Mexican (Aztec) and Inca empires were still expanding at this time and internal migration and warfare were common. The peoples did not see themselves as part of a common entity. Only later would this area be given a unifying name – America – and the people labeled “Indians” by Europe. In order to understand what came to be called America we are often dependent today on European observations.
The Mediterranean World of the Period
The peoples who inhabited the semi-arid shores of the Mediterranean were united in a
common world view. As the name suggests, they saw themselves as living at the center of
the world. The region, similar in size to that of the Caribbean, had seen the rise and
fall of several civilizations and, in the late 15th century, was again in flux.
Prosperous city states were on the rise amidst the decline of medieval feudal society.
Renewed interest in Greek and Roman cultures fostered humanistic studies in art and science. New, stimulating ideas were spread with the advent of printing. Out of the doomsday mentality caused by the Black Death, civil wars, and economic uncertainties emerged expansionism, cohesion, and a sense of prosperity.
As the eastern Mediterranean reeled before the expanding Ottoman Empire, and Muslim rule ended in Iberia, western Mediterranean traders and mariners looked beyond the Straits of Gibraltar for alternative routes to the riches of the East.
The Mediterranean Sea linked three continents – Europe, Asia, and Africa. Surrounding
that sea was a world of diverse peoples, languages, and religions. Even its northern
shores, largely united by Christianity, exhibited a remarkable variety of tongues,
customs, currencies, and political economies.
In the absence of nations, city-states dominated economic, political, and cultural activities in the late 15th century. Vibrant cities and ports, such as Rome, Florence, Venice, Genoa, Seville and Lisbon, were engaged in a variety of cultural and economic activities. They traded with each other and with merchants in other important centers like Constantinople, Alexandria, and Tunis. Traders followed the routes taken by thousands of pilgrims and crusaders during the Middle Ages on their way to the Holy Land.
Iberia: Cultural Diversity
The Christians, Muslims and Jews of the Iberian Kingdoms – modern-day Spain and
Portugal – had coexisted throughout most of the Middle Ages in considerable harmony,
despite periods of war and conflict. Close contact and currents of influence among these
groups fostered a varied culture and flourishing intellectual life more advanced
than anywhere else in Europe.
Unification of the Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, and Castile began in 1469 when Princess Isabel of Castile married Prince Fernando of Aragon. In 1480, they established the Holy Inquisition to enforce orthodox Christian belief and practice. In the very year of Columbus’s first voyage, the monarchs conquered the last Muslim kingdom of Granada and expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Despite such repressions, the extraordinary cultural diversity of late medieval Iberia left an enduring legacy in art, architecture, language, music, foodways, agriculture, and urban life.
The Changing Order
The Renaissance was an age of paradox in Europe. This period witnessed dramatic
changes in cultural and intellectual life, linked to the enthusiastic rediscovery of the
ancient Greek and Roman past. Artists and writers brought a new, intense scrutiny
to the individual human subject within the context of an emerging secular spirit. Yet,
during the Renaissance, religious mysticism, superstition, and political authoritarianism
Though handwritten and illuminated manuscripts had been the preserve of the learned few, the invention of printing led to a democratization of information. The creation of increasingly modern and powerful economies, based on banking, trade, and commerce enabled an emerging middle class to participate in this free exchange of ideas. Readers were exposed to dramatically different world views, ranging from imaginary maps and accounts of travels to information partly based on practical experience.
Christopher Columbus: Man and Myth
After five centuries, Columbus remains a mysterious and controversial figure who has
been variously described as one of the greatest mariners in history, a visionary genius, a
mystic, a national hero, a failed administrator, a naive entrepreneur, and a ruthless
and greedy imperialist.
Columbus’s enterprise to find a westward route to Asia grew out of the practical experience of a long and varied maritime career, as well as out of his considerable reading in geographical and theological literature. He settled for a time in Portugal, where he tried unsuccessfully to enlist support for his project, before moving to Spain. After many difficulties, through a combination of good luck and persuasiveness, he gained the support of the Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando.
The widely published report of his voyage of 1492 made Columbus famous throughout Europe and secured for him the title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and further royal patronage. Columbus, who never abandoned the belief that he had reached Asia, led three more expeditions to the Caribbean. But intrigue and his own administrative failings brought disappointment and political obscurity to his final years.
In Search and Defense of Privileges
Queen Isabel and King Fernando had agreed to Columbus’s lavish demands if he
succeeded on his first voyage: he would be knighted, appointed “Admiral of the Ocean
Sea,” made the viceroy of any new lands, and awarded ten percent of any new
wealth. By 1502, however, Columbus had every reason to fear for the security of his
position. He had been charged with maladministration in the Indies.
Much concerned with social status, Columbus was granted a coat of arms in 1493. By 1502, he had added several new elements, such as an emerging continent next to islands and five golden anchors to represent the office of the Admiral of the Sea.
Although the Spanish sovereigns granted Columbus the right to bear arms, his bold usurpation of the royal arms, as well as his choice of additional symbols, help to define his personality and his sense of the significance of his service to the Spanish monarchs.
Columbus’ Coat of Arms
The name “America” was given to the Western Hemisphere by European writers and
mapmakers after Columbus’s death. Nothing in their experiences had led the first
explorers to realize that they had come into contact with a vast and unrecorded continent,
many times the size of Europe. Previously there had been no accounts, or even rumors, of
the “unknown” peoples of this “new” continent in European scholarly literature and
discussion or in popular chronicles.
Mediterranean explorers in search of the spices and riches of the Far East initially believed that they had reached Asia. In part due to this confusion, Europeans conjured up or “invented” images and tales to explain the existence of America that would conform to the descriptions of Marco Polo and others.
In early allegorical images, “America” was sometimes portrayed as a noble, native woman submissively awaiting European arrival. Ferocious sea animals and exotic creatures filled early maps of the region. Regrettably, we still have incomplete knowledge of the world view and everyday life of the varied peoples of the Americas before European settlement.
Spain in America
The Gutierrez map (see on p. 18) depicts what appears to be the Holy Roman Emperor,
Charles V (Charles I of Spain), as the reborn Caesar in his chariot crossing the Atlantic
to lay claim to America. Mediterranean explorers had broken open the “gates of
Gilbraltar”, considered by the ancient Romans to be the western-most limit of their
empire. They revealed a “fourth continent” across the Atlantic and a whole new world
of potential for the modern empire builders.
To Europeans, most of the interior of America was still terra incognita (unknown land). Diego Gutierrez filled it in with a mixture of real and highly fanciful images.
The map provides a grand view of an America filled with images and names that had been popularized in Europe over seventy years: parrots, monkeys, mermaids, huge sea creatures, Brazilian cannibals, Patagonian giants, and an erupting volcano in central Mexico complement the settlements, rivers, mountains, and capes. Although containing fanciful imagery, Gutierrez’s map did correctly recognize the existence of the Amazon River system, other rivers of South America, Lake Titicaca, and the myriad coastal features of South, Central, North, and Caribbean America. It was the first map of America to include the name of California.
Europe Claims America: the Atlantic Joined
The dramatic encounters of Europeans and American peoples from 1492 to 1600 varied
considerably from place to place and over time. The Indian peoples sometimes greeted
Europeans warmly, provided them with food, and taught them important new survival skills.
In some cases, they perceived them as being divine, or at least spiritually powerful. Some
used the newcomers as allies against old enemies. Others saw them as new enemies, to be grudgingly
tolerated or strongly resisted. Native peoples were quickly disillusioned by treachery
or mistreatment at European hands.
The Europeans brought technologies, ideas, plants, and animals that were new to America and would transform peoples’ lives: guns, iron tools, and weapons; Christianity and Roman law; sugarcane and wheat; horses and cattle. They also carried diseases against which the Indian peoples had no defenses.
The interaction among groups produced a complex mosaic of relationships. Varying forms of resistance and adaptation among Indian, African and European peoples occurred throughout the region.
Indian, European, and African peoples continued to shape new American societies. By the end of the 18th century, these new Americans began to rebel against their European masters. Independence movements spread, creating many separate nations. While colonial languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French and English became widespread, millions of people continued to speak their own languages.
the natural environment for people, plants and animals
1. Who was Christopher Columbus? What kind of man was he?
2. Is there any terra incognita on the earth today? If so, where do you think it is?
3. How exotic a place do you think America was for Europeans? How is it reflected in their maps?
4. What did the “discovery” of America mean for the native peoples already living there?
5. Does the Columbus Day holiday have any meaning in recognizing an historical event?
A light-hearted look at Columbus.
Look What You Did, Christopher!
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,
Someone sailed the ocean blue.
Somebody borrowed the fare in Spain
For a business trip on the bounding main,
And to prove to the people, by actual test,
You could get to the East by sailing West.
Somebody said, Sail on! Sail on!
And studied China and China’s lingo,
And cried from the bow, There’s China now!
And promptly bumped into San Domingo.
Somebody murmured, Oh dear, oh dear!
I’ve discovered the Western Hemisphere.
And that, you may think, my friends, was that.
But it wasn’t. Not by a fireman’s hat.
Well enough wasn’t left alone,
And Columbus was only a cornerstone.
There came the Spaniards,
There came the Greeks,
There came the Pilgrims in leather breeks.
There came the Dutch,
And the Poles and Swedes,
The Persians, too,
And perhaps the Medes,
The Letts, the Lapps, and the Lithuanians,
Regal Russians, and ripe Roumanians.
There came the French
And there came the Finns,
And the Japanese
With their formal grins.
The Tartars came,
And the Terrible Turks –
In a word, humanity shot the works.
And the country that should have been Cathay
Decided to be
And that, you may think, my friends, was that.
But it wasn’t. Not by a fireman’s hat.
Christopher C. was the cornerstone,
And well enough wasn’t left alone.
For those who followed
When he was through,
They burned to discover something, too.
Somebody, bored with rural scenery,
Went to work and invented machinery,
While a couple of other mental giants
And thought up Science.
(They were once peroxide),
And carbon monoxide,
And Vitamin A,
And tattletale gray –
These, with many another phobia,
We owe to that famous Twelfth of Octobia.
O misery, misery, mumble and moan!
Someone invented the telephone,
And interrupted a nation’s slumbers,
Ringing wrong but similar numbers.
Someone devised the silver screen
And the intimate Hollywood magazine,
And life is a Hades
Of clicking cameras,
And foreign ladies
Gags have erased
As gas has replaced
The crackling firelog.
All that glitters is sold as gold,
And our daily diet grows odder and odder,
And breakfast foods are dusty and cold –
It’s a wise child
That knows its fodder.
Someone invented the automobile,
And good Americans took the wheel
To view American rivers and rills
And justly famous forests and hills –
But someone equally enterprising
Had invented billboard advertising.
You linger at home
In dark despair,
And wistfully try the electric air.
You hope against hope for a quiz imperial,
And what do they give you?
A doctor serial.
Oh, Columbus was only a cornerstone,
And well enough wasn’t left alone,
For the Inquisition was less tyrannical
Than the iron rules of an age mechanical,
Which, because of an error in ‘92,
Are clamped like corsets on me and you,
While Children of Nature we’d be today
If San Domingo
Had been Cathay.
And that, you may think, my friends, is that.
But it isn’t – not by a fireman’s hat.
The American people,
With grins jocose,
Always survive the fatal dose.
And though our systems are slightly wobbly,
We’ll fool the doctor this time, probly.
By Ogden Nash
This poem could be shortened and done as a rap poem.