ELCS6055 - First Contact: European Encounters with the New World
Value: 0.5 course units
Tutor: Dr Thibaut Maus de Rolley
Assessment: 3-hour desk examination.
Columbus’s landfall on a Caribbean island, on 12 October 1492, was the starting point of a process that shook the foundations of the European world. The ‘discovery’ of America opened up new territory for the European expansion and colonisation overseas, and together with the exploration of Africa and the East Indies, dramatically reshaped the Renaissance geographical imagination. But the ‘shock of discovery’ also lay in the radical newness and otherness of the American continent. Suddenly, Europeans – starting with the first explorers – had to deal with lands, animals, plants, peoples, customs and beliefs of which they had had no prior knowledge. Alterity, as an historian puts it, was the fundamental discovery of the Age of Discovery. In this comparative module, we will examine a selection of sixteenth-century narratives of discovery, from Columbus’s logbook (1492-1506) to Jean de Léry’s account of his 1557 journey to Brazil, amongst the Tupinamba (1578). Though varied in nature and purpose, all these texts attempt to make sense of this experience of radical alterity and to convey it to their European readers. They address questions that are fundamental to Renaissance thought: How to reconcile this new knowledge, brought by the experience of the world, with the lessons taught by ancient textual authorities? How to describe the unknown, the radically new? Should the inhabitants of this transatlantic Other World be considered as noble savages living in a terrestrial paradise, or as devil-worshippers forgotten by God? What can the other teach us about ourselves? To what extent does the New World allow to see the Old World from a decentered and critical perspective? As we shall see, these Renaissance travel accounts are also, to some extent, tales of adventure, initiatory narratives filled with wonders and dangers – tempests, famines, wild animals and cannibal feasts. In that sense, they not only inherit from a literary tradition of imaginary voyages, but also contribute decisively to renew and enrich it.
One session will be dedicated to the screening of First Contact (dir. B. Connolly, 1983), an ethnographic film recounting the encounter, in 1930, between a team of Australian gold prospectors and a million Papua New Guineans who never had experienced contact with the outside world. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Dr Ludovic Coupaye (UCL Anthropology), specialist of Papua New Guinea.
Preparatory Reading and Set Texts:
- Cristobal Colón [1492-1506], The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, ed. J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin Classics, 1969). Read in particular the letters and documents written by Columbus himself: pp. 115-123; 206-226; 265-276; 283-304 (in Cohen's edition). You can access here an online bilingual edition of Columbus's Diario de a bordo (Journal of the First Voyage) and Carta a Santangel (Letter to Santangel). Spanish edition: Los cuatro viajes. Testamento, ed. C. Varela (Madrid: Alianza, 1986).
- Amerigo Vespucci [1502-1504], The New World (Mundus Novus, or The Medici Letter) and Four Voyages: English edition available here. Italian edition: Prime relazioni de navigatori italiani sulla scoperta dell’ America: Colombo, Vespucci, Verazzano, ed. L. Firpo (Torino: UTET, 1966).
- Jacques Cartier , The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, ed. and
transl. R. Cook (Toronto, University of
Toronto Press, 1993). Read the account of the second voyage (1535-1536).
- Hans Staden , Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil, transl. and ed. N. L. Whitehead and M. Harbsmeier (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). You can also read the 1874 English translation of the text, available here in PDF format. German edition: Warhaftige Historia: zwei Reisen nach Brasilien (1548-1555), ed. F. Obermeier (Sao Paulo: Instituto Martius-Staden; Kiel: Westensee Verlag, 2007).
- Jean de Léry , History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, otherwise called America, transl. J. Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). French edition: Histoire d’un voyage faict en la terre du Bresil, ed. F. Lestringant (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1994).
Suggested Further Reading:
- Abulafia, David, The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)
- Grafton, Anthony, New Worlds, Ancient Texts. The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)
- Greenblatt, Stephen, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)
- Greenblatt, Stephen, ed., New World Encounters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)
- Lestringant, Frank, Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne, transl. R. Morris (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997)
- Pagden, Anthony, European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993)
- Raman, Shankar, Renaissance Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2011)
- Todorov, Tzvetan, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, transl. R. Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1999).