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Historigraphic Tradition of Columbus and Montaigne

Updated on January 27, 2021

The written records of Columbus and Montaigne present insights into the mindset of European nations regarding the development of the New World and its inhabitants. Each text discusses foreign peoples and places with different perspectives of the economic, religious, and cultural responsibilities Europeans had in the new lands they had just become aware of. European countries looked to benefit from the New World’s resources, and were influenced by the nature of their dealings with the natives. Columbus and Montaigne determined that Europe’s main concern was establishing how to go about using the resources they had found in the New World to their advantage, and offered up differing opinions on the means that should be used to do so.
The discovery of a new continent contradicted the accepted map of the world and opened new markets for trade and exploration. Before the discoveries, developed countries of the world co-existed through the knowledge of each other’s presence and the trade relations they had established after centuries of contact. These relations and the desire to ease the trading process convinced European explorers to take to the seas in the first place. Through Henry the Navigator’s work Portugal became a leading force in trade and exploration and became a power in the global gold, ore and slave trades. Furthermore, Vasco de Gama, sailing under the flag of Portugal, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and discovered a trade route to India, thereby securing Portuguese dominance in Asian trade in the late fifteenth century (Kishlansky, 268). With time however, Portugal’s one weakness became apparent: its lack of native commodities. This deficiency, combined with the overextension of the Portuguese empire would allow for a new country to establish dominance in trade: Spain.
With the Asian and African markets being predominantly Portuguese territory with regards to commerce, the New World seemed a promising outlook for Spain’s economy. The assurances Christopher Columbus made to Queen Isabella of Castile, of finding a shorter and therefore more economical sea route to India by sailing West made the expedition resulting in the discovery of the New World possible (Kishlansky, 269). Spanish internal relations had just united the provinces of Aragon and Castile through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. The empire now looked to protect their fragile economy with enhanced trade relations, and its Christian culture by spreading and converting a larger population. The trades discovered in the New World including coffee, cotton, precious metals and potential slaves seemed to be exactly what would help the Spanish secure their empire. It would be these very trades that would facilitate their desired rise on the global market. Ironically, it was these same resources which would be the undoing of their economy as it became solely dependent on finite commodities.
The idea of spreading Christianity was considered a noble one by the Spanish. In Montaigne’s opinion, however, the true value lay in those cultures established without European interference. As a result of Spain’s concern with appearing noble through spreading Christianity, it was important that Columbus convey the ease with which he believed the natives could be converted. Both Montaigne and Columbus were Roman Catholics yet their approach to conversion was significantly different. Montaigne’s view on Catholicism was greatly influenced by his admiration of the simple and the natural: “the simple and ignorant says St. Paul, raise themselves to heaven, and take possession of it; and we, with all our learning’s, plunge ourselves into the infernal abyss (Frame, 367)”. He was a firm advocate of acquiring deeper respect and understanding of the belief systems of the natives. It may have been the motives of the Spanish which he held in question. Nevertheless he did not agree with their methods in spreading the faith: “this and our absurd pride lead us even to try to define and limit God to whom our concepts do not apply at all (Frame, 166).” The Spanish prerogative with converting the natives to Christianity was a method of reinforcing the transformation of the states of Aragon and Castile into Christian states and consequently it became a prerogative of Columbus’ as well.
Montaigne, although a French philosopher, was not influenced by any specific national bias and could therefore write without the burden of having to appease a specific monarch. He had a wide range of interests including self-reflection and naturalism which makes his discussions thoughtful where Columbus’ writing is overwrought with concerns about appeasing the Spanish monarchs. Nevertheless, Montaigne establishes a firm opinion on the actions taken by the Europeans in conquering the New World. Montaigne’s desire to understand himself, led to his interest in the purpose of other peoples actions. When introduced to the concept of the New World, Montaigne’s interests led him to further investigate the new-found-lands and the peoples inhabiting them. He sought to establish what Europe’s role should be. Upon investigation, he formed the opinion that Europe should abandon its vigorous occupation and conversion of new lands and peoples, and take the time to gain an understanding of a different way of living, and use this to its advantage. Montaigne exuded an air of appreciation for the simple lives of the natives; believing that “the nations of the New World live better without magistrates and laws than ours that are over run with them (Frame, 165).” Of course, the monarchs of explorative countries were not pleased to discover opinions such as these circulating through the public, as they could greatly damage the public’s perception of the established society and could also interfere with the monarch’s ambitions in global trade and exploration.
In Montaigne’s essay comparing the New and the Old World, he draws several conclusions which spread among European civilians to the point that they were seen as threatening by the church and state. Montaigne wrote that Europe had much to learn when contrasted with the natives who had an equally complex society both culturally and religiously. He goes on to express his disdain for the behaviour of the Spanish towards the natives declaring that they “took advantage of their [the natives] ignorance…to pervert them more easily toward every kind of cruelty…by the example and model of our own manners (Screech, 103)”. He belittles the religious and economic objectives which the Spanish advertised was their intent in the New World. Montaigne felt that their ability to destroy “the most beautiful and richest part of the world…on behalf of the pearls-and-pepper business (Screech, 103)” demonstrated their own barbarism. In fact, Montaigne seems to wish to draw a parallel between the Spanish and barbarianism while highlighting character traits of the natives that come across as civilized, therefore exposing the hypocrisy of the Conquistadors.
Montaigne did not support the approach the Spanish took to spreading Christianity because of their failure even to demonstrate Christian morals amongst the very peoples they were trying to convert. His essay entitled Cannibals is a justification of the outwardly barbarous actions of the natives who participated in the killing and eating of the bodies of their enemies. He did not believe these action to be barbarous but rather said that “every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to (Screech, 89)”. He justified it as another aspect of the native culture which the conquistadors took at face value and instantly abhorred. Montaigne desired to flip the term of ‘barbarous’ on the Spanish invaders, and went on to relate tales of horrendous acts committed against the Kings of Mexico and Peru. Grilling men alive, hangings, and other torturous acts were carried out against the natives who had shown no sign of aggression whatsoever towards the Europeans. Such aggressions may well have been ignited by the fact that the natives “did not intend to change their religion having so profitably followed their own for such a long time (Screech,104)”. Furthermore they were not interested in taking advice on faith from anyone other than their friends and family, let alone foreigners whose origins and intentions they were unsure of.

An important difference between the mind frame of Montaigne and that of Columbus is that the latter was a man of action with material ambitions. His expedition, funded by the King and Queen of Spain, was predestined to be directed towards conquest and material benefit. In other words, Columbus had powerful rulers to accommodate. These rulers were much more convinced of the benefit of funding an expedition such as Columbus’ that held the prospect of tangible gain. He therefore, concentrated on acquiring as many valuable goods and as much land as possible, as quickly as he could. The culture of the indigenous populations and the potential to progress through the study of another way of life were largely disregarded. Columbus was tolerant of the native peoples because he viewed them as more useful in their ignorance and more likely to be “converted by love and friendship than by force (Cohen, 28)”. Of course, Columbus could not help but examine the aspects of the New World which might be immediately beneficial to Europeans. He appreciated their little log boats “made from tree-trunks (Cohen, 30)”, their vast quantities of cotton, and his interest in locating their source of gold never wavered. In addition to this, he observed that “they should be good servants and very intelligent (Cohen 31)”. Although Montaigne uses evidence that had built up long after Columbus’ expeditions, the significant dissimilarity of their interests in the New World is quite evident.

Columbus’ prospects for the future affected the relationships he established with what he saw in the New World, and how he traded and conducted himself towards the natives. He looked to befriend the natives and prepared the path for future Spanish expeditions and continuously searched for “and ideal spot where a fort could be built and he continued to comment on harbours and good defensive sites throughout the voyage”(Philips, 161). All that he did he declared to be done for the benefit of the crown and trade relations. It was fortunate for the natives that he felt it in his best interest to be friendly towards them. In a sense Columbus manipulated the natives, using their ignorance to trade with them for worthless goods in the eyes of the Spanish. As described by Montaigne, the Spanish were trading with “men who would barter a vast wealth of gold or pearls for a looking glass or a knife (Screech, 102)”. Columbus also mentioned his relationship with the natives to capture how effortless it was to make a fortune in the New World. He provided endless descriptions of the fertility of the islands, comparing their greenness and beautiful trees to those found in “Andalusia (Cohen, 39)” so as to further impress the Spanish crown by contrasting its beauties with the loveliest found in Spain. In fact, Columbus’ descriptions were so vastly exaggerated that when the resources were shipped in and further explorations were made to see the wonders he had described people were disappointed by what they found.

In conclusion, the discovery of the New World introduced new possibilities for the Old World. Europeans did not know how best to utilize these discoveries. Some believed an immediate imposition of their own culture on the new-found-lands was best, while other were more inclined to wait and see or possibly adapt their own culture to the pre-existing own in the New World. Columbus, due to his position with the Spanish monarch and the pressures the Spanish empire was facing economically, religiously and culturally needed to convince his superiors that he was working for the benefit of Europeans. Montaigne, on-the-other-hand, was more interested in the culture which had been established before European involvement, and years after Columbus’ work, regretted the disregard European Conquistadors had for the native culture in the New World. As exploration became an easier pursuit with the development of navigational technologies, the interest in the New World spread and further countries in Europe including the Netherlands, Britain and France looked to secure and discover their own territory in the Americas. History shows that the indigenous peoples and cultures of the New World were grievously and irrevocably changed by the arrival of Europeans. That Columbus and Montaigne held different opinions about what the New World meant and how European civilization ought to view all of the different aspects of non-European cultures because largely irrelevant. Exploration and development of the New World accelerated so quickly that how and what happened was largely out of the control of any person, nation or culture. That the early explorers paused to reflect on the consequences of their discoveries is compelling, especially given that in short order, few nations were reflecting on anything save for commerce and territory.


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