I finished reading O Brave New People: The European Invention of the American Indian on Saturday. It’s an interesting book, written by two art historians, about the iconography of “America” and the “Indian” in early modern European art (particularly book illustrations) and how these images, and indeed the very concepts they portray, were almost entirely indebted to Classical and Medieval European prototypes and had little to do with the actual lands and peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
The two authors are John F. Moffitt, professor of art history emeritus at New Mexico State University, and Santiago Sebastián, professor of art history at the Universidad Literaria de Valencia in Spain, who apparently died while the book was in press. The introduction explains that Moffitt was solely responsible for the first two chapters (of five), which deal mainly with the Classical and Medieval literary sources for the iconography of the New World, especially the persistent myth of the Earthly Paradise (i.e., Eden), commonly thought to be located in India (sometimes specifically placed on the island of Sri Lanka) and described as such in such popular Medieval writings as romances about Alexander the Great and memoirs of actual or reputed travelers to the Indies. He makes a convincing case that this is what Columbus was actually searching for, although he makes this conclusion sound a lot more original than I suspect it actually is (who doesn’t know that Columbus was actually looking for India?), and that he claimed to have found it in several places over the course of his voyages, the latest at the mouth of the Orinoco River on the northern coast of South America.
These two opening chapters are interesting, and essential for understanding the rest of the book, but Moffitt’s prose style is extremely florid and verbose, and he tends to repeat himself a lot. As a result, these chapters drag a bit in places, and they could definitely have been a lot shorter with no loss of content.
The next two chapters deal with the actual iconography of America, starting with the illustrations of Columbus’s first letter describing his discoveries, published in 1493. These chapters are based primarily on extensive research by Sebastián in European libraries, and many of the prints reproduced are extremely rare. It’s not clear how much of the writing of the chapters was done by Sebastián as well, but certain parts show a lot of Moffitt’s distinctive style, so it seems likely that he had at least an editorial role here as well.
These chapters chronicle the evolution of images of Indians from the first scenes of peaceful naked “Indians” dwelling in a verdant paradise to the eventual development of the much more negative stereotypical image of the savage cannibal. Although these two extremes, which Moffitt and Sebastián call the “Noble Savage” and “Ignoble Savage” respectively, track the historical process of initial excitement leading to bitter disillusion among the early settlers of the New World, one of the key messages of the book is that all of the elements of these images can be traced back to medieval (and even classical) literary tropes, especially those associated with the unknown peoples of Asia. A key, perhaps the key, source here is the hugely popular fourteenth-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville (which Moffitt and Sebastián take to be entirely spurious, although my impression was that this was an issue of some controversy), in which can be found nearly all the characteristics, both positive and negative, later applied to American Indians being applied to the (East) Indians that Mandeville purportedly traveled among. Columbus had clearly read this book, as had Amerigo Vespucci, whose much more colorful tales of vicious cannibalistic natives were immensely more popular in Europe than Columbus’s earnest, pious descriptions and had a much greater effect on the development of the “Indian” as a concept in the European psyche. Note whose name ended up being applied to the new continents.
The fifth chapter, a collaboration between the two authors, brings this all together with a more historically oriented account of how these literary and iconographic tropes, once developed, played out over the course of the actual conquest of the Americas. The story gets a bit hard to follow at points, but I thought this chapter was the most interesting part of the book, and some of the tangents it goes off onto, such as the anti-Spanish Black Legend promoted by Protestant printers using the writings of Las Casas, are fascinating.
This is ultimately a book with a message. It was published shortly after the botched quincentenary celebration in 1992, and within that context the authors try to show that the images of “America” and “Indians” which have proved enormously powerful and influential down to the present day, to the immense detriment of the lands and people they purport to describe, have their origins not in careful geographical or anthropological examination of the New World but in age-old literary conventions having nothing to do with America and its reality and everything to do with Europe and its psyche. At the end they are hopeful that this work can start people on the path to developing a new, more accurate and useful, iconography of America and its indigenous inhabitants. It’s a noble goal, but I doubt it will prove very effective. One little book isn’t much use in overcoming five hundred years of accumulated cultural baggage.