When exploring new lands and territories, travelers are likely to come across indigenous people. This was what happened during the European exploration of the Americas. Spain, Portugal, France, and England began to travel into uncharted territory in search of resources and riches. As a result of exploration, European countries began to expand and trade with different cultures. However, trade and exploration during the 15th and 16th century often involved war, plagues, and cultural annihilation. Specifically, this can be seen in Columbus’s accounts of indigenous natives of the Caribbean and Cortex account of American Aztecs. Today, these accounts are rich in history. It provides readers insight into the customs and cultural differences between the observer and the indigenous society as perceived from this era in history.
In the early part of the 1500’s, explorer Hernan Cortez was a Spanish Conquistador. It was his military insight and judgment that allowed him and his army to conquer the Aztecs of Mexico America. Before raging war with the Aztecs, during his exploration of Temixtitlan he made detailed accounts about the people who lived there. These accounts provide readers and historians accurate details of how the Aztecs lived, their culture, and the size and scope of Aztec technology and rule. Cortez described Temixtitlan, as a “large city”, as large as notable cities of Spain. The city had, “streets”, “bridges”, “public square”, and a market place, (Halsall, 1998). In this context, the city could be described as a city that one would see today. The account of the city lets us know that the Aztecs were a powerful nation, innovative, and inventive. In this case, the Aztecs were far from savages or barbarians. They had, “water routes and manmade canals”, to ensure the city had fresh water both for consumption and farming.
The accounts that Columbus gave of Natives living in the Caribbean is much different. This culture is primitive, with limited resources and inventions. Columbus, upon encountering these people, did not describe their homes, their village, or how they may have lived. His account was different because Columbus and his men did not stray far from their ships. If Columbus and his crew did not venture on land to meet the inhabitants, the inhabitants made their way to him. Columbus described their boats, saying that they were made of sturdy wood that came in an array of sizes. While some boats fit up to 40 or 50 men, others were made to fit one. Columbus provides physical description and his general perception of them. He described their skin as being the color of “canaries” with “fine shapes and faces” and “completely naked”, (Halsall, 1996). They used javelins for weapons and painted their bodies in an array of colors. However, overall Columbus gave a general impression that they were “inoffensive people” that would be “good servants and ready Christians”, (Halsall, 1996).
Cortez and Columbus gave two very different accounts of the indigenous cultures they encountered during their exploration. While the culture that Cortez encountered could be considered a civilized nation, the culture encountered by Columbus was not. Columbus came across a group of people that did not make the most of their resources as seen with the Aztecs. The people of the Caribbean did not build a vast city with running water and an active market place. Yet despite these differences, the Europeans annihilated and devastated both cultures. The Caribbean natives and the Aztecs are cultures that no longer exist today and in many ways have become extinct. Weather the culture is civilized or primitive Europe maintained their tasks of exploration and expansionism that changed the face of the world.
Columbus, Christopher (1942). Translated by Halsall, Paul 1996. Christopher Columbus Abstracts from Journal. Medieval Resource Book. Retrieved from: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/columbus1.asp
Cortez, Hanan (1520). Translated by Halsall, Paul 1998. Hernan Cortés: from Second Letter to Charles V, 1520. Medival Resource Book. Retrieved from: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1520cortes.asp