The little-known body of texts written by humanists in the wake of Christopher Columbus's first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean (1492–93) draws upon classical and ecclesiastical teachings in regard to political existence and Christian evangelization to set forth a nuanced understanding of the difference between pernicious and innocuous forms of barbarism. Although both forms of barbarism are grounded in deficiencies, these texts laud the inherent goodness and perfectibility of the peoples who were subsequently called Indians, in contradistinction to the ferocity, cunning, and obstinacy of those instead dubbed cannibals. Consideration of this body of writings not only undercuts the simplistic claim that Europeans discounted the humanity of America's natives; it also elucidates both how certain markers of intelligence and civility informed strategies of conversion or subjugation and why societies of Indians held such an attraction for utopian thought.
David A. Boruchoff; Indians, Cannibals, and Barbarians: Hernán Cortés and Early Modern Cultural Relativism. Ethnohistory 1 January 2015; 62 (1): 17–38. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00141801-2821657
Download citation file: