20 Kasım 2013 Çarşamba

Quotation: Princeton University A World History of The World, "Shaping European Impressions of Native Americans"

This week in discussion, we took a look at some early images of the interactions between Spaniards and Native Americans and how they portrayed, or perhaps influenced, the impressions that Europeans had of the Natives encountered in the New World. The images we focused on were pictures of copper engravings done by one Theodor de Bry, a 16th century European engraver.

To understand the impressions of Native Americans depicted in the engravings, it is important to take a look at some of the differences in how the natives and the Spaniards are portrayed in de Bry's pieces. For this particular discussion, we focused on three of his engravings.


The Indians, to satisfy their wickedness, pour molten gold into the mouths of the Spaniards

How are the Native Americans portrayed in the images?

Several physical traits of the Native Americans stand out. The first is that they lack body hair and are mostly bald. The distinction becomes all the more apparent when compared with the Spaniards, who are generally bearded.

Not only do the natives lack body hair, but they also lack clothing. They are dressed in mere loincloths while their torsos are uncovered. Again, this appearance sharply contrasts with the attire of the Spaniards, who are shown to have ornate outfits complete with feathery caps.

The overall nakedness of the Native Americans, combined with the positioning of their bodies, gives an overall sense of a nonhuman, alien creature. The bald heads and bodies are abnormally rounded, and in most images, the natives are hunched over or contorted into grotesque poses, giving an impression of barbarianism and suggesting a lack of humanity.

How are the Spaniards portrayed in the images?

Valboa throws some Indians, who had committed the terrible sin  of sodomy, to the dogs to be torn apart.

On the other hand, the Spaniards in the engravings are as different as can be. They are bearded, clothed, and generally hold upright poses. They possess more individualism, as their features are more distinct and unique, whereas the natives are almost uniform in appearance.

Their positioning in the engraving where they are punishing the natives indicate that the Spaniards are above the Native Americans, both literally and figuratively. Even in their punishment of the natives, the Spaniards keep their hands clean, using dogs to do the dirty work. In the images of the natives torturing or attacking the Spaniards, it is the natives themselves who personally attend to the Europeans, barbarically crouching and mutilating the Spaniards.

What does that say about the attitude of the Europeans towards the native peoples?

It is interesting to note that de Bry himself never actually visited the New World, and that his works are completely based off of Europeans who had gone to the Americas and returned with accounts and descriptions of the native peoples. Therefore, de Bry's engravings didn't result in the formation of these impressions of Native Americans, but were based on pre-existing ones and merely perpetuated the European notion of what natives were like.


Spaniards, along with some monks, are butchered by the Indians.

That being said, the images suggest that the overall impression that Europeans had of the natives was that of a savage, almost subhuman culture. The contrast between the ways the Spaniards did violence (as portrayed in the images) and the ways of the Natives are particularly striking, because they seem to imply that the Spaniards occupy a higher ground as arbiters of moral and religious judgment.

Even the names of the engravings suggest this difference. The title of the image where the natives are torn apart by dogs is “Valboa throws some Indians, who had committed the terrible sin of sodomy, to the dogs to be torn apart.” On the other hand, the images of the natives torturing or attacking the Spaniards read: “Spaniards, along with some monks, are butchered by the Indians” and “The Indians, to satisfy their wickedness, pour molten gold in the mouths of the Spaniards.” These titles, along with their religious undertones, clearly separate the violence of the two groups. Words like “butchered,” “wickedness,” and “sin” add a pejorative flavor to the actions of the Indians, while de Bry seems to justify the Spaniards' punishing of the natives in his engraving and the accompanying title.

The theme of Native Americans as savages and uncivilized creatures is a recurring one, one that is certainly emphasized in these images. The reality of the situation, however, was not necessarily so. The Indians wore other clothing beyond loincloths, and formed civilized societies and developed their own religions as well. The lack of understanding on the part of the Spaniards and other Europeans, with respect to religion and culture particularly, can be considered a large cause for the impressions towards Native Americans that developed.

If you want to see more of de Bry's engravings, you can find his other pieces and larger versions of the ones featured in this post HERE.

Questions and comments are welcome!

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