The Perception of the New World: Columbus and Montaigne

During the era of exploration, the discovery of unexplored territories had greatly struck interest in the European countries that were on the search for more riches in East Asia. In 1493 under the flag of Spain, Christopher Columbus attempted to reach the Indies by navigating west on the Atlantic Ocean but ended up in new world; the Americas. He reported the new world he discovered in a letter, which grabbed the attention of another writer, Michel de Montaigne, who challenged the perception of how Europeans viewed these “savages”. The genres in the literary works of Columbus’ letter and Montaigne’s essay both portray new ideas, images, and the practices of the new world they are trying to portray.

Although while Columbus recounts his experience in the “Indies” and its inhabitants, Montaigne argues against the poor treatment of the inhabitants that Columbus came across in the new world. The boasting in Columbus’s letters to his king back in Spain he states, “I have taken possession of them all for their Highnesses, and all are more richly endowed than I have skill and power to say, and I hold them all in the name of their Highnesses who can dispose thereof as much and as completely as of the kingdoms of Castile—in this Española. (58)” It was made clear that Columbus was attempting to earn more support from them as well as more money for his expedition. Montaigne on the other hand was a humanist whose goal was to raise awareness about criterion and to oppose civilized and primitive ideas (equality) about the savages in the new world.

Montaigne mainly discusses that all people are relative and impermanent, and that “everyman man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to (61)”. The lifestyles of the primitive are not so different from theirs, but are more innocent, natural, and authentic than European nations. Columbus characterizes the natives as naïve when it came to trading stating, “They took even pieces of broken barrel hoops, and gave whatever they had, like senseless brutes; insomuch that it seemed to me ill (57).” The main idea that Columbus wanted to interpret in his letter to the king is that the money used to fund the voyage was not wasted, and that he would also like to receive even more money to finance his expedition.

Columbus and Montaigne however, are painting the same picture with their literary works. Columbus seems to be sugar-coating his meeting with the inhabitants of the Americas to make himself seem gentle. He wrote, “I have gone and been able to hold speech with the, I gave them of everything which I had, as well cloth as many things, without accepting aught therefor; but such they are incurably timid (56).” He seems to contradict himself also when he refers the native later to savages and barbarous.

Montaigne seems to paint a rosy picture of the native people back in the Americas and can be seen when he quotes Plato that, “all things produced by nature , fortune, or art, the greatest and fairest by the first two, the lesser and least perfect by the last. (62)” Here Montaigne regards that those who call the natives barbarous are blinded by the fact that they are more barbarous because they are far from nature. Although both Columbus and Montaigne both seem convincing, I take Montaigne’s side due to the fact that he argued reasonably against the treatment of natives.