Two approaches to the Columbus-Indigenous encounter

         There Was An Indian

There was an Indian, who had known no change,
Who strayed content along a sunlit beach
Gathering shells. He heard a sudden strange
Commingled noise; looked up; and gasped for speech.
For in the bay, where nothing was before,
Moved on the sea, by magic, huge canoes,
With bellying cloths on poles, and not one oar,
And fluttering coloured signs and clambering crews.

 20110807artsonsundayAnd he, in fear, this naked man alone,
His fallen hands forgetting all their shells,
His lips gone pale, knelt low behind a stone,
And stared, and saw, and did not understand,
Columbus’s doom-burdened caravels
Slant to the shore, and all their seamen land

Sir John Squire

Christopher Columbus

Both, bewildered,
stood on the beach
and Christopher reached
for his sword.
He thrust his sword
at the savage
to see if the savage
would react savagely.
The wide eyed, wild naked one
had never seen a sword thrust –
never seen a sword –
and gratefully grabbed
the proffered gift.
He grasped the blade
and bled his thanks
onto the white sand.
The covenant had been made.

Bob Stewart

Here are two poems on the same subject.  They focus the Indigenous people of the New World – in particular the Caribbean ‒ and present two views of the same event that was to supplant itself indelibly and very influentially on the history of the region.  The poems offer, one may say, two opposing views of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.  Interestingly, they describe the exact moment when Columbus first set foot on a West Indian island, particularly marking the reaction and response of the indigenous people and the actions of the Europeans that led to the situation today – that of all the British West Indian countries, Indigenous people exist in strong presence and large numbers in only two territories – the continental nations of Guyana and Belize.

The main historical development that is the major core in both poems is what followed after the landing of Columbus which opened up the territories to the Spaniards.  That is the fact that Europeans thereafter exploited, ill-treated and decimated the Amerindian population to the point where a whole stretch of West Indian islands today have but a faint echo of their presence.  Columbus (somewhat unfairly) gets blamed for all of that.  Furthermore, when they were on the verge of being wiped out, the other notorious historical episode – African slavery – was introduced (Bartholomew de las Casas is also, unfairly, partly blamed for that).

These poems fictionalise the very moment when this all started.  Sir John Squire imagines an Indigenous man witnessing the first arrival of Columbus’ ships and paints it partially from the point of view of the mystified native.  He narrates it as a life-changing and tragic experience and the imposition of a strange culture upon this man’s existence.  Bob Stewart uses a similar technique, narrating with great irony, the meeting of opposite worlds and cultures, underlining the tragic outcome.  A big difference, however, is that one poem is colonial, the other sharply post-colonial.

John Collins Squire (1882-1958), who was knighted by King George in 1932, was a historian, poet and literary editor who graduated from the University of Cambridge.  He was a minor English poet who, although biographical sources link him with modernist literature, wrote the poem reproduced above, which is Georgian, and has no modernist qualities.  He was, however, a very influential editor and worked for several years with the literary journal The New Statesman.  He has been associated with satirical verse and a number of post-war literary movements.

The poem ‘There Was An Indian’ from a Caribbean and a post-colonial standpoint, is a very colonial subject.  It subscribes to backward colonial perceptions of the savage, mindless American Indian native and this part of history as the contact between a backward inferior culture and the more advanced civilised culture from Europe with its superior stature and technology.

The “Indian” is idle, mindless and limited.  He knows no constructive occupation or purpose, but “strayed content” on the beach simply “gathering shells”.  His “contentment” is a Romantic image of the savage race ignorant of change, development or any complexity.  He cannot fathom or imagine anything outside of his own limited, uncomplicated experience, so that the sail ships have come “by magic” sailing “with not one oar”.  They can only be “huge canoes” since he knows and can imagine nothing else.  The poem proceeds in this fashion and is only saved by its last two lines.  The reference to Columbus’ ships as “doom burdened” suggests the tragedy that their arrival foretells.

Very interestingly, there is a suggestion that the poem did not end there.  ‘There Was An Indian’ has always been known as a sonnet with fourteen lines and the fitting rhyme scheme known to the type, as well as the two stanzas of an octave and a sestet.  However, one source, ‘Poetry Explorer’, carries a version of the poem with eight additional lines, printed below.

Her sails were brown and ragged,
And her crew hollow-eyed,
But their silent lips spoke content
And their shoulders pride;
Though she had no captives on her deck,
And in her hold
There were no heaps of corn or timber
Or silks or gold.

These lines increase the poem’s acknowledgement of the negative elements of Caribbean post-Columbus history.  This was not a slave ship, but neither did it come prepared to lead a constructive life, nor with any sustaining food supply or resources.

The ‘Poetry Explorer’ gives no helpful information about these additional lines, although it still calls the poem a sonnet, which it cannot be with 22 lines and complicated rhyme.  It gives a different title: ‘The Discovery’.  So it is to be researched whether this is an authentic version/edition of Squire’s poem and how these lines became a part of it, and why they were omitted.

The other poem is by Bob Stewart, written in Jamaica circa 1974 and published in Cane Cut, Savacou, 1988, on the Mona Campus of UWI.  Like Squire, Stewart is white, but provides a contrasting approach to “the savage”/“the Indian”.  Stewart’s “Christopher Columbus” is post-colonial verse, commenting on the confrontation of two cultures when Columbus first landed in the West Indies.

There is irony, as clearly it is Columbian culture which comes out as the savage one.  Christopher tests “the savage” with a show of savagery. Clearly unaccustomed to exhibitions of savagery, the Indigenous mistakes the sword thrust for a “proffered gift” with sad consequences.  Far from “reacting savagely”, he can think of nothing else but kindness and shows of friendship – two strangers, two ambassadors, two representatives of foreign cultures meet, and the thing to do in the consciousness of the “wide-eyed, wild naked one” is to offer a gift.  Quite the opposite is the first thing that comes to Christopher’s mind.

The narrative in Stewart’s poem is dramatised.  The whole post-colonial approach to the history of Europe in the New World is rendered through a dramatic meeting between two men from opposite cultures.  All of this is further condensed in the last line: “the covenant had been made”.  It is a dramatic summary of the history that was to follow.

Although both poems give an imaginative description of the exact same historical encounter, in much the same setting – on a beach, and the same two characters ‒ the outlook is worlds apart with Stewart’s poem very effectively utilising economy of language and very telling drama.

The poems are interesting and significant contributions to Indigenous literature in the Caribbean.

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