This book was influential in defining 16th-century European attitudes towards the ‘New World’ of the Americas. It communicates the excitement with which travellers were opening up new geographical horizons. But it also tells us a lot about how those explorers and colonizers treated the people they encountered.
A ‘white paper unwritten upon’
The title of this book reveals its particularly European perspective – to the early modern English reader, this is a ‘New World’. Disturbingly, ‘The Preface to the Reader’ describes the people of these lands as inanimate objects, blank slates waiting to be civilised by the Europeans:
these simple gentiles lyvinge only after the lawe of nature, may well bee likened to a smoothe and bare table unpainted, or a white paper unwritten upon, upon the which yow may at the first paynte and wryte what yow lyste. (sig. C3v)
Texts like this were written at an expansive moment of colonialism, but more recent postcolonial approaches see works like Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) as a more nuanced exploration of the tensions in this colonial era. Prospero’s attitude to Caliban, whom he enslaves, has been taken as representative of early Anglo-American relationships. In Act 1, Scene 2 Miranda tells Caliban that though she ‘pitied’ and tried to educate him along European lines, he remains an ‘Abhorred slave, / Which any print of goodness will not take’ (1.2.351–52).
His reply is that
You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red-plague rid you
For learning me your language! (1.2.363–64)
Then, when Prospero orders Caliban to fetch fuel, Caliban resents it, but says aside to the audience
I must obey. His art is of such pow’r,
It would control my dam’s god, Setebos,
And make a vassal of him. (1.2.373–75)
‘Setebos’ is a god mentioned in the explorer Antonio Pigafetta’s account of a 1519 voyage to Patagonia, first brought into English in Eden’s translation.
Who wrote The Decades of the newe worlde?
Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (1457–1526) was an Italian historian of Spain and its explorers. Writing in Latin, he worked from original letters and documents, including those of Christopher Columbus. His 1530 De Orbe Novo (On the New World) contains the first European reference to India rubber in the description of an Aztec game.
This English version of his book, The Decades of the newe worlde, was translated by Richard Eden (c. 1520–1576) and was combined with other works including Gonzalo Oviedo’s Natural hystoria de las Indias. Eden was a Cambridge-educated Englishman. His The History of Travayle in the West and East Indies, co-edited with Richard Willies, was published in 1577.