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Columbus Meets Pocahontas in the American South
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ESSAY Columbus Meets Pocahontas in the American South by Theda Perdue s icons ofthe European colonization ofthe Americas, Columbus and Pocahontas represent opposite sides of the experience— F^uropean and Native, invader and defender, man and woman. Biographies and other scholarly writings document their lives and deeds, but these feats pale in comparison to the encounter these two legendary figures symbolize. Columbus embodies European discovery, invasion, and conquest while Pocahontas has become the "mother of us all," a nurturing, beckoning, seductive symbol of New World hospitality and opportunity .1 The two never actually met in the American South, of course, except metaphorically, but this symbolic encounter involved a sexual dynamic that was inherent to the whole process of European colonization, particularly that of the American South. John Smith's tale ofsuccor and salvation fixed the Pocahontas image forever in the American mind, and his autobiographical account of peaceful relations with her people, the Powhatans, has exempted Englishmen from the tarring Columbus has received as an international symbol of aggression. The Columbian encounter with Native women seemed, in fact, to be radically different from Smith's. On his initial voyage ofdiscovery, Columbus had relatively little to report about Native women except that they, like men, went "naked as the day they were born." The loss of one of his ships on this voyage forced Columbus to leave about a third ofhis crew on Hispaniola. When he returned, he found the burned ruins of his settiement and the decomposing corpses of his men. Local Natives related that "soon after the Admiral's departure those men began to quarrel among themselves, each taking as many women and as much gold as he could." They dispersed throughout the island, and local caciques killed them. The men on Columbus's expedition had their revenge: "Incapable of moderation in their acts of injustice, they carried off the women of the islanders under the very eyes of their brothers and their husbands." Columbus personally presented a young woman to one of his men, Michele de Cuneo, who later wrote that when she resisted him with her fingernails, he "thrashed her well, for which she raised such Jan van der Straet (Stradanus), The Discovery of America (iJ7j), drawing onpaper, 7V2 X ioVs in. Courtesy ofthe Metropolitan Museum ofArt. Gift ofthe Estate ofJames Ha^en Hyde, ipjp. unheardof screams that you would not have believed your ears." In the accounts of the conquistadores, Spaniards seized women as they seized other spoils of war.2 Such violence contributed to the "black legend" of Spanish inhumanity to Native peoples and stands in stark contrast to early English descriptions of their encounters with Native women. John Smith, according to his own account, did not face the kind of resistance from Pocahontas and other Native women of the Virginia tidewater that the Spanish had met in the Caribbean. When Smith and a delegation from Jamestown called at the primary town of Powhatan, Pocahontas's father, they discovered that he was away, but the chief's daughter and other women invited the Englishmen to a "mascarado." "Thirtie young women," Smith wrote, "came naked out of the woods, only covered behind and before with a few green leaves, their bodies all painted." They sang and danced with "infernal passions" and then invited Smith to their lodgings. By his account, written with uncharacteristic modesty in the third person, "he was no sooner in the house, but all these Nymphes more tormented him then ever, with crowding, pressing, and hanging about him, most tediously crying, lx>ve you not me? Love you not me?"3 The contrast is obvious—the Spanish supposedly raped and pillaged while the English nobly resisted seduction. By focusing merely on the colonizing Europeans , however, we lose sight of the Native women who are central actors in this drama: they are, after all, both the victims of Columbus's barbarity and the seColumbus Meets Pocahontas in theAmerican South 5 John G Chapman, Pocahontas Saving the Life of Captain John Smith (ca. 1836—40), oil on canvas, 21 X 2j'A in. Collection ofthe New York—Historical Society. ductive sirens luring Smith's party. Despite differences in the ways these women are portrayed in...