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37 CHAPTER 2 First Reports of New World Cannibalism in the Italian Mercantile and Diplomatic Correspondence ELENA DANIELE A great amount of the information about the first stages of early modern European expansion in the Americas was written by and for Italians. Italian trading cities, with their high percentage of literate people and efficient networks for the transmission of political and commercial news, were initially the most receptive audience for reports about the Iberian overseas explorations.1 The early information exchanged via the Italian network included highly stereotyped and contradictory representations of New World native populations. On one hand, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were portrayed as the innocent and peaceful dwellers of an Edenic paradise; on the other, they were described as fierce, indomitable cannibals. The long-­ standing controversy about the validity of primary sources for determining the history of the Columbian voyages and the ways of life of pre-­ contact indigenous cultures has spurred an ardent debate about the meaning and significance of the terms“cannibalism”and“anthropophagy ” in such accounts. Our collection of essays is no exception, as different authors draw alternative conclusions about a common set of materials. Three main lines of interpretation exist in this debate. Scholars read primary sources as fictions or discourses created (whether consciously or unconsciously) for various reasons that benefited Europeans in one form or another; accounts that drew upon a rich 38 FIRST REPORTS OF NEW WORLD CANNIBALISM body of preexisting classical and medieval literature; or ethnographic accounts of a practice that actually took place in the Caribbean and was observed and recorded (although in the language and imagery available to fifteenth-­century men) by those who had had contact with the alleged cannibals. Whether aggrandized or fictionalized, imbued with self-­ serving agendas or echoes of the well-­ established tradition of the marvelous East, the extant first-­and second-­ hand accounts of the first two Columbian voyages were nonetheless originally intended as ethnographic accounts of the actual practice of cannibalism in the Caribbean Basin. In Nicolás Wey-­ Gómez’s words: “What matters is that Columbus was convinced that he had walked in on a cannibals’ lair in the Lesser Antilles.”2 And so were his contemporaries: by the return of Antonio Torres’s fleet with Carib captives in 1494, New World cannibalism was an unquestioned fact for the Europeans of the time.But the reader will be surprised,perhaps,to find out that the first reaction to news of cannibalism was initially one of caution and disbelief , at least within the Italian mercantile and diplomatic milieu. In order to understand the origins of the notion that the Caribs engaged in cannibalistic practices and how this idea was received, how it was transmitted, and how it became consolidated, I will analyze the discourse on New World cannibalism as it emerged from the corpus of literary materials that were initially disseminated through the Italian network upon Columbus’s return from his first and second voyages. The first source for early representations of New World populations is Columbus’s widely publicized 1493 letter announcing the posi­ tive outcome of his expedition.Although this letter made Columbus’s name immediately known throughout Europe, scholars believe that the document is not an original by him.Initially penned by Columbus as a distillate of his diary, the original letter underwent substantial interventions by officials at court before its publication as the official announcement of the new Spanish possessions.3 Mentions of fantastic elements contained in the diary were decontextualized and rearranged in the letter to appeal to a wide public that was familiar with a centuries-­ old tradition of travels to the East. According to the letter, dog-­ headed men, men with tails, and cannibals all lurked in the luxuriant vegetation of the newly found islands. But a reading of the diary shows that if Columbus did indeed mention such mon- FIRST REPORTS OF NEW WORLD CANNIBALISM 39 strosities in his log, he initially dismissed them as tales the “Indians” told about their warlike neighbors. It was only toward the end of his first voyage, after a first skirmish with belligerent natives (whom he deemed “non-­ Indian”) that Columbus became convinced that some local tribes (the“Caribs”) engaged in cannibalistic practices. In contrast to the semi-­ fantastic content of the widely circulated letter, no mention was made of monsters or cannibals in the immediate transmission of information about Columbus’s voyage via the Italian mercantile newsletters and in the 1493 papal bulls. But...


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