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59 CHAPTER 3 Sex and Cannibalism The Politics of Carnal Relations between Europeans and American “Anthropophagites” in the Caribbean and Mexico KELLY L. WATSON Christopher Columbus was, by most accounts, a man of steadfast principles and unwavering confidence in his vision. Long before setting foot in the Americas, Columbus argued vociferously with some of Europe’s leading experts in geography and cartography about the ratio of land to water in the cosmos and the potential for humans to thrive in the torrid zone. Each time Columbus requested funds for his voyage, he encountered strident dissent from powerful men who clung to an outdated perception that the earth was almost entirely made of water except for one continent that was separated into three sections: Europe,Asia, and Africa. Columbus’s detractors argued that if he sailed west and south, he would not find land, and that even if by some miracle he did find land, it would never be truly habitable. Thus, they lobbied the Catholic monarchs to turn down his requests for funding for a voyage of proof. However, Columbus had powerful friends who shared his understanding of the potential for land and human settlement to the west and south of Europe and together they were eventually able to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to allow the voyage, but only after the Reconquista was complete. In addition, Columbus had to promise that almost all funds would be provided by private sources and that the Crown would get one-­ fifth of all profits from the venture.1 60 Sex and Cannibalism Throughout his life, Columbus demonstrated the solidity of his convictions even in the face of great opposition.2 However, the strength of his convictions also made it difficult for him to recognize the empirical reality of what he saw on his voyages. This was true not only in his belief that theAmericas were actually a part of greaterAsia but also in his perceptions of the people who resided there.Before setting sail, Columbus knew what kinds of people he might find, par­ ticu­ larly in the tropical regions. He was familiar with popular medieval and classical literature that described the flora, fauna, and geography of the lands on what was thought to be the fringes of the earth and he often looked to such texts to determine what he should expect to find. For example, based on the precedent the fanciful tales of medieval travelers had established, Columbus expected to find mermaids in the Indies. He wrote in his journal that he did indeed find mermaids ,although they were not as beautiful as he expected (most likely because the“mermaids” were actually manatees).3 In a letter to the Spanish sovereigns during his third voyage to the Americas, Columbus reaffirmed his confidence in his cartographic calculations and said that his voyages would be remembered by future generations because they would offer corrections to thousands of years of misunderstandings about the distribution of lands and people on the surface of the earth. Columbus also suggested some adjustments to previous understandings of the shape of the earth and the location of Eden, or terrestrial paradise, which most previous scholars had placed somewhere in the eastern northern hemisphere.4 He argued that contrary to popular belief, the earth was irregularly shaped and that the western hemisphere had a protrusion shaped like a woman’s breast. Columbus believed that Eden would be found at the high point of this protrusion, where the nipple would be. But this western half of the world, I maintain, is like the half of a very round pear, having a raised projection for the stalk, as I have already described,or like a woman’s nipple on a round ball. Ptolemy and the others who have written upon the globe, had no information respecting this part of the world,which was then unexplored; they only established their arguments with respect to their own hemisphere, which, as I have already said, is half of a perfect sphere.5 Sex and Cannibalism 61 While we know that Columbus was not quite correct in his understanding of the shape of the earth, his description of the world as a sexualized woman’s body part is quite telling. Columbus was certainly not alone in describing land as feminine.As this was a fairly common way to speak of landscapes, such descriptions help us think through how Columbus and others understood their accomplishments.6 European visitors to these “new” lands had ideas about gender and...


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