Mar 11, 2011

Columbus Captures a Canoe
A Historical Glimpse Into Pre-columbian Culture

An interesting incident occurred in 1502 on Columbus' fourth voyage to the Americas that gives us insight into the culture and civilization of the the Indian peoples of Central America. Incidently, this is the only time Columbus actually makes landfall on North America, and this only in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
As his ships approach mainland Central America he discovers an island off the north coast of Honduras. This island was named Guanaja. It is located 12 km east of Roatan and 70 km north of the coast of Honduras. He sent two boats ashore to explore the island. At the same time a large sea-going Indian canoe arrived and was commandeered by the Spaniards. Let's read the account given by Columbus' son Ferdinand who was an eyewitness to the event.
Having come to the island of Guanaja, the Admiral sent ashore his brother Bartholomew, with two boats. They encountered people who resembled those of the other islands, but had narrower foreheads. They also saw many pine trees and pieces of earth called calcide which the Indians use to cast copper; some of the sailors thought it was gold and kept it concealed for a long time. The Adelantado [Bartholomew] being eager to learn the secrets of that island, by good fortune there arrived at that time a canoe long as a galley and eight feet wide, made of a single tree trunk like the other Indian canoes; it was freighted with merchandise from the western regions around New Spain'! Amidships it had a palm-leaf awning like that which the Venetian gondolas carry; this gave complete protection against the rain and waves. Under this awning were the children and women and all the baggage and merchandise. There were twenty-five paddlers aboard, but they offered no resistance when our boats drew up to them.
Our men brought the canoe alongside the flagship, where the Admiral gave thanks to God for revealing to him in a single moment, without any danger to our people, all the products of that country. He took aboard the costliest and handsomest things in that cargo: cotton mantles and sleeveless shirts embroidered and painted in different designs and colors; breechclouts of the same design and cloth as the shawls worn by the women in the canoe, being like the shawls worn by the Moorish women of Granada; long wooden swords with a groove on each side where the edge should be, in which were fastened with cord and pitch, flint [obsidian] knives that cut like steel; hatchets resembling the stone hatchets used by the other Indians, but made of good copper; and hawk's bells of copper, and crucibles to melt it. For provisions they had such roots and grains as the Indians of Espanola eat, also a wine made of maize that tasted like English beer. They had as well many of the almonds [cacao beans] which the Indians of New Spain use as currency; and these the Indians in the canoe valued greatly, for I noticed that when they were brought aboard with the other goods, and some fell to the floor, all the Indians squatted down to pick them up as if they had lost something of great value-their greed driving out their feelings of terror and danger at finding themselves in the hands of such strange and ferocious men as we must have seemed to be.
I should add that they displayed admirable modesty, for if one had his breechclout taken from him, he would immediately cover his genitals with his hands; and the women covered their faces like the Moorish women of Granada. [The life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his son Ferdinand, translated by Benjamin Keen, Greenwood Press (1978) p. 231-2]
Here Ferdinand gives us much detail about the Indians they encountered. I am going to discuss this information under separate headings.
First, the canoe. It was as long as a galley. Columbus' galleons were between 45 and 60 feet long, so the canoe was probably similar in length. It was 8 feet wide and apparently built and used for seagoing voyages. It had been hollowed out of a single log. The Indians had developed great skill in manufacturing these canoes and carved them with great precision. Some examples that I have seen of modern log canoes are very evenly crafted with smooth walls only 1-2 inches thick. It was powered by 25 paddlers (probably men), perhaps 12 on a side with one steersman in the rear. (One log canoe I observed in lake Golfito in Guatemala was about 30 feet long and was powered by women.) The women, children and baggage were sheltered under a palm leaf awning midships to protect from the rain, sun and wind. There were probably about 50 people on board.
Second, the trade goods. This was apparently a customary trade journey for this group. They had a fairly large inventory of trade goods. Ferdinand mentions copper hatchets, obsidian swords, copper hawks bells, crucibles for melting copper, cocao beans, cotton mantles, sleeveless shirts, breechclouts, and cloth. Some of the clothing and cloth was even embroidered, dyed or painted. There were wooden swords armed with razor sharp chips of obsidian mounted in opposing grooves which cut like steel. These the Indians called Macuahuitl. There were probably other items that he didn't list. He mentions that Columbus only took aboard the “costliest and handsomest things.” It is likely that they also traded in copper as they had found the island natives processing this metal.
Third, the people. There were probably about 50 people or more on the canoe. They consisted of men, women and children. It is interesting that they problably took their families along with them on these voyages (unless the women and children were slaves to be sold, but providing them shelter and comfort would probably indicate otherwise). It appears that the men wore only breachclouts, while the women appear to have been fully clothed, even to the point of having scarves to cover their faces. Ferdinand comments on the Indians modesty. Even though the men were almost naked, they were still ashamed when their breachclouts were taken from them and covered their genitals with their hands. He compared the habit of the females to cover their faces with the ancient practice of Arab women.
Fourth, their provisions. The provisions mentioned were roots, grains, wine and cacao. There were probably other things as well that were not noticed. The roots were probably manioc (or yuca/casava) which was a common crop among the pre-columbian Indians. These store well and are very nourishing and satisfying and easily prepared. The grains would principally been corn or maize, although there are other possibilities. Maize was a traditional staple among the pre-columbian Indians and could be made into tortillas, tamales, and a number of other foods. It also made a very nourishing drink. The wine (or chicha as it is normally called) was fermented from corn and was a common drink, especially during celebrations. The “almonds” mentioned were beans from the cacao tree, a strictly American cultivar. These beans were highly prized by the Indians and used in many applications in food and drink. As mentioned by Ferdinand, they were used as currency among the different groups and were probably a universal trade medium.
Fifth, their behavior. Unlike many other Indians Columbus had encountered, and would later encounter, these Indians were not hostile, even to the point of allowing the Spaniards to take their trade goods without resistance. They did get a little anxious when the Spaniards carelessly spilled the precious cacao beans on the deck and hurried to retrieve them, even though Ferdinand thought that they should have been afraid under the circumstances. I suggest that these traders were used to local leaders exerting their power and authority, but there was probably a universal treaty among them to allow the traders access even though they might be members of an enemy group. So in this situation the Indians may have thought that the Spaniards would be the same, but I am sure that they were sorely disappointed.
Sixth, copper hatchets. One of the most interesting items confiscated by the Spaniards were the copper hatchets. This discovery proves that there was an active trade in such tools/weapons among the Indians of Central America. Copper is normally too soft to be used as a tool or weapon, but it can be alloyed with other metals such as zinc, tin, antimony, arsenic or even gold and silver, to make it much harder. Ferdinand's account shows that copper manufacturing was a common skill among the Indians. They had found the people on the island processing copper. The traders had copper items, including bells and hatchets. They also had crucibles used to melt and process copper as one of their trade goods. On a recent visit to the National Museum of Costa Rica I noticed an interesting display among their gold artifacts. It was a small gold alloy axe head. The alloying process would have hardened the gold so that it could be used as a weapon or tool. Many archaeologists have insisted that the ancients used stone tools to fell giant trees and clear land for their farms. It seems illogical to me to follow this line of reasoning if the Indians actually had metal tools such as these copper alloy hatchets. These would make felling a tree so much easier. One scientist has actually done a study on the length of time it would take to cut down a tree using a stone ax. I can't find the reference at the time, but as I recall it would have taken weeks to cut down a large tree. Totally impractical in clearing enough land for a farm large enough to support a family.

1 comment:

  1. Columbus sounds really mean. I feel sorry for the indians, it probably took them a long time to make all those things.