First Contacts: The Early Explorers

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First Contacts: The Early Explorers


Motives. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries European exploration was motivated primarily by economic necessity. The growing demand for the exotic and expensive luxury goods brought overland from Asia and increasing European dependence on Muslim and Venetian middlemen in this spice trade compelled western and northern merchants and monarchs to begin searching for alternate routes to the riches of the East. The Portuguese, strategically located on the Atlantic coast and drawing on a long history of maritime endeavors, were first to begin the quest for an ocean passage to the Orient. They sailed down the west coast of Africa and eventually monopolized the eastern waterway to Asia. Portugals success left its European neighbors with little choice but to look to the west for a water route to the Indies. Following in the wake of Christopher Columbus, sixteenth-century explorers came to North America with the overriding purpose of locating a Northwest Passage through the continent to the ocean beyond and then to the East Indies. Not until the seventeenth century did political, imperial, and religious aspirations or scientific curiosity play a significant role in motivating exploration and settlement of North America.

Early Communication. Most of the early explorers viewed North America largely as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a source of wealth or profit in its own right. Consequently they showed little, if any, interest in initiating trade with natives. Much more important to these European adventurers was knowledge about the new land: its harbors and waterways, resources and geography, flora and fauna, and native peoples. The latter were crucial to their search for profits, whether in the Far East or in North America, for only the indigenous inhabitants knew the land, how to travel through it, and what riches it had to offer. The collection of usable, trustworthy information required the establishment of reliable communication between natives and newcomers. In the absence of clear understanding, wishful thinking often took the place of actual translation in early explorers accounts. Each new arrival created his own silent rhetoric, but most found that, beyond the basics, ad hoc gestures and signs did not suffice. Since the explorers rarely stayed long in one place, quickly moving on to investigate the next section of coastline, these early contacts remained haphazard and brief and rarely provided the opportunity for the development of jargons or pidgins. As the newcomers searched for alternative solutions, they quickly focused on native North Americans as potential interpreters.

Kidnapping. Following the example set by Christopher Columbus, many European explorers carried human booty home from the shores of North America. For some, contemplating an empty-handed return to their sponsors without news of gold, silver, or the coveted Northwest Passage, native slaves seemed the most readily available source of profit. Portuguese captain Gaspar Côrte-Real forcibly kidnapped some fifty Indians from the northeastern coast in 1501 and sent them to his sovereign in Lisbon, where they were judged to be excellent for labor and the best slaves that have hitherto been obtained. Although the cargo pleased the king, it did Côrte-Real little good since his ship was lost before he could return home to reap his reward. Other explorers sent natives home as exotic curiosities, which, like other specimens of American flora and fauna, might amuse or impress European officials and investors. For many, however, kidnapping Indians fulfilled another goal: the bridging of the language chasm between native North Americans and Europeans. On board sailing vessels and in the capitals of Europe, Native American minds and tongues were soon bent to learning Old World languages and customs in hopes that they would become useful guides and intermediaries in their captors further explorations of the American coast. More often than not, however, such plans backfired. Jacques Cartier, who captured two sons of Stadaconan chief Donnacona during his first voyage to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534, found them of limited use during his subsequent two voyages. He took them to France, where they learned to speak French. On the return to Canada the following year they served as pilots and guides as the second expedition made its way inland toward their home village, Stadacona (Quebec), on the St. Lawrence River. Once reunited with family and friends on their home ground, however, they quickly began to show dissatisfaction with the French and were undoubtedly behind the deterioration of Cartiers relationship with the Stadaconans during the remainder of the expedition. Later explorers reaped even greater disasters from seeds they sowed in kidnapping Indians. In 1561 a Spanish crew captured a young Indian from the York River in Virginia. Nine years later, having received instruction in Spanish language and the Catholic religion, this Hispanicized native, Luis de Velasco, led a small group of Jesuits back to the land of his birth. Shortly after his arrival Don Luis ran off and only returned to lead an attack on the mission in which all the priests were killed. If Luis was, as many historians believe, Opechancanough, his anger against the European invaders smoldered for many years. In 1622 and 1644 Opechancanough led two devastating uprisings against the English colonists of early Virginia.


Euro-Americans And Indians brought not only different languages but also different cultural perceptions, expectations, meanings, and values to their encounters on the shores of North America. Once the focus of contact began to shift away from initial greetings and barter toward more intensive exchanges of goods and detailed information, both natives and newcomers found ad hoc gestures and even jargons and pidgins to be inadequate means of communication. The subtleties and complexities of the emerging relationship between the European explorers and Americas indigenous inhabitants required more subtle and complex communication. The best solution, though not necessarily the easiest to achieve, was to train Indians or Europeans as interpretersindividuals who could speak both languages with some proficiency and who were at least familiar with the customs of each group. At the most basic level an interpreter had to command two languages, and even a rudimentary level of linguistic skill could be difficult to attain since Indian languages bore little syntactic, morphological, or phonological resemblance to European tongues. In addition, as interpreters translated and explained disparate languages and rituals infused with culturally based meanings and values, they acted as brokers, mediating the confrontation of European and Indian cultures. As cultural brokers, interpreters inhabited the cultural frontiers of North America. Of necessity the most accomplished became repositories of two or more cultures and used their multicultural knowledge and understanding to forge bonds across the cultural divide. By virtue of their specialized skills, these cultural intermediaries often gained prestige and influence in both worlds as long as they maintained the fine balance between the two worlds and performed satisfactorily. By the time permanent settlement began, neither the Europeans nor their native neighbors could safely do without interpreters.

Source: Nancy L. Hagedorn, A Friend to Go between Them: Interpreters among the Iroquois, 16641775, Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 1995.

Native Americans in Europe. Native North Americans who found themselves cast upon European shores as living, breathing audiovisual aids for their captors stories about the wonders of America learned a great deal more than new languages. As they were schooled in European language, manners, and religion, they also received some harsh lessons in European civility. The newcomers were exhibited as objects of curiosity before crowds of courtiers and commoners, who poked, prodded, laughed, and pointed at them. Once the novelty wore off, other concerns came to the fore, and the efforts of their hosts to civilize them began. Forced to abandon native hairstyles and dress, they spent much of their time in religious and linguistic instruction and rarely escaped the cramped, dirty, alien environment of European cities and towns. Far from home among strangers, undoubtedly uncomfortable and unhappy, and at the mercy of European diseases to which they had no immunity, many died and were buried in alien soil before they could return to their native land. The lessons their captors taught did not always have the desired effect. Exposure to the power, might, and wonders of European society did not seem to make native peoples more submissive to their betters or desirous of accepting civilization and its trappings. Yet those who survived and went home took valuable knowledge and skills with them which shaped the relationship between Europeans and Native Americans for decades to come.

Reciprocal Learning. Knowledge flowed both ways between native North American visitors to Europe and their hosts. The exhibition of Indians as exotic curiosities throughout the continent gave a broad spectrum of the European population their first glimpse of America and often left an indelible impression. The appearance of native North Americans was captured in portraits, which were copied in woodcuts and engravings that circulated widely in books and as broadsides. Tales of their homeland inspired songs, ballads, and books, which joined the growing literature of explorers accounts during the sixteenth century. European interpretations of their clothing and culture were depicted in court pageants and tableaux. Fascination with America and the New Worlds hold on the European imagination rested largely on these early vicarious encounters. On a more practical level, as these exiled Indians received instruction in things European, they also provided their captors with valuable information about America and gave lessons in their native tongues. Both sides benefited and suffered as a result of the European practice of kidnapping native North Americans. Ultimately, however, the linguistic and cultural knowledge gained by each of the partners to this educational exchange laid the foundation for future advances in intercultural communication in eastern North America.


James Axtell, At the Waters Edge: Trading in the Sixteenth Century, in his After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 144181;

Axtell, Babel of Tongues: Communicating with the Indians in Eastern North America, in The Language Encounter in the Americas, 14921800, edited by Edward G. Gray and Norman Fiering (Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, forthcoming);

Emerson W. Baker and others, eds., American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994);

David Beers Quinn, ed., New American World, volume 1: America from Concept to Discovery. Early Exploration of North America (New York: Arno Press & Hector Bye, 1979).

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First Contacts: The Early Explorers

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