On Canaries

Today was the end of another one of those long-standing white whale hunts that happen so often as a historian. Giovanni Boccaccio, the great rennaissance author, wrote the encounter narrative between a European ship captained by Peraltro Niccolo da Recco and the indigenous people of the Canary Islands, and it is the oldest document of its kind for the Canaries. While the letter was available in Latin, and in a strangely-inpenetrable Italian translation, I had not found it in a version that I was able to read easily. To save others the trouble, I have posted this bilingual (Spanish/Latin) version here. I have yet to really sink my teeth into the source, but it seems great.

This comes from volume 1 of Gregorio Chil y Naranjo's Estudios Historícos, Climatológos y Patológicos de las Islas Canarias from 1876. I have included the publication page in the file for more details.

Happy hunting!

That word...

What did it mean to be naked to a sixteenth century Spaniard?

This isn't some navel-gazey, "do we even see the same Phish poster, MAAAAN?" question (or at least it isn't meant to be), but rather something I have been wrestling with in my own work for the last few months.

I'm working on this article about a indigenous translator woman, who after years of exile from Florida in Havana and Seville, was able to return, more or less, to the village she had been taken from. After a few days in the interior of what is now Pinellas County, she suddenly appears on a beach and is seen by the friar and the sailors she had left behind. The friar (our sometimes inscrutable, deeply pious narrator) mentions that they could not recognize her at first because she was naked.1

I presented an earlier version of this paper at a little workshop, and someone asked me whether I thought she was literally naked. I had to admit, I hadn't thought about it, but I didn't think so. A philologically-minded participant pressed me to do some research on it, which I put on some to-do list, somewhere, to come back to later.

I promptly half-forgot that list, but the idea stuck with me.

Lo and behold! While researching early contacts in the American southwest, I came across this little sentence:

"The women go about naked and wear a covering of painted and glued feathers in back and front. (Meaning a loin-covering which "hangs behind them like a tail") They wear their hair like the men.

Or, in the Italian text from which it came (long story):

Le donne vanno ignude/& portano un gran rinvolto di piume di dietro, &davanti dipinto & incolato & I capelli come gli huomini. 2

Here it was, in plain English/Italian, that nakedness in the sixteenth century didn't necessarilly mean "totally stark," but could also just mean topless, since the proto-showgirl outfit described above would cover any "shameful" bits.

Further digging proved it wasn't just me and Alarcón, either. Here's the first two definitions of "desnudo" from the fantastic 18th century Diccionario de Autoridades:

DESNUDO, DA. adj. Falto de vestído, o abrígo. Latín. Nudus. L. PUENT. Medit. part. 4. Medit. 40. Punt. 3. Desnúdo salí, Salvador mio, del vientre de mi madre, desnúdo como vos quiero volver a él. SOLIS, Hist. de Nuev. Esp. lib. 1. cap. 19. Los demás venían desnúdos, y todos afeados con varias tintas y colores, de que se pintaban el cuerpo y el rostro.

DESNUDO. Se llama tambien el que está mui mal vestido, y indecente. Latín. Obsoleta, attrita, vel inconcinnâ veste indutus. NAVARR. Man. cap. 21. num. 4. Y los pobres tan desnúdos segun su estado, que les sería gran vergüenza o risa si la oyessen.

To summarize in lieu of translating, naked can also mean not having enough clothes, or bad ones.


1 In some ways, what I'm trying to do is build up a world of context around her, since what we actually know would fill up a large-ish notecard. Conquest history is pleasingly (for me) difficult, and at the best of times is detective work. Finding a woman that the colonial record did its best to forget, from a place so far flung it was never really conquered, almost feels perverse in that context. But at the same time, giving her something of a voice, and by extension the hundres of indigenous translators and thousands of indigenous slaves a (relentlessly researched) story feels so gratifying.

2 From a description of the Alarcón expedition in Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, "Narrative of Alarcón's Voyage, 1450" in Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-42 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2005). Originally from Ramusio, Terzo Volume delle navigationi et viaggi, 1556, 363r-370v. Why is this in Italian you ask? The Venetians, Ramusio chief among them, had an extensive information network that gathered news about potential new trading opportunities from around the world. Ramusio translated the original, which has since been lost.

On archives

I have spent the last few weeks doing the kind of work that makes historical projects possible, sorting through great big foot-thick stacks of 500 year old paper, smelling the sweet old book smell, my nose slightly itchy as the detritus of centuries sloughs off into the air. Flip. Glance. Flip. Glance.

When I find something good, I decide whether to have it copied or transcribe it. My scanning budget is limited anyway, but since I work on the oldest, raggediest stuff, having the tiny advantage of looking at the actual object means than lines of rotten text can be salvaged instead of just being recorded as (roto).1

Transcription is boring work. The muffled silence of the archive and the slight warmth of the room makes me sleepy. Whatever vestige of my childhood ADD still exists roars, angry at the tedium of having to tap it out after having read it. I actually enjoy transcription at home, when I can pet a cat or make a cup of coffee in between lines, but here, when forced to do it, my brain wants to do anything else. I’ve taken to using this goofy app, letting the clackety noise of the fake typewriter tell my brain I am making progress.

Yesterday afternoon, I began transcribing this coffee-colored four page letter from the island of Hispaniola. The ink was too wet, or the paper too absorbent, and the letters have soaked into the page like watercolors into a paper towel. Where the letter was folded, time has worn a thin gap between the halves of the page.

As much as it is easy to complain, the archive, real or digital, is an amazing place to visit. Walt Whitman’s ghostly millions stand behind you, and you get to think about the contingency and complexity that put person in place and paper in archive.

Despite the occasional joy of discovery, however, it is not an emotional place. Most of the time, you scan (Flip. Flip.), or you serve as a memory buffer between the written and the typed. Yesterday, though, I started transcribing something that actually made me well up for the sheer wretchedness of the story within.

It’s the 1540s in Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, and a royal decree has been announced through the streets, declaring the freedom of all of the island’s indigenous people from slavery.

For the island’s “protector of Indians,” however, it is a step that came decades too late, and the culmination of the ongoing humanitarian crisis that was the early colonial Caribbean. Of the island’s natives, only a few hundred remain, reduced by recent last-gasp rebellion and by utter indifference to their fate on behalf of their owners. The ones that survive head to the hills and into the vast new cattle ranges of the interior, away from the exploitative hacendados and mines and towards their own freedom, but also away from the last vestiges of Taino village life. These few hundred are spread so thin, the author says, as to be extinct.

It only gets worse. There is another, perhaps more tragic sort of “indian” in Hispaniola: the captured inhabitants of a band of coastline stretching from Maranhão to Yucatán to the Chesapeake. Atomized, often young, they have nowhere to go, no people to claim. They are, as the author says, without leaders, without mothers, and without fathers. They should be treated as young orphans regardless of age, according to the letter writer, before the big colonial world swallows them up. I bristle at his repeated and racist insistence that this diverse group of people, forced together by circumstance, was incapable of looking after itself. And I know that freedom likely came as a moment of joy to many of them, but every newly free person was also largely alone, sorting through this shuffled humanity for friends, related peoples, old coworkers and lovers, anything to make a new life in a place that only weeks ago saw fit to condemn them to dwindling gold mines and the boiling rooms of fledgling sugar plantations. A few may have made it home, as linguists or laborers, but these were the lucky few.

I’m about two thirds of the way through this document. I don’t know how to feel about returning to it, since it is so vivid and so sad. I will probably not read something so moving for a long time, but there is a certain comfort in objectivity and in knowing that this all happened so long ago. I guess this is the mixed semi-beautiful blessing of what I get to do.

So, in a recent fit of insomnia, I made a Spanish conquest mixtape. Here’s a list of the songs and corresponding historical events.

  • Maritime Exploration: Another New World—Punch Brothers
  • Contact: The Island—The Decemberists 
  • European immigration: Led Zeppelin—Immigrant Song
  • African Immigration: Family Atlantica— El Negrero
  • Virgin Soil Epidemics: Idumea—Traditional
  • Mestizaje: North American Scum—LCD Soundsystem/Conquest—White Stripes
  • Hatuey: Après Moi—Regina Spektor
  • The Seige of Tenochtitlan: Death Is the Road to Awe—Clint Mansell
  • The Journey and Ordeal of Cabeza de Vaca: Wayfarin’ Stranger—Traditional
  • Cajamarca: M.I.A.—Paper Planes
  • Encomienda: Once in a Lifetime—Talking Heads
  • Missions: Gabriel’s Oboe—Ennio Morricone
  • Flight, Resistance, and Palenques: Pirate Jenny—Nina Simone
  • Potosi and worldwide inflation: C.R.E.A.M.—Wu Tang Clan
  • Looking Back: The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning…—Sufjan Stevens