The Spanish Invasion
“Let us try for a moment to imagine,” the late Ramón Iglesia wrote, “the astonishment of the inhabitants of a small island called Guanahaní one morning when they beheld three shapes out there in the water, three immense hulks, out of which issued several absurd beings who seemed human only in their eyes and movements, of light complexion, their faces covered with hair, and their bodies—if indeed they had bodies—covered with fabrics of diverse pattern and color.”1 As they had never conceived the existence of such people, we might surmise that, in 1492, the natives of the Caribbean fancied Columbus and his Spaniards had descended from the sky. The white men, on the other hand, were aware that beings of different phenotypes existed. Indeed, they had expected to find people of dark skins and black hair, and, thinking (or at least hoping) that they were in the East Indies, the Spaniards subsequently referred to the natives as Indians. Despite the natural beauty of the islands, the discoverers’ joy was restrained, for they found little sign of the precious metals, valuable spices, and other wealth they had sought, and no indication of the civilized and exotic kingdoms of the Orient they had anticipated. The Indians were swiftly relegated to the status of “others,” less worthy of respect.
Later voyages to the “New World” (or the “Indies”) dampened even the most optimistic spirits. Consequently the Caribbean Islands attracted relatively few settlers, as expeditions were financed with borrowed capital that could not easily be paid back in the absence of profitable trade goods. Columbus, who was always happier sailing about than governing waspish colonists, let administrative matters slide, thus
1. Ramón Iglesia, Columbus, Cortés and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Lesley B. Simp-
son (Berkeley, 1969), p. 8.