The voyages of Christopher Columbus transformed the Atlantic Ocean from a mysterious abyss into a pathway to the wealth of the New World. Columbus gave trinkets to natives in the Bahamas and Antilles, and he carried gold, artifacts, plants, and captive natives back to Europe, beginning an exchange of epic proportions. The ensuing traffic of people, plants, animals, raw materials, and art is well known. Not so well documented is the more enigmatic part of the Columbian exchange--the effect these early encounters had on the human imagination.
Letters, chronicles, works of fiction, and visual arts in the sixteenth century indicate that the discovery of the New World engaged the popular imagination, as images of the encounter spread rapidly via the newly developed printing press. Some of what was printed was more fantasy than fact. Artists did not accompany the earliest voyages, and many visual images of the New World during the first half of the sixteenth century reinforced existing myths or created new ones. Written descriptions also distorted, and often the Europeans saw what they wanted or expected to see.