History Essay

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Is this debate between John Smith and Powhatan an English version of the old “Barbarian” discourse we analyzed via the Cortes and Las Casas letters? Or is there something else going on here?

Biographically, Smith had a lot in common with Cortes, and like Cortes, he was describing an exotic, formerly unknown people to a European audience. How does his description compare to Cortes’?

  • When Smith labels the indigenous peoples “savage,” how does it compare to the “barbarian” label used by Cortes?

Consider Smith’s evaluation of indigenous land use (“they make such small benefit of their lands, be it never so fertile”) alongside Cortes’ response to Aztec religious practice (“if there were…persons who could make them understand the truth of the Faith…many would shortly quit the errors which they hold”). Protestant Englishmen ca. 1600 believed they were more enlightened than the ‘primitive’ Spanish Catholics who butchered Indians in the name of religion, but nonetheless followed the Spanish into the game of American empire-building.

  • Smith seems to be using some different evidence, but how is his intended message/argument similar to that conveyed by Cortes’ letter?

Compare the counter-perspectives (Las Casas vs. Powhatan): How does Powhatan describe Smith and his people? How does Powhatan’s description of the English compare to Las Casas‘ description of the Spanish in Hispaniola? How do the natives of Virginia compare to the natives of Hispaniola?

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