Inventing the Caribbean: Columbus’s Creation of the Other

Powerful Essays
Inventing the Caribbean: Columbus’s Creation of the Other

Columbus’s invasion of the Caribbean in 1492 brought Native American and European cultures together for the first time in a startling encounter that reshaped the worldviews of both groups. In The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, Tzvetan Todorov seeks to understand the ways in which the Spanish worldview shaped Columbus’s perception of the natives of Hispaniola, as he fashioned an other from his own sense of self. In Todorov’s model, the other is defined in terms of its correspondence, or lack thereof, to different facets of the self, including culture, language, physiognomy, religion, and knowledge; furthermore, the other is valued, distanced, and understood in relation to the presumed supremacy of the self. In this way, the other can only be seen as an “imperfect state of oneself” and never as a distinct entity judged according to its own values and defined on its own terms (Todorov 42). Todorov explores Columbus’s letters and journals, various first-hand accounts of the discovery, and the writings of Las Casas in order to understand the ways in which the distinct self of the native population was transformed into an other, whose identity depended on European values to define it.

Todorov argues that Columbus’s self (and, consequently, the other, which he created in the image of that self) is defined by three spheres: the divine, nature, and humans. Each of these spheres is integral to Columbus’s worldview and colors his perception of that which is outside his world. Within these spheres of perspective, Columbus’s identity is shaped by Catholicism, a reverence for nature, and European society and culture – particularly that of Portu...

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...her and reveals the complex process of suppression and projection, which attempted to impose the “Old World” view on the “New World” in the sixteenth century Caribbean.


1. Columbus, Christopher. The Journal of Christopher Columbus. New York: Burt Franklin, 1968.

2. Knight, Franklin W. The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Pres, 1990.

3. Sider, Gerald. “When Parrots Learn to Talk, and Why They Can’t: Domination, Deception, and Self-Deception in Indian-White Relations.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 29, no.1 (1987), 3-23.

4. Steward, Julian H. and Louis C. Faron. Native Peoples of South America. New York: McGraw Hill, 1959.

5. Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1984.