“The intellectual who sets out to describe another culture embarks on a task as difficult and elusive as it is fascinating. The would-be-ethnographer must make a whole series of strategic and tactical decisions, he or she must adopt an attitude toward both the society to be described and the informants who describe it, select a limited number of topics to cover since no general description of a society can ever be complete, and choose a literary form to convey the results to a public. In each of these decisions, models matter. Few writers weave whole new tapestries of their own, rather, they make quilts from ready-made ingredients. And the sixteenth-century intellectual who set out to depict the New World could find enough ingredients in the classical heritage to produce a kaleidoscopic variety of juxtapositions and compounds.”
This short (750-1000 word) essay asks you to apply critical thinking skills to one of the central tasks of any historian: the consideration of how a primary source author’s point-of-view shapes how he or she makes sense of the world.
In particular, you’ll consider how Europeans in the Age of Exploration understood themselves and the “new” world they encountered in the Americas. What beliefs did Europeans have about themselves and “others”, and how did these preconceptions shape their depictions of peoples in the New World? In the first texts and images first impressions of the Americas, what would Europeans think was notable, and what similarities and differences would they emphasize in their accounts?
The strongest projects will be focused in their analysis. They will make a clear argument about how your primary source should be interpreted (considering perspective, rhetorical intent, audience, the creator’s mindset) to make an argument about how they understood New World peoples, and what these ideas reveal about European preconceptions of others.
Approaching the project:
You may choose to analyze any one of the following primary sources:
- Columbus “Extracts from the Journal” (October 1492)
- Columbus’ “Letter to the King & Queen of Spain” (1494)
- Pedro Vaz de Caminha, “Letter to the King of Portugal” (1500)
- Martin Waldseemüller, Universalis cosmographia, (1507)
Remember, primary sources reveal as much about the lived experiences and cultural expectations of their authors as they do about the historical events they describe.
Historians always have to consider how their interpretations fit with the larger historiographical discussions about a question. I expect you to engage with an argument about how to interpret early European descriptions from at least one reputable scholarly source. The outside secondary source can be something we read for class (for example, our readings by Anthony Grafton, Marsille Meléndez, or Arnold Bauer), or you can pick another scholarly source.
Don’t just use your required scholarly source to glean names and dates for historical events. Instead, make sure that you are presenting the scholar’s central argument, and using evidence from your primary source to either agree or disagree with the larger scholarly conversation.
As always, you must correctly cite all information and include a bibliography. See my guidelines on academic integrity.
- In grading this assignment, I will consider the strength of your historical analysis of primary and secondary sources as well as your writing ability. You essay must be well organized, concise, and clearly written. I encourage all of you to take advantage of the Writing Center’s excellent feedback at any stage in the writing process.
- This assignment is worth 10% of your course grade.
- The heading on the first page should include your name, the name of our class, the title of the primary source under consideration, the date, and your word count (excluding the heading, footnotes, and works cited).
- All formal papers should be uploaded to Moodle as .pdf files before 10am on Friday, September 20.
- Essays should be 750-1000 words, double spaced, in a 12-point standard font (Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, etc.) with 1 inch margins. Stay within the word limit!
- All sources must be correctly cited using Chicago style formatting.
Note: for the digital sources, you have all the information you’ll need for citations. For the Pedro Vaz de Caminha, the excerpt comes from Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History.
 Anthony Grafton, “A Bound World: The Scholar’s Cosmos,” New Worlds, Ancient Texts (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995): 42.