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Reflections on Early Contact

The legend of America’s “discovery” by western European explorers was considered a subject of pride and an inspiration for many Americans who felt connected to what they perceived as a great and daring feat. The atrocious treatment of Indigenous peoples, and the subsequent introduction of the institution of slavery, later became important subjects for reflection. Books from all across the North Atlantic, reveal that the study and legacy of European arrival and the years thereafter is a subject grappled with and remembered across the region.

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This lionizing portrayal of Christopher Columbus was delivered in a 1792 speech in Boston that describes the man as "the instrument of enlarging the region of science and commerce, beyond any of his predecessors" and as the fulfillment of a prophecy in the Book of Daniel. Anointing Columbus as a "discoverer" of America in order to trace the American sensibility to him, however, required the overlooking of the thousands of islanders already living in the Caribbean.

Intriguingly, this pamphlet was written as part of the preface to a state-commissioned history called the Annals of Virginia. Over the course of almost three hundred pages, this volume outlines the exploratory voyages in the Indies through 1519 and the voyages to North America through 1573. It reveals how closely intertwined the story of the Caribbean and European discovery was to the early colonial settlers in North America, and how much the two regions appeared to claim the same legacy and share the same history.

Dedicated to King Louis the XVI, this nine-book poem glamorized the story and character of Christopher Columbus, describing him as the Sage, who taught mankind where future empires lay. It is relevant both for its opinions on and depictions of the "discovery" of America, as well as for its position as a very traditional form of literature produced about the Caribbean subject. 

Written by a fairly prolific British historian of the Caribbean during the early colonial period, this book by Sir Arthur Helps traces race relations and identities in the Caribbean region back to the impact of the Spanish conquest. His goal, as he writes in the preface, is to bring before the reader, not conquest only, but the results of conquestthe mode of colonial government which ultimately prevailedthe extirpation of native racesthe introduction of other racesthe growth of slaveryand the settlement of the encomiendas, on which all Indian society depended."

This biography of Bartholomew de las Casas emphasizes his role in arguing for the rights of native islanders, while also serving as a history of early Christianity in the Caribbean. Written in French but translated to English by a Dominican monk, the work emphasizes the cruelty of most settlers, especially the English, in contrast to the humanity and wisdom of the early Dominican Fathers.