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A Myth Rejected: The Nobel Savage in Dominican Dystopia*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

Hilaire Kallendorf
affliated to the Department of Modern & Classical Languages at Texas A & M University.


This interdisciplinary study approximates the Columbian interpretation of the Taí nos – filtered and re-interpreted by the Dominican people, through their museums. Cultural phenomena such as vomitic spatulas, ‘talking’ idols, hallucinogens, infant cranial deformation, dances, nudity, sexual customs, punishments, and live burial produced Columbus's tendency to denounce the Taínos in his writings. These texts are displayed in the Museo del Hombre Dominicano side-by-side with anthropological exhibitions. Together, these texts and artifacts become purveyors of an ideology, one which Dominicans use to challenge the Eurocentric, romanticising, Noble Savage approach propagated during the Quincentennial.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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1 Checo, José Chez [lyrics] and Pequero, José Delmonte [music], ‘Himno del Quinto Centenario’ (Santo Domingo: Primada de Las Américas, 1990)Google Scholar.

2 The word ‘European’ will be used here to denote all non-Dominicans. The label does, of course, imply an ideology. Many scholars writing about the Fifth Centennial have contrasted ‘outsider academic perspectives with the insider academic and cultural perspectives of First Nations’ ((Ames, Michael M., ‘Cultural Empowerment and Museums: Opening Up Anthropology Through Collaboration’, in Pearce, Susan(ed.), Objects of Knowledge (London, 1990), p. 161)Google Scholar. Some Americans who write within ‘European’ paradigms should thus be understood to fall into this category of ‘outsiders’.

3 Sherman, Daniel J. and Rogoff, Irit(eds.), Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles (Minneapolis, 1994), p. xiiGoogle Scholar.

4 Lavine, Steven D., ‘Art Museums, National Identity, and the Status of Minority Cultures: The Case of Hispanic Art in the United States’, in Karp, Ivan and Lavine, Steven D.(eds.), Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (Washington, 1991), p. 83Google Scholar.

5 For one interpretation of Columbus's Utopian vision, see Arrom, José Juan, La otra hazaña de Colón (Santo Domingo, 1979), p. 15Google Scholar.

6 Sergio Buarque de Holanda explains the magnitude of the paradisiacal delirium of Christopher Columbus: ‘Colón no estaba tan lejos de ciertas concepciones corrientes en la Edad Media acerca de la realidad física del Edén, como para descreer de su existencia en algún lugar del globo. Y nada le quitaba su idea, verdaderamente obsesiva en sus escritos, de que las nuevas Indias, adonde lo había guiado la mano de la Providencia, estaban situadas al borde del Paraíso Terrenal. Si al llegar a Paria manifiesta con mayor fuerza esa idea, el hecho es que mucho antes, desde el comienzo de sus viajes de descubrimiento, el tópico de las ‘visiones del paraíso’ impregna todas sus descripciones de esos parajes de magia y leyenda’ (Visión del Paraíso: Motivos edénicos en el descubrimiento y colonización del Brasil (Caracas, 1987), p. 42)Google Scholar.

7 With regard to the Columbian inspiration of the Utopian myths of the New World, José Juan Arrom declares that ‘Colón no fue solamente el descubridor del camino hacia América: fue también el inventor de la América mítica…. inventa la América mítica e infunde sentido utópico a nuestro destino’, La otra hazaña de Colón, pp. 19 and 34.

8 Barreiro, reports, ‘Traditional Indians watching the topical thrust of the official Quincentenary celebrations have wondered if indeed anything has changed in the Eurocentric concept of world and society’ ‘View from the Shore: Toward an Indian Voice in 1992’, in View from the Shore: American Indian Perspectives on the Quincentenary (Ithaca, 1990), pp. 5 and 11Google Scholar. I too was surprised at the high level of knowledge about the Taínos among educated Dominicans I interviewed. Taíno history is part of Dominican children's education, to the extent that many adults with whom I spoke still knew specific names of Taíno caciques. Barreiro also reports ‘currently a substantial Indianist identity movement in Santo Domingo’ (p. 78), whose population sustains a 17 percent contribution from ‘Indian’ blood.

9 Steven D. Lavine and Ivan Karp, ‘Introduction: Museums and Multiculturalism’, in Ivan Karp et al., Exhibiting Cultures, p. 1.

10 Perin, Constance, ‘The Communicative Circle: Museums as Communities’, in Karp, Ivan, Kreamer, Christine Mullen, and Lavine, Steven D. (eds.), Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture (Washington, 1992), p. 214Google Scholar.

11 Kaplan, Flora E. S. (ed.), Museums and the Making of ‘Ourselves’: The Role of Objects in National Identity (New York, 1994), pp. 1 and 3Google Scholar.

12 Christine Mullen Kreamer, ‘Defining Communities Through Exhibiting and Collecting’, in Karp et al., Museums and Communities p. 373.

13 There is much confusion about the specific territories of certain tribes and even more controversy concerning the ethnological distinctions of certain indigenous races. This question is irrelevant to this article, however, because for the purposes of the present discussion, the significant issue is how the Dominicans themselves choose to refer to their cultural ancestors. For helpful background, see: Taviani, Paolo Emilio, Los viajes de Colón: El gran descubrimiento, vol. 1 (Novara, Italy, 1989), pp. 54–5Google Scholar; Pons, Frank Moya, La sociedad taina (Santo Domingo, 1973)Google Scholar; Rouse, Irving, The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus (New Haven, 1992), p. 5Google Scholar; Demorizi, Emilio Rodríguez, Colón en La Española: Itinerario y bibliografía (Santo Domingo, 1984)Google Scholar.

14 Lewis, G. K., The Growth of the Modern West Indies (New York, 1968), p. 30Google Scholar.

15 Deive, Carlos Esteban (ed.), Cristóbal Colón: Diario de navegación y otros escritos, Biblioteca de clásicos dominicanos, vol. 1 (Santo Domingo, 1988), p. 180Google Scholar. This is the text I utilise in this study, except where otherwise noted, for references to the fundamental ‘Columbian’ works. I have also consulted, among others, the edition of Varela, Consuelo, Cristóbal Colón, textos y documentos completos (Madrid, 1984)Google Scholar.

16 Stevens-Arroyo, Antonio M., Cave of the jagua: The Mythological World of the Taínos (Albuquerque, 1988), pp. x–xiGoogle Scholar

17 Rouse, The Tainos, p. 5.

18 ‘Juzgé el Almirante que devía de ser de los caribes que comen los hombres’ (Deive (ed.), Cristóbal Colón: Diario de navegación y otros escritos, p. 201).

19 Hulme, P. and Whitehead, N., Wild Majesty: Encounters with Caribs from Columbus to the Present Day (Oxford, 1992), p. 3Google Scholar. It is fascinating to note, however, that Dominican ethnographers still adhere to the traditional assumption of Carib cannibalism, perhaps out of partisan indignation toward the perceived injustices suffered by the Taínos.

20 ‘“Are These Not Also Men?”: The Indians' Humanity and Capacity for Spanish Civilisation’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 25, no. 3 (1993), p. 633.

21 Deive (ed.), Cristóbal Colón, pp. 167ndash;8.

22 ‘El Almirante, como los otros exploradores o conquistadores, mandaba, en la medida de lo posible, vestir al indígena desnudo.… el andar vestido no dejaba de ser una muestra de civilización’ (Milhou, Alain, Colón y su mentalidad mesiánica en el ambiente franciscanista español, Cuadernos Colombinos No. 11 (Valladolid, 1983), pp. 108–9)Google Scholar.

23 Before matrimony both sexes ‘tenían experiencias sexuales intensas’ because ‘la castidad no era rigurosa, considerándose como importante la experiencía sexual’ (Maggiolo, Marcio Veloz, Arqueologóa prehistórica de Santo Domingo (Singapore, 1972), p. 237)Google Scholar.

24 Deive (ed.), Cristóbal Colón, p. 325.

25 Colón, Fernando, Historia del Almirante Don Cristóbal Colón, Colección de libros raros y curiosos que tratan de América, vol. II (Madrid, 1932), p. 31Google Scholar. The son of Columbus utilised his father's papers (now lost) when he wrote his biography and many times cited the exact words of the Admiral, introducing them with the sentence ‘Cito aquf las mismas palabras del Almirante…’.

26 Relación acerca de las antigüdades de los indios (Santo Domingo, 1988), p. 46. Columbus commissioned the friar to write this report in 1493.

27 ‘El hecho de que los indios empleasen el vomitivo antes de entrar al templo…es explicable al contemplar los efectos de indigestión e irritación de las mucosas provocados por los elementos tóxicos de las drogas alucinógenas de la cohoba que eran inhaladas durante la ceremonia. De esa manera, vaciando el estómago de todo lo ingerido, evitaban vomitar dentro del recinto o delante de la divinidad y se acentuaba el estado psicopatológico del practicante.’ Arévalo, Manuel Antonio García and Baik, Luis Chanlatte, Las espátulas vómicas sonajeras de la cultura taína (Santo Domingo, 1976), p. 15Google Scholar, emphasis added.

28 The indigenous objects, ‘muchos de los cuales estaban enriquecidos con adornos de oro’ (and for this reason coveted by Columbus), were the result of the ‘intercambio con los indios, del tributo que se les impuso y de la expropiación de los bienes de los rebeldes’. Alegría, Ricardo E., Cristóbal Colóny el tesoro de los indios taínos de La Española (Santo Domingo, 1980), pp. 34 and 15Google Scholar.

29 George F. MacDonald, ‘Change and Challenge: Museums in the Information Society’, in Karp et al., Museums and Communities p. 162.

30 Fernando Colón, Historia del Almirante Don Cristóbal Colón, vol. 11, pp. 31–2. Historians affirm that this type of deception did exist in the Taíno culture: ‘El cacique…cómodamente instalado en una habitación vecina, haciía pasar sus palabras de su boca a la del ídolo por medio de un tubo.… aquellos caciques…así acostumbraban a hablar en nombre de Dios’, Madariaga, Salvador de, Vida del muy magnifico señor Don Cristóbal Colón (Buenos Aires, 1940), p. 445Google Scholar. The instrument that the tribal leaders used was ‘una especie de portavoz – cuyo uso era secreto – dispuesto para proferir oráculos’, Taviani, Los viajes de Colón, vol. 1, p. 54.

31 Fernando Colón, Historia del Almirante Don Cristóbal Colón, vol. 11, p. 31.

32 Deive (ed.), Cristóbal Colón, p. 186.

33 Ibid., p. 339.

34 This document is not included in the volume by Deive (ed.), Cristóbal Colón: Diario de navegación y otros escritos. For this reason I refer to the version of the Instructions included in the volume of Navarrete, Martín Fernández de, Colección de los viajes y descubrimientos que hicieron por mar los españoles (Madrid, 1825)Google Scholar.

35 Deive (ed.), Cristóbal Colón, p. 342. This passage refers to the indigenous peoples whom Irving Rouse calls the Western Taínos, who lived in Santa Gloria, Jamaica.

36 Ibid., p. 167.

37 Ibid., pp. 175–7.

38 Ibid., p. 177–8.

39 Ibid., p. 181.

40 Ibid., p. 184.

41 Ibid., pp. 184–5.

42 Ibid., pp. 233–5.

43 Zamora, M., Reading Columbus (Berkeley, 1993), p. 6Google Scholar.

44 Consuelo Varela comments on this mystery: ‘El hecho de que escasen los originales de un hombre tan amigo de la pluma como Colón nos hace desconfiar automáticamente de los apógrafos … [Hay] una cuestión … grave: que se haya alterado sustancialmente el texto original de los Diarios, de los cuales – extraña casualidad – ni siquiera nos ha llegado una mala copia’ (‘La fiabilidad de las copias’, in the Introduction to Cristóbal Colón, textos y documentos completes, p. xvi). Regarding the textual alterations that occurred in the complex process of the transmission of the Diary, see Henige, David, In Search of Columbus: The Sources for the First Voyage (Tucson, 1991)Google Scholar.

45 In place of an exact copy of the Diary, now ‘el texto que parece de mayor créito es el de fray Bartolomé, aunque nadie, según nuestro conocimiento, lo cotejó con el original’. (Montero, Homero Martinez, ‘12 de octubre’, in La epopeya del descubrimiento (Washington, 1971), p. S–12.)Google Scholar

46 Emiliano Jos expresses his suspicion that these changes did occur: ‘[E]n la cuestión de los indios, sobre la cual polarizo tan nerviosamente su vida…es de temer que Las Casas omitiese en su extracto datos interesantes…’ (El plan y la genesis del descubrimiento colombino, Cuadernos Colombinos No. 9 (Valladolid, 1979–80), p. 119). See also Gerbi, Antonello, La naturakza de las Indias Nuevas: De Cristobal Colon a Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (Mexico, D. F., 1978), p. 28Google Scholar. The reputation of Las Casas, the Defender of the Indians, as a propagandist is recognised by the Dominicans, especially because they remember ‘el agitado período comprendido entre 1531 y 1551, durante el cual Las Casas desplego su prodigiosa actividad en su campana en defensa de los indios’. O'Gorman, Edmundo, ‘La apologética historia, su génesis y elaboración; su estructura y su sentido’, preliminary study to Apologética historia sumaria of Bartolomé de las Casas (Mexico, D. F., 1967)Google Scholar. Las Casas's writings comprise a powerful arsenal against the proposal that the indigenous peoples were not born with souls: ‘Ya como testigo ocular, durante sus treinta y tantos años pasados en las Indias, había podido observar en demasiadas ocasiones el comportamiento inhumano de los españoles y los crueles padecimientos de los naturales. A esta dolorosa experiencia personal se añadfan los relatos escritos u orales que pudo también recoger de varias panes’, Saint-Lu, André, ‘La Brevi'sima relatión en el contexto del combate lascasiano’, introduction to Brevi'sima relatión de la destruitión de las Indias of Bartolomé de las Casas (Madrid, 1982)Google Scholar. Specialists affirm time and again that there is definitive evidence that Las Casas made changes in the Diary of Columbus. See Mignolo, Walter, ‘Cartas, cronicas y relaciones del descubrimiento y la conquista’, Historia de la literatura hispanoamericana, vol. I, ‘Época colonial’ (Madrid, 1982), pp. 60–1Google Scholar. Las Casas admitted that he engaged in interventionist editorial techniques when he declared his purpose of writing about ‘lo que tocare a las eclesiásticas, entreponiendo a veces, aclara, algunos morales apuntamientos’ (Carlo, Agustín Millares (ed.), Historia de las Indias vol. 1 (Mexico, D. F., 1951), p. 22)Google Scholar.

47 Milhou, Colón y su mentalidad mesiánica, p. 105.

48 This fact has been noted by Ramos, Demetrio, who explains the origin of the Letter: ‘sólo cabe atribuirla al genio político de don Fernando, de quien sabemos su enorme capacidad para lograr salidas de situaciones serias y graves… las diferencias de apreciación en una serie de detalles impiden que fuera Colón quien la escribiera’ (La primera notitia de América, Cuadernos Colombinos No. 14 (Valladolid, 1986), pp. 8–6)Google Scholar.

49 Reading Columbus, pp. 11 and 13.

50 Ibid., p. 11. Zamora explains this propaganda victory with the fact that ‘[w]ithin a few months of Columbus's return, the letter (the only Columbian text to be published in his lifetime) appeared in Spanish, Italian, Latin, and in Italian verse. A manuscript copy in Santángel's hand is preserved in the Archivo General de Simancas. None of these versions are identical…The letter was published in Rome, Florence, Barcelona, Basel, Paris, and Amsterdam’ (Reading Columbus, pp. 5 and 201). Another version of the Carta a Santangel has been discovered and published with the title Carta a los Reyes by Armas, Antonio Rumeu de (Libro copiador de Cristóbal Colón: Correspondencia inedita con los Reyes Católicos sobre los viajes a América, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1989))Google Scholar. This new version comes from a manuscript which is a copy (without signature or date) of another copy of a version of the Letter. Now it is believed that this manuscript was produced some 150 years after the Discovery. Zamora discusses the historical consequences of the campaign to establish the official version of the Letter: ‘The unprecedented blanketing of Europe with copies and translations of… [this] version of the announcement all but ensured that it would be the one transmitted to posterity. A sobering reminder that acts of reading, like storms at sea and other acts of God or Fate, have the power to erase – and to rewrite – the text of history’ (Reading Columbus, p. 20).

51 The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (New York, 1990), p. 200. Sale insists that ‘Noble Savage…was the image predominantly conveyed in the Santangel Letter of 149 3, easily the most widely read…of any of Colón's works in Europe’ (The Conquest of Paradise, p. 197).

52 (New York, 1928), p. 10.

53 ‘A Note on the Tainos’, in Yewell, John et al. . (ed.), Confronting Columbus: An Anthology (Jefferson, North Carolina, 1992), p. 38)Google Scholar. Barreiro has repeated and amplified this inaccurate assumption in ‘A Note on Tainos: Whither Progress?’ in View from the Shore: American Indian Perspectives on the Quincentenary (Ithaca, 1990): ‘from most accounts the Tainos were good. …Among the Taino at the time of contact, by all accounts, generosity and kindness were dominant values’ (p. 66, emphasis added). He clearly has not read al the accounts. He goes on to misrepresent the facts: ‘There was little or no quarreling observed among the Tainos by the Spaniards’ (p. 71). The falsehood of this statement is evident when we consider that Columbus wrote about the Tainos' theft of idols from one another.

54 Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago, 1991), p. 76.

55 Bushman, Claudia L., America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero (Hanover, 1992), p. 82Google Scholar; Grafton, Anthony, New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), p. 82Google Scholar.

56 La otra America (Madrid, 1974), p. 37.

57 Indigenismo, arqueologia e identidad nacional (Santo Domingo, 1988) p. 38.

58 Reading Columbus, p. 172.

59 La otra America, p. 38.

60 Frank Moya Pons, La sociedad taína, p. 12.

61 Stannard, David E., American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (Oxford, 1992), 161Google Scholar. After the conquest, a Spanish royal law was enacted forbidding the practice of bathing often.

62 Moya, Casimiro N. de explains that for the Spaniards, the ‘aborígene… [c]onceptuábase indolente e inclinado al ocio, a la vagancia y a los placeres’ (Bosquejo histórico del descubrimiento y conquista de la isla de Santo Domingo (Santo Domingo, 1976), 1314)Google Scholar.

63 García Arévalo explains the manner of practising this custom, which consisted in subjecting ‘con bandas de algodón dos tablillas de palma, una en el frontal y otra en el occipital, con lo cual lograban que la frente luciera más ancha’. Arévalo, Manuel Antonio García, ‘La conquista del Mar Caribe’, in Arqueología taína (Santo Domingo, 1983)Google Scholar.

64 Bitterli, Urs, Los ‘salvajes’ y los ‘civilizados’: El encuentro de Europa y Ultramar (Mexico, D. F., 1981), 99Google Scholar.

65 Lovén, Sven, Origins of the Tainan Culture, West Indies, (Göteborg, 1935), 498Google Scholar.

66 Moya Pons affirms that the men became inebriated because ‘durante el baile se repartían unos brebajes que embriagaban a los danzantes hasta tumbarlos al suelo’ (La sociedad taína p. 20).

67 Oviedo, Gonzalo Fernández de, Historia general y natural de las Indias islas e tierra firme del mar oceano, vol. 1 (Madrid, 1851), 127Google Scholar.

68 Ivan Karp, ‘Introduction: Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture’, in Karp et al., Museums and Communities, p. 15.

69 Haacke, Hans, Unfinished Business (Cambridge, Mass., 1987)Google Scholar. Brian Wallis, in ‘Selling Nations: International Exhibitions and Cultural Diplomacy’, in Sherman et al., Museum Culture, provides a provocative discussion of emblems or icons as ‘propagandistic deployments’ in the ‘manufactured’ or ‘invented nature of nationality’ (p. 265): ‘Through the engineered overproduction of certain types of images or the censorship and suppression of others, and through controlling the way images are viewed or by determining which are preserved, cultural representations can also be used to produce a certain view of a nation's history’ (p. 266). He argues that although museums claim to provide disinterested scholarship, the ways in which they articulate the discourse of nationality can ‘narrow our view of a country to a benign, if exotic, fairy tale’ (p. 279).

70 Spencer R. Crew and James E. Sims, ‘Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue’, in Karp et al., Exhibiting Cultures, p. 163.

71 Ivan Karp, ‘On Civil Society and Social Identity’, in Karp et al., Museums and Communities, p. 22. Museum practitioners everywhere are being ‘asked to rethink their missions, ethics, roles and responsibilities’ (Kaplan, Museums and the Making of ‘Ourselves’, p. 6).

72 Pearce, Susan, ‘Objects as Meaning; Or Narrating the Past’, in Pearce, Susan (ed.), Objects of Knowledge (London, 1990), 138Google Scholar. As long as information involves formation, the ‘intellectual space between object and label’ will be contested terrain. See Michael Baxandall, ‘Exhibiting Intention: Some Preconditions of the Visual Display of Culturally Purposeful Objects’, in Karp et al., Exhibiting Cultures, pp. 37–8.

73 Sherman et al., Museum Culture, p. xi.

74 América en Europa (Buenos Aires, 1975), p. 37.

75 Ivan Karp, ‘Other Cultures in Museum Perspective’, in Karp et al., Exhibiting Cultures, p. 378.

76 Carol Duncan, ‘Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship’, in Karp et al., Exhibiting Cultures, p. 89. Said, Edward has advocated recently the ‘reestablishment of a national cultural heritage… in the reimagining and refiguring of local histories’ (‘Figures, Configurations, Transfigurations’, in Cox, Jeffrey N. and Reynolds, Larry J. (eds.), New Historical Literary Study: Essays on Reproducing Texts Representing History, (Princeton, 1993), p. 316)Google Scholar.

77 Nettleford, R, ‘Cultural Identity’, 4th Conference of Commonwealth Arts Administrators (Barbados, 04 25, 1988)Google Scholar. Quoted in Alissandra Cummins, ‘The “Caribbeanization” of the West Indies: The Museum's Role in the Development of National Identity’, in Kaplan (ed.), Museums and the Making of ‘Ourselves’, p. 217. See also Honour, HughThe New Golden Land: European Images of America from the Discoveries to the Present Time (New York, 1975)Google Scholar.

78 Adrienne L. Kaeppler, ‘Ali'i and Maka'ainana: The Representation of Hawaiians in Museums at Home and Abroad’, in Karp et al., Museums and Communities, pp. 460 and 465.

79 Ibid., pp. 472 and 467.

80 Cummins, ‘The “Caribbeanization” of the West Indies’, p. 218.

81 Kaplan, Museums and the Making of ‘Ourselves’, p. 10.