Last week, Alabama native John Allen Chau bribed fishermen to take him to the protected Andaman archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where he wished to “establish the kingdom of Jesus on the island.” In a particularly American spin on first-contact narratives, Chau brought a football to the Sentinelese, among the last pre-Neolithic tribes on Earth protected from contact. He was ultimately killed by Sentinelese armed with bows and arrows, an end that raises profound questions about “first contact” moments in history.
For centuries, colonists and conquistadors, missionaries and explorers, have demanded things of native peoples in a language and faith completely foreign to them, almost always with tragic consequences for the natives. Tales of first contact often have certain commonalities: depictions of natives as “noble savages,” lists of trinkets given to the “credulous” aborigines and a condescension that assumes a profoundly foreign people will be conversant with the intricacies of the invading culture.
First contact is the most enduring trope of the discovery narrative of travel writing. For centuries, explorers (or colonizers) have penned their initial interactions with the indigenous people who are always configured as part of the environment more than humans in their own right. The most famous example happened when Columbus arrived among the Caribbean Arawak. In his “Journal of the First Voyage,” Columbus (with his own interest in mind) wrote that the Arawak were “very friendly to us” and he “perceived that they could be … easily converted to our holy faith.” He claimed that the natives were “much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us.”
But this “translation” of the Arawak language reflects the cultural context and language of Columbus’s own medieval Catholic imagination, not how the Arawak actually saw the Spanish. Columbus described the Caribbean as an unspoiled paradise — an Eden. The English Protestant colonists in what would become the United States deployed similar language, not just comparing the New World to an Eden, but configuring themselves as the new gods of this paradise. In his 1590 “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia,” Thomas Harriot wrote that the Algonquin who approached the settlers of the Roanoke Colony felt the goods of the English “were rather the works of gods than men.” As with Columbus, we have no sense of what the Algonquin may have actually thought. [Continue reading…]