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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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Activities: Author Activities

Christopher Columbus - Teaching Tips

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  • Ask your students to imagine that they have been sent to cover Columbus's landing in Guanahani from the perspective of a present-day journalist. How would a journalist striving for objectivity recount Columbus's initial encounter with the Indians? What kind of evidence could this journalist gather about how the Europeans might have appeared to the Indians? You might point out the linefrom Columbus's "Letter to Luis de Santangel" in which he declares, "I have taken possession [of the island] for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me." Ask students to think about how the Arawaks might have perceived this act. Would they have understood Columbus's proclamation (read in Spanish)? Or the significance of the banner he "unfurled"? Why might they have decided against offering any opposition?

  • Ask your students to compare Columbus's descriptions of the islands' plants, natural features, and native inhabitants in the first and second letters featured in The Norton Anthology of American Literature. While the first letter is filled with the language of wonder and insists on the fertility and diversity of natural productions, the second letter is considerably less sanguine. Rather, Columbus seems preoccupied by the political strife created by the fractious colonists and by his resentment that his explorations have not generated great personal wealth. Ask students to consider what political project each letter was intended to serve. Why might Columbus insist that "Española is a marvel" in the first letter, and then portray it as an "exhausted," unhealthy place populated by "cruel savages" in his later account?

  • One of the cartographic innovations during the Renaissance was a more "objective" mapping style that used latitudinal and longitudinal lines. Some historians have argued that this mode of visually representing landscapes and landmass corresponds to more "scientific" narrative descriptions of the natural resources and characteristics of the New World. Have your students examine some of the early European maps featured in the archive and compare their visual styles to Columbus's narrative descriptions. What does his style of description have in common with the maps? Do your students agree with the idea that Columbus was attempting to create a kind of "verbal map" for the recipients of his letters?

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