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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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Activities: Context Activities

The Romance of Colonization

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Cortés, Montezuma and Doña Marina

[7402] Anonymous, Cortés, Montezuma and Doña Marina, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Facsimile (1890), courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bancroft Library.
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In his narrative of his third voyage to the Indies, Christopher Columbus arrived at the conclusion that the western hemisphere is not spherical, but "resembles the half of a round pear with a raised stalk . . . like a woman's nipple on a round ball." Columbus's conviction that he had found the "nipple" of the world in the West Indies is perhaps best understood as a particularly fantastic example of the convention of figuring European exploration in terms of an erotic encounter between masculine, European conquerors and the feminized land and peoples of the New World. The prevalence of gendered language in exploration narratives reveals an operative fantasy of the New World as a "virgin bride," beautiful, unspoiled, passive, and welcoming. By portraying themselves as "lovers" rather than conquerors, European explorers were able to rationalize their forceful--and often violent and brutal--conquest of American lands as an inevitable sexual consummation, desired by both parties involved. Conflating American land with its native inhabitants, this fantasy of conquest as romance relegates both land and Indians to the status of possessions, objects of value but without agency.

The complicated erotics beneath the rhetoric of colonization becomes most visible in the popular and recurring myth of the beautiful Indian maiden or princess who breaks with her own culture in order to affirm her loyalty to, and love for, a European man. One prototype of this myth is Garcilaso de la Vega's narrative of Juan Ortiz's relationship with the daughter of the Indian chief Hirrihuiga. In its celebration of a native woman's decision to disobey her father and rescue a European captive from execution at the hands of her tribe, de la Vega's narrative propounds a fantasy of Indian acceptance of white superiority and Indian willingness to give up traditional culture for European culture. Hirrihuiga's daughter's name is left unrecorded, thus highlighting her status as a generic and mythic ideal of native compliance.

John Smith's story of his rescue at the hands of Pocahontas is probably the most famous and most often retold example of the European tendency to figure conquest as romance. The fact that Pocahontas went on to marry a white man, bear his child, convert to Christianity, travel to England, and assimilate to Anglo culture makes her an ideal figure on which to build a fantasy of native assent to colonization. The story of her decision to fling her body between Smith and the Indian executioners' weapons has become a foundational national myth in the United States. Because it portrays traditional male Native American culture as cruel and barbaric--and glosses over the violence of European conquest by rendering Smith as passive and showing an Indian herself disrupting her tribe's ritual execution--the story symbolically justifies European destruction of Indian culture. The enduring cultural appeal of this national myth is attested to by the paintings and sculptures of Pocahontas that hang in the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., and the success of contemporary representations of her life, such as Disney's 1995 animated film, Pocahontas. Crucially, the idealization of romantic relationships between Indian women and their conquerors evades the historical reality that many Native American women were raped, tortured, and murdered by European invaders.

  1. Comprehension: Why did European explorers and conquerors like to portray the New World as a "virgin bride"? What was at stake in their use of this image?

  2. Context: Examine the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century illustrations of Native American youths featured in archive. How are the Indians portrayed? What kinds of physical characteristics do the artists idealize? How do these drawings participate in the mythologizing of New World inhabitants?

  3. Context: How do the cultural myths that surround La Malinche in Mexico participate in, complicate, or challenge prevalent European and European American fantasies of the romance and erotics of colonization?

  4. Exploration: The story of Pocahontas's rescue of John Smith still resonates in American culture; in 1995, Disney released a successful animated film based on this myth. Why is this story still so appealing to American audiences? How has it been reworked to reflect different values and beliefs in different periods of American culture?
[1369] Theodor de Bry, Florida Indians Planting Seeds of Beans or Maize (1591),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-3186].
This engraving shows Timucua men cultivating a field while Timucua women plant corn or beans.

[1371] Theodor de Bry, Exercises of the Youths (1591),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-37992].
This engraving shows Native American men shooting arrows, running races, and throwing balls at a target on top of a tall pole.

[1900] John White, The Manner of Their Fishing (c. 1585),
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
One of John White's drawings not taken directly from real life: he shows a dip net and spear (daytime fishing techniques) and a fire in a canoe (used to attract fish at night). White combined disparate New World fishing methods and a mix of species in this and other paintings.

[2467] Anonymous, Pocahontas [reproduction of 1616 original] (c. 1900-1920),
courtesy of the Libraryof Congress.
Pocahontas, baptized as "Rebecca" before marrying John Rolfe, is shown in her English garb. The original of this painting was by William Sheppard, dated 1616, at Barton Rectory, Norfolk, England.

[2591] Theodor de Bry, A Noblewoman of Pomeiock [Indian Woman and Young Girl] (1590),
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
This engraving shows a native woman of the Virginia town of Pomeiock carrying a clay vessel, while a child holds a rattle and a doll. The woman resembles the female figures painted by Renaissance artists like Botticelli.

[3232] John Gadsby Chapman, Baptism of Pocahontas, 1614 (c. 1837),
courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Virginia Company instructed its governors to make conversion of the native population to Christianity a prime objective. Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, head of the Powhatan Confederacy, was the most famous early convert. She was baptized in 1614.

[5245] Salvador Brquez, Dolores del Rios as Ramona (1928),
courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.
Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona failed to improve treatment of California Indians as she had hoped it would. Instead, the story's romantic depiction of California's Hispanic heritage became firmly entrenched in the mythology of the region.

[7125] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, Plate 50 (1500-99),
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
Here, the Spanish are shown looting Moctezuma's treasure house. Assembled in the 1540s by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the Florentine Codex contains a mixture of Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec peoples) and pictographic illustrations describing Aztec society and culture.

[7402] Anonymous, Cortés, Montezuma and Doña Marina, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Facsimile (1890),
courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bancroft Library.
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala employs the res gestae strategy and provides an interesting counterpoint to the Florentine Codex. Here Cortés is depicted with Montezuma and Doña Marina.

[7429] John White, The Manner of Attire and Painting Themselves, When They Goe to Their General Huntings or at Theire Solemne Feasts (c. 1585),
courtesy of The British Museum.
Portrait of an Algonquian Indian (either Secotan or Pomeiooc) from Virginia. Elite families and chiefs were elaborately decorated with paint, beads, and quills to signal their status and power. The body markings are painted for specific occasions, rather than permanently tattooed. The pose, taken from sixteenth-century European portraits, emphasizes the importance of the sitter and the occasion.

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