Happy Fourth of July! Native American Netroots provides some perspective on the meaning of ‘America’:
America was named on April 25, 1507 after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci made at least two voyages across the Atlantic… [the] first voyage was in 1499 when he sailed with Alonso de Hojeda.
While Columbus might be characterized as a religious fanatic who could hardly speak or write without invoking the Christian God and dwelling fervently on his personal relationship with this God, Vespucci almost never referred to God. Religion was never very high on the scale of values to which Vespucci had been exposed. While he undoubtedly learned a little about the Christian God as a child, he seems to have forgotten all of this by the time he was an adult.
Unlike Columbus, Vespucci never waged war on the natives, nor did he found any colonies. He never commanded a fleet or even led an expedition. Like Columbus, however, he was deeply mired in the slave trade and profited from it.
Under Spanish law, slavery was viewed as unnatural which meant that only people who had forfeited their human rights through unnatural acts such as sodomy, incest, or cannibalism could be enslaved. Columbus, Vespucci, and other early Europeans quickly learned that there was no fast and easy wealth to be gained from the Americas, except for slavery. Thus it was important for them to describe the people of the area as engaging in unnatural acts so that they could then be enslaved, transported to Europe, and sold at a good profit.
All of the early European explorers, including Vespucci, were amazed by the people they encountered. First, they were shocked by the nudity, or what they perceived as nudity. In addition, the people seemed to have no shame in exposing genitalia and female breasts. This raised important Christian theological issues: if these people were exempt from original sin, then were they really human? If they were human, if they had souls, then their lack of shame at their nudity challenged the idea of original sin, an idea upon which much of Christian morality had been based.
Since they had no laws, and thus no knowledge of “natural law,” this meant that they could be slaves. From the European perspective, the natives lived according to nature in the manner of wild animals. The Europeans “knew” that rational people enjoyed the right of lordship over them by divine license.
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