Maid to Order:
Columbus' "Cannibal Girl" and the Captivity Narrative

The Discovery of America, Jan van der Straet, 1575

Captivated: the other discovery

The 17th century Europeans who colonized the 'New World' carried an idea of the 'Indians' that strongly informed their perceptions upon contact. In large part these views were formed by the writings of the early explorers. Thus, the first and in many ways most paradigmatic 'real' descriptions of the new land and its peoples comes to us in the mail as letters from Columbus. In a letter dated October 12, 1492 he writes: order that they might develop a very friendly disposition towards us, because I knew that they were a people who could better be freed and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force, gave to them some red caps and to others glass beads, which they hung about their necks, and many other things of slight value, in which they took much pleasure.


They all go quite naked as their mothers bore them; and also the women, although I didn't see more than one really young girl. All that I saw were young men, none of them more than 30 years old, very well built, of very handsome bodies and very fine faces... They ought to be good servants and of good skill, for I see that they repeat very quickly whatever is said to them
From these docile 'servants' we quickly move to the more hostile Caribs--depicted here as the infamous "Cannibals." What follows is a portion of an account given not by Columbus himself , but by his aristocratic shipmate Michele de Cuneo, who provides a particularly intense and paradigm forming account of a meeting of bodies, if not of minds. In a letter from The Second Voyage, October 28, 1495 he describes how he and his men have just attacked a small party of Caribs, and one of the Spaniards has been shot with an arrow...(emphasis mine)
We captured this canoe with all the men. One cannibal was wounded by a lance blow and thinking him dead we left him in the sea. Suddenly we saw him begin to swim away; therefore we caught him and with a long hook pulled him aboard where we cut off his head with an axe. We sent the other Cannibals together with the two slaves to Spain. When I was in the boat, I took a beautiful Cannibal girl and the admiral gave her to me. Having her in my room and she being naked as is their custom, I began to want to amuse myself with her. Since I wanted to have my way with her and she was not willing, she worked me over so badly with her nails that I wished I had never begun. To get to the end of the story, seeing how things were going, I got a rope and tied her up so tightly that she made unheard of cries which you wouldn't have believed. At the end, we got along so well that, let me tell you, it seemed she had studied at a school for whores. The admiral named the cape on that island the cape of the Arrow for the man who was killed by the arrow.

This account of abduction and rape is of particular interest in regards to the Pocahontas myth. For one, it represents the earliest example of captivity-tale, yet one opposite what would become a familiar North-American genre. In the latter, the White woman recounted a story in which she was captured by the heathen Indians, but through her faith in God was restored to Colonial society, while the Indians received the divinely mandated and humanly enforced punishment. Critics such as Richard Slotkin have called this genre representative of the North American mode of contact with the Indians. We can only assume that de Cuneo thought he was acting under divine mandate as well--though he shows less interest in converting his 'maiden' to his captain's (Columbus) "Holy Faith" than transform her into an object of his pleasure.

In the same letter we see the Indian woman occupy a point in a "Sedwickian triangle"-- a construction that Susan Fraiman describes as a geometry in which the woman "foster[ed] a positive conjunction between men- -in bringing them together as affines, political allies, economic partners and, in Sedgewick's formula, cohorts of a 'potentially erotic' kind."

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, THE ABDUCTION OF POCAHONTAS, 1910

The "Cannibal girl" completes this triangular relationship, as an erotically charged gift from the from one man to another. Pocahontas, too, was abducted and treated as a coin of trade, though by the time she was freed in the care of John Rolfe her goods had been damaged in another manner. She had accepted "Holy Faith" , and thus was propelled away from 'whoredom' to 'sainthood'.

Male Captives: From Cabeza de Vaca to Smith

Of course, women were not the only ones taken captive, though the male captive often plays a different role than his female counterpart. The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca , published in 1542, presents the first male captivity narrative from the 'New World'. Cabeza de Vaca journeyed to Florida as a conquistador, though he and his army of 300+ men were quickly reduced to a lost and starving party of four, who wandered for eight years before being restored to Europe. Captured by Apalachees, they survived by playing the role of 'healer' that the Indians expected and required them to play. Their resistance to playing shaman, like de Cuneo's captive's resistance to playing whore, proved futile. Besides, they gained a relatively privileged position, despite their constant hunger. They dwelt amongst the Indians, living "naked like them," half starving on rations of "not more than two handfuls of prickly pear" though always sustaining themselves on the "solace and relief" of Jesus Christ.

Smith in turn replays the role of male captive, in that he requires the Indian maiden as his "savior" though he too will give his thanks to the Christian God. What follows is his famous account of his 'rescue' by Pocahontas after his capture by her uncle Opechancanough. Whether or not the Powhatans ever intended to kill Smith, merely test his 'manhood' or induct him into the tribe has been debated--though many are inclined to take Smith's word. From his Generall Historie of 1624:
having feasted him in their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains. Pocahontas, the kings dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head into her arms and laid her own upon him to save him from death, whereat the Emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells beads and copper, for they thought him as well of all occupations as themselves.


He's saved when "almighty God (by his divine providence) had mollified the hearts of those stern barbarians with compassion."

Pocahontas' action has become the most popular and enduring part of her whole story, for its 'proof' of her pre-Christian virtue, for the implications of a nubile young women throwing herself upon the doomed soldier, (for the both erotic and romantic implications of this action), and for the implications of divinity acting on behalf of the colonists, a divinity that Pocahontas was lucky enough to realize.

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