'Many expert narrators'1: History and fiction in the Spanish chronicles of the New World
B.W. Ife, R.T.C. Goodwin

Michael McKeon has drawn attention to a central characteristic of the theory of the novel, namely 'the premise that the novel, the quintessentially modern genre, is deeply intertwined with the historicity of the modern period, of modernity itself.'2 But the modernity of the novel does not emerge at a particular place or point in time. The papers presented at this conference have underlined the differential rate at which modernity can be shown to have emerged across and beyond western Europe over a period of at least three centuries.3 This paper focuses on a key moment in the evolution of western consciousness, one with a particular significance for the origins of the novel in Spain: the 'discovery' of America and the subsequent growth of writing about America in Spain and abroad. If we were looking for a single event which shifted western consciousness irreversibly towards the modern, that event would undoubtedly be the encounter of 1492 and its aftermath. In this paper, and in the broader project which underlies it, we ask how that shift in consciousness was conceived and communicated in the language of fiction.

The Spanish contribution to the rise of the novel is rarely considered to extend beyond the work of Cervantes. But the role of pioneer or precursor into which Cervantes has invariably been cast contradicts what we know of Spanish literary history in the early modern period. For hispanists, Cervantes has always marked the culmination of over a century of experiment in prose fiction which began in the early 1490s, and embraced a wide range of genres, not just the sentimental and the chivalric. There were pastoral novels and picaresque, revivals of Greek romance, novels set on the boundaries of Christianity and Islam, short stories in the Italian and oriental modes, wisdom narratives, prose satires, humanistic dialogues, and so on. At least one major example of each of the genres which made up the warp and weft of Cervantes's fiction around 1600 had been published in Spain by the accession of Philip II in 1556, and in the case of the most popular genres, many tens of titles were published, in scores of editions, before Don Quijote ever saw the light of day.

For a long time it has been unacceptable, in English, to call some of these fictional types and genres 'novels'. Spaniards have cheerfully used the term novela to refer to long and short fiction in both realist and escapist modes ever since the sixteenth century; but none of the works that influenced Cervantes look very much like the classic realist novel described by Ian Watt.4 Nevertheless, Spanish prose fiction from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries represents a very early flowering of the novel by comparison with other European countries, particularly England, and it is reasonable to ask why.5

There are a number of necessary conditions for the production of vernacular prose fiction which were met in early modern Spain: the codification of Castilian by Nebrija in 1492, and the systematic use of Castilian by the Catholic monarchs to build a unified culture within the peninsula; a burgeoning printing industry; a growing education system capable of producing a literate community; and a wealthy elite, in which women figured prominently, with the money to buy books and the leisure to read them. But Spain was not alone in being able to meet these conditions. Other European countries codified and promoted the vernacular, established schools and universities, set up printing houses, and bought and read books for pleasure.

But there are two factors which might qualify as sufficient conditions for the early growth of the novel in Spain: one is religion and the other is the possession of an overseas empire. Again, Spain was not the only Catholic country in Europe, although a detailed comparison of Catholic and Protestant print cultures in Spain and England would undoubtedly help to explain the differential rates of growth, and the contrasting roles and status, of vernacular prose fiction in northern and southern Europe.6 As far as America was concerned, however, Spain and Portugal probably were exceptional, at least for the late fifteenth century and most of the sixteenth. It is true that other countries, not least England, had overseas possessions, but there was a marked difference in the rate and extent with which the colonies were settled. Nearly a century separates the earliest Spanish colonies in the Caribbean from the first English settlement at Roanoke in 1587; more than a century if we compare the founding of Isabela in 1493, or even Santo Domingo in 1496, with that of Jamestown in 1607.

More important for our purpose is the fact that America had a much greater impact on the Spanish imagination, much earlier, than it seems to have done in England. This is partly a function of chronology: the first account of the English experience in America did not come until 1588, in the shape of Thomas Harriot's Brief and true report of the new found land of Virginia. But the main difference was as much cultural as chronological: the Spaniards (including Columbus) wrote extensively about the American experience. It is a commonplace that the Spanish empire was one of the most bureaucratic undertakings known to man, and hardly a step was taken, hardly a path slashed through virgin jungle, without a permit being issued, a government official or a notary being present, and a report made back to headquarters. From the outset, the Spaniards were simply used to the idea of writing everything down.

As a result, Spain has a rich literature of discovery and conquest which can be summarised under four heads: eye-witness accounts of the conquistadores (Columbus, Cortés, Bernal Díaz); early ethnographies compiled by friars who carried out the so- called 'spiritual conquest' (Motolinia, Sahagún); works of synthesis by humanist historians (Peter Martyr, Oviedo, López de Gómara); and the vast polemical literature about the legal and moral implications of conquest (Las Casas and Sepúlveda). And for every one of these works which was published at the time, there were many more which were only published much later.7

Each of these writers had his own agenda: for the men of action, it was how to secure recognition and reward while operating at the edge of the known world; for the friars it was how to record and interpret the surviving fragments of the pre-Columbian world so as more effectively to spread the word of God; for the historians and moralists, it was a question of making sense and working out what was the right thing to do. But all, in their different ways, were grappling with incommensurability. Even for those writers who went there and saw everything with their own eyes, the gulf between the world they knew and the world they had discovered was so great that it could barely be bridged. Hence Cortés, in his second Carta de relación, addressed to Charles V on 30 October 1520:

in order to give an account to Your Royal Excellency of the magnificence, the strange and marvelous things of this great city of Temixtitan and of the dominion and wealth of this Mutezuma...and of the rites and customs...and of the order there is in the government...I would need much time and many expert narrators [muchos relatores y muy expertos]. I cannot describe one hundredth part of all the things which could be mentioned, but, as best I can, I will describe some of those I have seen which, although badly described, will, I well know, be so remarkable as not to be believed, for we who saw them with our own eyes could not grasp them with our understanding.8

Some of this is formulaic, (Columbus, Las Casas and even Oviedo9 make similar points), but in among the ritual self-deprecation there is a network of genuine frustrations: I can't describe it, and even if I could you wouldn't believe me, and I'm not certain I understand it myself. One thing is clear, though: bridging the gulf of understanding and communication will require expertise, skill, art.

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The contention that there might be a link between these two sets of circumstances' rich vein of prose fiction on the one hand, and a rich literature about the American experience on the other's not a new one. The notion that they are somehow linked was there at the outset. There is the fact that California was named after an island in a chivalric novel (Las sergas de Esplandián, 1510); there is Bernal Díaz's celebrated comparison of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan to the enchantments of the books of Amadís; there is the way that the historians of the conquest all claim to be writing true history (historia verdadera), not fiction. And there are the constant links drawn by critics, from Irving Leonard's Books of the Brave (Cambridge, Mass. 1949) to Carlos Fuentes's much-repeated view that chroniclers such as Cortés were 'not only our first historians, but our first novelists'. But to sense that there might be a link is not necessarily to understand its nature. A possible framework for investigating this relationship may be found in the opening chapters of Anthony Pagden's excellent book European encounters with the new world (New Haven and London 1993). Although the relationship between history and fiction is not Pagden's primary concern, he is clearly aware that the key challenge for the discoverers and the chroniclers was linguistic: how to make the voice carry across an ocean which formed an implacable barrier between incommensurable worlds. Pagden's analysis is subtle, and it would be difficult to do it full justice in a brief introduction; but two concepts are important. One is what he calls the 'principle of attachment', and the other he calls 'the autoptic imagination'.

The 'principle of attachment' is the process by which something familiar is 'attached' to something unfamiliar in order to assimilate and possess the unfamiliar. But attachment often entails detachment; the new and the unfamiliar are wrenched out of their original context. An example of attachment and detachment at work (not taken from Pagden) might be Cortés's use of the word mezquita ('mosque') to refer to Aztec temples. The word is entirely inappropriate in many ways, not least architectural, but it is an effective way of situating Aztec religious observance with reference to Christianity, and thereby justifying Cortés's subsequent iconoclasm. But the process of attachment simultaneously detaches the Aztec cu from what is essential about native religious observance, namely that it took place in the open air, and at the apex of a pyramid.

As Pagden illustrates, the principle of attachment was widely used by Europeans in America to assimilate the unknown to the known, and because the act of assimilation was very often part of a process of communication, the conquistadores were obliged to develop effective strategies as writers. Naming things entailed grasping them intellectually and politically, but it also meant giving them substance in the minds of the audience back home. In this they were doing just what writers of fiction do, particularly when the reality they could see and were struggling to capture consisted of what Bernal Díaz called 'things never heard of nor even dreamed of' (cosas nunca oídas, ni aun soñadas). Both kinds of writers are dependent on familiar concepts and lexis to give substance to the products of the imagination.

Not surprisingly, we can show this process at work in one of the founding texts of the discoveries, the so-called Diario or 'Journal' of Columbus's 1492 voyage as paraphrased by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas during the 1520s, and in the two letters which Columbus wrote in February 1493 during the return voyage, one to Luis de Santángel and the other, recently discovered, to the Catholic Monarchs.10 By carefully following the development of Columbus's conceptual and linguistic practice during the first voyage, we can see how he attaches pre-supposition to observation and as a consequence invents the cannibal.11

The news of Columbus's first voyage spread quickly throughout Europe with the widespread publication of a letter supposedly written by Columbus to a Spanish court official, Luis de Santángel.12 In this letter Columbus makes clear that, for him and his contemporaries, medieval and classical notions of the Orient were fable, not fact (Ife, Letters, p. 63):

Although these lands may have been spoken or written of, that was all conjecture, without eye-witness, and those who heard the stories listened to them and judged them more as fables than as having the least vestige of truth.

This assertion comes at the end of a brief discussion about the existence of monstrous races in the New World, in which he explains that (p.59-61):

until now I have not found any monstrous men, as many expected [...], nor heard of any except on an island [...] which is inhabited by people who are held in all the islands to be very ferocious and who eat human flesh.

These men are the cannibals, although the letter does not use this word. In the letter Columbus is careful to distinguish between his own experience as an eye- witness ('I have not found any monstrous men') and what he thinks the indians believe ('people who are held [...] to be very ferocious and who eat human flesh'). But in practice the two are elided. After all, the Spaniards and the indians could barely communicate, and the beliefs which Columbus attributes to the indians are located largely in his own, old-world mind. It is precisely this belief that forms the basis of Columbus's new mythology of the Caribbean, and by looking closely at the daily entries in the Diario it is possible to see how the principle of attachment operated and Columbus's new mythology emerged.

In the prologue to the Diario Columbus confirmed that his main aim was to make contact with the Great Khan.13 This aim comes to the fore once the ships have arrived in the Caribbean: Columbus refers to the Great Khan 12 times between 12 October and 11 December, but then makes no further mention of the subject. Nevertheless, this early focus on the search for the Great Khan determined to a large extent the way Columbus interpreted the reality before his eyes, even as he responded to changes in that reality on a daily basis.

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On his first day in the Caribbean, 12 October, Columbus noticed scars on the bodies of some indians. He asked about these and the indians made signs that suggested to him that they were the victims of aggressors. He concluded that the attackers came from the mainland to take the indians captive.14 Given that the Spaniards and indians could hardly understand one another, the idea that the people who took the indians came from the mainland almost certainly originated with Columbus himself. He already had a fixed idea about what he would find and he proved himself willing to read this into whatever signs the indians made.15

The extent to which the Spaniards' understanding of the indians was dependent on the search for the Great Khan is made clear by the entries which describe the arrival and first days on Cuba. Columbus initially understood the indians to be telling him that the Great Khan was known as 'cavila' (1 November, p.65) and sent merchants to Cuba.16 Other members of the expedition reached the conclusion that they had arrived at the mainland, that Cuba was the name of a city, and that the local king was at war with the Great Khan, whom they called 'Cami'.17

How far Columbus believed these interpretations is uncertain: the text of the journal suggests that he had reason to be doubtful. He maintains that the people on that part of Cuba were at war with the Great Khan, yet he can also write shortly afterwards that they were 'very gentle and very timorous [ɝ without weapons and without laws' (4 November, p.69). Added to this uncertainty there was confusion over the expedition's exact location. His sextant appeared to have failed, and on three occasions he recorded an impossibly northerly position, adding to the general sense of disorientation.

Needing an excuse for a rest, the expedition spent a week at a good natural harbour, making repairs to the ships (5-12 November). An unsuccessful embassy went inland in search of the Great Khan, resulting in further disappointment. The fact that all the sailors were ashore also offered the opportunity for unrest amongst them: the captain of the Pinta, Martín Alonso Pinzón was an able lieutenant, but there was friction between him and Columbus from the start. Ten days after leaving this haven, Pinzón abandoned Columbus and did not reappear until January 6. During November, then, Columbus was clearly under extreme pressure: his men were mutinous, he had as yet found nothing of any real value to justify his expedition, he had no concrete lead to follow, and he had good reason to be uncertain of any information provided by the indians because of the language problem.

The journal entries describing the first month spent in the Caribbean portray Columbus as making a rational attempt to find the Great Khan, but also betray a tendency to fit empirical evidence to a priori assumptions. His eye-witness account at times seems more a quasi-fictional narrative in which the products of his imagination are portrayed as fact. During the period leading up to the desertion by Pinzón Columbus increasingly describes the external world in terms of his internal expectations. It is a process of retreat that he also acts out physically by spending some days exploring a large lagoon which he named the Sea of Our Lady, where (14 November, p. 81-83):

he saw so many islands that he could not count all of them, all of good size and very high lands, full of a thousand different kinds of trees and an infinite number of palms. He marvelled greatly at seeing so many islands and so high, and [ɝ it seems to him that there can be no higher mountains in the world [...], nor any so beautiful and clear, without cloud or snow and with such deep waters at their foot. And he says that he believes that these are the innumerable islands which appear on world maps at the eastern edge [...] there were great riches and precious stones and spices on them, and that they extend a long way to the south and spread out in every direction [...] Some of them seem to reach the sky and are pointed like diamonds; others form a sort of table at their highest peak and at their foot the water is very deep.

Columbus uses literary language to describe the marvels of this lagoon, but the extent to which he is fictionalising the external reality is clearest in his suggestion that these are the quasi-mythological islands that appear on the medieval world maps and in the writings of Sir John Mandeville and Marco Polo. The mythology of these islands included one that was inhabited by a man-eating race with the faces and heads of dogs; another was populated by one-eyed men; and another was visited by merchants with their cargoes of young children who were sold as food to man-eaters. According to Marco Polo there were 7,448 of these islands,18 and on all the maps they occupied thousands of square miles of ocean; yet Columbus claims to have located them in a single lagoon on the coast of Cuba.

It is around this time that man-eaters first appear in Columbus's journal and the plausible becomes ever more influenced by the fabulous. On Sunday 4 November he understands from a group of indians that 'far away there were men with one eye, and others with a dog's snout, who ate men, and on capturing one would cut his throat and drink the blood and cut off his genitals' (p.69).

However, by 23 November, perhaps brought back to his senses by the desertion of the Pinta, and in an entry in which the word 'caníbales' is used for the first time, Columbus offers a rational interpretation of what he thinks he has been told. Some indians tell him about 'people there with one eye in their forehead, and others called cannibals of whom they appeared to be in great fear. And when they saw that he was taking this course he said that they were speechless with fear that they would be eaten' (p.91).

Columbus assimilates this to his long-standing idea that the more primitive indians were taken captive by sophisticated people: he proposes that the aggressors took captives who were never seen again and that this was why the indians believed that their fellows had been eaten. At this stage Columbus does not state that these civilised raiders are agents of the Great Khan, although the implication is there; he makes that relationship explicit three days later19 and then reaffirms this belief on 11 December.20

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As in the letter to Luis de Santángel quoted earlier, Columbus holds two conflicting ideas in his mind. On the one hand he consistently says that he does not believe that the 'caniba' are man-eaters,21 partly because he is inherently resistant to the idea of man-eating, but mostly because he was associating the aggressive mainland with the Great Khan, who was known to be civilised. On the other hand two key concepts were clearly linked in his mind: the aggressive 'others' called the 'caniba', and the monstrous races that the old world imagination associated with the cynocephali, cyclopes and anthropophagi of classical literature. What held these two concepts apart was a third: the fabulous wealth and high culture of the Great Khan. If the Great Khan were removed from the equation there would be nothing to stop the anthropophagi being attached to the 'caniba', and nothing to stop the fabulous from becoming real. This, in a sense, is precisely what was about to happen.

On 11 December Columbus was still certain that the 'caniba' were the people of the Great Khan. It seems extraordinary, then, that he makes no further mention of the Great Khan in the Diario, nor in his letter to Santángel. He abandons all mention of the central purpose of his mission without so much as a word. The explanation lies in the events that take place at the next island he visits, Española (English 'Hispaniola', now the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and the stressful circumstances in which he once again finds himself.

The background to Columbus's shift in perspective was his relationship with a tribal leader on Española, called Guacanagarí. Columbus styles this man a king with a court, using language drawn from classical sources, despite the fact that reading between the lines we can see that he is a primitive cacique with tenuous control over a limited number of people.22 In this aggrandising process we can see Columbus transfering some of the hopes and desires he had placed in the Great Khan onto Guacanagarí.

But then, on Christmas Eve, disaster struck: the Santamaría drifted into shallow water and was sunk. The crew and cargo were saved thanks to the intervention of Guacanagarí and, under pressure, Columbus exuberantly describes the actions and the benevolence of the indians just as he had waxed lyrical about the Sea of Our Lady.23 He writes: 'I believe that there are no better people in the world and no better land. They love their neighbours as themselves, and have the softest speech in the world and are docile and always laughing' (p. 161). Without the Pinta and without the Santamaría there were too many men to be able to return to Spain aboard the Niña and he was forced to establish a settlement and leave some men behind. This made it necessary to form an alliance with Guacanagarí, to whom Columbus already owed a great personal debt.

Guacanagarí also seems to have appreciated the potential of this relationship and knowing that what Columbus wanted was gold he provided a fair amount. Columbus's attitude to the 'caniba' now changes completely: after dining with his new friend Guacanagarí Columbus orders a demonstration of archery which brings up the subject of the 'people from Caniba whom they call Caribs and who come to capture them and carry bows and arrows' (p.165). In order to strengthen the alliance Columbus explains to Guacanagarí using signs 'that the Monarchs of Castile would order the Caribs to be destroyed and brought to them with their hands tied' (p. 165).

We should remember that until now Columbus apparently thought that the 'caniba', who from now on are referred to in the Journal as 'caribs', were one and the same thing as the people of the Great Khan. His brief was to conduct a peaceful embassy to this ruler, and yet he now enters into an alliance which would, by that earlier understanding, put Castile at war with the Great Khan.

In this way Columbus was forced to abandon the idea that the 'caniba', or caribs, had anything to do with the Great Khan. The incident that seals the Khan's fate and brings the cannibal to the fore takes place on 13 January as Columbus is coasting Española to the east on the first leg of his return journey. His men bring an indian back to the boat and Columbus describes the man, in Las Casas's summary, as 'very ugly to look at, more so than others he had seen. His face was all blackened with charcoal [...] His hair was very long and drawn back and tied behind and gathered in a little net of parrot feathers, and he was naked as the others. The Admiral thought he must be one of the man-eating Caribs' (p.191-193).24 This encounter ends in a skirmish with about 55 aggressive indians who are similarly dressed. Despite this, Columbus is still not prepared to state categorically that these indians were indeed caribs. There is still uncertainty in his mind and it is at this point that the races of old-world mythology reappear in the Journal. Over the course of the entries for Monday 14 January and Wednesday 16 he develops the idea that the caribs live near to an island that is only populated by women, eventually explaining that the caribs arrive once a year to father the children of the women and to take away the unwanted boys (p.201). The story is derived from Herodotus's account of the Scythians and the Amazons, although Columbus mis-attributes to the Scythians the cannibalistic practices of their neighbours, whom Pliny calls the Casiri.

It is likely that at this point Columbus was again under particular stress at a time when he starts to make reference to monstrous races and man-eating peoples: he was heading for home having lost control of the Pinta, with his flagship sunk, having allied himself to a primitive cacique, and having only found a limited amount of gold. Moreover, Martín Alonso Pinzón claimed to have found gold on Española, and Columbus ran the very real risk that his rival would arrive home first and claim the prize for himself. Just before he reached the edge of the known world on his return journey, things were to get worse. By the second week of February Columbus and his pilots had little idea where they were and the Pinta had again disappeared. Then on 15 February Columbus was almost wrecked by a violent storm off the Azores. At the height of the storm Columbus wrote to the Catholic Monarchs, wrapped the letter in oil-cloth, put it in a barrel, and threw it overboard.

The idea of man-eating peoples had been sown in Columbus's mind in November, but he dismissed it as local mythology. This inkling develops into a potent image at the time of Columbus's alliance with Guacanagarí, which is then given almost tangible form with the meeting with the ugly indian who is painted black. The process by which the category 'anthropophagi' is attached to the name 'caníbal' has its counterpart in the way the Great Khan disappears from the account. The key moments in the process by which old-world myths were transformed into the enduring image of the New World cannibal come at times when Columbus is under great stress and he seems to be at his most imaginative. These are moments when he stops trying to record fact and, drawing on fictional and fabulous models, starts to write what can reasonably be described as fiction.

The attachment of old-world mythical and fictional models onto new-world realities is a constant feature of early colonial writing as the eye-witnesses struggle to bridge the gaps between what they saw, what they understood and what they could communicate. Having in his mind collapsed the new-world 'caniba' and the old-world man-eaters to create the new category of the cannibal, Columbus had to plant that idea firmly and authoritatively in the minds of his absent readers. He was helped to an extent by the fact that he brought his 1492 account back with him; others, like Cortés, had to achieve similar feats of communication entirely at a distance, conjuring vivid images of the unimaginable in reports which were not brought back, but sent back in his absence.

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The issue of narrative authority is one which Anthony Pagden discusses in his book under the heading 'the autoptic imagination'. As Pagden points out, the discovery and its associated literature cut across the traditional view that knowledge depended on textual interpretation and exegesis: 'all that could be known had to be made compatible with what had once been said by a recognized canon of sacred and ancient authors' (p.12). Hence Columbus's attachment of an old-world category to new-world lexis. But for the most part there was, by definition, no place for the New World in the ancient canon, and the men who went there and wrote back were having to create texts where none existed before (p.54). For many of the eye witnesses, the first person narrative was the cornerstone of their claim to authenticity.

Pagden's discussion of this issue centres on Oviedo and Las Casas, but the same question arises with reference to Hernán Cortés. Cortés's accounts of the conquest of Mexico, five long reports or Cartas de relación composed between 1519 and 1526, were some of the most widely circulated accounts of discovery and conquest during the 1520s. The first, which attempts to regularise Cortés's rebellion and the founding of Vera Cruz on the Mexican mainland, survives as a third-person account over the signatures of the municipal council, but was almost certainly authored by Cortés. The other four letters are first-person accounts over his own signature.

The second letter, covering the initial capture of Tenochtitlan in 1520 and its loss during the noche triste, and the third, recounting the siege and re-capture of the city the following year, went through several Spanish editions in 1522 and 1523, and were published in Latin, Italian, French, Dutch and German translations. The fourth letter appeared in Spanish in 1525, but a decree issued in March 1527 prevented any further printings of Cortés's letters in Spain, including the fifth.

The fifth letter is an account of a long journey undertaken by Cortés from Tenochtitlan to Honduras in 1526, to put down a rebellion by Cristóbal de Olid, who had disobeyed orders and headed off to found an empire of his own, just as Cortés had done to Diego Velázquez, the Governor of Cuba, in 1519. The only sensible way to get from Tenochtitlan to Honduras was by sea, around the Yucatán peninsula. But Cortés decided, for reasons which he never really explains, to go overland, and to take with him a large retinue. Bernal Díaz gives a rather withering account of the way in which he and many other settlers were uprooted to go on this mad expedition, together with a large number of servants, two falconers, five musicians, an acrobat, a conjuror and puppeteer, a herd of pigs, and the captured Aztec leader Cuahtémoc. The opening sequence of Werner Herzog's film Aguirre, wrath of God (1972) gives a good idea of the size of Cortés's caravan and the difficulty of the terrain it had to cross.

The expedition left Mexico on 12 October 1524 and Cortés finally staggered ashore at Vera Cruz in May 1526, over eighteenth months later. But he did not have the satisfaction of bringing the rebel home. Before Cortés even reached Honduras, Olid had been killed by his own men in another cycle of rebellion. Back in Mexico, Cortés was faced with the task of reporting to the Emperor how he had trekked several hundred miles across some of the most inhospitable territory known to man, a journey on which many Spaniards, and Cuahtémoc, lost their lives, all to no purpose. That was the challenge of the fifth letter.

Cortés's strategy in the letter is to play up the treachery, but to play up the arduousness of the journey even more. What made the journey so difficult was that at no stage was the expedition going with the grain. The first half involved crossing the vast lowland swamps of the Tehuantépec peninsula, then the delta of the river Usumacinta; and finally the mountains of central Yucatán. The difficulties which such a journey would present, even today, do not bear thinking about, but Cortés's account squeezes every last drop of sympathy for the extremes of suffering he underwent in the service of the Emperor. We know from the earlier letters, that Cortés was a gifted advocate for his own cause. The first letter legitimates his own rebellion by recourse to ancient legal precedent; the second, written without notes after the Spaniards had been ejected from Tenochtitlan during the noche triste, manoeuvres the Mexica into the position where they can be shown to be rebelling against their rightful lords; and the third letter is a brilliantly remorseless account of the siege of the city, its recapture and the surrender of Cuahtémoc. But the glorious pointlessness of the journey to Honduras makes the fifth letter exceptional even by Cortés's standards.

It is hard to know how a man like Cortés, who dropped out of university to become an adventurer, learned to write so well. Was he, to put the question in Pagden's terms, glossing a pre-existing, canonical text, or was he composing a text where none existed before and using his first person 'I' witness to authenticate it? In a sense Cortés's writings are a classic example of the autoptic imagination, in which the 'yo' not only guarantees the veracity of the account by his presence, but in this case by his primary role as agent. Not only did he see it, he did it; and the suffering he underwent in the process warrants the veracity of the report, the extent of his service, and his fitness to receive reward.

Yet we should be careful not to underestimate the expertise that is required of this narrator. In Pagden's discussion of the autoptic imagination he makes reference to a curious remark of Stephen Greenblatt in Marvellous possessions. The wonder of the new world (Oxford 1992): 'The eyewitness directly possesses the truth and can simply present it; he who has not seen for himself must persuade' (p.129). The use of the word 'simply' here must surely be ironical. The plain style typical of the credible eye-witness is never as simple as it appears to be. The poverty of vocabulary, simplicity of style and lack of eloquence which are traditionally associated with earnestness, are themselves often the product of great artifice. Once again, we should not underestimate the extent to which new-world narratives reach out to their readers through a common language learned from old-world, classical literature.

At a fairly early point on the expedition to Honduras, Cortés's party come to a particularly wide river, and he decides to build a bridge. Of all the ways of crossing a river, a bridge is almost always the most time-consuming and the most resource- intensive. Cortés reviews all the options: turning back, crossing in canoes, wading, finding a better place to cross. But he rejects them all. Instead he builds a bridge a mile long over water which is four fathoms deep plus two fathoms of mud. He uses over a thousand timbers between fifty and sixty feet long, all of them at least the girth of a man, and countless smaller timbers. And he finishes the job in four days. It was, he writes, 'the most remarkable feat ever seen' (Letters from Mexico, p.361), more remarkable, we must assume than his earlier displays of bravado: the beaching of the boats at Vera Cruz in 1519, or the prefabrication of brigantines which were then carried overland to the lake prior to the siege of Tenochtitlan.

Cortés must have relied on his readers to make the link between this bridge and another they would have known from their schooldays. In Book IV of De bello gallico, Julius Caesar builds a similar bridge, over the Rhine, in similar circumstances, although he takes ten days to complete it. In both cases, the purpose in building the bridge, rather than taking one of the easier options is to make a series of statements: to impose his will on his own people, to impress the enemy and to leave a highly visible mark on the political and geographical landscape. And in each case, the bridge is a rhetorical as much as an architectural construct. It stretches across a much greater void than the mile or so of water that has to be crossed on the journey; it is built to stretch across the vast gulf which separates the discoverer, the conquerer, the warrior from the audience back home.

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Like the Cartas de relación, the books of the Gallic War were sent back from the western front to the seat of power, in Rome. They were written to be read aloud in the Forum, and they were composed to keep alive the influence and credibility of the absent warrior in the minds of the forgetful and sceptical senators.25 Cortés's reports were also written to remind the Emperor and his advisors of the extremes of suffering which were being undertaken in his name in the New World. The purpose of drawing attention to this parallel is not to identify sources, and it is unclear whether Cortés had read Caesar or not.26 What the parallel does illustrate, however, is that the autoptic imagination is also a construct, and one which will often entail writing a new gloss on an ancient text.

Cortés was almost certainly one of the new-world authors who was most widely read by his contemporaries. The first editions of the second and third letters were both printed by the Crombergers in Seville in 1522 and 1523, not long after they printed a History of Charlemagne, and not long before they brought out their own edition of the first four books of (1526).27 It is hard to believe that the Cromberger's patrons did not associate these works in significant ways: the history of the prototypical emperor, the novels of chivalry and the reports from the New World seem to have reinforced the crusading spirit with which the discovery and conquest was being carried out. Though they all came at the issue from different standpoints, all of these genres had much to gain from blurring the edges of history and fiction; all were striving to give authenticity to the products of the imagination.

The writers of fiction famously passed off their inventions as 'true histories', constructing false provenances involving the discovery and translation of antique documents in dusty circumstances. In a context in which these purveyors of falsehoods had poisoned the wells of credibility, the chroniclers undoubtedly had the harder task: to gain credence for the truth in spite of its marvellous appearance. But speaking across the ocean of incommensurability often entailed inscribing new texts between the lines of existing ones with results which could be closer to fiction than might be expected.

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1. layout text Some of the material for this paper derives from a project called 'Towards a history of the novel in early modern Spain: Sources, narrative techniques and lexis in the chronicles of the New World'. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB), and its purpose is to investigate the impact of Spanish writing about the New World on the development of prose fiction in early modern Spain.
2. layout text Theory of the novel. A historical approach (Baltimore and London 2000), edited by Michael McKeon, p.xv.
3. layout text Margaret Anne Doody argues convincingly that many of the features of the modern novel are found in the ancient Greek novel: The true story of the novel (London 1997).
4. layout text Ian Watt, The rise of the novel. Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (London 1957).
5. layout text Some answers to this question have been sketched out in B.W. Ife, 'The literary impact of the new world: Columbus to Carrizales', Journal of the Institute of Romance Studies 3 (1994/95), p.65.
6. layout text The issues are beyond the scope of this paper, and have not yet been investigated in any serious way, but they concern the respective roles played by Latin and the vernacular in religious and secular discourses, together with the financial and intellectual resources invested in each through printing and related industries. Books like Ian Green's Print and protestantism in early modern England (Oxford 2000) have started the discussion from the English side.
7. layout text D.A. Brading, The first America. The Spanish monarchy, creole patriots, and the liberal state 1492-1867 (Cambridge 1991), especially Parts 1 and 2.
8. layout text Hernán Cortés, (Cartas de relación) translated by A.R. Pagden with an introduction by J.H. Elliott, Letters from Mexico (London 1972), p.101-2.
9. layout text B.W. Ife, 'Alexander in the New World', Renaissance and Modern Studies 30 (1986), p.35-44.
10. layout text Christopher Columbus (Diario), edited and translated by B.W. Ife, Journal of the first voyage (Warminster 1990); (letters to the Catholic Monarchs and to Luis de Santángel, February 1493), edited and translated by B.W. Ife, Letters from America. Columbus's first accounts of the 1492 voyage (London 1992). All subsequent references are to these editions.
11. layout text There is a rich literature on the topic of cannibalism in early narratives of the New World, of which Frank Lestrignant (Cannibale: Grandeur et décadence), translated by Rosemary Morris, Cannibals: The discovery and representation of the cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne (Berkeley, Los Angeles 1997) is one of the most comprehensive. See also Cannibalism and the colonial world, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iversen (Cambridge 1998).
12. layout text It was first published in Castilian, in Barcelona, in April of 1493, and in total was printed in six cities, in five different countries, and in three languages (Letters, p.10).
13. layout text 'Most Christian and most exalted and most excellent and most powerful Princes, King and Queen of the Spains and of the islands of the sea [ɝ from information which I had given Your Highnesses about the lands of India and a prince called the Great Khan, which means in our language King of Kings, and how he and his ancestors had many times sent to Rome for learned men to instruct him in our holy faith, and how the Holy Father had never provided them, and how so many people were being lost, falling into idolatry and embracing doctrines of perdition; and Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and princes devoted to the holy Christian faith and the furtherance of its cause...resolved to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the said regions of India to see the said princes and the peoples and the lands [ɝ and the measures to be taken to convert them our holy faith' (Journal, p.3).
14. layout text 'I saw some who had signs of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were, and they indicated that other people came from other islands nearby and tried to capture them, and they defended themselves. I believed then and still believe that they come here from the mainland to take them as slaves' (Journal, p.31).
15. layout text Columbus was never averse to putting words into the mouths of the indians. Even as early as the entry dated 14 October he records the words of some of them verbatim: 'Come and see the men who have come from heaven; bring them something to eat and drink' (p.33).
16. layout text 'The indians said that there were gold mines and pearls on that island, and the Admiral saw suitable places for them and mussels, which is a sign of them, and the Admiral understood that large ships came there from the Great Khan, and that from there to the mainland was a journey of 10 days' (28 October, p.59).
17. layout text [Pinzón explained] 'that he understood that this Cuba was a city and that that land was a very large stretch of mainland which extends a long way to the north, and that the king of that land was at war with the Great Khan, whom they call Cami, and his land, or city, Faba, and many other names' (30 October, p. 63).
18. layout text Marco Polo, The Travels, translated by R.E. Latham (Harmondsworth 1958), p. 259.
19. layout text 'All the people he has come across before today live, he says, in great fear of those from Caniba, or Canima, and they say that they live on this island of Bohío, which must be very large, as it seems to him, and he believes that the Caniba go and capture the lands and houses of these people as they are so cowardly and know nothing of arms. For this reason he believes that those indians he had with him tend not to inhabit the seashore because they are close to this land. He says that when they saw him head for this land, they were speechless for fear that they would be eaten, and he could not reassure them, and they said that they had only one eye and the face of a dog, and the Admiral believed that they were lying, and felt that those who captured them must be subjects of the Great Khan' (26 November, p.97).
20. layout text 'It seems that they are harassed by people of intelligence because all these islands live in great fear of those from Caniba. I repeat what I have said before, he says, that Caniba is quite simply the people of the Great Khan who must be very close by, and must have ships in which they come and capture them, and because they do not return they believe that they have been eaten' (p.121).
21. layout text On 17 December Las Casas summarises as follows: 'He sent the men to fish with nets. The indians enjoyed themselves very much with the Christians and brought them certain arrows belonging to the Caniba or Cannibals, and they are made from the stem of a reed with fire-hardened points inserted at the tip and are very long. They showed them two men with pieces of flesh missing from their bodies and gave them to understand that the cannibals had eaten mouthfuls of them. The Admiral did not believe it' (p.135).
22. layout text B.W. Ife, 'Old world princes and new world potentates: images of kingship in the discovery and conquest of America', Journal of the Institute of Romance Studies 6 (1998), p.131.
23. layout text 'From time to time he sent one of his relatives weeping to the Admiral to console him, saying that they should not be upset or distressed because he would give him everything he had. The Admiral assures the Monarchs that nowhere in Castile would such good care have been taken about everything that not a lace was missing [ɝ He and all his people were crying; they are (says the Admiral) so loving a people and so lacking in cupidity and so willing to do anything...' (p.161).
24. layout text Las Casas annotated the entry for 13 January with the words: 'No eran caribes ni los ovo en la Española jamas' ('They were not caribs, and there never were any on Hispaniola').
25. layout text T.P. Wiseman 'The publication of De Bello Gallico' in Julius Caesar as artful reporter: The war commentaries as political instruments, edited by Kathryn Welch and Anton Powell (London 1998), p.1-9.
26. layout text Manuel Alcalá, César y Cortés (Mexico 1950) draws a number of parallels, many of them far-fetched, but does not speculate on Cortés's reading. Several early authors, including Cervantes (Don Quijote de la Mancha, II, viii), refer to Cortés scuttling his ships as his crossing of the Rubicon.
27. layout text Clive Griffin, The Crombergers of Seville (Oxford 1988), p.56-63,152-3.
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