The discourses of Columbus, Cortes and Las Casas in
Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.
Tzvetan Todorov was born in Stalinist Bulgaria and came to France in the early 1960s. His personal experience of the internal “otherness” which Julia Kristeva describes as “strangers to ourselves”, lead him to explore the American encounter which was a “unique event in the history of humanity” in that two continents, which had been oblivious to each other’s existence, came into a sudden and violent contact. In his The Conquest of America (1982), Tzvetan Todorov has given us a most interesting recent reading of Columbus and several others of the most important 16th century Spanish commentators on the New World. Todorov constructs a narrative from a collection of texts : Columbus’s famous letters to Ferdinand and Isabella; Hernan Cortes’s Letters of Relation; Juan Gines de Sepulveda’s Demoncrates Alter and the writings of Bartolome de Las Casas, among others. For Todorov, what happened in 1492 was not merely the invasion and subsequent subjugation of the Indies by the Spanish Conquistadores, but was also an encounter between different ways of interpreting the world. This encounter was not only between the “civilized” and the “barbarians”. It was also between the “past-oriented”, “tradition dominated” Aztecs who had no formal script and hence couldn’t generate ‘signs’ to communicate punctually and eventually unable to resist Cortes’s attack and the Europeans who could communicate through language rather than only directly to the world through external signs, and thus could understand the Aztecs much better than the Aztecs could understand the Europeans. It was also a clash of communication or rather the lack of it. Many language theorists would like to look at this a clash of cultures – oral vs written; and as the written word can capture the spoken word, the culture...