I wrote a book some years ago about the friendship and rivalry between Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci (Toward the Setting Sun). One of the things that became clear to me as I researched it is just how much the excitement of discovery – then and later – was bound up with the prospect of sex with powerless people.
Later, when I wrote Voyages of Discovery, it came home to me even stronger. But for some reason, the scholars have tended to ignore this. It is as if it wasn’t an important part of the experience of imperialism, yet it was.
That was how Columbus’ first expedition could bring virulent syphilis back to Europe. It was why a later charter for Cabot’s successors by Henry VII of England carried a warning against forced sex.
It was also the nakedness of the natives that first excited major European audiences to Vespucci’s writings, real or fake. Sex and discovery was bound up in everyone’s mind then. See Donne’s poem about going to bed with his mistress if you’re not sure ("O my America, my new found land...").
Finally, it was the real meaning of the description by Columbus’ friend Michele de Cuneo of his encounter with a native woman in his cabin:
“Having taken her into my cabin, she being naked according to their custom, I conceived a desire to take pleasure. I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun.”
The Algonquin people who met Verrazano’s expedition in 1524 made sure than no women went on board his ships. They knew the score by then.
I have been sceptical about the furore over historical child abuse until recently. But the stories about Westminster in the 1980s (still just stories) keep reminding me of Columbus and Michele de Cuneo, and all the others.
Nobody who reads about the period can be in any doubt that sex with powerless people tended towards violence and lazy murder. Anyone who doubts that needs to read the reportage of Bartolomé de las Casas at the time.
There was something of the imperialist frame of mind, the complete impunity of the conqueror, about Westminster in the 1980s. Was there enough of a whiff of imperialism to suspect the worst?
And there is peculiar element to the story: even now, five centuries after the discovery of the New World, few people seem to write about the phenomenon of sex with powerless people in the history of discovery. Violence, yes – sex, no. Nor, it seems, have they known how to categorise it or talk about it in our own time.
I am suspicious of witch-hunts, of the pursuit of abusers into their powerless dotage. I am nervous of the political consequences of discovering that our politicians were harbouring child murderers only a few decades ago. But there was a sickness abroad in the 1980s, which has in turn led to an economic weakness which I’ve written about in my book Broke. If that imperial mindset led to child murder, it would be the scandal of the age.
It would change everything, and should do – and we simply have to know.