Edmundo O'Gorman
The Process of Invention

Introduction by Gabriella Ibieta and Miles Orvell,
Inventing America: Readings in Identity and Culture
St. Martin's, 1996 (p. 16)

In this excerpt from The Invention of America: An Inquiry into the Historical Nature of the New World and the Meaning of Its History (1948), Edmundo O'Gorman presents the concept of America as something created and molded by Europeans.

To obtain financial backing for his explorations from the Spanish monarchs, Columbus needed to believe that the territory on which he landed on October 12, 1492, and in subsequent trips was not far from the rich land of Cipangu (Japan). Columbus's early letters and diaries thus reflected his attempt to adapt the reality of the American continent to a preconceived notion of Asia, formed by a previous historical and literary accounts.

One central assumption held by those who colonized the New World was that the native inhabitants had to adopt the culture, language, and religion of the conquerors--to become civilized subjects--in order to serve the interests of the conquering nation. To achieve this purpose, a massive effort to convert the Amerindians to Christianity was undertaken, with the stated objective of saving them. The end result was to deprive these native peoples of their cultures and identities--in effect, to enslave them.

Born in Mexico in 1906, Edmundo O'Gorman taught philosophy for many years at the National University of Mexico and played an important role as a theoretician of the colonial history of Latin America. His many works on these subjects, published mainly during the 1940s and 1950s, challenged preconceived notions of how we think about our invented continent, America.


I

Within the picture of the universe and of the World . . ., lived and experienced as a scientific and religious truth at the close of the fifteenth century, there is no entity to be found to which the being of America may be assigned, nothing that can have that peculiar meaning or significance. America, as such, literally does not exist, even though a mass of land exists which, in due course, will be endowed with that meaming, with that being. Columbus lived and acted within a world in which America, unforeseen amd unforeseeable, was at best a mere possibility, but a possibility of which neither he nor anyone else had any idea, nor was such an idea possible.

The project that Columbus submitted to the kings of Spain did not, therefore, concern America, nor indeed did his four famous voyages. Let us not make the mistake, now that we are about to accompany Columbus on his great adventure, of assuming, as is commonly done, that although he was not aware of it, he "really" crossed the Atlantic in quest of America and that the shores at which he arrived were "really" those of the American continent. The voyages which Columbus undertook were not, nor could they have been, voyages to America1, since the interpretation of the past is not retroactive. To believe the contrary is to deprive history of the light which it sheds on its own unfolding, and also to deprive events of their profound human drama, of their intimate personal truth. In complete opposition, therefore, to the attitude adopted by all historians in that they start out with a ready-made, fully constituted America in sight, we shall start out from a void, from a not-yet-existing America. Possessed by this idea and by the sense of mystery that accompanies all truly original and creative adventure, let us proceed to examine Columbus' project.

II

Columbus' project was of Doric2 simplicity: he intended to cross the Ocean toward the west with the purpose of reaching, from Spain, the far eastern shores of the Island of the Earth and thus connect Europe with Asia. 3 We already know that there was no novelty in this idea or in the notions on which its feasibility was based. It is worth while, however, to recall them briefly.

The fundamental premise is the spherical form of the great mass of water and earth. Since the earth is a globe, it was possible, in theory, to reach the east of the Orbis Terrarum4 by sailing west. The only problem, therefore, was the practical possibility of such a voyage. At this time the size of the globe and the breadth of the island of the Earth were highly debatable questions.5 Columbus was able to persuade himself that the earth was much smaller than was commonly supposed, and that the Island of the Earth was much larger than anyone thought. The greater the breadth of the Island of the Earth and the smaller the circumference of the globe, the shorter the intervening distance which he would have to cover.

Neither of these assumptions could be classed at the time as scientific nonsense. But Columbus, in his effort to convince himself and to convince everyone else, reduced the size of the globe so much that he hindered rather than helped his project. For the well-informed man of the period, the only thing that deserved careful and serious attention was the possible proximity of the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Asia, but to make Columbus' project plausible, the size of the Island of the Earth had to be expanded to an apparently preposterous degree. It is clear, then, why the Portuguese chose the eastern route, in spite of the risk that the coasts of Africa might extend beyond the equator.6

This explains the resistance which Columbus met everywhere in his efforts to find someone to sponsor his enterprise. It is not too difficult, however, to understand the motives that finally decided the Catholic kings in its favor. One was rivalry with the Portuguese, whose success in rounding the Cape of Good Hope worked in Columbus' favor. It seems obvious that Ferdinand and Isabella acceded to Columbus' insistent petitions from motives not unlike those of a gambler who, hoping for an extraordinary stroke of luck, decides to accept a risky wager. There was very little that they could lose, a great deal that might be gained. This explains why the Crown, once it had decided to gamble, agreed to Columbus' exorbitant demands for remuneration.

Another argument for sponsoring the enterprise was the possibility of obtaining for Spain one or several of the many islands which medieval cartography placed in the Atlantic, and which, of course, had nothing to do with the archipelago that was supposed to lie off the coast of Asia.7 This seems to provide at least a partial explanation of why in the Capitulations signed by the Crown and Columbus (Santa Fe de Granada, April 17, 1492) the enterprise appears only as an oceanic exploration, which, of course, did not preclude the Asiatic objective.8 This famous and much discussed document also points to another motive that helps to explain the decision of the Spanish kings and to which sufficient attention has not been given: the desire on the part of the Crown to exercise an act of sovereignty on the Ocean. Indeed, the extraordinary thing about the Capitulations is not so much that they make no specific mention of the Asiatic objective of the voyage, as that they contain an express declaration in favor of Spanish seignoralty and lorship over the Ocean, which was, as we have indicated, somehting unusual if not unprecedented.9

These observations are not made with any intention of taking sides in one of the most rancorous debates in American historiography, which, as such, has no bearing on our work.10 They indicate, however, the contrast between Columbus' position and that of the Crown, which obviously did not share his blind faith in the success of his enterprise. We begin to be aware of a discrepancy that will explain the development of future events.

The project is now under way, full of unknown possibilities, like a shaft in a drawn bow. Two highly interested parites are regarding it from standpoints which only partially coincide. Once the shaft is loosed, the knot of possibilibes will start to unravel, but the two parties will understand its effects in somewhat different ways. The dialogue begins, and bit by bit, amid coincidence and dissidence, illusions and disillusion, a new and startling vision of the event will take shape. Now it is Columbus' turn to take the floor.

III

In the ancient and dazzling history of geographical exploration the voyage undertaken by Columbus in 1492 shines out with particular splendor. Not only have the daring, the immense ability, and determination of this celebrated sailor excited just admiration, but the spectacular denouement has added such luster to the voyage that it has become one of the best known of all historical events. One fine day, so the story is told, by reason of some never explained premonition, magic, or miracle, this modern rival of Ulysses, this prince of navigators and discoverers, revealed the existence of the immense and hitherto unknown continent of America--even though it is admitted that neither Columbus nor anyone else knew or could know at the time that that was what happened. Historical events do not occur in that fashion. Notwithstanding the bibliographical mountain under which it is buried, Columbus' voyage has not yet been properly described. But the temptation to try fortune in this field must wait for a better occasion. Here we need only consider the historical significance of the famous undertaking from the viewpoint of our problem. Let us then examine Columbus' opinion concerning the land which be found at the time of his finding it and also the attitude that he held through the entire exploration. Let us try to understand the meaning which Columbus himself gave to the event and not the meaning which historians have seen fit to assign to it.

When Columbus sighted land in the course of the night between the 11th and 12th of October, 1492, he was certain that he had arrived at Asia, that is, that he had reached the far eastern shores of the island of the Earth. To be sure, it was only a small island, but he thought it belonged to the archipelago lying off the coast of the Orbis Terrarum that had been described by Marco Polo, where, says Columbus, the men of the Great Khan, the Emperor of China, come to collect slaves; not far off, surely, from the celebrated Cipangu (Japan), rich in gold and precious stones, which Columbus set out to locate the day following his arrival.11 In brief, without any evidence beyond the fact that the island where he made his landfall was inhabited--and this is the important point--Columbus convinced himself that he had reached Asia.

What is extraordinary is not that Columbus should have been convinced that he was close to Asia when, from his flagship, he saw the emerald beach of the first island emerging from the ocean, but that he maintained this belief throughout all his explorations, although he found nothing of what he expected, or anything that could provide unquestionable evidence in its favor. There is no need to burden the reader with textual evidence, for the fact is well established: wherever he turned, whatever he saw, Columbus felt certain that he had reached the far eastern extremity of Asia, those remote regions of the Orbis Terrarum which an age-old tradition depicted in such glowing colors, and which the cupidity of the navigator endowed so liberally with undreamed of wealth in gold, precious stones, spices, and other natural products of great price and value. The coarseness and nudity of the natives, the absence of the great cities and gilded palaces that he had expected to find, the fact that gold was only to be heard of in the fallacious words of the Indians, the repeated failure of his attempts to locate Cipangu and, later, to establish contact with the Great Khan, did nothing to shake his faith: he had reached Asia, he was in Asia, and it was from Asia that he returned. No one, nothing, to the day of his death, ever made him relinquish this cherished conviction.

Whatever he saw during the course of his exploration was interpreted by Columbus as empirical evidence of this fixed belief. For a less impassioned man, the total absence of all that his reading had led him to expect would, at least, have raised some doubt. But nothing could shake Columbus' faith. When, for instance, he was disappointed at not having found the opulent city which, according to his expectations, was sure to be on the other side of the cape which he had sighted from afar, no disillusionment possessed his soul, but rather the renewed hope of finding it round the next cape, and when the search turned out to be hopeless he immediately found a comforting explanation that left his belief intact. Under the sway of his desire reality was transfigured. Bartolome de las Casas 12 well describes the situation when, astonished at the credulity of the Admiral, he remarks "how marvellous a thing it is how whatever a man strongly desires and has firmly set in his imagination, all that he hears and sees at each step he fancies to be in its favor."l3 Such was the great dream of Columbus' life; such was the spiritual climate that guided all his future activity and nourished the high hopes of wealth and fame which he conceived on that October day when, having sighted the small island named by him San Salvador, he convinced himself, once and forever, of his victory.

IV

Now that we know what Columbus thought concerning the lands he had found, we should try to determine the meaning of his attitude, in other words, the meaning of the 1492 voyage.

If Columbus was able to persuade himself that he had reached regions belonging to the far eastern end of the Island of the Earth, not on any direct evidence, but merely on the ground that he had found inhabited land where he had found it, it seems clear that his idea was no more than an assumption, a hypothesis. What was the basis for such a hypothesis? Why could Columbus assume that he had reached Asiatic regions simply because he had found inhabited land? The answer is obvious: Columbus was able to do so because of the previous picture he had in his mind concerning the breadth of the Island of the Earth and the distance separating its two extremities. We are dealing, therefore, with an a priori hypothesis, that is, an assumption based, not on empirical or a posteriori evidence, but on a previous or a priori idea.

Columbus' hypothesis is not only not based on evidence offered by experience, but he does not allow experience the benefit of a doubt. His assumption is invulnerable to data provided by experience. Columbus' idea about the excessive breadth of the Island of the Earth has imposed itself upon him as an unquestionable truth. Instead of being free to change his opinion according to data provided by experience, he is obliged to adjust these data so that they conform to his opinion, using interpretations as extreme or as arbitrary as the occasion demands.

The Admiral's assumption, then, is not only a hypothesis but a belief. Here we have the truly decisive aspect of his attitude.

This way of thinking is all too common. Anyone who has been in love has had a similar experience, for, as women know only too well, love implies a blind belief in all that the loved one says and does. Hence the profound meaning to be found in Stendhal's14 story about the woman who, surprised by her lover with another man in a highly compromising situation, excuses herself by denying the fact. But since the lover seems unconvinced in the face of what he is witnessing, the woman resentfully replies with an injured air: "I well see that you no longer love me, because you prefer to believe what you perceive rather than what I tell you." "Facts," says Marcel Proust,15 "do not penetrate into the world wherein our beliefs live, and since they did not give them birth, they cannot kill them, they may belie them constantly without weakening them, and a torrent of misfortunes or illnesses which, one after the other, afflict a family will not make it doubt in the goodness of its God or in the skill of its physician."

Columbus not merely thinks he has arrived at the eastern shores of the Orbis Terrarum, but he believes it. What, then, is the meaning of the famous voyage?

If we remember that things are in themselves nothing in particular, but that their being depends on the meaning we give them, it becomes evident that Columbus' belief that he endowed the lands found by him with a specific being, that of a portion of the Island of the Earth, in the same way that a man who believes in the geocentric system of the universe endows the sun and the moon with the being of being planets. Hence the historical meaning of the 1492 voyage, from an ontological viewpoint is that the lands found by Columbus were given the being of belonging to the Orbis Terrarum, as it was then conceived, and that they were thus endowed by means of an an a priori and unconditional hypothesis.

This is the historical fact, which is not to be considered an "error" only because, at a later period, these lands were invested with a different being. This fact must be our point of departure in tracing the process by which, eventually, these lands were endowed with a different being--the process that we have called the invention of America.


Notes

1 Such, however, is the usual way in which all modern historians speak of them. For instance, Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Vol. I, p. 201; Vol. II, p. 47.

2 Doric: bold and rugged, like the Dorians of ancient Greece (Ed.)

3 We are fully aware of the long polemical discussion over whether Columbus' objective was to reach Asia by sailing west. Many years of debate have piled up overwhelming evidence that such was the case. The issue is of little importance to us, since for our purposes it matters not if Columbus believed he had reached Asia after having found land, as the contrary thesis hold.

4 Orbis Terrarum: (Latin) the globe of the Earth (Ed.)

5 See above, Part Two, III,1, 2.

6 Ibid., IV, 1.

7 Ibid., IV, 3.

8 Navarrete, Collection, Vol. II, no. v.

9 See above, Part Two, V,4. In the Capitulaciones (Navarette, Collection, II,v) Ferdinand and Isabella allow themselves to be called "lords of the aforesaid Ocean Seas," and they dispatch Columbus to explore them with the promise of making him admiral of them.

10 See note 3 above.

11 Journal for the First Voyage

12 Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566): Spanish missionary in the West Indies who denounced oppression of the Amerindians by the Spanish colonizers in his writing (Ed.)

13 Las Casas, History, Book I, Chapter 44.

14 Stendhal (1783-1842): French novelist (Ed.)

15 Marcel Proust (1871-1922): French novelist (Ed.)