Thursday, 24 December 2015

The great disappointment

Another taster from English Literature in the Sixteenth Century

C. S. Lewis’s aphorisms are wonderful. ‘One of the greatest disappointments in the history of Europe’ he declares, in his introduction. And what is he talking about? The discovery of America!

The reasons for Columbus’s voyage were mundane and mercantile. His aim was to enable his Spanish sponsors to circumvent the Turks and Venetians who obstructed or engrossed the lucrative trade with the East by finding a route to China the other way round the world, spurred on by the Portuguese discovery of a route to India around the southern end of Africa. The enterprise was not guided by high-minded ideals stemming from the ‘new learning’. Commendably, Columbus, who was a brave man, acted in faith upon ‘the age-old doctrine of the earth’s rotundity’ (not a new ‘renaissance’ idea, Lewis reminds us) and sailed west to find the east.

It was therefore an irony that ‘lands which no one had dreamed of barred his way’. America was, essentially, a nuisance, and the new nautical powers—Spain, Portugal, England, Holland—had to make the best of it. And so, Lewis observes, began a ‘period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us’. When the English explorers, or exploiters, appeared on the scene a bit later than the Spaniards, they ‘had to content themselves with colonization’. Lest we should view this as a lofty, if ill-executed, enterprise, Lewis reminds us that it was seen at the time mainly as ‘a social sewerage system’. Humphrey Gilbert, in his Discourse of a Discouerie for a new Passage to Cataia (1576) conceived the New World as a handy place to put ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’. Long before transported criminals went to banishment to Australia, their destination was the English lands in America (see Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel Moll Flanders). And alongside the African slave trade there was a system of forced indenture by which many young English people worked as virtual slaves in North America.

Some of the early English voyagers’ descriptions show that it was a brave new world indeed. In Virginia there was ‘shole water wher we smelt so sweet and strong a smell as if we had beene in the midst of some delicate garden’.  But they wanted ‘a good Mine or a passage to the South Sea’. They hadn’t even a missionary enterprise. Lewis tells us also that ‘the best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America’. Montaigne felt that the ancients might have ‘spread civility where we have only spread corruption’.

The ‘wonder and glory’ of exploration was not much reflected in literature of the period. Lewis thinks that the only thing which the New World impressed strongly on the European mind (though it did not create it) was the image of the Savage or Adam-like Natural Man (the pioneers thought they might encounter him there). This ambivalent belief produced Rousseau’s Noble Savage, but also Caliban in The Tempest, Hobbes’s state of nature, and the nineteenth century’s myth of ‘Cave Man’. Perhaps even Santa Claus?


  1. Wonderfully informative as ever, Lewis shows us that he had no illusions and a wide historical knowledge to back up his thoughts and writings in other areas and of course his teaching of English at university level. #Ilovefacts alongside of poetry!

  2. I am so loving your monthly visits to C S Lewis's writings! Merry Christmas.

  3. Really interesting post. Thank you.