Why didn't the explorers stop calling them Indians?
October 22, 2005 9:15 AM   Subscribe

When did the European explorers of the Americas figure out that they were not in the Orient but reather in two "new" continents? And, at this point, why did they not stop referring to the indigenous peoples of these continents as Indians?
posted by soiled cowboy to Society & Culture (11 answers total)
 
I'm fairly sure the part about europeans calling them 'indians' because they thought they were in india is a myth. I think it came partly from the word 'dios' which is the spanish word for god, but im not sure exactly the story.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 9:43 AM on October 22, 2005


When did the European explorers of the Americas figure out that they were not in the Orient but reather in two "new" continents?

People argued about it as soon as Columbus's first voyage returned to Spain. Subsequent exploration in the early 1500's proved to most people that they weren't in Asia. Balboa had a lot to do with this starting in about 1503 when he started exploring central America (and especially in 1512 (I think) when he started mapping the coastline of another ocean that wouldn't be there if it were asia). The issue wasn't settled definitively until Magellan's voyage returned in 1522, but reasonable pople were already pretty sure.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:49 AM on October 22, 2005


From Alan Taylor's American Colonies (one of the best history books I've read, by the way): "But Columbus supposed that all of the islands belonged to the East Indies and lay near the mainland of Asia. Although the native inhabitants (the Taino) were unlike any people he had ever seen or read about, Columbus insisted that they were 'Indians,' a misnomer that has endured." What was the alternative, after all? It was useful to have an umbrella term to cover all these Tainos and Cherokee and Mohawks and the many others they kept running into, and "natives" was colorless and ambiguous.

Others figured out pretty quickly that it was a new continent, but "to his death in 1506, Columbus stubbornly insisted that all of his discoveries lay close to the coast of Asia." (You all know that he only went on his voyage of discovery because he vastly underestimated the size of the Earth, right?)
posted by languagehat at 9:59 AM on October 22, 2005


No, Columbus really called them Indians because he thought he was in India. It is the "en dios" thing that is the myth. The quickest reference I could find is unfortunately from a right-wing source trying to score cheap political points, but he is sound on his facts.

When Columbus died in 1506, after five voyages to the New World, he remained convinced he had sailed to India. But other Europeans had caught on that these were new lands. But the term Indians continued to be used, partly for a lack of a clear alternative. What should they call them instead, with hundreds of different tribal and ethnic names.

One of my favorite quotes from early American history is from 1646, when a Christian Indian convert asked missionary John Eliot: "Why do you call us Indians?"

On Preview: What Curley and Languagehat said.
posted by LarryC at 10:09 AM on October 22, 2005


What was the alternative, after all? It was useful to have an umbrella term to cover all these Tainos and Cherokee and Mohawks and the many others they kept running into, and "natives" was colorless and ambiguous.

Surely an alternative could have been any name that wasn't already in use and obviously incorrect? But maybe I'm viewing this through a hindsight filter that simplifies a complex situation.

One of my favorite quotes from early American history is from 1646, when a Christian Indian convert asked missionary John Eliot: "Why do you call us Indians?"

LarryC, what was Eliot's reply?
posted by soiled cowboy at 10:35 AM on October 22, 2005


Alas, Eliot did not record it! His Indian Dialogues are funny like that, not dialogues at all but one side of the conversation. I just tried to find them online but it seems that no one has digitized Eliot yet.
posted by LarryC at 10:55 AM on October 22, 2005


On another note, some now refer to India-Indians as "Hindus." Which many are, but many aren't.
posted by Citizen Premier at 2:15 PM on October 22, 2005


IndiaIndians = East Indians.
And the Caribbean = the West Indies.
I've heard Native Americans called "Amerindians" before, though never West Indians.

Columbus did think the Americas were a new continent for a brief time, but reverted to his previous belief before long.

I always thought it interesting how he brought hundreds of slaves back to Spain (most died enroute and upon arrival though.) The shock would've been intense.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:54 PM on October 22, 2005


There are lots of primary sources (mainly travel stories) from the first Euro American explorers here.
posted by meehawl at 5:59 PM on October 22, 2005


And, at this point, why did they not stop referring to the indigenous peoples of these continents as Indians?

Because they didn't see any reason to change the term they'd been using. I don't think there's anything really complex about it -- everyone knew what each other meant well enough, and nobody gave a damn that the term was technically inaccurate because it worked just fine as it was.

For the same reasons, we still call them the Pennsylvania Dutch even though they're not from the Netherlands, and we still use terms like someone's blood flowing in your veins even though that's not how heredity works, and an Afrikaner immigrant is not African-American.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:53 PM on October 22, 2005


According to this book by Jack Forbes Columbus set about collecting slaves immediately on arrival in the new world, beginning with 27 men, and adding seven women "these women will do much to teach our people their language, which is one and the same througfhout these islands of India" (page 22)

By the late 1490s there were already thousands of enslaved "Indians" in Spain. By the early 1500s the term Indio already specified somebody form "Terra Nova" in the Spanish slave records. Slaves imported from India itself were noted as "negro de Mallacca" or "negro de Bombay." The American Indians were classified racially as "loros" in color - like captive North African arabs or Canary Island Guanches, not as "negro" slaves in Spanish slave records.

Columbus had hoped to reach Japan or China. When he came upon islanders he assumed he had made landfall on islands he guessed were south of India. And since he found no gold, he went to Plan B in order to finance his further voayages: slave trading. The new brand of slaves were "Indians." To quote Columbus: "I did this... because already it has been many times my business to bring men from Guinea..."

The term "Indio/India" therefore predates the geographic discovery that Columbus was not in the Indies. When Europeans became acquainted with Native Americans - via the slave market - the name Indian had already stuck.
posted by zaelic at 3:41 AM on October 23, 2005


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