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Eaten Up By Stereotypes

Christopher Columbus' stereotypes of Caribbean natives have been used by some of history's greatest writers and philosophers, says Dr. Philip Boucher, a history professor.

Boucher's new book, "Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs 1492-1763," says Columbus' description of Caribbean island people as "ferocious cannibals" influenced the work of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Columbus influenced the anthropological views of writers who have influenced modern thought, Boucher said. "A majority of writers participated in this degradation of American Indians. There was not in fact such a huge gap between 'primitive' and 'civilized.' These were distortions perpetuated by Columbus and most of his successors."

The belief that some people of faraway places were cannibals was accepted by Europeans long before they arrived in the New World. But cannibalism has never been proven to have existed among the islanders Columbus encountered.

Columbus and other Europeans had selfish reasons for spreading the message of cannibalism: It allowed colonists to enslave the islanders, an economic boon.

After meeting enslaved islanders, Queen Isabella ordered the slaves released. Before her death, however, she relented and allowed the enslavement of "cannibals." Spaniards used the loophole to enslave almost any Indian within their grasp.

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.