What do you do when the Thingy From Elsewhere lands on your front lawn, steps out of its mysterious vehicle and says—um, well, you haven’t the faintest idea what it’s saying. You stare at it and look for signs of niceness (or not-so-niceness). And if it doesn’t eat you, what do you do next?
If it makes a noise, do you repeat the noise, in a gentle way? If it sings, do you sing back? If it makes friendly dance-like moves, do you repeat the dance? Those of us who saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind might favor the you-go-first-and-I’ll-follow approach: Do what they do.
But those reading Christopher Columbus’s letters to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain (that would be me), might say: Be really, really careful.
Take the day Columbus arrived on the island of Trinidad. First encounters, writes Stephen Greenblatt in his 1991 book Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, could be every bit as clueless, dangerous, and daring as those in Spielberg’s movie.
As Columbus describes in his letter to the king and queen announcing his discoveries (and published in 1493), he was on one of his ships, sailing close to shore …
… when he saw some Indians gathered nearby in canoes. They wore elaborate headscarves, of the kind Marco Polo had written about in his book about the “Indies,” so Columbus thought maybe these people were more sophisticated (and more spice-making and gold-owning) than they were, more like the “Indians” he was trying so hard to find. So with his hands he motioned for them to come over to the ships. They looked, shouted something he couldn’t understand, and both sides stayed put.
They were watching him but not moving.
Columbus was well aware that Europeans and these island inhabitants had no words in common. But he kept looking for some way to break through, to suggest good will—to telegraph, at least for a bit—his desire to trade. (He also wanted to convert them and in some cases enslave them. But not yet. Not now. This was “hello.”)
So his second move was to put some shiny pans and other bright objects (mirrors, maybe?) on the high deck of his ship, where the Indians could see them. They moved a little closer, seemed curious, but wouldn’t get too close.
That’s when he came up with his “Let’s Dance” idea. “I caused to be brought up to the castle of the poop [an upper deck] a tambourine,” he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella. He was hoping to get a jig going, using that very simple anybody-can-do-it instrument. Playing it on board might lure “some young men to dance, believing that they would draw near.“
So somebody on Columbus’s ship shook a tambourine and started to dance.
The effect was immediate, writes Greenblatt, though not exactly what Columbus had in mind. “As soon as they observed the playing and dancing,” the explorer wrote, “they all dropped their oars and laid hand on their bows and strung them, and each one of them took up his shield, and they began to shoot arrows.”
Columbus’s getting-to-know-you dance looked to the Trinidadians like an unambiguous declaration of war. The two sides fought, then hustled off.
Afterward, wrote Columbus, “I never saw any more of them or of the other inhabitants of this island.”
So dancing introductions can be risky. But amazingly enough, the same gambit was tried again. And again. And again. There were so many first encounters between European explorers and North, South, and Central Americans—and dancing was such a simple, available option—that even if Columbus’s try went badly, other hello dances had to go better. And they did.
Let’s switch to Newfoundland. It’s 1612, more than a century after Columbus.
This time our explorer is an English merchant named John Guy. He disembarked near an abandoned Indian encampment and discovered a number of loose items (please excuse his 17th-century spelling): “a copper kettle kepte very brigthte, a furre gowne, some seale skinnes, ane old sayle and a fishing reele.”
Guy told his crew not to take anything but to stack them in a neat pile, and on top he placed some crackers and “three or fower amber beades.” It was a signal: We don’t want your stuff; We left you a little gift. Maybe you’ll trade with us.
“Presentlie two canoaoes appeared,” Guy wrote later. And after some preliminaries, two Indians appeared on the beach, one carrying a white cloth (of peace?). He made a “lowed noise,” which suggested that, maybe, the native inhabitants were ready to “ parlie,” or talk. But with no words in common, the English weren’t sure what to do.
One of the Indians opened with “a loude speech and shaked [the white flag].” The English sent one of their own, a Mr. Whittington, to meet him, also with a white flag. The two moved closer. The Indian threw down his flag. Whittington did the same. A second Indian joined the first, and then, all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, the two Indians began “daunsing, leaping and singing & coming togeather.”
The English didn’t startle. They didn’t shoot. Instead Whittington joined in, and “all three did sing, & daunce” and somehow amid all the leaping, Whittington gave his two new partners a leather chain of seashells, a knife, and “a feather that stucke in his heare.”
Whittington was then joined by another crewmate, Fraunces Tipton, and “Then all fower together duanced, laughing & making signes of ioy, and gladnes, sometimes strikeing the breastes of our companie & somtymes theyre owne.”
The breast slapping, the dance itself, Greenblatt says, was total improvisation. The two sides were imitating each other, just like they did in Close Encounters. If you do it, I’ll copy. And it worked.
The common issue in both these scenes is wordlessness; two parties with no shared culture meet, make sounds, and make gestures, but it’s hard for either side to figure out what’s going on. Greenblatt says Columbus’s letters are full of “we could not understand,” “we do not know,” “we could not explain,” and how he groped, at least at first, for ways to connect. With dancing, with anything, it was very hit or miss. And there was a lot of miss.
I think my favorite “miss” story is the story of a noun. A proper noun, actually, that you can find today on most maps. It comes from a diary kept by Antonio de Ciudad Real, a young secretary who traveled with a Franciscan priest across Central America in the 1580s. One day, when they were in eastern Mexico, along the Caribbean coast, the priest and his secretary asked some Indians, What’s the name of this place? How’d it get its name?
“When the Spaniards discovered this land,” Ciudad Real writes, “their leader asked the Indians how it was called; as they did not understand him, they said uic athan, which means, what do you say or what do you speak, that we do not understand you.”
So the Mayans responded with a “Whaaat?” Or, “Uic athan—We haven’t a clue what you’re saying.”
And that’s what went onto the map, as Ciudad Real writes: “[T]he Spaniard ordered it set down that it be called Yucatan.”
“The Maya expression of incomprehension,” writes Greenblatt, “becomes the colonial name of the land that is wrested from them.”
That pretty much sums it up: When two alien cultures have their first close encounter, nobody knows what anybody is saying, and that’s when accidents-—good, bad, funny, sad—happen. And there are lots of them.