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Old 10-25-2000, 01:37 PM
Jingo Jingo is offline
Join Date: Oct 2000
Perhaps someone can shed some historical light on this one:

When Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, did he call the people there “Indians” in the mistaken belief that he had reached the East Indies?

Sure, so goes the old yarn, but I was recently laughed at by an Italian historian when I made an offhanded reference to this. He patronizingly explained that:

1) Columbus was Italian, but wrote some Spanish in his diary, though not very well. He wrote about his encounter with the people whom he had found saying they were “Um geni in Dios” –a bad translation of “a people in God.” [any spelling error here is mine, I looked through excerpts from Columbus’ log, but didn’t find the passage in question] “In Dios” was eventually corrupted to “Indians”

2) Columbus knew that he had not reached the East Indies.

3) Even if he HAD thought he was in the East Indies, the East Indies weren’t CALLED the East Indies in 1492, at least not by the Spanish or Italians. India (not recognized as a single sovereign nation) was still called Hindustan, and the “Indies” were called the Spice Islands.

I’ve been unable to verify this definitively. Well, OK, I didn’t make a concerted effort, either, but I’m still traumatized by having been laughed at by a snooty Italian historian. I’d appreciate any help in the matter, as I’ll likely see the same historian over the holidays, and man, do I ever want the opportunity to (loudly) refute his assertions. I may even prepare a victory dance.

Thank you.
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Old 10-25-2000, 02:32 PM
mealypotaotes mealypotaotes is offline
Join Date: Aug 2000
Evrything you've stated here with respect to historical names of supposed soureces of 'Indians' is true. I have spent 35 years in pursuit of historical records pertianing to Columbus, and the nearest theory I have is as follows:

When Columbus landed at Plymouth Rock, the Cleveland Indians had just clinched a playoff spot in the wildcard race. The native population was so impressed with this feat, that they chattered on endlessly about the Indians, so Columbus took that to be the name of their race.
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Old 10-25-2000, 02:49 PM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
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Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: N E Ohio
Posts: 40,175
If you were laughed at by an Italian professor, go back and laugh at his ignorance.

Columbus's Spanish was quite adequate to the task of maintaining correspondences in that country. (There is however, a lack of complete documentation that he actually came from Genoa, so not everyone accepts that he was Italian.)

Point 1 is an old canard that a real historian should know is nonsense.

Point 2 is basically true:

Columbus called the people he met indios because he was covering his backside. He got the money for the trip by claiming that he was going to the Indies. As far as he was concerned, any place he reached was going to be the Indies, no matter where he landed, so that he could come back and declare a successful journey (thereby guaranteeing finances for any future voyages he might wish to make).

Point 3 needs some further research and I don't have my OED at work. The naming of the Spice Islands does not preclude the use of the word Indies. (It would certainly not have been divided between East Indies and West Indies before Columbus's journeys). (How does this learned historian think people tranferred the name of the Caribbean Basin to the Spice Islands if the Caribes were named after "people of God" and the Spice Islands had been known to exist since the 10th century?)
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:05 PM
BobT BobT is offline
Join Date: Mar 1999
The OED traces the use of the word "Indies" in English back to the mid-16th Century.

It doesn't have any historical usage notes for "Spice Islands" however.
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:07 PM
plnnr plnnr is offline
Join Date: Feb 2000
Damn, beaten to the Cleveland punchline.
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:10 PM
Kimstu Kimstu is offline
Join Date: Dec 1999
Jingo, that "historian" told you a load of hooey. Here's some Columbus basics from an essay:
Columbus wrote to Luis de Santangel explaining his voyage and the way he took possession of the new lands he found in the "Indies:"

"As I know that you will be pleased at the great victory with which Our Lord has crowned my voyage, I write this to you, from which you will learn how in thirty-three days, I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies with the fleet which the most illustrious king and queen, our sovereigns, gave to me. And there I found very many islands filled with people innumerable, and of them all I have taken possession for their highnesses, by proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled, and no opposition was offered to me."
Of course the "East Indies" were not called the "East Indies" until later, when it was known that there was a "West Indies" to get them mixed up with! I'm not sure that in the fifteenth century, Europeans even knew exactly what or where the Spice Islands were: they didn't actually get there till the early sixteenth century. But certainly Columbus started out looking for a western sea route to the source of the spice supply, which was believed to be India or thereabouts, and certainly he initially believed that he'd more or less found it, and certainly that's how the name "Indies" got attached to the modern West Indies and the name "Indians" to Native Americans. Heck, in the mid-sixteenth century Lopez de Gomara wrote about Columbus's discoveries in his General History of the Indies (Historia General de las Indias), so it's hardly a modern urban legend.

And in fact, here you can see some excerpts from Columbus's own diaries (translated) that refer to "Indians." I do not see that purported "in Dios" reference there, but he obviously means to call the natives "Indians." Check out these links and get ready to kick some "historian" ass.
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:15 PM
Kimstu Kimstu is offline
Join Date: Dec 1999
Oh, and the classical and medieval name for India was, in fact, "India", not "Hindustan", which is a Persian name that didn't gain currency in the West until British contact with the Mughal Empire, IIRC.
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:19 PM
BobT BobT is offline
Join Date: Mar 1999
The OED tabs the first use of the word "India" in English to King Alfred back in 893. "Hindustan" doesn't pop up in English until 1616.

I'm just quoting my handy online OED here. I'm no expert in these matters.
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:28 PM
Kyberneticist Kyberneticist is offline
Join Date: Sep 1999
Posts: 1,324
Encyclopedia Britannica was interesting.

=,5722,117712,00.html=this url hopefully will not be turned into a link since it would be broken by SDMB.
The article reiterates what I was able to find in sources such as Columbus' log, and his letter to the king and queen - that he thought Cuba was Cathay (China).
"It was, the admiral decided, indeed the biblical Seba (Saba in the Vulgate), and Cuba was the mainland of Cathay. On June 12, 1494, Columbus insisted on a sworn declaration to that effect--a sure indication that, though not all of the company agreed with him, he was bent on insisting to his sovereign that he had reached Cathay."

The article is also interesting in that it discusses how Columbus arrived at his figures. I chose the printable version of the link since the non-printable adds little and is broken up into seperate pages.
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:31 PM
scratch1300 scratch1300 is offline
Join Date: Sep 2000
IIRC, "India" was a more general appellation in the 15th century than it is now, as seen in Indochina as well as the East Indies. So although Indies mayn't have been used till a century or two later, I'm guessing this greater India was where Columbus figured he was?
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Old 10-25-2000, 03:43 PM
scratch1300 scratch1300 is offline
Join Date: Sep 2000
Sorry, got hung up and didn't see Kimstu's posting quoting Columbus using the term you know what exactly the word was in the original Spanish?

Jingo, I hope you get to see that "historian" and make him eat crow!
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Old 10-25-2000, 04:26 PM
Kimstu Kimstu is offline
Join Date: Dec 1999
quoting Columbus using the term you know what exactly the word was in the original Spanish?

Well, both Lopez de Gomara and de las Casas in the mid-sixteenth century wrote books called more or less Historia de las Indias, so "Indias" would be the Spanish term. I hasten to add, though, that I believe Columbus's own journals were written in Italian, and I'm not sure what the Italian equivalent would be.
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Old 10-26-2000, 08:01 AM
Jingo Jingo is offline
Join Date: Oct 2000
My most profound thanks to everyone for the well-documented truth! I just knew the dopers wouldn’t let me down. I’ve since checked my own OED and it should, at the least, provide solid evidence of the silliness of the historian’s claim. Im working on an interpretive dance of victory which I shall call “Morderlo”…”bite me” in Italian.
Thank you, again.
"Youth, we have plenty of. What we need is a Fountain of Smart."
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