MIT OpenCourseWare


Columbus: Letter about the First Voyage

  1. How does Columbus see (or portray) the indigenous inhabitants?

  2. How does he see (or portray) the natural world of this region?

  3. If you had to sum up the central "message" of this letter in a single word or short phrase, what might that be?

  4. What is the role of God in Columbus' account?

  5. In the document, what can we deduce to be motivating Columbus' efforts? To what specific end(s) did he compose this letter?

    (From the Web site: The Columbus Letter)
  1. How would you describe the circulation of Columbus' letter? Who might have read it, and when?

  2. Does anything about how this letter circulated come as a surprise to you?


  1. What do you make of this description of the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea"? Which descriptions of Europeans and Native Americans correspond with those you've gleaned from Columbus' letter, and which diverge?

  2. When was this originally published? What would you guess to be the underlying narrative arc (or agenda) of Morison's book?


  1. In what ways does Sauer's characterization of Columbus differ from Morison's? Are they in any way similar?


  1. What is the "myth of the noble savage"?

  2. What are the core components of Columbus' perceptions of the indigenous peoples, according to Todorov? What are the implications of each of these notions? Do you agree with Todorov's argument?

  3. Is Todorov's work "history"?

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

Questions for the discussion of "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano." (Chapters 1-7, 12.)

  1. When Equiano is describing the culture of Africa, his birthplace (?), is he relying on personal memory for the information and details? Or on other sources?

  2. What are the indictments of slavery that Equiano makes over the course of this autobiography?(and do you think these are the arguments that he himself believed, or that he thought his readers would agree with?

  3. Equiano lives on three continents, and speaks languages used on all three. He is a slave and (later) a freedman, a sailor, an administrator, a hairdresser (chapter 9, pp. 140-141), an author, and a political activist on behalf of the anti-slavery movement.
  • How would you describe (or categorize) Equiano?

  • Is he African, African-American, European?

  • How does he identify himself? (And what does he draw his sense of identity from? Does it change, depending on the particular context or situation he is in?