Does “Indian” derive from Columbus’s description of Native Americans as “una gente in Dios”?


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Dear Straight Dope: What’s the truth about the origin of the term “American Indian”? Schoolchildren have long been taught that Columbus thought he had reached the Indies, and therefore called the inhabitants “Indians.” But lately I’ve been hearing the story that: (a) The Indies weren’t even called the Indies at the time, but Hindustan; (b) Columbus didn’t call the locals “Indians” but referred to them as “una geste in Dios”, meaning “a people in God"; (c) somehow this caused people in Spain to start using the term “Indians"; and (d) Europeans then started using the geographical term “Indies” through back-formation. This explanation sounds like wishful thinking to me, with (c) and (d) particularly hard to swallow. Yet I’ve seen this stated as fact on some Indian Web sites, and it’s doubtless being taught as fact in some schoolrooms. Is it possible to find the truth in this matter? Steven Doyle, Atlanta, Georgia

SDStaff Colibri replies:

The best way to determine the truth in cases like this, Steve, is to go to the source–in this case, Columbus’s original letter, through which word of the new lands and their inhabitants was disseminated throughout Europe (see links below). In this letter Columbus repeatedly refers to India and Indians, and says nothing whatever about “a people in God.”

First, let’s get the supposed phrase right. The Spanish word for people is gente, not geste. Note that the supposed derivation requires Columbus to have made an error in spelling, since “in” in Spanish is en; the word in doesn’t exist in the language. I’ll have more to say on this point later.

Second, let’s dispose of the notion that India was called something else at the time. The name, derived from the Indus River (from Sanskrit sindhu, “a river”), goes back to antiquity. Alexander the Great referred to the Indus (Indos), and to the region’s inhabitants as Indikoi, as early as the third century B.C. The name passed from Greek into Latin and thence into other European languages, the earliest citation in English being in 893 A.D. by King Alfred the Great. At the time of Columbus’s voyage, “India” or “the Indias/Indies” was often used to refer to all of south and east Asia. Columbus carried with him a passport from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, written in Latin and dispatching him “toward the regions of India” (ab partes Indie) on their behalf. Martin Beheim’s globe of 1492, which predated the voyage, clearly labels the region as “Indie.” “Hindustan,” also derived from the Indus River, is a much later term, not appearing in English until 1665. In any case, in Spanish that name is not Hindustan but Indostan.

Third, let’s look at what Columbus actually said. The admiral wrote a letter, in Spanish, detailing his discoveries while off the Azores during his homeward voyage. He forwarded this to the royal court, then at Barcelona, shortly after his storm-driven arrival in Lisbon on March 4, 1493. The original manuscript has not survived, but a printed copy made shortly after its receipt has. In the first paragraph Columbus says “In 33 days I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies” (en 33 días pasé de las islas de Canaria a las Indias). His first reference to the inhabitants comes in the second paragraph: “To the first [island] which I found I gave the name San Salvador … the Indians call it Guanahaní” (A la primera que yo hallé puse nombre San Salvador … los Indios la llaman Guanahaní). In all he makes six references to India or the Indies, and four to Indios. Nowhere in the letter does he use a phrase resembling una gente in Dios. He says little of the spiritual beliefs of the people — at one point he states, “These people practice no kind of idolatry; on the contrary they firmly believe that all strength and power, and in fact all good things are in heaven, and that I had come down from thence with these ships and sailors;” at another he says “they are very ready and favorably inclined” to be converted to Christianity — but that’s about it.

Shortly after Columbus’s arrival, a copy of the letter reached Rome, where it was translated into Latin, and printed in early May. This version rapidly became a “best seller” throughout western Europe, with no fewer than eleven editions being produced in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands in 1493 alone. Of course, the fact that the news was circulated in Latin and not Spanish by itself pretty much puts paid to the supposed derivation. (The phrases corresponding to the ones quoted above are Tricesimotercio die postquam Gadibus discessi: in mare Indicû perueni and primeque earum: diui Saluatoris nomê imposui … Eam vero Indi Guanahanyn vocant.)

The only hint of plausibility in the story is that “in” is in fact in in Italian, and so might be the kind of slip one could expect the Genoa-born Columbus to make. However, oddly enough, Columbus almost never wrote in Italian (and then, not more than a phrase or two), writing even to his family and Genoese friends in Spanish. Born poor, he appears to have been virtually illiterate when he left Genoa as a young man, not learning to read and write until he settled in Portugal. According to Samuel Eliot Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea, “he wrote Castilian with Portuguese spellings, especially in the vowels, which prove he spoke Portuguese before he learned Castilian.” And in Portuguese, “in” is em.

Actually, the land that Columbus most eagerly sought was not India itself, but “the noble island of Cipangu [Japan] … most fertile in gold, pearls, and precious stones.” Who knows? If Columbus had managed to convince himself he had actually reached Japan, today Ohioans might well be rooting for the Cleveland Cipangans.

For an English translation of Columbus’s letter:

For the Spanish text:

For the Latin text:

SDStaff Colibri, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

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