Encounters Unforeseen: A Bicultural Retelling of 1492 with Andrew Rowen

In this Conversations episode, This Anthro Life hosts Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins are joined by author Andrew Rowen to discuss his new novel, Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold. Coming in the months trailing the 525th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s (or Cristobal Colon’s) voyage to the America’s, Rowen’s novel seeks to add some much needed depth to the modern myths on the subject. Encounters Unforeseen doesn’t start at the (in)famous voyage, or even in Europe. Instead, The drama alternates among three Taíno chieftains—Caonabó, Guacanagarí, and Guarionex—and Bakoko, a Taíno youth seized by Columbus, Spain’s Queen Isabella I of Castile, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Columbus. 


Some text from the Press Release: After 525 years, the traditional literature recounting the history of Columbus’s epic voyage and first encounters with Native Americans remains Eurocentric, focused principally—whether pro- or anti-Columbus—on Columbus and the European perspective. A historical novel, Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold now dramatizes these events from a bicultural perspective, fictionalizing the beliefs, thoughts, and actions of the Native Americans who met Columbus side by side with those of Columbus and other Europeans, all based on a close reading of Columbus’s Journal, other primary sources, and anthropological studies.

Rowen’s approach here was to take a bicultural perspective, engaging the readers through distinct traditions and worldviews. Both of which, from today’s vantage point, are surprising and more distanced from the present than one might realize. One of Rowen’s primary goals with this historical novel was to recast the epic voyage by adding deep context into European and Taino lives. It depicts the education, loves and marriages, and other life experiences each brought to the unforeseen encounters and then their astonishment, fears, and objectives in 1492 and 1493. The focus includes the Taíno “discovery” of Europe, when Columbus hauls the captive and other Taínos back to Spain, as well as the chieftains’ reactions to the abusive garrison of seamen Columbus leaves behind in the Caribbean. Throughout, the Taíno protagonists are neither merely victims nor statistics, but personalities and actors comparable to the European, and their side of the story is forcefully told.

The novel weaves a fascinating tapestry of scenes and dialogues from the historical record, often incorporating text from primary sources. Isabella plots her dynastic marriage, argues with Ferdinand over who’s supreme, and wages war to expand their kingdoms. The chieftains take multiple wives to consolidate their rules, vie to marry the beautiful Anacaona, and battle Caribe raiders. An unknown Columbus conceives a fanciful voyage, marries advantageously to promote it, and yet suffers an agonizing decade of ridicule and rejection. Guacanagarí rescues Columbus when the Santa María sinks, but Caonabó questions Guacanagarí’s generosity, and Guarionex is vexed, having witnessed a religious prophecy of Taíno genocide inflicted by a “clothed people.” Columbus teaches his captive Christianity, initiating the following centuries’ collision of Christianity with Native American religion and spirits.

The Taíno stories depict both events known to have occurred (e.g., the chieftains’ ascensions to power, the prophecy of genocide, the captive’s baptism in Spain) and known practices or experiences (e.g., inter-island canoe travel, a hurricane, a Caribe wife raid, a batey game). The Isabella and Ferdinand stories include their establishment of the Inquisition, subjugation and Christianization of the Canary Islands, completion of the Reconquista, and expulsion of the Jews from Spain, illustrating European doctrines of conquest, enslavement, and involuntary conversion and how the sovereigns ruled over Old World peoples before encountering Native Americans. The Columbus stories portray his pre-1492 sailing experiences and the evolution of his world outlook, and his thoughts during the encounters embody the concepts underlying the European subjugation of Native Americans over the following centuries. Stark societal differences are illustrated, with the Europeans practicing African slavery and the Taínos sharing food as communal property.

A Sources section briefly discusses interpretations of historians and anthropologists contrary to the author’s presentation, as well as issues of academic disagreement.

While this episode takes a revealing look into the past it also explores the necessary strategies an author needs to use in order to bring perspective to people whose histories and experiences were not recorded from their own perspectives, at least not initially. Though this episode focuses on the 1492 contact between Europeans and the the native people of North America, as well as the years leading up to it, several related themes come in conversation that relate to other distinct cultures and the initial moments of cross cultural interaction – tense moments of fear, confusion, and miscommunication. 

Who is Andrew Rowen?

Andrew Rowen, the author of Encounters Unforeseen, is a U.C. Berkeley and Harvard Law graduate who practiced law as a partner of a major New York City law firm for almost 30 years prior to retiring to write this novel. As Rowen shared, he has long been interested in the roots of religious intolerance – a subject exemplified by many of the encounters during the years of European contact and subsequent colonization. His inspiration in writing is not only to validly depict the encounters from both viewpoints, but to illustrate a civility and tolerance of the society and religion of the indigenous cultures which have been radically transformed as a result of contact. Further, the civility and tolerance characteristic of indigenous religions prior to European contact are factors that Rowen are often lacking in the modern societies and religions that we have inherited. You can learn much more about Andrew Rowen on his website.

Research and the (Missing) Written Word

While there are several resources, academic and popular, on the events surrounding the late 15th century contact between Europeans and American Natives, few really explore a cultural perspective, let alone a bicultural one. This is often for good reason as there are very few primary documents that give insight into the Taino. While the Taino did not have a writing system to document histories and stories, they chronicled such happenings through exceptional oral traditions – many contemporary variants of which have been documented by folklorists and anthropologists like those in Irving Rouse’s The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus or William F. Keegan’s Taíno Indian Myth and Practice: The Arrival of the Stranger King. Yet, when compared with the documents left by the Europeans, the data available to faithfully dive inside the minds of the Taino is quite scant.

The Europeans certainly wrote extensively of their encounters with natives of the new world. Private, contemporaneous and personal accounts, like those of Columbus’s journals, very much reflect a sense of disconnect and misunderstanding that came with contact as it occured. On the other hand, the more scholarly accounts by friars and historians like Bartolome de las Casas where often compiled much later. Doing so allowed for a fuller understanding to be conveyed. But, it was also one of second hand experience viewed through a cultural lens with heavy religious overtones. In this sense, the challenge of disentangling the Taino voice and experience from the vantage of the Europeans, while granting equal footing, has been undertaken with much less frequency.  

To approach a fictionalized, yet historically faithful, creative, and imaginative insider perspective on Taino life and culture, Rowen devoted six years to research. In this time, Rowen reviewed European texts as well as anthropological studies, ethnography, and archival research. This journey also carried him to nearly all of the Caribbean, European and Atlantic locations where the book’s action takes place, including the archaeological sites where the Taíno chieftains lived in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Youth, Development and Cultural Knowledge

One of the most anthropologically compelling aspects of Rowen’s Encounters Unforeseen is his creative choice to begin the novel with the central protagonists in their youth. To do this, Rowen set the story’s introduction in the year 1455. From an anthropological perspective, culture tends to be learned in two ways: internally (inculturation) and externally (enculturation). We all come to learn our own culture through experience, coming of age, and familiarizing ourselves with the rules and logic of our societies. This process is often seamless to us. Yet, to learn another culture, especially later in life, can be jarring if not outright difficult, confusing and time consuming. Rowen’s choice to start the narrative in Taino society during a duck hunt seeks to put the reader in the shoes of a child coming to learn their own culture. Doing so throughout the novel makes each of the central characters all the more approachable. This strategy was also used by Gary Jennings in his novel Aztec, where the reader is introduced to a protagonist immersed in learning the Mexica (or Aztec) world from a truly insider perspective. For Rowen, this strategy was important because it not only gave him the chance to immersively explore society and religion but to get a sense of why the protagonists (the real historical figures of the book) acted in the ways that they did when crossing cultural boundaries.


In Sum

Encounters Unforeseen does much to dispel the popular myths surrounding the contact between Europeans and Native Americans in 1492. It also humanizes the subjects in way that makes them approachable and engaging to an audience today – centuries removed and worlds apart from the social realities of the time for both cultures. Tune in to find out much more and to explore the crossing of cultural boundaries. Andrew Rowen’s Encounters Unforseen: 1492 Retold, was released on November 8th and can be found on Amazon.com. If you’d like to get in contact with Andrew Rowan, please check out the links below.

Author Andrew Rowen

Website – http://www.andrewrowen.com/
Check out the book:
Barnes and Noble


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Additional Images Taken from “Encounters Unforeseen” by Andrew Rowen

Atlantic World Map – Credit David Atkinson

Taino Caribbean Map – Island names are based on Julian Granberry and Gary Vescelius’s Languages of the Pre-Columbian Antilles (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004). Aniyana (Middle Caicos); Ba We Ka (Caicos bank); Baneque (Great Iguana); Boriquén (Puerto Rico); Caicos (North Caicos); Guanahaní (San Salvador); Haiti (Dominican Republic and Haiti); Manigua (Rum Cay); Samoete (Crooked, Fortune, and Acklins Islands); Utiaquia (Ragged Islands); Wana (East Caicos); Yamaye (Jamaica); Yuma (Long Island).  Credit David Atkinson

World Map – Portion of Juan de la Cosa’s World Map, 1500, with the route of Columbus’s voyage superimposed. Credit David Atkinson

Intro Music from this episode:

Thunderbird Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

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