This scene is from a drawing by Jan van der Straet (c 1575), has become an emblem of the Discovery: the reclining woman, nude in a luxuriant New World landscape, greeting the European man who stands on the shoreline before her, armored and bearing a staff with crucifix in his right hand and astrolabe in the other. Discreetly hidden under his tunic is a sword [...] this is just one in a long series of graphic and verbal representations of the Discovery as an erotic encounter between a fully clothed European male and a naked Amerindian female, an image that has been firmly established in the Western cultural imagination for quite some time.
In Van der Straetęs depiction, the Europeanęs hands, as noted, are full. The Indian womanęs hands, in contrast, are notably empty, and her right hand is held out toward him in a gesture ambiguously suspended between greeting and invitation. It is indeed difficult to discern with absolute certainty if she is rising in order to embrace him or is in the process of reclining and inviting him to join her in the hammock. In any case, far more than a simple erotic encounter is suggested in this scene, the prelude to an exchange whose character is hardly ambiguous. "America" offers him her unclothed and recumbent body; her empty hands show she has nothing else to offer. He reciprocates, erect and in full armor, with his knowledge and his faith. The economy allegorized in Van der Straet's erotic encounter is, of course, much more than simply sexual. Embedded in this gendered exchange arecultural values that privilege the European male's posture in contrast to the Indian female's, which is altogether too receptive, open, and empty, despite her undeniably desirable beauty, which is enhanced by the pastoral gardenlike setting. The explicit mark of her denigration resides in the background. Easily missed at first glance, but strategically situated between the two figures, just above her beckoning arm, is a cannibalistic scene. The idyllic, almost sublime, inflection Van der Straet has given to the encounter taking place in the foreground is undercut by the want implied in her gesture (empty hand beckoning), and the curve of her arm seems to cradle the cannibalistic scene situated just above and beyond it. Three other Indians, naked as she, are roasting a human leg.
The one whom de Certeau calls "an unnamed presence of difference," in fact appears to have had a name from the beginning; her name was Woman. The specific textual marks of that name India, America (it could just as easily have been Columbia) are not important. The gendered cultural values they all imply equally, their shared semantic valence, are the real ciphers of her significance. De Certeau's seminal erotic interpretation of Van der Straet's drawing seems to have missed the most obvious point of all--when the conqueror arrives on 'America's" shores, " the body of the other," her body, has already been inscribed in the feminine mode.
Van der Straet's allegory does not invent but translates the signs of a discourse already in existence. It does not represent an "unnamed presence" waiting to be written, but rather inscribes that presence in a woman's body, as object in an exchange already defined by gender difference. To probe the founding terms of that exchange, of that sexual economy, I want to revisit the question of gender in the discourse of the Discovery by considering the source of this mythical scene of the first encounter in the specific discursive context from which it arose the textual dialogue between the Crown and Columbus regarding the projection of the economic and political win of Castile and Aragon "plus ultra," that is, ever beyond the expanding borders of Spain at the close of the fifteenth century.
Margarita Zamora. Reading Columbus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. p. 152.