When Spain began colonizing the American continents, its colonial land-grabs were already condoned by geopolitical norms of the era, as well as papal support. Nevertheless, when it comes to the actions of government entities, more justification is always better than less. Therefore, although Spain’s colonization and conquest of parts of the New World were rarely deemed unjustified in colonial-age Europe, the Spaniards still took opportunities to further strengthen and expand their claims on the Americas. One of the more curious ways that Spain tried to bolster its ownership of the New World involved harkening back to ancient legend and myth. In particular, patriotic Spanish scholars mused over the tales of Hesperus—the personified evening-star god, who came to be associated with the Iberian Peninsula and the Canary Islands. In connection to Hesperus, the scholars also investigated the Hesperides, a name attached to the daughters of Hesperus, as well as to mythical islands owned by the evening-star god. The so-called Hesperides Islands had long been associated with the Canary Islands, but when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas and the Caribbean, Spaniards began reassessing the myth. In effect, by insinuating that the Iberian Peninsula’s Hesperus had ruled islands in the New World, the Spanish scholars peculiarly proposed that Spain’s rightful ownership over the American continents dated back to the vague days of ancient legend and myth. This imaginative, but bizarre, theory was explained by the enthusiastic colonist and writer, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (c. 1478-1557):
“The islands known as the Hesperides mentioned by Sebosus and Solinus, Pliny and Isidore must undoubtedly be the [West] Indies and must have belonged to the Kingdom of Spain ever since Hesperus’s time, who, according to Beroso, reigned 1,650 years before the birth of Our Lord. Therefore, if we add the 1,535 years since Our Saviour came into the world, the kings of Spain have been lords of the Hesperides for 3,193 years in all. So by the most ancient rights on this account and for other reasons that will be stated during the description of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, God has restored this realm to the kings of Spain after many centuries. It appears therefore that divine justice restored to the fortunate and Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabel, conquerors of Granada and Naples, what had always been theirs and belongs to their heirs in perpetuity” (Oviedo, General and Natural History of the Indies, II.3).
This argument, of course, was not very convincing, especially to rival colonial powers that wanted their own pieces of the New World. Besides, many conquistadores needed only cite religion, conquest and wealth to feel justified in their actions. Proponents for the Hesperus theory, however, could be commended for their creativity and enthusiasm. ‘A’ for effort, as it were.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (16th Century Print Depicting Christopher Columbus With Mythical Beings, printed by Johann Theodor de Bry in 1594, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s General and Natural History of the Indies, in the Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus, translated and edited by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Classics, 1969.