Peter Martyr

Peter Martyr, born Pietro Martire d'Anghiera, was born in the small town of Arona, in northern Italy around the year 1457. Almost nothing is known of his childhood, but as a young man of 20 or so, he left to serve under the governor of Rome, Francesco de Negri. In Rome, he fell in with a group of students studying under renowned teacher Pomponius Lætus, who kindled in young Martyr a love of learning.

Through his position as secretary to Governor Negri, Martyr came to know the Spanish Ambassador, Iñigo Lopez de Mendoza, the Count of Tendilla. Mendoza convinced Martyr that Spain was the place for him to continue his researches, so in 1487, the two left Rome, bound for the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Martyr quickly gained the trust of Queen Isabella, who hired the young Italian to serve as a teacher to the younger members of the Spanish court.

As a lecturer at the prestigious University of Salamanca, Martyr had the opportunity to meet Christopher Columbus when the frustrated mariner came to propose his idea to sail west to reach the Orient in 1487. The idea intrigued Martyr and his scholarly comrades, even if some found the theory far-fetched. In 1492, Columbus was finally able to secure funding for his voyage from the king and queen of Spain, and again the curious Peter Martyr was able to debate the merits of sailing west to reach the east. Columbus was able to reach land on his voyage (the fact that it wasn't India didn't cross Europeans' minds until a few years later) and all of Spain was abuzz with the possibility of reaching the Orient quickly by sailing west. Martyr himself rejoiced about the successful voyage in a letter to his friend Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in Rome, apparently becoming the first person to spread the word of Columbus' discovery.

But there were other, more pressing matters for Martyr to attend to. In 1497 and again in 1501, Martyr was sent on diplomatic missions by the Spanish court. He spent much time in Egypt, hammering out a deal to calm the disagreements between Spain's King Ferdinand and the Egyptian ruler al-Ashraf Qansuh l-Ghawri (commonly called "Quansou Ghoury" by the Europeans) that brought the two kingdoms close to war. The Spanish continued to employ Martyr, even after the deaths of Ferdinand and Isabella, when King Charles I came to the throne.

In 1518, Martyr was named to serve on Spain's Council of the Indies, the committee appointed by the king to advise him on matters relating to the New World. By and large, the Council of the Indies undertook the actual running of the colonies, freeing King Charles to concentrate on the pressing issues in Europe. This position gave the curious Martyr a unique perspective on what was going on in Spain's New World colonies; he now had access to all of the crown's official documentation (the Spanish government generated a lot of paperwork) and could interview the explorers and sailors who went to the Americas.

Over the years, Martyr produced a series of books, collectively called De Rebus Oceanis et Orbe Novo Decades (often shortened to "Orbe Novo"), that consisted of letters written by Martyr to his powerful friends in Europe. The letters all dealt with what the explorers were finding in the New World, and with the Native Americans the Europeans encountered. The books (produced between 1493 and 1525) gave Europeans one of their first looks at the New World, with plenty of commentary from Martyr.

He was particularly fascinated with the Native Americans. To Martyr, they were either noble savages, living in peace and harmony and in complete ignorance of the Christian god, or they were terrifying godless cannibals desperately in need of the Christian god. Martyr and his scholarly friends devoted much time to discussing the natives; to some, the New World was like a virtual Eden, a paradise where the inhabitants existed without all the hassles of war, strife, hunger or fear. Others took a more hard line, believing they were savage and wild (some of the natives were known to eat people on occasion) and must be civilized through religion. Both theories were debated endlessly by scholars, philosophers and churchmen of Martyr's day, and his letters reflect this.

Orbe Novo does not always read like a straightforward history of the discovery and settlement of the New World. At the time, it was loftier than the usual books on the subject, instead trying to explain the New World in terms the learned men of Europe could relate to. There were many first-hand accounts of the encounters between Europeans and natives, along with Martyr's comparisons to classical Greek and Roman literature.

Martyr's interest in the New World was not just philosophical, but financial. In 1524, King Charles appointed him to be the abbot (a religious office; Martyr had been ordained as a priest in the 1490s) of the island of Santiago, as the Spanish called Jamaica at the time. With the revenue generated from the churches of Santiago, Martyr constructed the first stone church on the island in the town of Sevilla la Nueva (New Seville). Interestingly, Martyr never sailed to the New World, nor saw any of the paradise he heard described by returning explorers. He died at Granada, Spain in 1526.