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Barbarians at the Gates


Every empire fears, but needs, the barbarians at its gates. For all the territory under its control and the overwhelming force at its command, there are lands and peoples on its edges impervious to its attractions and unwilling to submit. Untamed, and perhaps untamable, they represent the “Other,” hostile, threatening, and, above all, different. They follow strange customs, they speak in strange tongues, and their proximity is a constant source of preoccupation to those whose task it is to defend the perimeter of empire and promote its aspirations. Yet barbarians on the horizon, or battering at the gates, can also have their uses. For they serve as a valuable reminder of the evils that empire claims to have extirpated from the lands that it controls. Barbarians stand for savagery, treachery, and violence; empires, by contrast, for civility, trustworthiness, and peace. The imperial enterprise gains justification, imperial ideology gains coherence, and the empire itself gains cohesion from the depiction, in a few crude strokes, of the enemy without.

If ambiguities abound in the relationship between the builders of empire and the people on its fringes, this is nowhere more true than in the New World of America. Here, from the end of the fifteenth century, European intruders, beginning with the Spaniards and Portuguese, staked out vast claims for themselves in territories to which they were not entitled, among peoples of whose very existence they had hitherto been entirely unaware. The nature of these peoples, their ignorance of the Christian gospel, and their profoundly alien way of life represented a formidable challenge to standard European notions about barbarism and civility—notions derived on the one hand from the Judeo-Christian tradition and on the other from classical antiquity.

Yet if barbarism was to be defined, as it initially was, by the absence of Christianity and the failure to conform to European criteria of civility, it quickly became apparent that some inhabitants of the New World, like the Aztecs or the Incas, were considerably less “barbarous” than others. Writing in retirement sometime before 1570, Alonso de Zorita, a Spanish judge who had served in Mexico, after pointing out that its conqueror, Hernán Cortés, had “high praise for the Indian mode of government and way of life,” went on to criticize him for calling the Aztecs “barbarians.” The fallacy, he thought, might “arise from the fact that we are accustomed to calling infidels ‘barbarians,’ which conforms with what the royal prophet says in Psalm 114…where he calls the Egyptians barbarians because they were idolaters. Yet in other respects the Egyptians were a very sage people.”1 How valid was the term “barbarian” for peoples such as these?

As Zorita and other sympathetic Spanish observers learned more about the indigenous peoples of America and the differences between them, the concept of “barbarian” became more refined. The famous Jesuit writer José de Acosta, whose Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1590) was read across Europe, sought to classify “barbarians” into different categories. At the top were those people, like the Chinese, who lived in stable republics and possessed cities and books. Below them came such peoples as “our Mexicans and Peruvians,” whose laws and institutions were “truly worthy of admiration,” but who lacked the art of writing and “civil and philosophical knowledge,” and who also practiced “monstrous rites and customs.” Finally, at the lowest level, came most of the other peoples of the New World, who lived the savage life of beasts, “without king, without compacts, magistrates or republic,” and either had no permanent place of abode or lived like animals in the equivalent of caves.2

In spite of such attempts to postulate a sequence of development from barbarism to civility, uncertainty continued to surround the evocative words “barbarian” and “savage.” In a splendid piece of semantic and conceptual confusion, Captain John Smith, in his General History of Virginia, drew a contrast between the failure of his compatriots to deal adequately with the Powhatan “Salvages” and the achievement of a disciplined band of Spaniards under Cortés in conquering the city of Mexico, “where thousands of Salvages dwelled in strong houses.” These, he wrote, “were a civilized people” and had wealth, whereas the English were faced with “meere Barbarians as wilde as beasts,” who possessed nothing.3

For all the continuing confusion in European minds, however, about the criteria to be adopted in assessing the peoples of America, the Spaniards, as the conquerors and rulers of vast areas of Central and South America, came to draw a distinction, even though for practical purposes it inevitably became blurred, between “their” Indians and the rest. Those indigenous peoples who lived in the areas subjugated and settled by the Spanish were automatically classed as the “vassals” or “subjects” of the King of Spain. As such, these indios domésticos had certain obligations, but they enjoyed, at least nominally, the benefits of his royal protection. They were also subjected, again at least nominally, to the process of conversion, and thus brought within the confines of the Christian world. Other indigenous peoples, however, remained both unsubdued and unconverted. While some of these lived inside the areas of Spanish dominion, but were located in such remote and inaccessible regions that they had avoided subjugation, those who most preoccupied the Spanish imperial authorities were the peoples on the outer edges of empire, most notably in southern Chile and northern Mexico. The Araucanian Indians living south of the river Biobío in Chile became a byword for resistance to Spanish attempts at domination, thanks in large measure to the success of Alonso de Ercilla’s heroic sixteenth-century epic La Araucana. Far away to the north, along the borders of the Mexican viceroyalty of New Spain, sixteenth-century Spanish attempts at expansion were checked by the Chichimeca Indians, who epitomized for Spaniards all the ferocity of peoples living in a state of savagery.

These Indians on the frontiers of empire were known indiscriminately to Spaniards as indios bravos, indios bárbaros, or indios salvajes, and it is they and their relations with the Spaniards that form the subject of David Weber’s important new book. He has entitled it Bárbaros, rather than Barbarians, on the not unjustified assumption that Barbarians for English-speaking readers conjure up images of Goths and Ostrogoths. Weber, a professor of history at Southern Methodist University, is a specialist in the history of the North American borderlands, of which he published a magisterial account, The Spanish Frontier in North America, in 1992.4 This book ranged over the entire northern borderland region during a period of three centuries from the first Spanish incursions, and examined in close and vivid detail the many different ways in which Hispanic and Indian cultures interacted over large swathes of territory.

Weber’s new book, by contrast, spans little more than the fifty years covered by the reigns of the most “enlightened” of the Spanish Bourbons, Charles III (1759–1788) and his unimpressive successor, Charles IV (1788– 1808), who was bundled off his throne by Napoleon. If the chronological span, however, is much reduced, the geographical span is not. In response, as he tells us, to the mild reproaches of a reviewer for failing to compare Spain’s North American frontiers with its Central and South American counterparts, he has set out to do exactly that. His new book, therefore, ranges over Spain’s entire American empire, from Patagonia in the southern cone of America to the “Mosquito Coast” of today’s Honduras and Nicaragua, and northward to the Mexican borderlands and Upper California.

Since the methods and policies of the Spaniards on the edges of empire varied over time and place, and the indigenous tribes and peoples with whom they came into contact were almost endlessly diverse, Weber was faced with the daunting challenge of writing a book that was at the same time comprehensive and comprehensible. While Bárbaros may have a more specialist appeal than The Spanish Frontier in North America, it displays the same qualities in the author as its predecessor: a mastery of the literature and impressive erudition; a capacity for the patient teasing out of the truth from sources that are often incomplete and partisan; and a lucid narrative style that carries the reader along, even when, as is inevitable in a book of this scope and ambition, the going gets rough. An idea of the extent of the challenge is given by the structure of the book. Just under three hundred pages of text are followed by almost one hundred pages of notes. To have subsumed so much information into so clear and comprehensive a survey is a formidable achievement.

It is a particularly valuable achievement because, although Latin American historians have paid growing attention to the borderlands of their national territories in recent years, the resulting literature is widely dispersed and has not been subjected to systematic comparative analysis. Weber brings it all together, and gives it shape and direction. While he necessarily draws heavily on the work of many scholars, his comparative approach gives the book its innovative quality. So, too, does what at first sight might seem its greatest drawback—the relatively short chronological period that it covers, the last fifty years of the Spanish Empire.

There is good reason for this self-imposed limitation. Among the many stereotypes that still hold sway in North American perceptions of the Iberian-American past, one of the most persistent is that of a static Spanish Empire and imperial system. The assumptions deriving from the notion of an empire frozen in time have extended beyond the internal policies of empire to include the policies followed by the Spaniards toward the indigenous peoples on the imperial borderlands. As an example, Weber quotes Edward Spicer, whose Cycles of Conquest5 remains a valuable ethnohistorical study of the reactions of peoples on the northern frontiers of New Spain to the expansion of Spanish settlement: “To a large extent, the major outlines of the Spanish program for civilizing the Indians remained the same from the early 1600s to the early 1800s.” The essentials of this program were the establishment of missions by the religious orders to bring to the Indians the twin benefits of Christianity and “civility,” and, where Indians proved to be particularly ferocious or recalcitrant, the building of presidios, or forts. Beneath this stereotype there was frequently an assumption by historians that the English and the French handled these matters better by having recourse to alliances and trade.

For the first two centuries of Spanish dominion in America, the most intractable frontier problem facing the Spaniards was that posed by the Araucanian Indians of Chile. The traditional story of ceaseless conflict between Spaniards and ferocious Araucanians, however, has long since been replaced by a far less black-and-white account. Periods of conflict, which Spanish soldiers had at least as much interest as the Araucanians in perpetuating because their pay depended on it, were increasingly punctuated by parleys and peace treaties, while gift-giving and trade softened the lines of division between the warring parties. Although there would be two major Araucanian “rebellions” in the eighteenth century, by this time the major scenes of action on the frontiers of empire were no longer concentrated on the contested ground along the river Biobío. Instead, the challenge to the Spaniards posed by the indios bárbaros had assumed a continental scale.

  1. 1

    Alonso de Zorita, Life and Labor in Ancient Mexico: The Brief and Summary Relation of the Lords of New Spain, translated by Benjamin Keen (Rutgers University Press, 1963), pp. 169–170.

  2. 2

    For this and other references, see J.H. Elliott, The Old World and the New, 1492–1650 (Cambridge University Press, second edition, 1992), pp. 48–50.

  3. 3

    The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631), edited by Philip L. Barbour (three volumes, University of North Carolina Press, 1986), Vol. 2, pp. 315–316.

  4. 4

    Yale University Press. See J.H. Elliott, “The Rediscovery of America,” The New York Review, June 24, 1993.

  5. 5

    Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1553–1960 (University of Arizona Press, 1962).

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