Now that we have bid a last lingering adiós to Columbus and his quincentennial,1 we can look back on a noisy, and sometimes productive, encounter. “Encounter,” indeed, has been the quintessential quincentennial word, displacing the once respectable but now suspect “discovery,” and firmly placing the emphasis, not (as in 1892) on the superiority of Western science, technology, and civilization, but on the global confrontation between European and non-European. In a round-up of work generated by the quincentennial, and included in Beyond 1492, a lively volume of lectures and essays itself generated by the same event, James Axtell lists conferences, books, and exhibitions bearing such titles as Early European Encounters with the Americas, American Encounters, Cannibal Encounters, Rethinking the Encounter, and Maps and the Columbian Encounter. Of the making of encounters there is, it seems, no end.
“Encounter,” writes Axtell breezily,
has much to recommend it. Encounters are mutual, reciprocal two-way rather than one-way streets. Encounters are generally capacious: there are encounters of people but also of ideas, institutions, habits, values, plants, animals and microorganisms. Encounters are temporarily and spatially fluid: they can occur at any time in any place, before or after 1492, around the globe. And, while natives, critics and activists may not approve, encounters are morally neutral; the term does not prejudge the nature of the contact or its outcome. In sum, encounter is a spacious description that jettisons normative baggage to make room for disinterestness [sic] and parity. It is a salutary word for our conflicted postmodern commemoration of a conflicted protomodern event.
Over the years, Axtell himself has done valuable work in analyzing the encounter between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of North America.2 The essays printed in Beyond 1492 are very much pièces d’occasion, and, following hard on a previous and weightier volume of essays, After Columbus,3 give some impression of scraping the bottom of the barrel. But for those who want a readable and informed introduction to some of the concerns of contemporary Encounter historians, this is a good place to begin. Behind the sometimes folksy writing is to be found a shrewd and level-headed scholar, one, moreover, who is unusual in his ability to convey to his readers a sense of the deep enjoyment that he derives from a subject sometimes viewed these days as a cause for unrelieved gloom. If there is an underlying message in his volume of essays, it is the importance of historical imagination. Citing, in his opening essay, “History and Imagination,” George Steiner’s characterization of history as “exact imagining,” Axtell properly insists on the need, when studying the meeting of past cultures, to “imagine the imaginations of all the participants, not just an easy or select few.”
It is precisely this lack of historical imagination—the inability to enter sympathetically into the thought processes and instinctive responses of those participants to whom one is not sympathetically drawn—that has vitiated so much of what has recently been said and written about the Columbian Encounter. “If,” writes Axtell, “we can take our itchy fingers off the trigger of moral outrage for a spell, we might be able to view the human phase of what is being called the ‘Columbian Encounter’ less as an excuse for passing judgment than as a vehicle for understanding.” David E. Stannard, in American Holocaust, not only has his finger on the trigger of moral outrage but he pulls it, in the obvious hope of creating a mighty reverberation.
This hope is likely to be disappointed. Moral outrage makes for good manifestoes, but less good history; and, as for manifestoes, anyone in search of a powerful denunciation of European behavior in the New World would do better to go back to source, and read Bartolomé de Las Casas’s A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which has recently been republished in an excellent new translation.4 It is not that Stannard has failed to do his homework. On the contrary, he has read widely, and is well versed in the most recent monographic literature. Nor is it that the story of the European conquest and colonization of America lacks the material of tragedy on a vast scale. The acts of barbarism committed by conquerors and settlers, whether in Iberian or British America, are so horrific as to be mind-numbing, even for a generation that has lived through the experiences of the twentieth century. If it is thought necessary to rehearse these horrors yet again, so be it, although there can by now be few who are unaware that the invasion and settlement of America by the Europeans was far from sweetness and light. But Stannard takes the easy way out by turning his book into a highpitched catalog of European crimes, diminishing in the process the effectiveness of the message he wants to convey.
In particular, his emotive vocabulary seems self-defeating. “Holocaust,” “genocide,” even “racism,” carry with them powerful contemporary freight; and while Stannard goes out of his way to justify their use in relation to European treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, his choice of such words seems to me to impede rather than assist genuine understanding. “Genocide,” as used of the Nazi treatment of the Jews, implies not only mass extermination, but also a clear intention on the part of a higher authority. While it is not difficult to identify specific cases of a determined attempt by European settlers—as in the Pequot war of 1637 in Connecticut—to wipe out villages, or even whole tribes, it debases the word to write, as Stannard writes, of the “genocidal encomienda system,” or to apply it to the extinction of a horrifyingly large proportion of the indigenous population through the spread of European diseases. Those conquerors and settlers who were fortunate enough to have been allotted Indians in encomienda by the Spanish crown wanted them alive, not dead, since their interest lay in the tribute and labor services of a subject population. If conditions among the encomienda Indians weakened their resistance to European epidemics, this was the unintended, and unwanted, consequence of an Indian vulnerability to disease which the Europeans understood as little as the Indians themselves (although some might find a post hoc justification for Indian mortality in the designs of providence).
In an age when, by dint of repetition, such expressions as “ethnic cleansing” all too quickly lose the power to shock, “holocaust” and “genocide” can only suffer further debasement through indiscriminate use. By obscuring essential clues to the understanding of a specific historical context, they obfuscate rather than clarify; and Stannard’s book, for all the historical information he has so conscientiously assembled, does exactly that. Like so many of the contributions to the quincentennial debate, it sets up a one-sided contest between a largely virtuous pre-Columbian America and a Renaissance Europe bereft of redeeming features. The Renaissance, indeed, has all too little to do with the avaricious, corrupt, plague-ridden, and sexually repressed continent from which Columbus is depicted as setting forth on his voyages.
Above all, it would seem, Stannard’s Europe suffers from the original sin of being a Christian civilization. For this reader at least, his book is shot through with a hostility to Christianity which distorts his characterization of the late medieval and early modern European world, and leaves him unable to imagine any but the basest imaginings of the European participants in an encounter which is portrayed as an unmitigated catastrophe. Of Columbus, for instance, he writes that
he was a secular personification of what more than a thousand years of Christian culture had wrought. As such, the fact that he launched a campaign of horrific violence against the natives of Hispaniola is not something that should surprise anyone. Indeed, it would be surprising if he had not inaugurated such carnage.
Such strident comments help us to understand neither Columbus nor medieval Europe.
Stannard describes the disparaging remarks of the Dominican Tomás Ortiz on the dietary and other habits of the Indians as a litany of “Christian hate,” but significantly fails to adduce no doubt equally extravagant assertions by other friars about the angelic character of their Indian charges as examples of “Christian love.” Perhaps this is not surprising, since “Christian,” for him, appears to be a uniquely pejorative word. After citing the pleas of Cotton Mather and a fellow minister to track down the Indians, “those Ravenous howling Wolves,” he continues: “For two hundred years to come Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and other leaders, representing the wishes of virtually the entire white nation, followed these ministers’ genocidal instructions with great care,” and then throws in as a final comment: “It was their Christian duty as well as their destiny.” With such an explanation to hand, what need to look for more?
This kind of approach is duly castigated in Robert Royal’s 1492 and All That, a book that examines and dissects some of the misrepresentations and misunderstandings that have surfaced in the course of the quincentennial debate. Royal’s study is more a commentary on our own times than a disquisition on the conquest and colonization of America, and does not get us very far in its professed aim of “examining what happened when widely divergent cultures—each with its share of humane individuals and cultural riches, as well as ruthless tyrants and cultural monstrosities—met and mingled.” For such an examination, readers would do better to turn to one or another of the monographs reviewed below. What the book does do is to cut through the cant, and expose some of the absurdities and evasions that arise from efforts to view the past through the lens of such contemporary preoccupations as environmentalism and multiculturalism.
Royal’s challenge to the prevailing wisdom, while no doubt evoking fervent admiration in some quarters, will earn him a good deal of obloquy. He certainly gives hostages to fortune, as when he unfashionably proclaims that Western civilization “owes no little debt of gratitude to the first Christian missionaries in the New World,” or asserts of the conquest of Mexico that “whatever evils the Spaniards eventually introduced—and they were many and varied—they at least cracked the ageold shell of a culture admirable in many ways but also pervaded by repugnant atrocities and petrification.” Such terminology might, after all, be applied with equal justification to late medieval Europe. In any event, “petrification” hardly seems the most appropriate word for the dynamic and still evolving Nahua society of preconquest Mexico. But Royal’s book, like Stannard’s, provides more insights into the present than the past, and offers a melancholy chronicle of some of the more egregious follies of our age.
This in itself makes for rather dispiriting reading, but the most dispiriting feature of the whole exercise is that a situation has developed in which such a book should be felt to be necessary. The pronouncements of the city council of Berkeley, or the information purveyed in some grade-school newsletter, are hardly matters of lasting moment. Here, however, they are exposed to the full panoply of judicial review by a judge who leans over backward to establish his impartiality before coming up with the not unanticipated verdict of “guilty of the political manipulation of history”—for example, in relation to the now fashionable representation of pre-Columbian America as an environmentalists’ paradise. The exercise is laudable, but this kind of thing needs to be done with wit and lightness of touch if it is really to hit its target. I must confess to preferring the jaunty good humor of Axtell to Royal’s judicial solemnity.
Yet the underlying attitudes revealed in this litany of deformations of the past provide cause for genuine concern, for they are the attitudes of an essentially ahistorical civilization, unwilling or unable to recognize the complexity of the processes that have gone to the shaping of the present. It is entirely in character that those who today denounce the horrors inflicted on America by the arrival of the Europeans seem in large part unaware that they themselves are but the latest in a long historical line. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, not long before the third centennial, the Abbé Raynal offered a prize for the best essay on the question: “Has the discovery of America been beneficial or harmful to the human race?” Of the eight surviving replies, four were profoundly pessimistic about the course of human history since the Renaissance.5 The evils of colonialism are no twentieth-century discovery.
It is one of the great virtues of Anthony Pagden’s impressive new book, European Encounters with the New World, that he eschews the easy answers and seeks to unravel, with subtlety and sophistication, the complicated strands of thought that helped to determine Europe’s shifting attitudes to the alien world of America. This is a difficult essay—or, more accurately, series of essays—in intellectual and cultural history, and Pagden, although writing with elegance and lucidity, makes few concessions to readers unaccustomed to struggling with such concepts as “the autoptic imagination,” an imagination whose final appeal is to the authority of the eyewitness. Yet those who stay the course, while they will not win the Abbé Raynal’s still unawarded prize, should find their efforts amply repaid.
In his The Fall of Natural Man,6 Pagden explored the ways in which sixteenth-century Spaniards sought to grapple with the deep moral and intellectual problems created by Europeans’ encounter with peoples and lands hitherto unknown to them. In this latest book he attempts something even more intricate—a study of the ways in which Europeans over the course of three centuries interpreted this encounter. The book, in other words, takes a close look at encounters with encounter. Out of these encounters at second remove, culminating in the great figure of Alexander von Humboldt (whose Cosmos, as readers of Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties will remember, provided the chosen reading for George Parkman’s murderer, Professor Webster of Harvard, in his prison cell) there emerged, as Pagden tells the story, many of the ideas that are central to the development of modern anthropology.
At the heart of Pagden’s book is the question of “incommensurability”—of the possibility, or otherwise, of finding some common ground in the process of cross-cultural understanding. To employ the terminology of the late twentieth century, how are we ever to understand the Other? In his opening chapter he seeks to show how observers of America, from Columbus to Humboldt, sought to make the incommensurable seem commensurable by means of what he rather awkwardly calls “the principle of attachment.” By this he means relating the new to the familiar in an effort to shrink the distance between Europe and America. Columbus, for instance, by equating the natural landscape of Hispaniola with that of the Mediterranean lands he knew so well, managed to find a point of entry into the alien world of the Antilles, which eventually allowed him to take mental possession of it.
The difficulty was that, as one observer after another would go on to discover, America proved on closer inspection to contain much that was far from familiar. Pagden quotes from an imaginary dialogue written by a sixteenth-century Spanish priest who had worked for some years in Peru. One of the participants tells the other that if he opened his eyes he would see that in the Indies “everything is the reverse of what it is in Castile.” This was a world in which the peoples, the landscape, the language—all were different, and most of the traditional landmarks were missing. Pagden’s book is an account of the various conceptual strategies employed by a succession of figures to come to terms with the otherness of this other world and its peoples, and of the paradoxical outcome of their enterprise, which only succeeded in underlining more sharply the otherness of the Other.
Some of the ground he treads has inevitably been trodden before, but he is still capable of finding fresh things to say, even on Las Casas, whose dilemma in founding his authority on personal experience is vividly described. If, after all, the only authority is the “I,” and the “I” can be faulted—as Las Casas could be faulted—on even one major point, then why should we believe the rest of what he tells us? The dilemma was made all the more acute for Las Casas because, as Pagden explains, “reliance on the ‘I’ as a source of authority could only ever be tenuous” before the Cartesian revolution of the seventeenth century began to familiarize Europeans with the idea of an autonomous self.
Pagden is particularly good on the role of language in attempts at cross-cultural understanding; and his book concludes with a fascinating discussion of the great eighteenth-century argument about the integrity and ultimate incommensurability of all cultures—a debate which, running from Diderot and Montesquieu to Herder and Humboldt, carries us from the world of the Enlightenment to the world of the early Romantics.
Anyone who follows Pagden’s account of the late-eighteenth-century debate with the late-twentieth-century debate in mind can hardly fail to be struck by the similarity of themes and preoccupations. There is the same sense of moral outrage, the same yearning for a return to an idealized past before European greed laid waste the world. Fashions, of course, change. In particular, Humboldt’s confidence in the capacity of scientific observation to reduce the incommensurable to commensurability has been one of the great casualties of the later twentieth century. But today, as in the eighteenth century, history is cavalierly mobilized in support of a moral stance.
It is, for example, currently fashionable to denounce the observers of earlier ages for their insensitivity to the otherness of the Other. But those who make such denunciations often seem unaware that some of those observers—in particular among the early missionaries—had quite a different set of goals from their own, and were struggling to discover resemblances, not differences, in their pursuit of the not unworthy objective of establishing the common humanity of all the human race. It was brothers, not others, whom they wished to find. Ironically, it is the otherness of these early European observers and ethnographers which now tends to be overlooked, as their efforts at understanding are placed under the microscope and found lamentably wanting by the standards of our own more enlightened age.
The sixteenth-century indigenous American is today made to appear more “one of us” than the sixteenth-century Spanish friar. Yet is not this just another version of the attempt to narrow the distance between European and non-European, and in the process to assuage the guilt of the Western world? Pagden rightly alludes in his “afterword” to the current tendency to sentimentalize the Other. Sentimentality has been all too prominent in many of the contributions to the quincentennial debate. Like eighteenth-century defenders of the noble savage, we once again find ourselves constructing the Other in order to satisfy the urgent demands of our own moral concerns.
As one reviews the laborious attempts of the writers discussed by Pagden to deal with otherness, one is bound to wonder whether Herder may not have been right to reject all possibility of cultural commensurability. Are we after all condemned to be the eternal inhabitants of a plurality of cultural worlds, lacking any common ground? In Pagden’s realm of high theory, the prospects look unpromising. But in the more mundane world of day-to-day existence there are at least some hints that a more positive answer may be possible. This at least seems to be the implication of three major new works, all of them sober, unsentimental, and the products of first-class historical scholarship.
The encounter point at which the commensurability, or otherwise, of cultures is most easily examined is along the frontier. In recent years the historiography of the frontier, once as apparently immutable as the frontier itself, has—in tune with contemporary realities—returned vigorously to life.7 Where is today’s frontier between Bosnia and Serbia, or, for that matter, between Mexico and the United States? Once looked upon as the Great Divide, the frontier now appears both precarious and permeable. “Rather than see them as lines,” writes Donald J. Weber in his splendid The Spanish Frontier in North America, “frontiers seem best understood as zones of interaction between two different cultures—as places where the cultures of the invader and of the invaded contend with one another and with their physical environment to produce a dynamic that is unique to time and place.” Turner’s ethnocentric frontier, the heroic setting for the triumph of rugged American values, has been replaced in today’s historiography by a mosaic of “borderlands,” where cultures interact and converge in combinations and permutations of dizzying complexity.
In a book that starts in 1540 with Coronado’s encounter with Zuni villagers in modern New Mexico, and ends with a United States that is only just beginning to confront the realities of its Hispanic legacy, Weber surveys the history of the so-called “Spanish” borderlands of America in a grand sweep which seeks to combine the narrative approach of a Parkman or a Bolton with the cultural and ethnohistorical insights of a new generation of historians. This is an immensely ambitious undertaking, which tests his skills to the limit. It is not easy to hold the history of California in harness with that of Texas, especially when the Spanish authorities pursued distinctive approaches to the two regions. Nor is it easy to keep track of the twists and turns over three centuries of Spain’s frontier policies—of the shifting balance, for instance, between missions and military posts—as relationships with tribal groupings fluctuated, and as the Spanish monopoly came to be challenged by the British and the French.
Inevitably the book reflects something of these strains, but Weber has done a remarkable job of preserving the inner coherence of his story while giving due weight to local and temporal variations. Weber has written a book that is readable from beginning to end, and he has succeeded in providing a narrative and descriptive framework which will become the obligatory starting point for more detailed future analysis of culture contacts in the border zones, while at the same time pointing the directions in which that analysis might profitably go.
The world through which Weber’s permeable frontier runs is a world of fascinatingly hybrid societies, in which Hispanic and Indian cultures blend, coexist, and interact. Even where hostility and mutual suspicion dominate, no one group can remain totally untouched by the other, and each in the interest of survival is forced into making creative adaptations. This is as true of the Spaniards as of the Indians, especially in remote and thinly settled regions where they took Indian wives or mistresses. We were vividly introduced to this hybrid Hispanic-Indian frontier world in the New Mexico described by Ramón A. Gutiérrez in his rather coyly entitled When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away8—world made up of multiple racial gradations and cultural borrowings, which startlingly included the word genízaro (the Turkish janissary), to describe a detribalized Indian slave, usually of Navajo or Apache origin. When a Spaniard, probably of mixed descent, uses an Ottoman Turkish term to describe an Apache Indian, Las Casas seems fully vindicated in his resounding claim that all the peoples of the world are one. In this frontier world, as both Gutiérrez and Weber show, there is no shortage of violence and coercion. But there is also accommodation out of mutual interest, as each party shifts to meet the necessary requirements of coexistence with the other.
At one point Weber describes how “exposure to Hispanic neighbors and missionaries had added new dimensions to the Pueblos’ culture, enabling them to meet Spaniards on common ground.” This notion of the search for a common ground—or, as he prefers to call it, “the middle ground,” coining a phrase which has now shot to fame and fortune in the vocabulary of Americanists—is brilliantly explored in Richard White’s book of this title, which examines in great, and at times overwhelming, detail the interaction of Indians and Europeans in the Great Lakes region. White’s story is an account of how Europeans—in particular the French—“constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world” with the Algonquian speakers of the so-called pays d’en haut.
I must confess to a certain uneasiness about the appropriateness of “the middle ground” as the object of this process of mutual construction, because it seems to imply a similar degree of movement by both parties in order to reach a common center. The process, however, as White himself describes it, was far more complicated than that. To the horror of the authorities some French among the coureurs de bois moved to the farthest limits of the “middle ground,” and indeed beyond, by “going native.” “Nous sommes touts [sic] sauvages” was the triumphant last message of a deserter from La Salle’s party as he vanished into the woods. At the other end of the scale, it could be argued that numerous Indians were slowly driven into a state of dependency on Europeans in which the middle ground was all too easily whittled away.
This dependency was created by the exercise of European military power, and possibly also by the creation among the peoples of the Great Lakes of European needs and wants. Perhaps the most ingenious essay in Axtell’s Beyond 1492 is the one devoted to what he calls, borrowing from the historians of industrialization, “The First Consumer Revolution.” In this essay he depicts the indigenous peoples of North America succumbing to a “consumer revolution” for European goods which in due course drove them to debt and dependency. White, on the other hand, is inclined to play down the degree of transformation wrought among Indian societies by the supply of European commodities, at least before the middle years of the eighteenth century.
Whether or not White will ultimately be vindicated on this point, he charts out his “middle ground” with extraordinary skill and determination. One of the most fascinating points to emerge from his study is the way in which a middle ground can be maintained by means of convenient cross-cultural misunderstandings. The French, in their dealings with the Great Lakes Indians, made considerable play with the idea of the benevolently paternal royal governor of New France as the father of his Indian children, just as Louis XIV was the father of his French children at home. The Indians were less interested in the paternalism of the father than in his potential for being a mediator between competing tribal groups; and it was the willingness of the French to assume the role of mediation wished upon them by the indigenous population which, as White sees it, gave them much of their local power and influence. The British, on the other hand, while exercising all the sternness of patriarchal authority, had no use for the game of mediation played by their defeated rivals, the French, and managed, in consequence, to abolish the middle ground, at least until a new set of circumstances forced a change of attitude.
The uses—by no means always unconscious—of cultural misunderstanding in achieving a precarious understanding between European and non-European illuminate an important theme in the work both of Weber and White. This theme is cultural persistence, whether among the Indians of the Great Lakes or the Spanish borderlands; or, indeed, in the later phases of Weber’s story, among the Hispanic and mestizo communities which woke up one day to find themselves within the frontiers of the United States. It is also the central theme in the third of what proves to be an outstanding trio of books on the cultural interaction of European and non-European, James Lockhart’s The Nahuas After the Conquest.
As a sheer technical achievement, Lockhart’s book is probably the most remarkable of the three. Unlike Weber and White, his cultural encounters take place not in frontier zones, but in a region well and truly conquered by the Europeans, central Mexico. There is a long and distinguished tradition of historical work on the impact of the Spaniards on the peoples of this region, with Charles Gibson’s The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule as its greatest monument.9 Great efforts have been made since the publication of Gibson’s book some thirty years ago to recover the “vision of the vanquished,”10 but a persistent problem has been how to recover an authentic vision when it has been filtered through Spanish-language texts.
In recent years, James Lockhart and a group of colleagues have been exploring an alternative approach by way of a large body of postconquest documentation written in Nahuatl that turns out to have survived in Mexican archives. This documentation has been generally ignored by historians, partly because of its mundane character as essentially a record of legal proceedings and notarial transactions, and partly because of the formidable linguistic problems involved in its decipherment. Lockhart’s long book is the result of what he calls the “new Philology,” a patient reconstruction of the postconquest Nahuatl vocabulary with its heavy infusion of hispanicized words and forms.
This is no book for the fainthearted. Although clearly and vigorously written, the character of the documentation and the difficulties involved in its interpretation make it a heavily technical work, in which the discussion of the exact meaning of various Nahuatl terms inevitably looms large. There may, too, be some disappointment that the revelations extracted with so much effort from the new documentary sources appear less than sensational. But the book deserves to be recognized for what it is, as a landmark in the study of the adaptation of the Nahuatl-speaking people who made up most of the population of Central Mexico to Spanish rule. But, more than this, it is also a classic study in the history of the cultural encounter of European and non-European, primarily reconstructed from non-European sources.
Using his Nahuatl-language documents to explore such topics as social and political organization, the Nahua household and economic activity, religious life, language, and forms of expression, Lockhart is able to trace the persistence over two or more centuries of important elements of preconquest Nahua society. The altepetl, a Nahua word referring in the first instance to territory, but which had come to mean an organization of people holding sway over a given territory—a kind of ethnic state—survived into postconquest times as “the basis for all the most important institutional forms affecting life in the indigenous countryside, away from the Spanish cities.” Indigenous municipalities retained control of their own land tenure management throughout the colonial period; preconquest patterns of landholding persisted; and elected Nahua officials, although now endowed with Spanish names, continued to perform recognizable preconquest municipal functions.
Lockhart also provides telling illustrations of the complicated range of Nahua responses to the dominant Hispanic culture. The sentimentalist’s approach to the history of indigenous societies subjected to European rule tends to dwell on strategies of resistance, and on the heroic efforts of communities and individuals to hold the intrusive culture at bay. The picture painted by Lockhart is much more subtle and intricate, and correspondingly more persuasive, although it should be borne in mind that each conquest situation is different, and that the character of the documentation may itself help to slant the conclusions in a particular direction.
In Central Mexico, unlike the frontier regions, overwhelming military defeat made outright resistance impossible. The Spaniards were now free, at least in theory, to impose their own institutions and values on a subjugated population. In practice, they did this selectively. In some matters, like religious belief and practice, they sought to push through a program of forced cultural change. In other areas they were prepared to build their new colonial society on the foundation of preconquest institutions, preserving, for instance, the altepetl as a convenient basis for the encomienda, the postconquest institution by which large numbers of Indians were allocated to a conquistador or settler.
The Nahuas for their part embraced, with greater or lesser enthusiasm, many of the cultural or institutional innovations of conquerors who were surrounded with all the aura of victory. They then adapted them pragmatically to their own needs and purposes, and were especially quick to appropriate those which, in Lockhart’s words, could be “assigned to niches already existing in the indigenous cultural scheme.” Although, for example, preconquest Mesoamerica lacked coinage, the Nahuas adapted with remarkable speed to Spanish money, while sensibly continuing to use cacao beans for small-scale transactions in a world where currency remained in short supply. They added European metal implements like the hoe to their stock of tools, and they were planting orchards of apple and pear trees by the 1550s. Where dress was concerned, they were compelled to conform to European concepts of decency, but the striking popularity of the European buttoned shirt from the mid-sixteenth century suggests that coercion was not the only inducement to sartorial change.
The society emerging in Mexico within twenty years of the conquest was consequently one in which, like any frontier society, ideas, institutions, and practices interpenetrated, but in which, also, new internal frontiers were in process of construction. At one point in The Spanish Frontier in North America Weber speaks of the “compartmentalizing” of Indian and Spanish religion, with the Pueblos running two religious traditions in tandem. The same process seems to be occurring in Lockhart’s Mexico. “A general principle of Spanish-Nahua interaction,” writes Lockhart, “is that wherever the two cultures ran parallel, the Nahuas would soon adopt the relevant Spanish form without abandoning the essence of their own form.”
In effect, these non-European peoples have learned to manage two worlds simultaneously—not necessarily, as is so often assumed, because this is the only way of resisting the intrusion of an alien and unwanted European world, but because each of the worlds has something important and distinctive to offer. This same process indeed can be seen at work in post-conquest Mexican painting. In his sensitive and brilliantly illustrated recent survey, Painting the Conquest, Serge Gruzinski tells us that “the creation of a twin system of expression—pictographic and alphabetical—was not merely a sign of compromise or collaboration. It also represented the discovery of new formal strategies for preserving two living traditions side by side.”11
The notion of compartmentalization is bound to raise questions about the validity of an approach cast in terms of that “otherness of the other” which so preoccupied the European writers and philosophers discussed in Pagden’s European Encounters with the New World. Lockhart himself picks up this point, arguing that “each side remained essentially more concerned with its own internal affairs and conflicts than with understanding the other,” and casting doubt on the assumption that Nahuas and Spaniards generally viewed each other as radically distinct.
Yet, if the two worlds existed alongside each other, there were obvious imbalances in a situation in which Europeans possessed the ultimate sanction of superior force. Nor does any relationship between an intrusive and an indigenous society remain in a permanently stable state. Huge changes were taking place in Central Mexico during the immediate postconquest decades, and not least the devastating decline in the numbers of a population ravaged by European diseases. These inevitably involved consequential changes in the Hispanic-Nahua relationship. Drawing in particular on the evolution of a Nahuatl language increasingly permeated by Spanish words and forms, Lockhart postulates a three-stage evolution of Nahua society, running from an initial period of relative stasis, through a century of discrete Spanish additions to a relatively unchanged indigenous pattern, and moving on in the later seventeenth century to the opening of a third stage (lasting in some places into our own time) in which the Nahuas adopt a new wave of Spanish elements that begin to transform the old pattern and to amalgamate the two traditions.
In this three-stage evolutionary process, which can probably be paralleled in other parts of the Americas, Lockhart draws attention to the “invisible hero” of his study, the bilingual Indian; and, alongside the bilingual Indian, the “humble Hispanic” who “bore the brunt of Spanish contact with indigenous people.” He is right to do so. These are the natural mediators in the encounter of conflicting worlds. It is here that we must look for the true creators, and the denizens, of one of the quincentennial’s most exciting discoveries, the elusive “middle ground.”
June 24, 1993
See Kenneth Maxwell, “Adiós Columbus,” The New York Review, January 28, 1993. ↩
Notably in The Invasion Within (Oxford University Press, 1986). ↩
Oxford University Press, 1988. ↩
Edited and translated by Nigel Griffin with an introduction by Anthony Pagden (Penguin Books, 1992). The politically correct decision of the translator to render Las Casas’s “Indians” (Spanish indios) by “Amerindians,” “natives,” or “local people” seems to me a mistake, since it takes us one remove further from the world of sixteenth-century Spaniards, who lumped the indigenous peoples of the Americas indiscriminately together under their chosen brand name. ↩
See Durand Echeverría, Mirage in the West: A History of the French Image of American Society to 1815 (Princeton University Press, 1957, reprinted with corrections 1968), p. 173. ↩
Cambridge University Press, 1982; 1986. ↩
For an admirable example of the new approach to the history of the frontier in Europe, in this instance the Franco-Spanish frontier, see Peter Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (University of California Press, 1989). ↩
Standard University Press, 1991. ↩
Stanford University Press, 1964. ↩
An expression apparently first used by Miguel León-Portilla in 1959 for his anthology of texts describing the conquest of Mexico from the standpoint of the conquered (Visión de los Vencidos, Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico; translated as The Broken Spears, Beacon Press, 1962; 1992), but only securing wide currency after the publication of Nathan Wachtel’s account of the impact on the peoples of the Andes of the Spanish conquest of Peru, La Vision des vaincus (Paris: Gallimard, 1971; The Vision of the Vanquished, Harvester Press, 1977). ↩
Painting the Conquest: The Mexican Indians and the European Renaissance, translated by Deke Dusinberre (UNESCO and Flammarion, 1992), pp. 158–160. ↩