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.

There was in fact both a qualitative and a quantitative change during the course of the eighteenth century in the relations between Spain and the Indian peoples on the edges of empire. It is this that justifies Weber’s decision to limit himself to the years between the 1750s and the imperial collapse. Precipitating the change were three major long-term developments that gathered pace as the century advanced. The first of these was population growth. The population of the viceroyalty of New Spain—Mexico—which stood at around 1.5 million in 1650, had reached over 5 million by the end of the eighteenth century, by which time the total population of Spanish America had grown to an estimated 13 million. Much of this increase in population was accounted for by the growth in the numbers of white and mixed-race peoples; but the indigenous Indian population, devastated by European diseases in the aftermath of conquest, was now staging a recovery. Population growth meant increased competitiveness for resources and the advance of settlement into previously unoccupied or thinly settled land, as in northern New Spain or the hinterland of Buenos Aires, once an imperial backwater but transformed into a thriving Atlantic port during the eighteenth century. Only some seventy miles of pampa separated Buenos Aires from unsubdued and independent Indians.

The second long-term development was the transformation of unsubjugated Indian societies as they came into contact with the Spaniards—a process being replicated throughout the hemisphere wherever Europeans set foot. Among the new elements introduced by the Europeans, and coveted by indigenous Americans, were the gun and the horse. The impact of both was momentous. As Weber writes, “Indirectly and unintentionally, Spaniards altered the balance of power between Native peoples and raised the level of violence by introducing horses and metal tools that Indians coveted so strongly that they would fight Spaniards, or one another, to gain them.”

As a result, there were major shifts in the balance of power between indigenous societies. On the southern plains, for instance, the better-armed and more mobile Comanches had got the better of the semi-sedentary Apaches by the 1760s. In one of the comparisons that make his book so valuable, however, Weber points out that not all Indian peoples responded in the same way to the advent of the horse. The Paiutes in the North American Great Basin preferred eating horses to riding them. In determining the response, the characteristics of each particular culture, as it had evolved in its own specific environment before the arrival of the Europeans, were enormously influential.

Independent Indians—and a low estimate puts them at 2,700,000, or 22 percent of the total population of the Spanish-American mainland—were at once drawn to and repelled by the presence of the Spaniards. They craved the goods that only Europeans could supply; some of them, although not as many as the Spaniards would have liked, may have felt the attraction of certain aspects of Spanish civilization; and some were anxious to secure Spanish support or protection in their intertribal wars. Many others, however, fiercely resented the intrusion of the Spaniards into lands over which they had hitherto ranged freely, and launched bold attacks on encroaching Spanish settlements.


The picture conveyed by Weber’s book indicates that in Spanish, as in British, America, the eighteenth century was a period of great and growing volatility. Peoples and tribes formed, reformed, and merged in response to the multiplying pressures. The Araucanians, for example, with their horses and cattle, pushed across the Andes from Chile into the Argentine pampas and northern Patagonia, in the process “Araucanizing” the peoples and language of the region. Far away to the north, the Comanches scattered the Apaches, forcing them in the process to coalesce into larger political units, which in turn stood in the way of the northward expansion of New Spain.

There was, however, a third development precipitating change, besides demographic increase and the impact of European goods and culture on independent Indians. This was the growing intensity of the imperial rivalry between the European powers. During the seventeenth century, this rivalry had been largely confined to the Caribbean, where one Spanish island after another fell to the French, the English, or the Dutch. Spain’s mainland possessions, by contrast, remained relatively immune from attack, protected by distance and superior Spanish power. In the eighteenth century, however, the situation changed. The expanding French and British empires on the North American mainland were perceived by the Spaniards as a growing threat. English settlers in the Carolinas were drawing uncomfortably close to the Spanish settlements in Florida; the French in Louisiana were thought to be harboring designs on the silver mines of Mexico. As European great-power conflicts spread to the Americas, so the Spanish imperial authorities became increasingly concerned to push forward the frontiers of empire in order to occupy territory that might otherwise fall into the hands of their European rivals.

Inevitably, the independent Indian peoples were caught up in these European conflicts, and sought as best they could either to steer clear of the warfare or to seize the opportunity to improve their own positions by playing off one colonial power against another. As a result, the imperial government in Madrid found it imperative to develop more effective strategies to deal with the Indian peoples on the borderlands of empire—peoples who, if left to themselves, might become the allies and instruments of Spain’s European rivals. It is the development of these strategies in the second half of the eighteenth century, and their degree of effectiveness or ineffectiveness, that provide the theme of Weber’s book.

He is particularly interesting on the way in which the ideals of the European Enlightenment, gradually percolating through Spain and its overseas dependencies, helped shape new approaches toward the “barbarous” Indians. The policy of Charles III’s government was strongly “regalist” in its determination to cut down on the wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church. The anticlericalism of many leading ministers and officials was reflected in their attitude toward the religious orders and, by extension, toward the long-established practice of resorting to missions to extend the boundaries of Christianity and empire in America. The most dramatic expression of this attitude was the expulsion of the Jesuits from the territories of Charles III during 1767 and 1768. At the time of their expulsion the Jesuits were running 220 missions in the New World, including the thirty missions of the famous Jesuit “state” in Paraguay.

The hostility of the crown toward the Jesuits and the other religious orders left a gaping hole in Spain’s traditional program for extending Spanish power and “civilization” among the indigenous peoples of America by evangelization. At this point, however, the ideals and principles of the Enlightenment looked as if they might come to the rescue. While the commitment to Christianization remained central to Spanish imperial policy, those affected by Enlightenment thinking were increasingly willing to believe that it was not so much religion as trade—le doux commerce—that brought civilization in its wake. In the words of Montesquieu, “Commerce…polishes and softens [adoucit] barbarian ways as we can see every day.”6 Spanish officials became enthusiastic proponents of this line of thought. They questioned the skill of the religious orders in what a Spanish viceroy of Peru called “the science of creating men”—although the word criar that he used is not quite the same as “create,” as in Weber’s translation, but conveys more the idea of rearing and training.

Some of these officials considered that the missions acted as impediments to the progress of the Indians by depriving them of incentives to work; they sought other ways to integrate them into the religious, economic, and social life of the Hispanic world. As Weber might have pointed out, such attempts can be traced back to the sixteenth century, when Spanish officials were already insisting on the importance of paying wages to Indians in order to draw them into a monetary economy.7 The now fashionable ideal of le doux commerce, however, gave a new impetus to the search for new methods. So, too, did the example of the British and the French, who were busily drawing the Indians on the borders of their own empires into a network of expanding trading relationships.

Emulation of their imperial rivals played an important part in the new strategies adopted by Spanish officials in America in the later eighteenth century for winning over independent and uncooperative Indians in the borderlands. Unfortunately for their hopes, however, Spanish manufacturing was backward by comparison with that of Spain’s European rivals. Spanish goods could simply not compete, either in variety or price, with the flood of goods now reaching the New World from a Britain in the throes of the industrial revolution.8 Officials copied the English and the French in bestowing specially minted medals on prominent Indian leaders—what, we may wonder, would they have made of medals showing Charles III with his famously big nose? But, in general, if the “barbarous” Indians were to be seduced by goods, these would not be Spanish goods. The British and the French could offer better gifts.

Trade, however, was only one of the weapons in Spain’s expanding armory that could be used for dealing with Indians on the edges of their empire. Weber describes in detail the character and deployment of these weapons, which importantly included the weapons of war. Endless debates were conducted on whether a “bad peace” was preferable to a no doubt “good,” but expensive, war. Similar debates were being conducted in British North America in the same period, and with comparable switches in policy.9 There was similarity, too, in the methods used and advocated. General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who approved a proposal for inoculating blankets in order to infect the Indians threatening Fort Pitt, had his Spanish equivalent in the governor of Paraguay who sent smallpox carriers into a camp of Mbayá Indians.

Behind such horrific policies lay a deeply entrenched European sense of Indian inferiority. Acosta’s sixteenth-century theory of the three levels of barbarism, with the highest level approaching European standards of civility, might for some have given way in the eighteenth century to Adam Ferguson’s four stages of social development, consisting of hunting, pasturage, agriculture, and commerce; but the sense of European superiority, now reinforced by Europe’s global expansion, remained unchanged and unchanging. Whether by peaceful or warlike methods, or a combination of the two, the non-European peoples should, it was thought, be induced to conform to European notions of what constituted true “civilization.”

The peoples on the edges of European empire, not unnaturally, were of another mind. Weber shows well how those peoples in the Hispanic sphere of interest reacted to attempts to reshape them as true “men.” Some did indeed leave their own societies to live among the Spaniards. Many more moved to and fro across the porous borderlands of empire, coming into Spanish settlements, as they came into British settlements, for work, or trade, or gifts. In California, where, as on so many other fringes of the Spanish Empire, there were too few whites to occupy the land, royal officials had no choice but to fall back, with reluctance, on the traditional policy of resorting to missions; but in Weber’s judgment, when measured against the large numbers of Indians in California, the success of the Franciscan missionaries in attracting Indians looks modest. Similarly, in Chile, “nothing seemed to push or pull Mapuches into missions.” On the other hand, between 1767 and 1810 some 24,000 Chiriguanos, living in the confines of the Andes and the Chaco, moved into Franciscan missions where they seem to have negotiated their own terms for residence, showing little inclination for baptism but considerable interest in the material goods, and the shamanic skills, that the Franciscans could provide.

Given the nature of the available evidence, which has largely been filtered through European sources, Weber is inevitably more successful in explaining the variations in Spanish imperial strategy than in the indigenous responses. He shows admirably how Spanish officials in different parts of the empire adopted different, and sometimes mutually contradictory, methods for dealing with the Indian societies on the borders of their territories. His verdict may surprise those who imagine that Spanish policy was shaped by an unchanging dogma. “Pragmatism,” he writes, “outweighed principle in Spanish dealings with independent Indians.” And the results? Some successes; many failures; and, by the end of the eighteenth century, a degree of détente. The barbarians might still be at the gates, but, for all the parties involved, accommodation brought its own advantages. Yet how fragile this détente remained, and at what a price it had been bought! In the poignant words of an old Indian woman: “so much blood, so much fear, so much weeping.” And tragically, following the downfall of empire, in Spanish America—just as in British America—the worst was yet to come.

This Issue

February 23, 2006