Category Archives: Latin America

The Wilsonian Reset with Latin America, 1913

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), p. 121:

Thus the military interventions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the Wilson era, often portrayed as drastic departures from American practice, had ample historical precedent. What was different about Wilsonian policy toward Hispaniola was the degree of political interference undertaken by the United States to reform its admittedly backward societies and, that failing, the willingness to use military intervention as a means of bringing about reform. It can be argued that Roosevelt had done much to set the pattern for such interfering behavior in the Dominican Republic’s internal affairs with the customs receivership. But Roosevelt had established strict limitations on what he believed the United States should and should not in the republic, and the 1907 treat had reaffirmed these restrictions. We would collect the customs, set aside 55 percent for satisfying foreign claimants, and give the politicians of Santo Domingo the remainder. We would protect the customhouses from the perils of insurrection. After that, if their political house was in disorder—and it usually was—it was their house.

That was Roosevelt and Root‘s approach. Their policy for the republic involved no sweeping American prescriptions for reordering Dominican finances or tinkering with the republic’s chronically disturbed political system. Taft and Knox went much further. In 1912, when revolutionary outbreaks disturbed the frontier, the American minister, William Russell, recommended military occupation of the customhouses and indeed a takeover of the country to bring to an end what he considered barbaric practices—forced recruiting into warlord armies, pilfering of public funds, and judicial corruption.

Wilson and Bryan advocated even more stringent requirements for the Dominican political system. The president personally directed Mexican policy, and he gave Bryan and the State Department considerable latitude in Dominican and Haitian affairs. The Great Commoner was easily the most controversial of Wilson’s cabinet appointees. Acting on the impulse that he must cleanse the foreign service, he zealously removed most of the appointees who had secured their posts under the nascent professional standards inaugurated by Hay and appointed wheelhorses and party hacks in their stead. For Latin American posts Bryan’s housecleaning resulted in the dismissal of ministers with an average of fifteen years’ experience and knowledge of the language of the country to which they were accredited. Most of Bryan’s nominees were simply incompetent, though the new minister to the Dominican Republic, James M. Sullivan, a former lawyer and prizefight promoter (who had been recommended by the secretary of state as one of his “deserving Democrats”), was both incompetent and corrupt. Eventually public revelations about the circumstances of his appointment and Wilson’s intervention brought Sullivan’s removal but not before he had seriously damaged American prestige in the republic.

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Spanish Colonial Language Policies

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1598-1612:

Already the process of linguistic change was under way in New Spain, as Indians who moved into the cities picked up a working knowledge of Castilian, while Castilian words were simultaneously being incorporated into the Nahuatl vocabulary on a massive scale. Large numbers of the Indian vassals of the Spanish crown, however, either resisted the imposition of Castilian or remained to all intents and purposes outside its orbit, while many friars were inclined to ignore the crown’s decree. At the same time, creoles with indigenous nurses learnt in childhood the language of the conquered, and in the Yucatan peninsula, which had a high degree of linguistic unity before the conquest, the Maya language, rather than Castilian, became the lingua franca in the post-conquest era. The crown, for its part, was driven in particular by religious considerations to recognize realities. In 1578 Philip II decreed that no religious should be appointed to Indian benefices without some knowledge of the language, and two years later he set up chairs of indigenous languages in the universities of Lima and Mexico City, on the grounds that ‘knowledge of the general language of the Indians is essential for the explanation and teaching of Christian doctrine.’

The English, on finding themselves confronted by the linguistic barrier between themselves and the Indians, at first reacted much like the Spaniards. Indians showed little inclination to learn the language of the intruders, and initially it was the settlers who found themselves having to learn an alien tongue, both to communicate and to convert. Indians in areas of English settlement had less inducement than those in the more urbanized world of Spanish America to learn the language of the Europeans, although by degrees they found it convenient to have some of their number who could communicate in the language of the intruders. As the balance of forces tilted in favour of the settlers, however, so the pressures on the Indians to acquire some knowledge of English increased, until the colonists were securing promises from neighbouring tribes to learn the language as a requirement for submission to their rule. Here there was no question, as there was in Spanish America, of a policy of actively promoting, at least among a section of the colonial community, the learning of indigenous languages – a policy which had the concomitant, if unintended, effect of encouraging not only the survival but also the expansion of the major languages, especially Nahuatl, Maya and Quechua. The powerful impulse to Christianize that worked in favour of the toleration of linguistic diversity in Spain’s American possessions simply did not exist in British America.

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Origins of the Guarani–Spanish Alliance

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1580-1584:

Unique local circumstances made Paraguay an extreme example of the more general process that accompanied the colonization of Spanish America. The Guarani Indians needed the Spaniards as allies in their struggle to defend themselves against hostile neighbouring tribes. For their part, the Spaniards, moving inland from the newly founded port of Buenos Aires a thousand miles away, were too few in number to establish themselves without Guarani help. An alliance based on mutual necessity was sealed by the gift of Guarani women as wives, mistresses and servants. The continuing isolation of the settlement, and the almost total absence of Spanish women, led to the rapid creation of a unique mestizo society. Mestizo sons succeeded their fathers as encomenderos, and races and cultures mingled to a degree unparalleled elsewhere on the continent.’

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Navigating the Pigmentocracy in the New World

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 3058-3101:

The obsessive pursuit by the creoles of the outward marks of social distinction, including the title of don, reflected their deeply felt need to mark themselves out as belonging to the society of the conquerors and to place themselves on an equal footing with the upper strata of the colonial social hierarchy. `Any white person,’ wrote Alexander von Humboldt at the end of the colonial period, `even though he rides his horse barefoot, imagines himself to be of the nobility of the country.’ Yet whiteness, like nobility, was to acquire its own ambiguities in a society where nothing was quite as it appeared on the surface.

By the later years of the seventeenth century, although the creoles retained their tax-exempt status and still nominally formed the society of conquest, the old distinctions between conquerors and conquered were coming to be blurred by racial intermingling and were being overlaid by new distinctions thrown up by the confusing realities of an ethnically diverse society. What became known as a society of castas was in process of formation – casta being a word originally used in Spain to denominate a human, or animal, group, of known and distinctive parentage. The mestizos born of the unions of Spanish men and Indian women were the first of these castas, but they were soon joined by others, like mulatos, born of the union of creoles with blacks, or zambos, the children of unions between Indians and blacks. By the 1640s some parish priests in Mexico City were keeping separate marriage registers for different racial groups.

As the combinations and permutations multiplied, so too did the efforts to devise taxonomies to describe them, based on degrees of relationship and gradations of skin colour running the full spectrum from white to black. In the famous series of `casta paintings’, of which over 100 sets have so far been located, eighteenth-century artists would struggle to give visual expression to a classificatory system designed to emphasize and preserve the social supremacy of a creole elite that felt threatened by contamination from below, even as it found itself dismissed as degenerate by officials coming from Spain. The elaborate efforts of these artists to depict in sets of exotic paintings family groups representing every conceivable blend of racial mixture and colour combination look like a doomed attempt to impose order on confusion. In the `pigmentocracy’ of Spanish America, whiteness became, at least in theory, the indicator of position on the social ladder. In practice, however, as time went on there were few creoles to be found without at least some drops of Indian blood, as newly arrived Spaniards (known to the creoles as gachupines) took pleasure in proclaiming.

Colonial society, like that of metropolitan Spain, was obsessed with genealogy. Lineage and honour went hand in hand, and the desire to maintain both of them intact found its outward expression in the preoccupation with limpieza de sangre – purity of blood. In the Iberian peninsula, purity of blood statutes were directed against people of Jewish and Moorish ancestry, and were designed to exclude them from corporations and offices. In the Indies the stigma reserved in Spain for those `tainted’ with Jewish or Moorish blood was transferred to those with Indian and African blood in their veins. In effect, limpieza de sangre became a mechanism in Spanish America for the maintenance of control by a dominant elite. The accusation of mixed blood, which carried with it the stigma of illegitimacy – compounded by the stigma of slavery where there was also African blood – could be used to justify a segregationist policy that excluded the castas from public offices, from membership of municipal corporations and religious orders, from entry into colleges and universities and from joining many confraternities and guilds.

Yet the barriers of segregation were far from being impassable, and were the subject of heated debate within colonial society. In New Spain at least it was possible to remove the taint of Indian, although not African, blood over the course of three generations by successive marriages to the caste that ranked next above in the pigmentocratic order: `If the mixed-blood is the offspring of a Spaniard and an Indian, the stigma disappears at the third step in descent because it is held as systematic that a Spaniard and an Indian produce a mestizo; a mestizo and a Spaniard a castizo; and a castizo and a Spaniard a Spaniard.’ Genealogies could be constructively rewritten to conceal unfortunate episodes in a family’s history, and retrospective legitimation could be purchased for dead relatives. There were other ways, too, of circumventing the rigidities of a social ranking based on the colour of one’s skin.

A royal decree of 1662 relating to the mixed-blood society of Paraguay did no more than recognize realities when it stated that `it is an immemorial custom here in these provinces that the sons of Spaniards, although born of Indian women, should be treated as Spaniards. Where mestizos were both legitimate and white, or nearly white, their chances of being passed off as creoles, with all the social advantages that this implied, were greatly improved. Already from the late sixteenth century it was possible for mestizos of legitimate descent to purchase from the crown a certificate classifying them as `Spaniards’, which meant that their descendants would have access to institutions of higher learning and to the more profitable forms of employment. In the seventeenth century the so-called gracias al sacar permitted even mulattoes to move from black to white. This kind of legalized ethnic flexibility, facilitated by the crown’s perennial shortage of funds, was almost unheard of in Anglo-American colonial society. Only in Jamaica, it seems, was formal provision made for the social ascent of mulattoes, following legislation in 1733 to the effect that `no one shall be deemed a Mulatto after the Third Generation … but that they shall have all the Privileges and Immunities of His Majesty’s white Subjects on this Island, provided they are brought up in the Christian Religion.’

Yet, for all the deceptions and ambiguities, colonial Spanish America evolved into a colour-coded society, although the equation between darkness of skin and social, as distinct from legal, status was by no means absolute. Black servants, the majority of them slaves, were legally inferior to pure-blooded Indians living in their communities, but in social and cultural terms they tended to rank higher, because their occupations in creole households or as hacienda foremen effectively made them members of the Hispanic world. If Spanish American colonial society was fundamentally a three-tier society, consisting of `Spaniards’, castas and Indians, then the black population, unlike that of Barbados or the Chesapeake, occupied an intermediate position by virtue of its inclusion among the castas, even though Indian ancestry was rated superior to black ancestry when it came to contamination of the blood-line.

The complexities of these shades of ethnic difference, imperfectly superimposed on a traditional society of orders, inevitably made for a volatile society, especially in the cities. The poorer sections of the Spanish creole population, whose `pure’ blood placed them above the castas, clung to the status symbols that differentiated them from people of mixed ancestry who might well be better off than themselves. Simultaneously they resented the airs, and wealth, of the creole elite. In spite of attempts by the authorities to end their exemption, mestizos shared with creoles the privilege of paying no direct taxes. This gave them every inducement to differentiate themselves from tribute-paying Indians. Correspondingly, an Indian who could pass himself off as a mestizo stood to gain substantially because he escaped tribute payments. Yet in matters of the faith he was better off if he remained classified as an Indian, since Indians, unlike creoles and mestizos, were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.”

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Early ‘Plantations': Settlers, Not Crops

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 292-308:

Effectively, Cortes‘s company was composed of a cross-section of the residents of Cuba, which was deprived of nearly a third of its Spanish population when the expedition set sail. It was therefore well acclimatized to New World conditions, unlike Newport‘s party, which, within six months of arrival, had lost almost half its number to disease.

The fact that the company on board Newport’s ships were styled `planters’ was a clear indication of the purpose of the voyage. For the English in the age of the Tudors and Stuarts, `plantation’ – meaning a planting of people – was synonymous with ‘colony’. This was standard usage in Tudor Ireland, where `colonies’ or `plantations’ were the words employed to designate settlements of English in areas not previously subject to English governmental control. Both words evoked the original coloniae of the Romans – simultaneously farms or landed estates, and bodies of emigrants, particularly veterans, who had left home to `plant’, or settle and cultivate (colere), lands elsewhere. These people were known as `planters’ rather than `colonists’, a term that does not seem to have come into use before the eighteenth century. In 1630, when the British had established a number of New World settlements, an anonymous author would write: `by a colony we mean a society of men drawn out of one state or people, and transplanted into another country.’

The Spanish equivalent of `planter’ was poblador. In 1498, when Luis Roldan rebelled against the government of the Columbus brothers on Hispaniola, he rejected the name of colonos for himself and his fellow settlers of the island, and demanded that they should be known as vecinos or householders, with all the rights accruing to vecinos under Castilian law. A colon was, in the first instance, a labourer who worked land for which he paid rent, and Roldan would have none of this. Subsequent usage upheld his stand. During the period of Habsburg rule Spain’s American territories, unlike those of the English, were not called `colonies’. They were kingdoms in the possession of the Crown of Castile, and they were inhabited, not by colonos, but by conquerors (conquistadores) and their descendants, and by pobladores, or settlers, the name given to all later arrivals.

The English, by contrast, were always `planters’, not `conquerors’. The discrepancy between English and Spanish usage would at first sight suggest fundamentally different approaches to overseas settlement. Sir Thomas Gates and his fellow promoters of the Virginia Company had asked the crown to grant a licence, to make habitation plantation and to deduce a Colonic of sundry of our people’ in `that part of America commonly called Virginia …’ There was no mention here of conquest, whereas the agreement between the Castilian crown and Diego Velazquez in 1518 authorized him to `go to discover and conquer Yucatan and Cozumel’. But the idea of conquest was never far away from the promoters of English colonization in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

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“New Spain’s Century of Depression”

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4988-5028:

The imperialism of Philip II’s reign had been based on a Spanish-Atlantic economy, in that it was financed out of the resources of America and of a Castile which itself received regular injections of silver from the silver-mines of the New World. During the last decade of the sixteenth century American silver was still reaching Spain in very large quantities, and the port of Seville had an undeniable air of prosperity; but the comforting appearances masked the beginning of a radical change in the structure of the entire Spanish-Atlantic system.

This change was, in part, a direct result of Spain’s war with the Protestant powers of the north. In the first two decades after the outbreak of the Netherlands revolt, the Dutch had continued to trade with the Iberian peninsula. Spain was dependent on northern and eastern Europe for its supplies of grain, timber, and naval stores, a large proportion of which were transported in Dutch vessels. Irked by Spain’s continuing dependence on the Dutch, and anxious to strike a blow at the Dutch economy, Philip II placed an embargo on Dutch ships in Spanish and Portuguese ports in 1585, and again in 1595. The Dutch appreciated as well as Philip II that any interference with their peninsular trade threatened them with disaster. They needed Spanish silver and colonial produce, just as they also needed the salt of Setúbal for their herring industry. Faced with embargoes on their peninsular trade, they therefore reacted in the only possible way, by going direct to the producing areas for the goods they needed – to the Caribbean and Spanish America. From 1594 they were making regular voyages to the Caribbean; in 1599 they seized the salt island of Araya. This intrusion of the Dutch into the Caribbean disrupted the pearl fisheries of Santa Margarita and dislocated the system of maritime communications between Spain’s colonial possessions. For the first time, Spain found itself heavily on the defensive in the western hemisphere, its overseas monopoly threatened by increasingly audacious Dutch and English attacks.

The presence of northern interlopers in the American seas was a serious danger to the Spanish commercial system; but potentially even more serious was the simultaneous transformation in the character of the American economy. During the 1590s the boom conditions of the preceding decades came to an end. The principal reason for the change of economic climate is to be found in a demographic catastrophe. While the white and the mixed population of the New World had continued to grow, the Indian population of Mexico, scourged by terrible epidemics in 1545–6 and again in 1576–9, had shrunk from some 11,000,000 at the time of the conquest in 1519 to little more than 2,000,000 by the end of the century; and it is probable that a similar fate overtook the native population of Peru. The labour force on which the settlers depended was therefore dramatically reduced. In the absence of any significant technological advance, a contracting labour force meant a contracting economy. The great building projects were abruptly halted; it became increasingly difficult to find labour for the mines, especially as the negroes imported to replace the Indians proved to be vulnerable to the same diseases as those which had wiped out the native population; and the problem of feeding the cities could only be met by a drastic agrarian reorganization, which entailed the creation of vast latifundios where Indian labour could be more effectively exploited than in the dwindling Indian villages.

The century that followed the great Indian epidemic of 1576–9 has been called ‘New Spain’s century of depression’ – a century of economic contraction, during the course of which the New World closed in on itself. During this century it had less to offer Europe: less silver, as it became increasingly expensive to work the mines, and fewer opportunities for the emigrants – the 800 or more men and women who were still arriving in the 1590s in each flota from Seville. At the same time, it also came to require less of Europe – or at least of Spain. European luxury products found themselves competing with the products of the Far East carried to America in the Manila galleon. But much more serious from the point of view of Spain was the establishment in its American possessions of an economy dangerously similar to its own. Mexico had developed a coarse cloth industry, and Peru was now producing grain, wine, and oil. These were exactly the products which had bulked so large in the cargoes from Seville during the preceding decades. In fact, the staple Spanish exports to America were ceasing to be indispensable to the settlers, and in 1597 Spanish merchants found it impossible to dispose of all their goods: the American market, the source of Andalusia’s prosperity, was for the first time overstocked.

From the 1590s, therefore, the economies of Spain and of its American possessions began to move apart, while Dutch and English interlopers were squeezing themselves into a widening gap. It was true that Seville still retained its official monopoly of New World trade, and that Sevillan commerce with America reached an all-time record in 1608, to be followed by a further twelve years in which trade figures, while fluctuating, remained at a high level. But, as an index to national prosperity, the figures are deprived of much of their significance by the fact that the cargoes were increasingly of foreign provenance. The goods which Spain produced were not wanted by America; and the goods that America wanted were not produced by Spain.

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Just Another Imperial Expansion

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3230-3243:

If we focus only on the century following Columbus’s voyages we see Mexica and Inca warriors as losers, West Africans as fighting slaves, and Spaniards as quite reasonably contemplating a world empire. But the age of expansion began with the rise of empires outside Europe, with the Mexica fanning out across Mesoamerica and the Inca dominating the Andes, and in West Africa with the rising of the Songhay empire from the ashes of that of Mali. In Europe, the Ottomans and the Muscovites began empire building before the Spaniards, as did the Portuguese—who beat their Iberian neighbors in the race for a sea route to East Asia. And after the sixteenth century the Spanish empire was gradually eclipsed by the trading and colonial networks of the Dutch, English, and French.

Looking at human history over thousands of years, the Spanish Conquest is a mere episode in the globalization of access to resources of food production. The plants and animals of certain Old World environments and regions have a greater potential as food, and the peoples of those regions have enjoyed advantages over others as a result. But eventually, through uneven encounters, those advantages have been introduced to the previously disadvantaged regions. In the case of Europeans introducing new foods to Native Americans, the parallel introduction of Old World diseases made the encounter especially uneven, while colonialism hindered native access to these new resources. This process is too broad and complex to be understood in terms of the alleged and simple “superiority” of one group of people over another. It is also a process that is incomplete. We are still living through the long period of uneven encounters and the gradual globalization of resources.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, disease, economics, Europe, food, labor, Latin America

Spanish Conquest Never Complete

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 1770-1817:

Looking at Spanish America in its entirety, the Conquest as a series of armed expeditions and military actions against Native Americans never ended. Florida’s Seminoles were still fighting Spaniards when the colony was taken over by the United States (to whom they have never formally surrendered either). The Araucanians of Chile—who fought for decades and eventually killed the black conquistador Juan Valiente—resisted conquest into the nineteenth century, when they continued to fight the Chilean republic in the name of the monarchy they had previously defied. The Charrúa of Uruguay were not finally subdued until the new nation’s president organized their massacre in the 1830s. Argentines also faced—and eventually slaughtered with machine guns—unconquered native peoples in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Guatusos-Malekus of Central America were enslaved and slaughtered in the late nineteenth century. Yaqui resistance in northern Mexico also lasted into the modern period, while at Mexico’s southern end, the Maya of Yucatan pushed the colonial frontier back in 1847 to its sixteenth-century limits, and a string of Maya polities persisted there into the early twentieth century.

The third aspect of the myth of completion is that of the pax colonial, the peace among natives and between them and the Spanish colonists that supposedly came in the Conquest’s wake. The flip side to this—the corresponding dimension of incompleteness—is the fact that Spanish America was rife with native revolts against colonial rule. As one prominent historian has observed, “then and now the colonial era has typically been thought of as a peaceful time,” despite “apparent endemic violence.”

There is a pair of possible reasons for this. One is the localized nature of colonial revolts, which made them relatively easy to put down and therefore appeared to colonial and modern observers insignificant compared to the kinds of wars that swept Europe during the same centuries and would ravage much of modern Latin America. The other relates more closely to the myth of completion. Despite periodic Spanish hysteria over real or imagined revolts by natives and enslaved Africans, Spaniards believed that their empire was God’s way of civilizing natives and Africans in the Americas. Colonial rule was thus seen as peaceful and benevolent, an interpretation that relied upon the Conquest’s being complete. Ironically, although the native perception was almost the opposite—that the Spanish presence was a protracted invasion that required a mixed response of accommodation and resistance—it also contributed to the illusion that the pax colonial was real. The willingness on the part of native leaders to compromise, to find a middle course between overt confrontation and complete capitulation, helped give the impression of a colonial peace.

The fifth dimension of the Conquest’s incompleteness was the degree to which native peoples maintained a degree of autonomy within the Spanish empire. This was in part an autonomy permitted and sanctioned by Spanish officials, and it was nurtured by native leaders through illegal means and legal negotiations. As a general rule, Spaniards did not seek to rule natives directly and take over their lands. Rather they hoped to preserve native communities as self-governing sources of labor and producers of agricultural products. This practice had precedent in Islamic-Iberian custom, as it developed in the eighth-century Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula and during the subsequent centuries of the reconquista. But it was also a practical response to Spanish-American realities. The new settlers were not farmers, but artisans and professionals dependent upon the work and food provided by native peoples who greatly outnumbered them.

This colonial system worked best where organized, sedentary agricultural communities already existed—that is, well-fed city-states—and it was in such areas, primarily in Mesoamerica and the Andes, that Spaniards concentrated their conquest and colonization efforts. Although it is unlikely that any native community escaped the ravages of epidemic diseases brought across the Atlantic, native regions unevenly experienced direct conquest violence. For centuries after the arrival of Spaniards, the majority of natives subject to colonial rule continued to live in their own communities, speak their own languages, work their own fields, and be judged and ruled by their own elders. These elders wrote their own languages alphabetically (or, in the Andes, learned to write Spanish) and engaged the colonial legal system in defense of community interests skillfully and often successfully. The native town, or municipal community, continued to be called the altepetl by the Nahuas of central Mexico, the ñuu by the Mixtecs, the cah by the Yucatec Mayas, and the ayllu by Quechua-speaking Andeans.

Only very gradually did community autonomy erode under demographic and political pressures from non-native populations. From the native perspective, therefore, the Conquest was not a dramatic singular event, symbolized by any one incident or moment, as it was for Spaniards. Rather, the Spanish invasion and colonial rule were part of a larger, protracted process of negotiation and accommodation. From such a perspective, as long as the altepetl and ayllu still existed, the Conquest could never be complete.

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Germs and Steel, Not Guns, Aided Early Conquistadors

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3181-3207:

Guns, too, were of limited use. Cannons were few in number in the Americas, and without roads or navigable rivers, their transportation was a major challenge. Much of the Americas where Spaniards fought was tropical or subtropical, and in the humidity the powder became too wet to fire. Firearms, in the form of harquebuses, whose unwieldy barrels required the support of tripods, were likewise not plentiful and required dry powder. Vargas Machuca advocated Spaniards using harquebuses in the Americas, but his detailed exposition on how to avoid damaging the gun, getting it wet, or discharging it prematurely or by accident would surely have caused any conquistador to think twice about carrying such a weapon. The more reliable and faster-loading musket was not invented until decades after Cortés and Pizarro invaded the American mainland. Nor had Europeans yet developed volley-fire techniques, in which soldiers formed banks of rows in order to provide continuous fire, although there were seldom enough firearms in a Conquest company to have made good use of such a technique. Those Spaniards who did have firearms were lucky to get a single shot off before reversing the weapon to use as a club or dropping it to concentrate on sword wielding.

The one weapon, then, whose efficacy is indubitable was the steel sword. It alone was worth more than a horse, a gun, and a mastiff put together. Because a steel sword was longer and less brittle than the obsidian weapons of Mesoamerican warriors, and longer and sharper than Andean clubbing weapons or copper-tipped axes, a Spaniard could fight for hours and receive light flesh wounds and bruises while killing many natives. Spanish swords were just the right length for reaching an enemy who lacked a similar weapon. Pizarro preferred to fight on foot so he could better manipulate his sword. Descriptions of battles in which Spanish swordplay caused terrible slaughter among native forces pepper the Conquest accounts of Cieza de León, Cortés, Díaz, Gómara, Jerez, Oviedo y Baños, Zárate, and others. Military historian John Guilmartin deftly summarizes the point: “While Spanish success in combat cannot be attributed to a single factor, it is clear that the other elements of Spanish superiority took effect within a tactical matrix established by the effectiveness of Spanish hand-held slashing and piercing weapons.”

This trilogy of factors—disease, native disunity, and Spanish steel—goes most of the way toward explaining the Conquest’s outcome. Remove just one and the likelihood of the failure of expeditions under Cortés, Pizarro, and others would have been very high. As Clendinnen has observed of the Spanish-Mexica war, both Spaniards and natives were aware that the Conquest was “a close-run thing,” a point that applies broadly across the Conquest. The failed expeditions outnumbered successful ones, and cautionary tales can be found by looking at the fate of Spanish expeditions such as Montejo’s early attempts to conquer Yucatan, the early campaigns into Oaxaca’s northern sierra, or the Pizarro-Orellana journey into Amazonia. Spaniards would have suffered steady mortality from fatal wounds, starvation, disease, and so on, with survivors limping back to Spain or to colonial enclaves scattered along the coasts and islands. Time and again, this outcome was averted because Spanish steel weapons permitted them to hold out long enough for native allies to save them, while the next wave of epidemic disease disrupted native defenses.

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New Land Conquest Licensing

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Locs. 616-619, 2031-2033, 2201-2227:

The first aspect of Conquest procedure was the use of legalistic measures to lend a veneer of validity to an expedition. Such measures typically included the reading out of a legal document, such as a conquest license or the so-called Requirement—the request for submission that was rather absurdly to be read to native communities or armies before hostilities took place. Also included was the declaration of a formal territorial claim….

The document, known as the Requerimiento (Requirement) informed natives of a sort of chain of command from God to pope to king to conquistadors, with the latter merely putting into effect the divinely sanctioned donation of all American lands and peoples by the pope to the Spanish monarch. Native leaders were asked, therefore, to recognize papal and royal authority (that is, to surrender without resistance)…

Requirement is usually viewed as a paragon of miscommunication or, in Las Casas’s words, communicational “absurdity.” Equally absurd were the circumstances under which the text was delivered. According to intellectual historian Lewis Hanke: “It was read to trees and empty huts. . . . Captains muttered its theological phrases into their beards on the edge of sleeping Indian settlements, or even a league away before starting the formal attack. . . . Ship captains would sometimes have the document read from the deck as they approached an island.” In addition to Las Casas, other sixteenth-century Spaniards denounced the delivery of the Requirement in terms ranging from the wry to the scathing. For example, Charles V’s official court historian, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, described how the text was delivered during the early decades of the Caribbean conquest, when natives were still routinely enslaved: “After [the captured Indians] had been put in chains, someone read the Requirement without knowing their language and without any interpreters, and without either the reader or the Indians understanding the language they had no opportunity to reply, being immediately carried away prisoners, the Spaniards not failing to use the stick on those who did not go fast enough.” Here the wielding of the “stick” suggests that even if the content of the Requirement could not be communicated, the violent context of its delivery communicated its broader message of menace and hostility.

In another study, Seed persuasively showed how the message of the Requirement was rooted in Iberian Islamic tradition, specifically in the summons to acknowledge the superiority of Islam or be attacked. Part of the Requirement’s apparent absurdity is that it seems to demand that natives will not be forced to convert, provided that they convert. Like its Islamic antecedent, it leaves matters of conversion for later, demanding only a formal recognition of the religious and political superiority of the invader. This acknowledgment in the Islamic world was expressed in the form of a head tax, essentially the same manifestation of conquest as the tribute first claimed by Queen Isabella in 1501 and levied on every individual Native American in the Spanish empire for over three centuries. The Requirement’s assertion that acceptance of papal and royal authority would bring protection and privilege seems absurd in the context of conquest violence and colonial exploitation, but the concern of Spanish officials for native population levels (expressed in numerous colonial laws) was genuine, albeit based on economic interests. From the crown to local Spanish community leaders, the empire depended upon native tribute, whether paid in cash, goods, or labor. The Requirement’s offer of privilege seems risible because the document also appears to promise destruction. In fact, Spanish colonial rule confirmed and relied upon the integrity of native communities, for it was there that tribute was generated and collected.

Seen in this light, the Requirement becomes less absurd. In fact, in the context of open and blatant conquistador hostilities, it becomes irrelevant. More than that, it becomes an invader’s ritual less potentially confusing to the invaded precisely because it cannot be understood. As “babble” it can more easily be ignored and the nature of the Spanish threat be more clearly contemplated.

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