Daily Archives: 10 March 2022

Similarities of Native American and Iberian Empires

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 75-76:

What occurred in the sixteenth century was not so much the discovery of a New World as the meeting of two branches of humanity which had previously been unknown to each other. For the Indians of America, who had lived a completely isolated existence, the encounter with aliens was inherently traumatic. The European invasions brought much that was radically new in the realm of ideas and values, in agricultural methods, including new crops and animals, in technology, with the introduction of the wheel, iron, guns, ships, tools, and in the economy, where the use of money, profit-making and trade were far more developed than in Indian societies. All these innovations would change and also disrupt the Indian world.

Even so, in the imperial areas of Middle America and the Andes the break with tradition was not total. In the first place, Indians and Iberians had comparable ideas of political sovereignty: the Catholic monarchs of the Iberian kingdoms derived their legitimacy and absolute authority from a divine source, as did the rulers of the Aztecs and the Incas. In both the European and the Amerindian imperial states the religious establishment was closely involved in the business of government; a priestly caste or a Church hierarchy buttressed the state and received numerous privileges, land and tribute from the people. Both kinds of society were seigneurial: Indian nobles, like their Iberian counterparts, owned large estates worked by tribute-paying peasants; they also headed large households composed of extended families or kinship groups, as well as numerous dependants and servants. Relations within these households and between noble clans replicated the reciprocal relationship between the monarch and his people, based as it was on patriarchy and patronage – a man of power would bestow favours in return for the loyalty of his clients and subordinates. Aristocrats valued honour and glory derived from military exploits, for in America as in Iberia there was long experience of conquering and subjugating alien kingdoms. Indeed, James Lockhart and Stuart Schwartz have remarked on the extent to which the expectations of indigenous Americans ‘matched those of the Iberians, whose conquest lore also included notions of tribute imposition, change of religion and allegiance, and manipulation of local rulers, together with at least provisional local autonomy.’

These two worlds – Renaissance Europe and Indian America – met and clashed in the sixteenth century. The consequences of that encounter were manifold and extremely diverse, and, for reasons not wholly attributable to the Iberians, they were destructive for large numbers of Indians. Nevertheless, it has become clear that there existed sufficient political and social similarities between the two worlds, at least in Middle America and in the central Andes, for there to have occurred a fairly rapid process of restructuring and hybridization after the conquest had been completed.

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