Showing History: or, [Yes, There Really Were] Records Before the Spanish Came

Scribes at work: “Codex-Style Vessel with Two Scenes of Pawahtun Instructing Scribes; c. A.D. 550–950; Possibly Mexico or Guatemala, Maya culture, Late Classic period (A.D. 600–900).” Image by FA2010, 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

We peoples of letters have a knack for believe that we, and only we, are capable of creating literature, of composing epics, of recording our histories. We are the greatest at convincing ourselves that our way–only our way!–is The Way to remember stuff, and so we wander around in public telling our best bros that there were no records then because they didn’t record stuff back in the day, don’t’cha know, that had to wait for the Spaniards, and then somebody hears us and tell us we’re wrong and should just boil in our wrongness while we’re at it. (In case it isn’t clear, I was the latter, recently.)

What do we do when we hear wrongness? We fight, just as Captain America says. From Giphy.

But the thing is, there are so many ways to remember, and memory itself–whether individual or collective–is such a complicated, multifaceted thing. And, finally, just because we can’t read it doesn’t mean those who came before us did not leave written records behind. In many cases, they actually did. This is, indeed, quite flagrantly true through pre-contact Latin America, where scribes and artists were busily recording the past and plenty of folks were actually literate. It is us who cannot read what’s been left behind, not them who did not record it.

The great Aztec Piedra del Sol. Photo by Anagoria, 2013. Wikimedia Commons.

My MA advisor, who happens to be a genius, started out many a class in colonial Spanish-American literature with the piece above, the great, glorious Aztec Piedra del Sol, or Sun Calendar. This, she would say, emphatically (and in Spanish), this is literature! (It should be pointed out that really old literature–the sort of stuff I adore–is a fascinating mix of literature, art, history, and anthropology/sociology, anyway.) Moreover, the Piedra del Sol is just one of many such records, living memories carved in stone for the world to see, here and forever, amen. Gordon Brotherston, in “America and the Colonizer Question: Two Formative Statements from Early Mexico,” writes of a system of writing–tlacuilolli–intricately tied, after the destruction of treasure troves of books, to the stone calendars on which we see it today, and of American scientific and cyclical knowledge far surpassing that of the invading Europeans.1 Imagine: one comes planning to be a god in a strange land, and one discovers that actually one’s cherished technology is pretty backwards, and one’s native land is kind of grubby and poorly planned, compared to these great cities of the Americas. Awkward, no?2


For your convenient heart enemy-heart-storing, self-promoting needs: Aztec Stone of Tizoc. Photo by Dennis Jarvis, 2007. Flickr.

Similarly, Camilla Townsend, in the journal Ethnohistory, writes that the Nahuat-speakers “of central Mexico left for posterity a deeper trove of written records than any other indigenous group in the Americas”3–a statement which might be somewhat hyperbolic, indeed (many indigenous people had an extensive literary output), but which nonetheless makes a strong case for una gente letrada–a literate people–long before the coming of the Spaniards and their westernized alphabet. The giant Stone of Tizoc, pictured above, is a dual-purpose monument: it could store the hearts of one’s enemies (or sacrificial victims), and it served as a giant monument to Tizoc, the guy who commissioned it. Unfortunately for good ol’ Tizoc, he wasn’t the world’s greatest military mind, and was only on the throne for a short time. (Poor dude was only the Lord of Tenochtitlán for like five years, which was, I think, unprecedented.) Regardless of his prowess (or lack thereof), Tizoc left us another brilliant piece of Mesoamerican, pre-contact literary output, if we can but read what he’s had written. Should we then deny the Aztec their literature, their records, their histories, simply because we can’t read? Would that not be like the child-me, illiterate, insisting that my favorite writers hadn’t actually put down words at all?

Illustration of the “One Flower” Ceremony from the great Florentine Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

Now, so far I have covered the Mexica people, also known (today) as the Aztec. There’s a reason for this: the folks I overheard were making fun of Aztec records, and Aztec gods. (Now, I don’t know about you, but I make a point not to make fun of gods who want that much blood in tribute. Besides, they are not my gods and thus I have no right to mock.) And, the thing is, the Aztec Empire did leave behind records–records which they continued to expand following the coming of the Spaniards, when they salvaged Spanish writing systems to tell their own stories, as much their way as possible. But they were not, by a long shot, the only literature people of what became (and no longer is) Spanish America.

“Panel 3 from Cancuen, Guatemala, representing king T’ah ‘ak’ Cha’an.” Photo by Authenticmaya~commonswiki, 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

I learned rather the hard way–that is, by reading popular stuff and listening to people in large groups–that a lot of people seem to think the Maya Civilization disappeared, sinking into nothingness long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Buena gente, I am here to tell you that this is flagrant and offensive nonsense. Just because Teotihuacán fell does not mean that the Maya, too, disappeared into the jungle. In fact, the Maya are still here today. The Maya left us something more than simply vast and advanced cities and magnificent sculptures and living languages and people, however: they left us written records. Lots of written records.

Six sheets of the Mayan Dresden Codex, c. 1200. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya were, by and large, a literate people. Matthew Restall, placing them among “the most literate native societies,” writes that literacy levels among the Maya and the European conqustadores were actually fairly similar, as most were “semiliterate,” while some–likely nobility and, of course, scribes–were “fully literate,” and others “fully illiterate.”4 In short, the Maya, as a cultured people, were largely able to read and write–at least a little. And, as evidenced by the (small) fragment of the 13th-century Dresden Codex, above, they were quite able to keep their own written records. I would, myself, argue that if we cannot trust documents left us by the Maya, then we certainly cannot trust those of the conquistadores, who included bros like Francisco Pizarro, the illiterate son of a pig farmer. (I don’t know why this stuck with me quite so much–I think I actually learned it in my first Latin American history class, way back when in like 2006 or 2007, but there you go. It’s the little things, apparently.)

Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya evidently placed great importance upon scribes–no doubt they knew, just as well as anyone else, that history is written by the victors, but that the vanquished, as long as they can write, will tell their own stories differently. In his article “Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Policy Consolidation,” Kevin Johnston argues that Maya rulers made a concentrated effort to break captured scribes’ hands, the tools of their trade–they were, he posits, dangerous to a victorious king’s ability to twist historical narrative to suit his needs, and to celebrate his victories.Smashing a scribe’s hands seems quite horrific, yet in truth, throughout history, across continents, victorious lords have done their best to silence the pens of the opposition. Evidently the Maya agreed that the pen could be mightier than the blade, and took pains to ensure that their versions of history would be the ones to survive.

Stele 51 from Calakmul. Photo by Thelmadatter, 2008. Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the Maya records that survive today are, much like those of the great kings of Asyrria and Babylon, stelae, set in stone for posterity. We would no doubt have more books–codices or otherwise–were it not for, as Brotherston reminds us, the wholesale burning of “books in New Spain and quipus in Peru”6–wanton destruction of a peoples’ history and knowledge, on a far grander scale than the broken fingers of vanquished scribes. Yet the Maya–and the people we call Inca, as well as the Mexica (or Aztec)–continued to keep their records, their own way. Part of this is simple: it’s kind of hard to burn stone monuments, although the Spaniards definitely tried when they pulled down Tenochtitlán, using its monumental stones to build Mexico City. But indigenous literacies carried on in other ways, too. In fact, Judith Maxwell argues that the highland Maya preserved their language and pictorial alphabet through such mediums as textile art–and, thus, the very clothing they wore.7 The Spaniards may have come, may have imposed their systems and their ways upon the people in the Americas–but yet those old ways were, and are, preserved, still a living part of Mayan culture today.

Paris Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

I have barely touched upon the surface of literacies and of record-keeping in precontact Latin America, here–and I have focused largely, if not exclusively, on the Aztec and the Maya, though they were hardly the only people to have maintained their own records before the violent coming of Europeans. Had those Europeans cared at all about the histories of the places they were determined to commandeer, or the people they were trying to vanquish (always with the help of indigenous allies–divide and conquer is a time-honored, and honed, technique), we’d have even more records. The Olmec were leaving written records in 900 BCE, if not earlier.

Sheet from the Codex Mendoza. Wikimedia Commons.

Nor did the Aztec or the Maya stop recording their own histories merely because another empire rolled in on tides of blood. Instead, despite the book-burnings (a timely issue, as we approach Banned Book Week!), scribes kept right on scribing, using whatever alphabets were most helpful at the time. The age of the great Aztec codices was only beginning. The Quechua nobleman Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala would pen his mighty letter Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno, written partially in Spanish and partially in Quechua, and send it off to the king (it never got there, but it did end up in Denmark! And they helpfully put it all online). And, later, el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega would write his own chronicle, Comentarios Reales de los Incas, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t have a single picture. (At any rate, all I can remember are the words, of which there are definitely plenty.)

An “Aymara weaver,” depicted by Guamán Poma de Ayala. Wikimedia Commons.

Records of the before-the-conquest abound. Records of the before-and-the-after also abound, both in words and in images, and, as José Rabasa reminds us, we must work to remember the importance of “visual communication of iconic script”8–after all, memories, and records, are transmitted in many ways, and our Latin alphabet and Islamic numerals are hardly the only ways to do so. It is to our communal shame that we people of alphabet-letters have long held ourselves as superior, often going so far as to consider other ways and methods of record-keeping as markers of barbarism.9 (I’d like to believe the whole civilización y barbarie thing went out with Sarmiento, but that is definitely not the case.)

First page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, c. 15th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Writing–using both Latinized and pictorial alphabets–became, following the Conquest, a space of resistance, a place to claim one’s heritage and one’s culture, and to transmit one’s own histories to the future, in spite of the colonizers’ attempts to curtail such activities. Brotherston points out that though we more often think of the Martís and the Bilbaos (he recommends also thinking of the Silkos), yet “colonizing Europe was challenged intellectually in America” from the very beginnings of the conquest.10 Similarly, throughout “Thinking Europe in Indian Categories” Rabasa writes of resistance to dominance through written and pictorial records.11

Doña Marina/La Malinche and Hernán Cortés lead the way in this page from the Codex AzcatitlanWikimedia Commons.

From stelae to temples, from sculptures to codices, the Maya and Aztec have left us a plethora of records. People were recording their histories a long time before Spain stumbled across the Americas, and they kept right on recording it after the Spanish arrived in their world. (For it was their world, not Spain’s.) If we don’t know how to read it, that’s on us,12 not them.

Aztec warriors depicted in the Florentine Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

1 Brotherston, 24-26.
2 The great Peruvian theorist Aníbal Quijano argues that this is precisely why the (largely, but not entirely) European conquistadores invented the concept of race.
3 Townsend, 625.
4 Restall, 37.
5 Johnston, 375-379.
6 Brotherston, 25.
7 Maxwell, 553, 556-557.
8 Rabasa, 46.
9 Restall, 92; Rabasa, 46, 51.
10 Brotherston, 42.
11 Rabasa, 43-76.
12 I am very glad to report that work is ongoing on fully deciphering Nahuatl texts, as discussed by Alfonso Lacadena in this 2008 article (pdf).

Bibliographies/Suggested Reading

Ayala, Guamán Poma de. Nueva crónica y buen gobierno, available thanks to the  Royal Library in Denmark.

Bleichmar, Daniela. “History in Pictures: Translating the Codex Mendoza.” Art History 38:4 (2015), 682-701. DOI:10.1111/1467-8365.12175

Columbus, de las Casas, and the Undiscoverable Land.

Florentine Codex, available here.

For a Few More Days: Art from the Viceroyalty of Peru

Johnston, Kevin J. “Broken Fingers: Classic Maya Scribe Capture and Policy Consolidation.” Antiquity 75 (2000), 373-381. DOI: 10.1017/S0003598X00061020.

Lacadena, Alfonso. “Regional Scribal Traditions: Methodological Implications for Decipherment of Nahuatl Writing.” The Pari Journal 8:4 (2008): 1-22. PDF.

León-Portilla, Miguel, ed., & Miguel León-Portilla y Ángel María Garibay K., traductores. Visión de los vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2008.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel, ed.; Miguel Léon-Portilla y Ángel María Garibay K., traductores; Lysander Kemp, translator. The Broken Spears. (note: I have never read the English translation, your mileage may vary but it’s very much worth a shot.)

Maxwell, Judith M. “Change in Literacy and Literature in Highland Guatemala, Precontact to Present.” Ethnohistory 62:3 (2015), 553-572. DOI:10.1215/00141801-2890234.

Moraña, Mabel, Enrique Dussel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, eds. Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Social Classification.” Coloniality at Large, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dissel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, 2008, 181-224.

Rabasa, José. “Thinking Europe in Indian Categories, or ‘Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You.'” Coloniality at Large, edited by Mabel Moraña, Enrique Dissel, and Carlos A. Jáuregui, 2008, 43-76.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. London: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Townsend, Camilla. “Glimpsing Native American Historiography: The Cellular Principal in Sixteenth-Century Nahautl Annals.” Ethnohistory 56:4 (2009), 625-650. DOI 10.1215/00141801-2009-024

The sacred calendar from the Codex Borbonicus, post-conquest Aztec. Wikimedia Commons.

Three Things that Cinco de Mayo Is Not

1901 poster at the Biblioteca Nacional de México. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I bought a car yesterday, which meant that I didn’t give much thought to the date (other than, of course, to write it repeatedly, in an increasingly childish hand); it also meant that I avoided most of the obligatory social media posts about drinking José Cuervo or Corona or tequila or Patrón or whatever and stuffing one’s face with, presumably, Chipotle. (Chipotle is excellent, but it really isn’t Mexican cuisine.) However, despite spending a fair bit of time with the car, and then obsessing over Beyoncé’s Lemonade (quick, go read Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” right now!), I started running into the old round of go-drink-tequila-it’s-Cinco-de-Mayo posts–and, because I am a purist, I am here, with a list of three things that Cinco de Mayo really, truly is not, and one thing that it is.

Cinco de Mayo Is…

…the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla

19th century painting of the Battle de Puebla. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Really, it’s the first Battle of Puebla: the one fought on May 5 of 1862, between a very superior sort of French force, one under Napoleon’s command, and the vastly outnumbered Mexican army at Puebla, under Ignacio Zaragoza. (Napoleon wanted to colonize Mexico, too–Europe simply wasn’t big enough for him.) Even though Puebla would fall to the French the next year, even though the Austrian Maximilian and his Belgian wife Charlotte would briefly “rule” Mexico (no, really, it’s called the Second Mexican Empire, and it was all thanks to the French and their colonial project), the 1862 battle is a pretty big deal. It’s also kind of awkward, thanks to one of the leaders of the defense of Puebla: one Porfirio Díaz, future dictator.

Life’s messy.

 Cinco de Mayo Is Not…

…about Spain, at all

It’s about the French, which I already mentioned, above. It’s also about how, during Benito Juarez’s first presidency, Mexico defaulted on its bills, which is, I think, a timely situation to discuss now, as countries are defaulting once more. (Go forth and read about Juarez, if you don’t know about him already; he was a fascinating figure, and a very important part of Mexican history.) Its celebratory status here in the U.S. apparently got kicked off during our Civil War, by Mexican-Americans from California.

…a particularly big deal in Mexico

So, it’s kind of a big deal, in some places: it’s celebrated in Puebla, which makes sense, since that’s where the battle happened in the first place. Kids get the day off school throughout Mexico, which is no doubt a great joy to all of them, and a moderate annoyance to many of their parents–maybe a bit like Polaski Day here in Chicago. It pretty much got going here in the U.S., and has, embarrassingly, since turned into one of what Time in 2011 called the “Top Ten Drunkest Holidays.” As a historical purist teetotaler, I would encourage one and all to learn about the French in Mexico rather than binge-drinking. One can hope, right?

…Mexican Independence Day, or Mexican Fourth of July, or Anything Remotely Similar

Hidalgo’s standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Image by Marcuse from Wikimedia Commons.

Guys, Mexican Independence Day is September 16, because that’s the day that the small-town priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave the Grito de Dolores, in 1810, in the town of Dolores. That had a lot to do with Spain, but it also had a lot to do with class, and race, and religion, and even the concept of “buen gobierno,” which has been a battle cry raised by many an insurgent group throughout Latin American history. As my notes from Rebels, Smugglers, & Pirates in Latin America remind me, Hidaglo wasn’t the world’s greatest strategist (good government in the name of the King! is kind of a crappy strategy for a revolution, a mi modo de ver), and everybody was basically fighting their own wars–but the Grito de Dolores definitely kicked off the Mexican Revolution, and the men who would come after Hidalgo–including José María Morelos, who was a good strategist–would lead the charge onwards. They are, every one, worth knowing, and worth reading up about–so, to celebrate the actual Mexican Independence Day in September, maybe pick up a history of Mexico, or a biography of Benito Juarez, or Morelos, or Guerrero, or even Iturbide.

So, happy Battle of Puebla Day (a day late)! Now, in lieu of ending this quite the way I want, I’ll direct you over here, to Octavio Paz writing about Los Hijos de la Chingada.

¡Qué viva México!

Columbus, de las Casas, and the Undiscoverable Land

Once upon a time, in Iberia in the fifteenth century, there was a Genoese man with fanaticism in his soul and a dream in his heart, a dream of sailing West to go East. This made absolutely no sense to anyone but our hero, because the Iberian Peninsula, thanks to its years as several Moorish caliphates, was well-versed in science. One did not sail west into nowhere in order to go to India. This was absurd.

Our hero went first to the Portuguese to sell his Great Idea. In Sagres he waited, and waited, and waited some more: the Portuguese, brilliant navigators who’d been circumventing the globe for years, were unimpressed, and thought he was nuts. The Iberians, after all, were trained by the greatest navigators Europe had ever known: the Moors.1 And then Spain and Portugal forced out the Moors, and the Jews, and began an era of inquisitions.

Los Reyes Católicos: Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castille, likely pictured with their son. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In Sagres our hero called himself Cristóvão Colombo. When he moved onward, to Spain, and threw himself on the tender mercies of the hard-edged Isabel of Castile and her partner in crime Ferdinand of Aragón, flush with the triumph of the fall of the great Moorish city of Granada, he called himself Cristóbal Colón. We know him, in the United States, as Christopher Columbus, and Isabel of Castile gave him the go-ahead for his westward-ho to India.

I’m pretty sure Columbus didn’t look remotely like this, especially after months at sea, but de las Casas tells us he DID have green banners. John Vanderlyn’s 1847 Landing of Columbus. Wikimedia Commons.

So Columbus and his team, who I seem to recall included Moriscos, Moors, and Jews (likely hiding out under the banner of conversos, who were treated terribly under los Reyes Católicos–they weren’t, after all, Old Christian), sailed west to go east, and landed in what we now know as the Bahamas archipelago. He was fabulously lost and utterly convinced that God would tell him where he was going (and where the gold was, so he could finance his fanatical dreams), and the people of the archipelago greeted him warmly, bringing food and gifts, treating the wayfaring strangers with kindness and offering up, judging from Columbus’s own journal, all possible hospitality, despite not speaking the same language. We are all human, and we do find a way.

Or perhaps some of us have so corrupted our humanity as to lose that possibility of redeeming communication. Columbus was thrilled at the kindness of his reception by the Arawak and Taíno peoples of the islands–but not because it meant that he’d found buena gente or good allies. No, he was happy because they would be easy to enslave. Naturally, being a capitalistically inclined fellow who had been promised by God all the Glory, he took many captive, and sold many off. Despite being Christian, he condoned rapes, torture, and wholesale slaughter of the indigenous people of the islands. And he was rapacious, consumed by the thirst for gold, gold, gold: he had not found the founts of gold today, he’d acknowledge in his letters to the Reyes Católicos, but tomorrow–ah, tomorrow!–God would lead him there, and those savages would either give it up to him, or die.2

Everybody knows that when Columbus saw land, there were lots of giant sexy mermaid ladies in the sea. Theodor de Bry’s non-eyewitness account, under the misleading name “Columbus, the First Discoverer of the New World.” 1594. Wikimedia Commons.

Columbus revised his opinion of these indigenous people as he went through his viajes as well, depending entirely upon what he wanted from los Reyes Católicos: at first they were naïve, easy to enslave; finally, in the fourth voyage, they became flesh-eating cannibal monsters, out to consume Columbus and all other good Christian men, and even the beautiful land turned bloodthirsty. (It is worth noting that he did begin to run into resistance; people are intelligent, after all, the Taíno and Arawak quickly learned that the Spaniards meant them no good, and much ill.) Meanwhile, Columbus’s atrocities began to attract attention across the pond–as did his rather spectacular mismanagement of colonies under his thumb. People under his governance, you see, had a terrible tendency to die–European, African, indigenous, they didn’t make it long with Columbus lording it over them.

The Spanish were, understandably, not terribly fond of mismanagement; nor were they thrilled that the Taíno and Arawak people were dying off at such a terrible rate–though this had less to do with human care and concern and more to do with having a workforce already in place. One doesn’t want to kill one’s means of production, after all. Christopher Columbus was returned to Spain in chains following his third voyage, to face trial for his mismanagement. One wonders if all those rapes of Taíno and Arawak women, or the wholesale slaughter of villages, had anything to do with the decision. Regardless of his time in chains, or his mismanagement, he was able to convince Isabel of Castile to free him, as well as his brothers; they returned to sea–but he’d never govern again.

Our hero, in short, was not much of a hero at all. He stumbled across the Americas, discovering continents that had been discovered a long time before; he was welcomed, and gave death and destruction in return. And then, when Taíno and Arawak and Carib fought back, and when he didn’t find the gold he’d sought, he became more brutal, and his rhetoric turned uglier. He never ruled again, but the damage he’d started continued on apace, and soon around ninety percent of the indigenous population of the Caribbean would be dead, slaughtered by rampaging soldiers or felled by European diseases. One wonders if Columbus felt any grief for the pristine haven he’d destroyed, or the people he’d slaughtered. And then one reads his Viajes, and realizes, eh, probably not. And one is momentarily glad that one’s ancestors were still wearing kilts and skins and killing each other at home, too afraid of the dark to venture (yet) across the sea.3 So our not-hero died, not in obscurity, and was buried with almost absurd pomp, and today is remembered as the discoverer of a continent that had already been discovered, long, long before.

Pomp for a dead despot: Columbus’s tomb in Seville, with royal pallbearers cast in stone. Image by Miguel Ángel “fotógrafo” (page in Spanish) on Wikimedia Commons.

In the early sixteenth century, as Arawak and Taíno and Carib were tortured and enslaved and killed, as conquest and death spread their bleeding tentacles to the great empires of the Aztec lords in Tenochtitlán and, finally, to the Inca lords in Cuzco, a group of priests took action, arguing vehemently against the treatment of the indigenous peoples. Among their ranks were the Dominicans Pedro de Córdoba and Antonio de Montesinos, and they denied slave owners communion, and fought for those who had been stripped of their freedom and their lives.

Montesinos, remembered in stone by Mexican sculptor Antonio Castellanos Basich at the port of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, crying out his word for eternity. Image by Wikipedian Wilmer (no page). Wikimedia Commons.

A young dandy by the name of Bartolomé de las Casas heard them, and wasn’t impressed. He, after all, was a rich man’s son, and a slave owner himself; presumably Córdoba and Montesinos were denying him communion, too. He must have been delighted when Córdoba and Montesinos and their brethren were kicked off the island of Hispaniola for offending the all-powerful slave-owning class. He joined up with a group of conquistadores, and then everything changed. This new hero realized that he could not stomach the treatment of indigenous people: that those pesky Dominicans, Córdoba and Montesinos, had been right after all. And, because Bartolomé was a young friar of good, albeit slave-owning, family, he went to Córdoba, and to Montesinos, and he began to work, diligently, tirelessly, for the sake of the indigenous people. He even crossed the sea to Spain, and in the person of Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda debated the idea that indigenous people deserved to be treated with brutality. They debated throughout Spain, as Sepúlveda argued that indigenous people were born to be slaves…and de las Casas argued that, indeed, they were not, and had the right to life and safety, just like any (free-born) Spaniard.

Our second hero, older, after the debates: Bartolomé de las Casas, in a 16th-century painting hanging at the Archivo de las Indias in Seville. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And our second hero, this reformed dandy Bartolomé de las Casas, won the debates. The young king Carlos (Charles I of Spain, and V of the Holy Roman Empire) partially accepted de las Casas’s words, and work, and, though they did not go as far as de las Casas and Montesino and Córdoba no doubt would have liked, the Leyes Nuevas of 1548 were upheld, but not strengthened. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas became known as the defender of indigenous peoples, and Sepúlveda went down into history as something of a monster. All hail our reformed hero, ¿de verdad?

Cover of the 1542 Leyes Nuevas, or New Laws, from Archivo el Comercio. Wikimedia Commons.

Except it is never quite that clean, not even with a man like Bartolomé de las Casas, who risks reputation and possibly life to argue for the lives of others. His Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias is a monumental work, and would tear at the heart of the most seasoned reader. Its scenes of blood and destruction and despair, without middle, without end, until the world shall end, are enough to make the strongest queasy, and to make most of us think back to our own colonizing ancestors, and flinch at the thought of what they have done. (The Brevísima relación also delighted Protestant Europe: they got to pretend that Spain was somehow worse than they, and thus was born the Leyenda Negra, or Black Legend, with men such as Theodor de Bry to illustrate it in lurid, horrific detail.) And yet, as I read the Brevísima relación (everyone who studies Spanish-American coloniality reads it, at least once), I was struck by the words used to describe the indigenous peoples. They were innocent, almost child-like: lambs, sheep, to be guided to God and protected.

Frontispiece of the Brevísima relación, 1552. Wikimedia Commons.

At least, I suppose, they were supposed to be protected. But, having grown up on tales of the wild west ranch where my great-grandmother grew up, a ranch worked by her gun-slinging Irish father and a great many Lakota cowboys–I didn’t think that they were sheep-like innocents, but rather intelligent, reasoning people, and I seethed every time I read those words. And here one could say, ever so easily, but Caitlin, you pinko, you’re judging de las Casas by the standards of the twenty-first century, and your oddball family tree, and in a way that’s true. But, you see, Bartolomé de las Casas knew that an economy based on forced labor needed laborers to work the land, and certainly one wouldn’t get so many free laborers from Spain, would one? And so he had a suggestion: use slaves from Africa.

The Portuguese, intrepid sailors and early capitalists that they were, had been busy at the import of human flesh for rather a while–after all, the Pope had even given them permission to do so, creating a new form of slavery in the process. There were people of African descent throughout Iberia; there were also Iberians of African descent along on the conquest. Many of them fought, and some were richly rewarded for their service to the Crown.4 The brilliant Siglo de Oro playwright and poet Juan Latino5 had already obtained his degree from the University of Granada by the time de las Casas advocated bringing (more) enslaved Africans to American shores. Thus, while our deeply flawed hero was certainly not the first to encourage the kidnapping, transportation, and use of enslaved Africans, there is a particularly striking horror in his advocacy: the man who would be known as the defender of indigenous peoples, advocating for the torture and enslavement of other people.

By the end of his life, I’ve been told (and have read), Bartolomé de las Casas deeply regretted advocating for the kidnapping, transportation, and enslavement of people from Africa. It was a bit too late, by then. By the end of the 1500s, African slavery in the Americas–particularly in Brazil–would be growing at an unprecedented, and horrific, rate.6 As the great Peruvian theorist Aníbal Quijano argues in “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America,” the conquerors had already created “race,” twisting it to justify slavery. He, and others, posit that the colonial brought with it the beginnings of capitalism as well as of race: a capitalism built on human blood and bondage.7 I like to think Bartolomé de las Casas would have been sickened, had he realized what he’d helped to bring,8 but I doubt Christopher Columbus would have cared. He’d have been angry only that he did not get his hands on all that Aztec gold.

In the meanwhile, we fête Columbus and his “discovery” of an undiscoverable land; we celebrate imperialism, and conquest, and despair without end. Some of us point to Bartolomé de las Casas as the better man–and, though surely he did take a stand, he too was deeply flawed, and stood, at least for a while, in support of the torture and enslavement of people from Africa. For that matter, his mentor Pedro de Córdoba became the first leader of the Inquisition in New Spain. One really has to wonder at the profound and unnerving irony: a defender of the indigenous, becoming leader of the Inquisition.

There is precious little from the Colonial we can fête without discomfort. The past is dark, the present is murky, and one can only hope that by working together, we may make the future a little brighter. We can celebrate Bartolomé de las Casas, but we must also remember, and criticize, his suggested remedy of using Africans as slaves, and thus his complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. We can acknowledge that a man named Cristóbal Colón, or Cristóvão Colombo, or Cristoforo Columbo, or Christopher Columbus, went the wrong way, and stumbled across the Americas–but we must remember that, in many ways, he was a terrible person. The past will always be there, behind us, a messy lodestone around our necks; it’s never going away, ever, and, as Faulkner once wrote, it probably isn’t even past anyway. Pretending it didn’t exist, pretending it was clean, or good, imagining that our idols9 were untarnished–it will not help us work towards a brighter future. Acknowledgement, and hard work, can do that.

1 From notes from Colonial Latin American History and Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Colonial Latin America, Prado.
2 Cortés, at least, never really pretended to be anything but what he was: a guy out for gold.
3 Admittedly, that fear of the dark continues to dog me–and, of course, they came later, and made up for lost time.
4 The most famous is likely Juan Garrido, a freedman who fought under Cortés at, among other places, Tenochtitlán; fought for decades with other conquistadores; and was, apparently, a great farmer of wheat. For more on Africans and the conquest, see:

5 Juan Latino was born a slave; he achieved great literary success, married a white Spanish woman of good family (who had been his pupil), and was eventually freed. His courtship of his wife has been immortalized in an eponymous play by Diego Jiménez de Encisco.
6 Notes, “Colonial Latin American” and “Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates,” Prado.
7 See Coloniality at Large for more by Quijano and other theorists.
8 This may be wishful thinking on my part.
9 My idol, the Mexican intellectual and nun (because she didn’t want to get married), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was a slaveowner, even in her convent cell. My idol is tarnished, indeed.


This was built largely around years of study of coloniality in Spanish America, as well as a strong foundation in early United States history and a lot of research on my brother S’s part into our own dark, murky past. Information on the words of Columbus and de las Casas come directly from their works, the Quatro viajes and Testamento of Columbus and the Brevísima relación and the “Memorial” in which African slavery is advocated, by de las Casas. Specific classes deserve mention: Fabrício Prado’s “Latin America to Independence,” which he said should have been “Colonial Latin America” (since “independence” wasn’t some end goal, originally), and “Rebels, Smugglers, and Pirates in Colonial Latin America,” both taught at Chicago’s Roosevelt University; Lesley Tischauser’s survey course of Latin American history, at Prairie State; and Mariselle Meléndez’s colonial Spanish American literature courses, including “(Re)Imagining the Colonial Past” and “Geographies of Knowledge.” I owe more to Prado and to Meléndez than I will ever be able to say.

However, as always, I can and do arrogantly suggest further reading. I will try to divide it between scholarly and popular; I will also note when links are in Spanish.

Hippie Beads, Ghost Ships, and Cultural Similarities Through the Ages: Vikings! at the Field

This tough little Valkyrie–really quite a small figure–is traveling with the exhibition (or at any rate, a copy is). Image by Wikipedian Berig on Wikimedia Commons.

Vikings occupy an outsized space in our collective imaginations, ranging from sagas and ancient art to Wagner operas and Marvel comics. Valhalla and valkyrie and Mjölnir aren’t just places and accutrements of the gods and choosers of the slain, but part and parcel of our pop culture. They’re also part and parcel of Northern European (and sometimes southern Eurpean) history. After all, while the early Norse were generally farmers (see: Ragnar, the not-so-humble farmer), they had a habit of getting around, both for trade and for other, more nefarious, purposes. The nefarious purposes included such great cultural forays as the sacking of Lindisfarne, which involved killing most of the monks, and the sacking of Iona (rather similar to that of Lindisfarne), along with the sacking and pillaging of towns and cities up and down the Isles and elsewhere.

Just crossing Oceanus here for a nice visit! Johannes Vrients’ 1601 map of Northern Europe. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

These extracurriculars were, indeed, the root of the word by which we know the people. To go a-Viking meant to go raiding, not to be Norse or to be from Scandinavia. And, of course, nobody wore horned helmets–the things would have been, one assumes, terribly impractical. The Vikings exhibition, which closed at the Field Museum on October 4 (the day I visited), and which will now spend the next month being dismantled before moving to its next city, stressed that nobody wore those things. In fact, the exhibition posits that what was taken, by people whose imaginations were evidently as good as mine, to be horned helmets were actually Huginn and Muninn (though and mind/memory), chillin’ on Odin’s shoulders.

Huginn and Muninn, chillin’ with old Hoárr (one of Odin’s many names). Detail of an image of Odin with his ravens and his big sword from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript “SÁM 66.” Image from Wikimedia Commons.

For some of us, this wasn’t actually news. (I’d like to believe it wasn’t news for anyone, but this is likely a rare moment of optimism on my part.) For some of us, it probably was. Either way, Vikings stressed the lack of horned helmets–and the non-Viking elements of that culture we know as “Viking.” There was little or no discussion of the wildest, worst of the Viking raids, such as those on Lindisfarne and Iona, an absence noted by the Trib’s Steve Johnson in his decidedly positive review of the exhibition. In fact, I’d say the name was rather a misnomer: the exhibition really focused more on the day-to-day lives of the Norse we call Vikings, and not on their little blood and strife-filled excursions to other lands.

Look, ma! No horns! Viking helmet, photo by Wikipedian Markoz. Image from Wikimedia Commons (German).

Perhaps oddest of all, in light of the focus upon daily lives of farmers, was the warning at the entrance to the exhibition: we were all told that it contained human bones. (Oddly enough, I don’t recall any such warning when entering every exhibit ever on ancient Egypt–and all of those are filled chockfull of mummies, which are, you guessed it, human bones.) I’m also not entirely sure why the bones were along for the ride, although this may have more to do with crowding in the exhibit hall–it was packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder–than due to any issues with the exhibition’s choices themselves. Similarly, my own feeling of something akin to lack–it was a good exhibit, but somehow not quite–may have had something to do with all those people (I don’t much care for crowds, usually, although I’m fine on Michigan Ave, and fine on the Mag Mile, and on State Street, and can push my way through St. Paddy’s Day crowds like a champ), and with all those walls of text (I want art, man) than with any inherent flaws in the exhibition. I do know that my father would rather have had that replica longship inside the exhibit, where he could have studied it, and S made a few snide comments about all those replicas. But, in the end, it wasn’t the not-quite1 that struck me most about the exhibition. It was all those similarities to other places, past and present and, most likely, future as well.

Hippy beads, sort of: replica Viking beads, in a 2011 image by Wikipedian Anette Bähren. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The exhibition was filled with what were evidently Viking beads–probably at least some the result of (one assumes) peaceful trade missions with other countries. My mother took one look at one of those massive strands and pointed out that they were hippie beads, the same sort of things that her generation took to wearing, so many years after the Vikings. We truly don’t seem to be a very creative species, we humans: we keep on keeping on, doing the same things we’ve done for hundreds, and thousands, of years. (Of course, I’d totally wear those beads. There were oh so many colors strung together–how could I resist such a mad symphony of color?)

Even earlier hippie beads. Hallstatt Amber Choker necklace, from the early Celtic Hallstatt Culture. Image by Wikipedian Flominator with modifications by Sting. Revised image on Wikimedia Commons.

Hippie beads evidently stretched from the medieval (and before) to the modern, but they were far from the only evidence of one-track human imaginations. Well before the populations of Scandinavia and Iceland and Greenland decided to go a-Viking, the Celts–who once stretched from Germany through the British Isles and Ireland–created wild and imaginative artwork that is, in many ways, echoed by many of the later Norse designs, from swirling servants to–you guessed it–awesome hippie beads. One wonders at the extent of trade between peoples–and, most of all, at the similarities of our human imaginations. We really do seem to like to do variations of the same thing. Maybe, as Shakespeare wrote, we’ve been seeing our images in antique books for hundreds, and thousands, of years. It wouldn’t, somehow, surprise me all that much.

Arrival, before a conquest: Scene 39 of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing Normans arriving on English shores in dragon-headed, shield-studded Viking longships. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Along with the walls of text2 and the slave manacles and all those hippie beads (and surprisingly small drinking horns–dude, those things were smaller than lots of contemporary wine glasses, and they probably got passed around!), images of what my mother and I assumed to be reenactors of the good old Medieval Days were interspersed throughout the exhibition. At first, I paid almost no attention at all to those images–I’ve done my share of living history, and it looked exactly the same as much of what I’ve done.

Not so different, likely, from a Thing: July 1983 reenactment of a Summer Rendezvous Encampment at Grand Portage, MN. Photo by Wikipedian Chris Light; image from Wikimedia Commons.

Exactly the same is, of course, the keyword here. My mother also noted the sameness: she said it looked a lot like what happened around a fur trader’s home and outbuildings in Indiana,3 which it did–right down to the historic clothing. I guess we really aren’t terribly creative, we humans, and our images have been staring back at us for a millenia of change. Vikings tell us that, as the Field’s website for the exhibition notes, the Vikings were “voyagers.” I grew up steeped on tales of the North American fur trade; I devoured books about arrogant coureurs de bois, about hearty, teamwork-driven voyageurs, about traders and trappers and a wild world, here at my doorstep, yet somewhere far removed from anything I’d ever known. To me, the word voyager becomes voyageur, and immediately calls to mind the tough, teamworking French-Canadians who went deep into what was then the wilds of North America, doing a brisk business with people of the First Nations.

On the sea-road: Russian artist Nicholas Roerich‘s 1901 “Guests From Overseas.” Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And, in truth, if the artifacts in Vikings were to be believed, those voyageurs had at least a wee bit in common with the raider-traders of yesteryear–although I do not believe that voyageurs generally raided anyone. Their world was a bit too perilous for any such shenanigans–after all, while it likely behooved a Norse raider to be large and impressive, the average voyageur was selected to be slight and wiry.4 Easier to fit all those lovely, pricey furs into the canoes if they’re kept moving by small men, after all. Both the teamworking voyageurs and the lone ranger coureurs likely left behind their genes on the vastness of the North American continent, though one likes to think that it was usually consensual. They must have been rather cocksure, attractive fellows, and certainly they were known, and celebrated, for their daring and their trips–in a way, not so different from those who went a-Viking. Except, of course, that the voyageurs were trading.

Voyageurs after the fall of New France, carting an English agent and his wife (the painter). Frances Anne Hopkins‘ Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall (Canada). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Like the Vikings, who left behind such exquisite pieces of art as the beautiful, terrible Valkyrie who heads this piece, and whose gods were a world unto themselves, beautiful, petty, terrible, and glorious, the voyageurs carried their gods with them–or, as they were generally quite Catholic, carried God and saints wherever they went, along with treasure troves of bawdy songs.5 (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a voyageur song that wasn’t, at the very least, filled with double entendres.) They left their mark on the land they traversed, scattering mutilated lob trees along their route. Perhaps the Vikings left something similar to a lob tree (a tree whose lower branches had been lobbed off–thus, a lob tree) behind; they also left runes, and occasionally scuttled boats and bodies and accoutrements of war. (Voyageurs had a high mortality rate, and left bodies behind sometimes, too.)

Portaging sucks; shooting deadly rapids is clearly better, you guys! Plus the agent looks like he’s gonna hurl. Frances Anne Hopkins’ Shooting the Rapids (Québéc). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Viking raids seem, at least in some cases, to have presaged later Norse expansions–into Ireland, England, Scotland, the Isle of Man; into France, Germany, even Spain; into countries like Russia; into Greenland, and quite possibly to North America, well before Cristóbal Colón got lost on his way to India. The voyageurs, too, did the footwork of empire–though I like to think that it was unwitting (and that their lousy trades, glass beads for beaver pelts, were not so much them cheating people as their bosses–though I’ve always assumed that the coureurs were fully aware of their sleaze), whence they traveled, others would eventually follow. The voyageurs (and their cocky cousins the coureurs) were among the first men of European ancestry to traipse across vast swathes of North America. For that matter, Jean-Baptise Point du Sable6 himself, honored as the father of my city, was involved in the fur trade. Chicago’s hardly a hub for beaver, now.

The Storra Hammars I stone from Sweden, in a 2008 Wikimedia Commons imageby Wikipedian Berig. A replica was in the Vikings exhibit–beautiful, exciting, and, obvs, another replica.

Without longships, the Vikings would not have made it far; without their canoes, the voyageurs would hardly have been voyageurs at all. (Presumably, without longships the Vikings were the Norse farmers who populated that exhibition, so oddly named “Viking.”) Despite the importance of ships to what we know as “Vikings” and “Viking culture” (which might not really be a thing), that longship was outside the exhibit hall, in semidarkness; there were no longships, nor even any fine dragon prows, within the exhibition itself. But there was a ghost ship, my favorite part of the entire exhibition: rivets from a resurrected longship, removed, suspended on translucent wires from a lowered ceiling, shimmering in a symphony of light. It caught my attention far, far more than all those walls of text; it held me longer even than the walls of text about the gods, for though I am a huge fan of myth, that ghost ship was magic, and all that text…just wasn’t. It was probably also the one place in the exhibit where I stopped thinking of similarities, stopped amusing myself at the incredible affinities between Northern European folk art, and only looked at the piece before me. It was a stunning display, iron made magic.

Just a bunch of dudes and horses on a longship, heading to conquer England. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry in an image taken by Wikipedian Urban.

For what it’s worth, I have trouble imagining a canoe made of light. Maybe it’s because there are no rivets in a birchbark canoe: rope and tar just don’t seem like they’d hold that ethereal shape too well. Cultural similarities drew me through that exhibition, and made me think when I left it, drawing parallels and wondering at this evident melding of creativity among Stone Age to Medieval Northern Europeans. But the ghost ship, with its rivets suspended in light and air, was its highlight.

1 It’s worth noting, in this section of not-quites, that nearly everything in the exhibition was Swedish–yet the Norse were definitely not just from Sweden. Admittedly the Swedish Museum in Stockholm was behind the exhibition’s organization, but it still seems a bit…lacking, when those who went a-Viking came from countries as diverse as Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and the lands that they colonized elsewhere.

2 I really, really felt that those walls of text were a (potentially fatal) flaw in the exhibition as a whole. Would be nice to see it reworked somewhat…with less reliance on all that text. The text was also entirely in English, which was an uneasy choice in a city as multilingual as Chicago. For more info on linguistic demographics, see this article from Crain’s, and this dataset from the census via the City’s web portal.
3 For more on Joseph Bailly, see information on the Bailly Homestead from the National Park Service, Bailly’s Wikipedia page, and Bailly’s Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry. Not sure if any of them discuss Bailly’s fabulously innovative (ahem) accounting practices, which is a pity.
4 They really were small–no big dudes need apply. I can no longer remember all the places I’ve read about their physical requirements (I’ve been studying the fur trade my entire life); however, the Canadian government’s resources for teachers, including this one (a pdf), discuss height requirements and lifestyle.
5 If you’re interested in more about the folk music of the voyageurs, which is its own subgenre of French Canadian music, the Minnesota Historical Society has put out a CD of voyageur songs, song, as they would have been in days of yore, by a chorus of dudes. It’s available from Amazon as well as from the Minnesota Historical Society itself. There are also lyrics available, including here, and pdfs with music and words, such as this one. Many are call-and-response songs, of which I am quite fond; I do recommend them. Also worth noting that many French-Canadian folk musicians continue the tradition; my favorite may be Montréal-based Le Vent du Nord, which has a hurdy-gurdy, guys!!, but they are far from alone.
6 We know so little about du Sable; we don’t even have an image of him, though according to his contemporaries he was of African descent. Brief synopses of his life, less mysterious than his origins, can be found at Wikipedia, WILL TV/PBS, and Britannica.

I have already talked about what I thought of the exhibition, but lots of other people liked it more. (And some liked it less.) Some (real) reviews follow:

If you’re interested, there’s a whole article about the beautiful rivets, including photos. There’s also an exhibition website from the Field; this remains available even though the exhibition–and those amazing rivets!–is moving on.

El Libertador: Accuracy (Un)Required

I am (usually) a literary and historical purist with a masochistic yen for watching adaptions. So, when the film Libertador came out (translated into English as Liberator, though even Wikipedia has an English-language article called “Libertadores” about these guys), I knew I had to see it. I mean, it’s about Simón Bolívar, and even though he and his pals mark the end of the colonial (outside Puerto Rico and a few other places), they are also a sort of liminal space between republics and colonies–and, of course, I’ve read Bolívar’s letters. A lot. I think I even had Carta de Jamaica (Letter from Jamaica, available online in Spanish and English translation) memorized for a while. Continue reading