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!

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

The Art Institute’s incredible exhibit “A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire” will end its run on February 28, 2016–just a few days from now. I talk a lot about Latin American history; I’ve even talked about José Gil de Castro, free man of color, who painted the tale of the wars of independence. And, now that its course has been almost run, I’ll finally write about this exhibit.


Image of Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Male Donor. 18th century Cuzco School painting by an unidentified artist. Image by Darren and Brad of Flickr.

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Remembering the Alamo, and the Maine, and the Coloniality: U.S. Interventions in Latin America, Part I

Prologue: The Monroe Doctrine

A long, long time ago, when our country was very new, a Doctrine was born. The world was, it seems, innocent then, but I think it unlikely that the Doctrine was ever entirely innocent itself. The Doctrine’s origins sink back even further, to a speech given by James Monroe while he was Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state; the Doctrine itself would be penned by John Quincy Adams, our future president, while he was secretary of state to James Monroe. We began to put that Doctrine to use long before its ink was dry: the fledgling U.S. consumed South Florida, and then, soon enough, all of Florida (never mind that the Spaniards had helped us win the Revolution).1 We had Manifest Destiny, after all. The World was well and truly Ours, and the Monroe Doctrine was elucidated to Keep Those Europeans the Hell Outta the Americas.2

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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.