Introduction to the Course

This fall, I am working with Dr. Joan C. Bristol on a minor field readings for “Latin America and the World.” The readings are meant to complement the two courses I took for the minor field: Global Power & Local Culture in Early Latin America, taught by Dr. John Tutino at Georgetown University, and Latin America & the United States (syllabus PDF), taught by Dr. Matthew Karush at George Mason University. Dr. Karush, Dr. Bristol, and I came up with the theme of “Latin America and the World” as the best way to tie together the two courses into a minor field, knowing that a minor field simply in Latin American history would be too broad to be useful. For those curious, here is the field statement that Dr. Bristol and I composed.

As part of the minor field readings, I’m doing a reflective piece on each section’s readings. Following the lead of my classmate Erin Bush’s readings with Dr. Sharon Leon, with Dr. Bristol’s permission I’m blogging my reflective pieces. As I’ve written before, I find blogging a more useful exercise than simply sending the professor a reflective piece. Writing for any person that might stumble upon my blog helps me synthesize, and keeps with my views on open scholarly communication.

First Module: Conquest and Early Colonialism

The format of this post will be slightly different, as Dr. Bristol and I already had our discussion. Future posts will be in anticipation of the discussion.

Books read

Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

This excellent and eminently readable work focuses on the spread of tobacco and chocolate from their American roots to Europe. Norton argues that these two commodities represented, metaphorically, a reverse colonization: Europeans adopted their consumption and only adapted them in limited ways. She begins by detailing the use of each in pre-Columbian America, where tobacco was much more widespread than chocolate; the latter was largely limited to Mesoamerica. Chocolate was primary consumed as a beverage, and tobacco could be ingested through smoking, chewing, and sniffing.

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they found these substances odd, and initially weren’t sure what to make of them. Over time, though, Europeans in the Americas began to consume them, worrying some commentators that they were “going native.” Europeans consumed chocolate and tobacco in much the same way as indigenous Americans did, and for pleasurable purposes, rather than medical. By the late sixteenth century, though, the goods began to flow to Europe. European commentators, whose work Norton analyzes in-depth, struggled to make sense of chocolate and tobacco. Some argued for their medical effectiveness. Norton argues, however, that arguments about their medical use only came after the goods had come to Europe, and long after Europeans in the Americas had begun using them. Thus, their introduction to Europe was not based on medicinal value, as others have argued, but rather on the acquired tastes that Europeans in the Americas spread to Europe.

Finally, in the seventeenth century, chocolate and tobacco became accepted commodities in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Europeans, while making some adaptation (for example, in seasoning that accompanied chocolate), largely consumed chocolate and tobacco in the same ways indigenous Americans had, and even with similar associations. This consumption did, however, involve stripping away sacred meanings that indigenous Americans had with the goods–something necessary to remove their status as “pagan.”

Overall this was an excellent work. The only strong critique I offered to Dr. Bristol was that the setting shifts almost completely from the Americas (particularly Mesoamerica) to Europe as the book progresses. While it makes sense that the book began in the Americas, with the goods being native to the Americas, I wanted to know more how their use in the Americas evolved. For example, today what I remember as “Mexican hot chocolate” from growing up in San Antonio includes cinnamon, a spice not native to the Americas. How did chocolate and tobacco consumption change in the Americas, particularly in Mesoamerica? Norton provides an epilogue that brings the story of each to the present day, but focused more on Europe and North America.

Other than that minor quibble, though, this is a book that I strongly recommend.

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

This book, primarily written for undergraduates, provides a succinct introduction to the Spanish “Conquest.” I use quotation marks because Restall argues against the idea that the Spanish Conquest was complete.

Restall, choosing the number seven because of its “almost mystical qualities,” frames the book around seven common, interrelated myths surrounding the Conquest:

  1. Exceptional Men: Demolishing the idea that small numbers of Spaniards brought down large empires. Instead, he focuses in indigenous participation, for their own reasons, in the Conquest.
  2. The King’s Army: An argument against the idea that Spanish conquistadors were soldiers in the sense of members of a modern standing army. Instead, conquistadors tended to be private adventurers.
  3. White Conquistadors: Along the lines of the “exceptional men” myth, Restall takes on the idea that it was only Spaniards responsible for the Conquest. Not only indigenous Americans, such as Tlaxcalans and Tarascans who used the Spaniards for their own ends against the Mexica, but Africans participated.
  4. Completion: The Conquest was not “over and done” in 1521 in Mesoamerica and 1532 in Peru, as is commonly believed. Indeed the Conquest was not a simple matter of Spaniards imposing their will over indigenous Americans, but rather a give-and-take. In many places, indigenous Americans continued their same lifestyles, and continued to live autonomously.
  5. (Mis)Communication: In this complex chapter, Restall shows that while a great deal of mutual cultural unintelligibility did occur, both sides had some understanding of the other’s intentions. The Conquest did not occur either because the two sides were unable to understand each other, or because they could understand each other perfectly; instead Restall invokes Richard White’s “middle ground” to explain what happened.
  6. Native Desolation: While indigenous Americans faced massive population declines, they, and their cultures, were not wiped out by the Spanish Conquest. Rather, indigenous cultures and polities persisted.
  7. Superiority: While Spaniards had some superior technology, such as steel swords, Spaniards were not so “superior” that small bands of them could bring down massive empires. Rather, it took political cooperation with indigenous actors, disease, and the like to create simply an incomplete conquest.

Restall’s work nicely complemented, and helped put together, the works I read in the Global Power and Local Culture in Early Latin America class: two large syntheses of Spanish colonialism (J.H. Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World and Henry Kamen’s Empire: How Spain Became a Global Power) and four “case studies” of particular regions under Spanish rule (Karen Spalding’s Huarochirí, Nancy Farriss’s Maya Society Under Colonial Rule, James Lockhart’s The Nahuas After the Conquest, and John Tutino’s Making a New World). For me, the common thread among these works (as well as Steve Stern’s), following the model Kamen emphasizes, is that Spain’s empire was based on local arrangements. Restall’s work reinforces that idea.

My main critiques of this book were twofold: That the number seven seemed catchy but not perhaps the best, leading to a great deal of repetition among chapters, and that Restall mainly focused on the Spanish conquest of societies with highly organized polities, like those in Mesoamerica and the Andes, and not so much on nomadic societies. Part of that second nit may be a result of when Restall wrote, before David Weber published his masterwork Bárbaros, which focuses on Spanish relations with nomadic tribes. Based on the other books I’ve read, and from what I understand, there aren’t as many localized case studies of Spanish empire-building outside of places like Mesoamerica and the Andes.

That said, I really enjoyed this book and found it to be a good synthesis, appropriate not only for an undergraduate class but for graduate students and for everyone else.

Stern, Steve J. Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.

Stern’s book is one of the first in a wave of local case studies of Spanish empire-building, a wave that includes the books I mention above. Stern focuses on a particular region of Peru, Huamanga, which was on the road between the Inca Empire’s capital of Cuzco and the Spanish colonial of Lima. Stern begins with how people organized themselves in the harsh environment of the Andes, where the land’s rapid increase in elevation creates microclimates. Thus, allyus, or small communities, formed and organized, with members of the community living in different areas as to maximize resources. Thus, unlike the contiguous villages we are used to, allyus had portions in different places.

This description shows that Stern’s book is largely an economic history, focusing on the evolution of economic organization–from the formation of allyus to the conquest by the Inca Empire in the fifteenth century, and then the decapitation of the Inca Empire by Spaniards in the early sixteenth century. Stern then focuses on what he defines as different stages of Spanish colonialism, and indigenous responses to it. First, the Spanish regime was largely focused on plunder through the 1560s, with allyus and even their leaders, kurakas, left largely intact. But indigenous resistance and population loss from disease made that system untenable, so Viceroy Toledo organized a system of state-based exploitation, including requirements of tribute, reorganization of allyus, and labor drafts, particularly for the mines of Potosí. As Stern says, it was with these reforms that “the local peoples of Huamanga finally became Indians”–that is, an ethnically-based social class. Continued state exploitation also created economic dependency, leading to Stern’s final stage, private exploitation, where private Spanish actors formed their own unequal economic relationships with indigenous Andeans. Stern ends at 1640, when, for him, the conquest of the Andes was essentially complete.

This is a simplification of an extremely complex book. Along with the story Stern tells about the Andes, he is also tying into broader questions of global economics and how this particular region fit into it. The book’s focus is strongly economic–for example, Stern attributes the Taki Onquoy movement, a millenarian movement among indigenous Andeans in the 1560s, as largely a response to material conditions.

My main critique of the book is the strong economic focus, a marked contrast from later works like Spalding’s Huarochirí and Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures, both of which take a more cultural focus. Nonetheless, Stern had to choose a focus, and his periodization, for that matter, is similar to that of Spalding. I can see why this book remains a classic and a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about the process of colonization in the Andes.

Tying things together

These books approach Spanish conquest and colonization in the Americas in different ways, and, in combination with the other books I mentioned above (as well as many others), illuminate different aspects. Norton illuminates a perspective of cultural transmission–in this case, from colony to metropole–while Restall gives an overall picture, and Stern gives a focused snapshot on the effects of conquest and colonization in one region. Restall is largely synthesizing and responding to historiography, while Stern takes an economic approach and Norton takes a linguistic and cultural approach. In other words, Stern has a strong numbers focus, while Restall and Norton focus strongly on analyzing and deconstructing texts to make their arguments.

When Dr. Bristol and I were discussing the books as a whole, she asked me about how they treat indigenous agency. I realized that I am very much a product of my time. I didn’t consider that a major focus because, to me learning Latin American history in the early 2000s, treatments of indigenous agency (whether through resistance or cooperation) in the process of Spanish empire-building are so common-sense as not to merit notice. Of course indigenous peoples played a major role! But as she pointed out, and as Restall argues, that interpretation has not always been the most common–far from it. Rather, these and the above-cited books are part of a new wave of scholarship that shows Spanish empire-building not to have been top-down, but rather a contested, often local process. This, I would argue (following Kamen), is what gave the Spanish Empire its staying power. The constituent parts of the Empire each had enough people with interests in maintaining the Empire. The reason they had such interests: the arrangements made locally.

Next time

The next topic will be African Diaspora. For that meeting on September 19, I am reading:

  • Bryant, Sherwin K, Rachel Sarah O’Toole, and Ben Vinson. Africans to Spanish America: Expanding the Diaspora. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. (chapters 1-3)
  • Miller, Joseph Calder. Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
  • Reis, João José. Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.