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Essay: A commentary on 'Ambivalent Conquests' (Author - Inga Clendinnen)

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by Nicholas Klar

Please note: all references are from 'Ambivalent Conquests', unless stated otherwise

Clendinnen's metaphor - "confusion of tongues", could be construed as having several meanings. Not only can it reflect language barriers, but also misunderstanding of cultural norms, religion and gender roles. This was a two way street. Both the Spanish and inhabitants of the Andes and the Yucatan Peninsula struggled with their own perceptions and misunderstandings of the other. Colonization brought about multiple realities and distorted self images. [p.127] This shows clearly in some of the sources.
The result of these misunderstandings was violence, Spaniard against Indian, Catholic against pagan, conquistador against woman. In this paper the writings of Clendinnen and Silverblatt will be as a contextual basis to consider the effect of "encounters" on both the Indians and the Spanish. The resistance to, and ambivalence of, the conquest can be linked to this "confusion of tongues". This may be why Todorov appears to grudgingly respect Cortes for his ability to 'divide and conquer' by being able to 'read the signs'.
The role of the church was vital. Cortes considered it essential that the Indians subjected themselves not only to the Spanish throne but also to the 'mysteries of Christ' on the basis of the church ruling that enslavement and war could only be made on groups that had rejected the Gospel.[Portilla p.58]

When encountering a people the Requerimiento was to read to them in Spanish. Afterwards, if they still chose not to submit to God's will, violence was permissible. This was regardless of whether the people actually understood.

From the outset of Spanish incursions into Yucatan there was confusion. The name Yucatan was derived from the Mayan uic athan, meaning "we do not understand". This was obviously the confused Mayan reply to Spanish enquiries about the Indian name for the land. [] The Mayan attacks, after initially appearing friendly, were poor mistakes on behalf of the Spaniards who were unaware of the nature of Mayan warfare. [pp.7-11]

Violence appears as a natural result of ill communication. In the second expedition to Yucatan, Grijalva took along at least one of those Indians captured by Cordoba to act as interpreter, and took pains to avoid violence. This time the Mayan appeared less intransigent, although this may have been in the hope of getting the Spanish to quickly move on. [pp.15,16]
As settlement occurred the Spanish were concerned by the Mayan disregard for oaths and treaties which were 'forgotten' at will and were also unable to emulate Cortes' divide and conquer technique.

This was due in part to what appears as an initial Spanish reluctance to learn Mayan, apart from the rudimentary essentials such as 'cenotes' (water holes).[pp.25-7] By their simple presence the Spanish tested the Mayan's 'complex web of understanding'.[p.153]
However, at a later time the Spanish appeared happy to incorporate villages and their chiefs into the colonial power structures. With the Mayan emphasis on village history and status of personal lineage this was an important concession.[p.151] Later priests were confused when, at the same time they had to drive Indians to worship, local village churches were thriving. [p.191]
As the Spanish and Mayan mingled more freely there was adaption on both sides, contributing to the "ambivalence" of conquest. The usual sexual abuse took place during the military phase of conquest and later many commoners chose Indians as their wives. [pp. 38,43,155] In this the role of gender became important, because with mestizos there was now real evidence of the intermingling of races.

Also the new gender structure brought a dismantling of traditional society which meant it could not be perpetuated. In Andean society men became symbols of 'culture' opposed to women as symbols of 'nature'. Here the shattering of gender roles also meant the destruction and reconstruction of social class. [Silverblatt p.xix]

Secular Spaniards had no interest in interfering in native village life. This was to change with the advent of Franciscan friars. [p.44] Franciscans, who were the largest order in Spain, dominated in the Yucatan. They adopted a paternalistic relationship with 'their' Indians and took up a protector role in the spirit of Las Casas' urgings. Many chose to adopt Indian ways in an attempt to proselytize more effectively. [Todorov pp.200,248]

Indians were trained, and chiefs were targeted for conversion. The Franciscans invented the role of missionary as they went along, adding to the syncretism of native and Catholic values. They indoctrinated the Indians in Hispanic ways but did not teach them Spanish which was a large factor in the "confusion of tongues". Few friars could actually communicate effectively in Mayan. [pp.46,50, 52,73]

Cruelty by the Franciscans in the Yucatan was justified under the leadership of Fray Diego de Landa. After discovering evidence of idolatry he justified violence through the philosophy of 'destroy and rebuild'. Torture was used to extricate confessions, many traditions were banned, and most of the precious historical books of the Mayan were destroyed. [pp. 58,74,134] The friars who had previously preferred psychological manipulation judged themselves above the law, and inflicted punishment without right of redress.

Pathetic confessions by Indians raise the question whether it was the inadequacies of teaching or sheer terror that brought them forth. Not all 'guilty' Indians were punished. Those who suffered the wrath of the church were meant to be examples to other 'idolaters' and 'backsliders'. [pp.77,81] Roles were inverted as the frightened Indians sought refuge with the encomenderos who considered the church a threat to their livelihood and wanted to protect their interests. [p.82]

The Mayan 'hid' their old religion in an attempt to perpetuate it and also adopted Christian symbols to replace idols. [p. 164] This helped develop a distinct form of Mayan Christianity which in 1847 expressed itself in the caste wars. [p.191] The conversion of Mayans seemed only minimal. Perhaps it was because the Spanish were seen as only temporary intruders. Meanwhile some Indians established their 'own' church, including doing their own sacraments and baptisms. One pair even declared themselves Pope and bishop! The hope was a return of Jesus and his Mayan lords to a Yucatan cleansed of foreign interference. [p.185]

The Mayan language was not exact, and subject to the reader's elucidation. Therefore borrowing from Europe, apart from the script, was minimal. [pp.136,7] There is also an inference that the Mayans intended a deliberate "confusion of tongues". Their 'comedians' were banned for denigrating nobility, and there was, '...strong evidence of...riddling messages, and deliberate and conscious endeavors to sustain their own accounts of things.' [p.160]

There were some similarities with the witch hunts in Peru, which had found their way from the old world to the new. Not only did the Incas graft Catholicism into their tradition, but also the devil and paganism. Women had been pivotal in the worship of Andean gods which brought material well being. Under the Spanish they saw themselves as the upholders of Andean society, and used 'witchcraft' as a form of resistance. [Silverblatt pp.31,195,213]

Women became central in the demonology philosophy of the church. The burden of colonialism had always fallen heavy on women but was particularly more in Peru. Jesuits took a particular dislike to their sexual behavior. As in the Yucatan, confessions of witchcraft were made under duress and they too looked for the god that would free them from oppression. Little wonder that some of these women saw the devil as Spanish.[Ibid pp.102,111176,182]

The question of sources needs also to be addressed and Clendinnen devotes a large section to this problem. [pp.165-189] In this is evidence of speculation, and we find her talking quite often in terms like 'might' and probably'. However there are other examples listed. These include the lack of Franciscan letters to home, the validity of confused confessions under torture, the similarity of correspondence sent on behalf of de Landa, and the exaggerated number of deaths. [pp.49,60,93,101,188]

Also, alien soldiers on a quest for gold rarely make good ethnographers. [pp.131,137] The translation from one meaning system to another is a dangerous business. [p.127] In conclusion we can see the multiple effects that the "confusion of tongues" brought in culture, gender, class, and lifestyles clearly. We can see too that it was bound together with violence and ignorance.


Inga Clendinnen 'Ambivalent Conquests' Cambridge:1987

Miguel Leon-Portilla 'The Broken Spears' Boston:1992

Irene Silverblatt 'Moon, Sun, and Witches' NJ:1987

Tzvetan Todorov 'The Conquest of America :The Question of the Other' NY:1984

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1992, "A commentary on 'Ambivalent Conquests' (Author - Inga Clendinnen)" - + date accessed

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