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Essay: Revisionist History? The Spanish Conquest of Latin America

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by Nicholas Klar

When we consider historical events it can be easy to criticize authors of a previous age, be they those of primary or secondary sources. We find ourselves writing from the viewpoint of our ‘enlightened’ age, disregarding any cultural context of the period. At any given time in the field of history there are always value judgements. It is difficult to remain objective and free of bias, therefore those sources which best fit our view are given credence over others.

In this paper we will consider how the present underwrites the way we think about the past. When we evaluate history are we really discussing today’s values or those of yesterday? This will be generally examined before comparing various sources in relation to the Spanish conquest of the New World.

Over the past five hundred years there has been a general progression in different authors interpretations of the colonization process. This has been particularly noticeable over the last 50 years with a movement away from the rigid discipline of ‘dead white European males’ that had lasted well into this century.

For the preceding 450 years history had been based on the writings of ‘the victors’, the consensus being why should ‘the losers’ be considered? Supporting this, Stannard claims that in the last 50 or so years estimated population figures of pre-Columbian America have been raised 10 to 20 times higher than previously calculated. [Stannard p.33] This belies the, '- popular historical perception of Indian America as an underpopulated virgin land.' [Ibid]

There was an acceptance that honorable expansion of European civilization brought nothing but good to the new world. The documentaries showed African children in British school uniforms learning to square dance, and Australian Aborigines as ‘nearly civilized’. Nothing of indigenous culture was considered worthwhile, especially as there was usually a lack of any written history.

This new diversity has led to new writings and a shift in teaching curriculum that includes history from the view of Indigenous and Aboriginal people, Chicanos, Women, and others. A good example is ‘Vision de los Vencidos’ by Miguel Leon Portilla. Popular culture has subsequently shifted as well. Movies such as ‘The Mission’, ‘Black Robe’, and ‘Dances with Wolves’ have portrayed native Americans as strong and noble people, not ‘savages’ that need to be quickly exterminated by the cavalry, and their poor treatment at the hands of European settlers.

Unlike previous centennials the recent quincentennial allowed dispossessed Indians a stage to more adequately vent their concerns and anger. During the 1988 Bicentennial in Australia Aborigines were able to increase public awareness of their plight, and were allowed to stay in a makeshift ‘embassy’ erected in the heart of Sydney.

In 1993 the Australian Prime Minister proffered a public apology for the injustices brought on them by European settlement, the first such statement by any national government leader. Fifty years ago this would have been unthinkable. This change in attitudes clearly shows the past being tied with the present.

This shows there can also political implications to be considered both then and now. The account of Las Casas was far more popular in other European states than in Spain. The French, Dutch, and English promoted the idea of Spanish brutality, the ‘Black Legend’, to further their own claims to new territories. [de Las Casas pp. 2,16,17]

This was the first time the 'romantic vision' of Columbus began to be questioned. Beginning from the 1720's the innumerable works on Columbus espoused a wide spectrum of opinions. He became an '- essential inspiration for a vast array of popular histories, paintings and poems.' [Sale p.344]

To some he was a symbol of progress, an ethnic symbol, a greedy opportunist, or a figure of popular culture. Todorov takes a middle road, claiming that he was probably seeking gold, the conversion of the Indians, AND the beauty of nature. Sale spends much time considering the changing attitudes, which form a movement away from the term 'discovery' towards one of 'encounter'.

From this point he judges different aspects of Columbus, stating that over the centuries he had become ,

'- symbol and flesh, myth and reality, and the complex mixture of those elements depending on whose hands are doing the shaping and for what purpose.' [Ibid p. 326]

When reading any piece it must be judged who the author is addressing it to and what that person has at stake. This is clear when comparing the writings of de Las Casas to, say that of Cortes. Although both wrote to sway the opinion of Charles V they expounded completely different views of Spanish encounters with, and treatment of, the indigenous Americans. Cortes tries to prove his action as legal and just, whilst 'forgetting' about the massacre at Teotihuacan. Las Casas is more graphic, claiming that the Spainards primary motives are greed, and therefore unjust.

When writing about his father Ferdinand Columbus eulogised his fathers brilliance, foresight, and faith. Why would he write anything else with family pride (and maybe riches) at stake? Before the days of mass publishing many books were intended for a limited audience, or for a particular person. Therefore these accounts were more often than not embellished to suit the purposes of the author.

Also the cultural context needs to be considered. The Spanish government administered the New World poorly, but it partly did so from its inexperience as the first colonizer. Its brutality mirrors the long and bloody fight to oust the Moors from its territory. The near absence of any reference to La Malinche’s important role in Cortes’ conquests, and her treatment by the same, only reflects the low esteem that women were held in that society. Cortes, despite his obvious bias, was not, and could not be expected to be, a ‘sensitive new age guy’!

Authors often reflect the values of their times. When historians judge these works they can either accept or reject them. For instance O'Gorman tries to break the mold of ethnocentrism, but ends up ethnocentric anyway. Stannard and Cortes sound surprisingly similiar when describing the vast treasures and wonders of pre-colonial America. Stannard states that,

'There is no benefit to be gained from efforts to counter the anti-Indian propaganda that dominates our textbooks with pro-Indian propaganda of equally dubious veracity.' [Stannard p.51]

Despite this he uses a mixture of the early works of authors such as Jose de Acosta, Pierre de Charlevoix, and Bartolome de Las Casas, along with latter day secondary sources to put forward his own biased argument.

He talks of the rich diversity of different Indian cultures, their harmony with the earth, rich culture, political systems, the healthy rearing of children, even their system of roads and storage. It is also contended that the Iroquois League influenced European and U.S. political thought to such an extent that the U.S. constitution is based on that of the league. [Ibid p.29]

There is an argument over whether Las Casas is rhetoric or propaganda. Donovan acknowledges the bias of Las Casas but maintains 'Historia de las Indies' still supplies much of what is known about Columbus and Spanish colonization. [de Las Casas p.10] Todorov appears to grudgingly respect Cortes for his ability to 'divide and conquer', to be adaptable, and for being able to 'read the signs'.

In conclusion we can see the myriad of opinions often reflect the values of the period of which they were written. Latter evaluations reflect a more modern outlook. Perhaps Sale summed it up best when he wrote,

'The vantage point of 500 years allows us to appreciate the wisdom of such few far more acutely than their contemporaries ever could. - History is what happened, not what should have happened.' [Sale p.367]


Hernando Cortes 'Five Letters 1519- 1526' NY: 19??

Bartolome de Las Casas 'Devastation of the Indies' Baltimore:1992

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

Kirkpatrick Sale 'The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy'

David E. Stannard 'American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World' NY:1992

Tzvetan Todorov 'The Conquest of America :The Question of the Other' NY: 19??

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "Revisionist History? The Spanish Conquest of Latin America", + date accessed

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