Indigenous Allies & Politics of Empire

Update:I wrote this post in 2013 on the Spanish Conquest as an attempt to debunk the Jared Diamond (and popular culture) inspired claims of conquest inevitability. For an attempt to cover this material in class using the textbook Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean see the 2021 lecture:

Spanish Conquest

Myths of the Spanish conquest prove surprisingly durable. Matthew Restall’s aptly titled Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is one of the best places to begin debunking. Restall highlights the importance of indigenous allies both during the Spanish conquest and throughout colonization. This points the way to a different kind of history. The Spanish Conquest is a contingent outcome rather than inevitable.

This debunking work is enormously important. After tackling why European polities acquired the ability to launch overseas adventures, the colonization of the Caribbean and the Americas is a most critical episode in how the world becomes global and modern. It is where western Europe emerges as “The West.” This entailed what Michel-Rolph Trouillot describes as a geography of management and geography of imagination:

Colonization became a mission, and the Savage became absence and negation. The symbolic process through which the West created itself thus involved the universal legitimacy of power–and order became, in that process, the answer to the question of legitimacy. To put it otherwise, the West is inconceivable without a metanarrative. Since their common emergence in the sixteenth century, world capitalism, the modern state, and colonization posed–and continue to pose–the issue of the philosophical base of order to the West. What language can legitimate universal control? Here again the geography of imagination and the geography of management appear to be distinct yet intertwined, both empirically and analytically. (Global Transformations 2003, 22)

For many years, the standard answer to how Spanish conquest colonization of the Americas proceeded has been Guns Germs and Steel, an answer made popular by Jared Diamond’s best-seller. Put differently, it’s that the Europeans had the germ advantage, from long-term exposure to the deadly pathogens that came mostly from domesticated animals, coupled to a technology advantage, in the form of using those large domesticated animals for war and transport; steel and guns; and literacy, which gave the Spaniards a knowledge and communication advantage. It’s a grand-sweep narrative, in which Spanish conquest and colonization become tragic incidents. In this story, the tragedy is rooted in factors thousands of years old, accidental but inevitable.

The “guns and germs” idea is in desperate need of popular revision. Many historical specialists have challenged the details, but few have put the larger pieces together and spelled out the implications. The Spanish conquest, and what emerged as the West, was a contingent outcome, not inevitable. It could have been different. Understanding contingency has implications for present struggles: It still can be different. Movements like Idle No More and organizations like Survival International demonstrate that the struggle over contingent outcomes is far from finished.

Spanish Conquest as Politics of Empire

Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest certainly acknowledges the importance of germs and steel. However, Restall’s account reveals other crucial ingredients of Spanish conquest–the fact that both the Aztec and the Incas were relatively recent and loosely consolidated empires. A key factor was political alliance. The Spaniards were able to effectively marshal thousands of indigenous allies into a fight against Aztec or Inca overlords. Moreover, in the chapters on “The Myth of Completion” and “The Myth of Native Desolation,” Restall makes clear the conquest was never as complete as the Spanish portrayed. The resulting colonial polities would be part of a co-production of European power and allied native support. This co-production of modern history, which would dramatically reshape European as well as non-European peoples in every corner of the world, is what Eric Wolf set out to understand in Europe and the People Without History and what Trouillot urges anthropology to consider as a geography of management and geography of imagination.

Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is a crucial re-examination, although Restall does not push his own points to their logical conclusion. In recent years historians such as Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper made a stronger case for re-assessment:

The “steel and germs” explanation for the rapidity of conquest has not convinced all specialists. The newcomers’ technological advantages were insufficient and in any case only temporary; differential mortality was a long-term process, not something that happened at the moment of outsiders’ assault. Thinking about the endemic vulnerabilities of empires helps us understand the situation. The Aztecs and the Incas were themselves imperial formations of relatively recent origin, with highly concentrated power and wealth at the center and often violent relations with not entirely assimilated people at the edges of their empires. When the Europeans arrived, indigenous people were not sure whether the newcomers were enemies, gods, or evil spirits–or potentially useful allies against an oppressive power. These uncertainties made it harder for their rulers, who had no way of knowing what was in store for them, to respond effectively. Cortes and Pizarro recruited allies among disaffected peoples, thereby making their armies as large as the Aztec and Inca forces they fought against. The battle against the Aztecs was hard-fought, with Spaniards suffering reverses, despite their indigenous allies and the hesitations of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The conquest of the Inca empire–more centralized than that of the Aztecs–was also facilitated by turning those excluded under Inca power into indigenous allies. (Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, 2010:163)

Burbank and Cooper do not use Restall for their re-telling: they draw mostly on Technology, Disease, and Colonial Conquests, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: Essays Reappraising the Guns and Germs Theories (2001). David Cahill’s essay, Advanced Andeans and Backward Europeans provides additional support. In sum, a reconsideration of these still-popular myths of the Spanish conquest is overdue.

Christopher Columbus and Portuguese Expansion

One of the first myths of the Spanish conquest Restall tackles is about Christopher Columbus. By now, everyone knows that Columbus was hardly the person who apprehended a round world against the flat-earthers. The debate

actually concerned the size of the ocean to the west, with Columbus erroneously arguing that the distance from Spain to Asia was shorter than the authorities claimed. “All agreed that what the Admiral was saying could not possible be true,” one of the professors present later testified. They were right in this, and in their belief that the earth was round, a belief shared by all educated Europeans of the day. (2003:7)

What fewer people realize is the additional detail Restall reveals about Portuguese expansion into the Atlantic, creating new zones of navigation. If it had not been Columbus, the Portuguese would have arrived in the Americas soon enough:

His discoveries were an accidental geographical byproduct of Portuguese expansion two centuries old, of Portuguese-Castilian competition for Atlantic control a century old, and of Portuguese-Castilian competition for a sea route to India older than Columbus himself. Furthermore, had Columbus not reached the Americas, any one of numerous other navigators would have done so within a decade. (2003:9)

I highlight this because it is sometimes seen as crucial that Columbus was able to get Castilian backing when the Portuguese refused to fund him. While it is of course important that European polities were competing with each other, as Restall makes clear the Portuguese were already quite close to navigating to the Americas anyway. The celebration and then vilification of Columbus had more to do with 19th-century and 20th-century immigration politics in the U.S., as Columbus became important for Irish and Italian immigrants: “Columbus played a leading role in making citizens out of these immigrants. He provided them with a public example of public devotion and civic virtue, and thus a powerful rejoinder to the cliché that allegiance to Rome preempted the Catholics’ attachment to the United States” (Trouillot, Silencing the Past 1995:123; see also the earlier related post Columbus Day Anthropology). But even with Columbus, the actual historical outcome, and the historical re-telling proves to be contingent rather than fully given in the events.

The Technology Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Many elements have been cited in support of Spanish technological superiority. Restall dismisses most of them.

  • Horses and Dogs. “Horses and dogs were in limited supply for most of the Conquest period, and both animals could only be used in battle under certain circumstances . . . Conquistadors greatly prized horses, and during campaigns they exchanged hands for high prices. But this was not primarily because they offered a military advantage against native warriors. . . . Above all horses were prized because they were a status symbol” (2003:142).
  • Guns. “Guns, too, were of limited use. . . . Those Spaniards who did have firearms were lucky to get a single shot off before reversing the weapon to use as a club or dropping it to concentrate on sword wielding” (2003:143).
  • Literacy. Literacy and knowledge of writing is one of the few places Restall directly challenges Jared Diamond, calling it a “highly problematic generalization” to see literacy as a clear advantage: “It is still not at all clear what difference it could have made. The Spaniards, allegedly better informed, followed the predictable patterns of the Conquest. During the initial encounter this included using legalistic measures to validate their actions, the use of display violence, and the capture of the native ruler” (2003:91).

Restall instead shows how the Spaniards relied on a chain of conquest: “Most conquests and newly founded colonies served as stepping stones to other conquest enterprises. Certainly, some expeditions were assembled in Spain, but most originated in one Spanish colony in order to conquer an adjacent territory” (2003:38). In other words, most of the colonization efforts were not truly launched from across the ocean. In the attempts to replicate and extend local conquest chains, the Spaniards did not need to rely on literacy and communication, but on the tactics they had already seen working in a previous venture. Some of these procedures were rooted in the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula and the Caribbean:

In fact, Cortés followed Conquest procedures that had Iberian roots predating the Conquest and were consolidated during the Caribbean phase of Conquest (1492-1521). These routines were further developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries not because all conquistadors mimicked Cortés–although some may have imagined they were emulating him–but because Spaniards were concerned to justify their actions and give them a legalistic veneer by citing and following approved precedents. The Conquest pattern was a procedure followed by many, not the exceptional actions of a handful. (2003:19)

Even so, as Restall points out “the failed expeditions outnumbered successful ones” (2003:143). The results were hardly automatic or guaranteed: “As Clendinnen has observed of the Spanish-Mexica war, both Spaniards and natives were aware that the Conquest was ‘a close-run thing,’ a point that applies broadly across the Conquest” (2003:143).

Spaniards could sometimes be awed as well:

When Bernal Díaz first saw the Aztec capital he was lost for words. . . . Díaz’s struggle to describe what he saw–the metropolis of Tenochtitlán, studded with pyramids, crisscrossed with canals, seeming to hover on a lake that was “crowded with canoes” and edged with other “great cities”–derived from his shock at realizing that the world was not what he had perceived it to be. Just as artists would for centuries draw pre-Conquest Tenochtitlán with distinctly European features, so did Díaz try to compare the valley to European cityscapes of his experience, but could not. (Restall 2003:xiii)

David Cahill describes the remarkable infrastructure of the Inca empire:

In the sixteenth century, the Incas had made greater progress toward an integrated imperial language than the Spaniards, who had also to engage with the widely spoken (and written) Arabic of southern Spain. Put another way, the Incas were linguistically more integrated than the Spaniards. . . .
Once ashore, [the Spaniards] were to confront a vastly superior Incan control of communications. This comprised a vast network of highway(s) and transverse linking roads from Quito down into Chile and Argentina; the supply and “post” tambo stations; archipelago and transplant populations (mitmaqkuna) for nonlocal provisioning and logistics; and finally a numerous corps of postilions (chasquis) whose relays knitted the disparate parts together. This system serendipitously facilitated conquest, not least in speeding the arrival in Cuzco of the conquistadors’ indigenous allies from the northern and central Andes. (2010:213,216; see the Cahill essay also for more comments on notions of literacy. The Incas also provide a significant counter-example to the idea that ideas, language, and peoples integrate better across latitude rather than longitude.)

Restall does credit steel. “The one weapon, then, whose efficacy is indubitable was the steel sword. It alone was worth more than a horse, a gun, and a mastiff put together” (2003:143). Still, even here others have not been so convinced. In 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann bluntly asserts that “steel was not the decisive factor in Peru” and describes what could be the incredibly deadly effects of Andean slings (2006:91-93).

The steel sword was most useful for initial encounters, for dramatic “display violence” that the Spanish used to convince those they eventually wanted to recruit as indigenous allies:

Despite evidence of numerous massacres by Spaniards and the routine enslavement of the seminomadic peoples of the Caribbean and Central America, for the most part Spaniards did not seek to decimate or enslave native peoples but rather to subdue and exploit them as a more or less compliant labor force. A standard means of pursuing such subjugation was to employ dramatic displays of concentrated violence in order to terrorize a native group and convince them of the efficacy of cooperation with Spanish demands. Theatrical and terrorizing techniques appear again and again in the records of Conquest expeditions. (Restall 2003:24)

Indigenous Allies – The Spanish Conquest and Beyond

The use of display violence was meant to convince indigenous people of Spanish power and to recruit allied armies. As Restall discusses in his “Invisible Warriors” chapter, when it came to conquering the Aztecs and the Incas, the critical sieges were accomplished with many thousands of indigenous allies.

Even Prescott, influenced in so many ways by the sixteenth-century Spaniards upon whose accounts he relied, realized that “it would be unjust to the Aztecs [Mexica] themselves, at least to their military prowess, to regard the Conquest as directly achieved by the Spaniards alone.”

According to prominent Conquest historian Ross Hassig, the final siege and assault on the Mexica capital was carried out with 200,000 native allies, “even though they went virtually unacknowledged and certainly unrewarded.” (2003:45,47)

As Cahill describes, the same dynamic held in the Andes:

The arrival of the Spanish interlopers suddenly made independence from imperial rule a practical possibility. Accordingly, it was not a small band of gallant conquistadors who conquered the Incas and Aztecs, but an alliance consisting of a core of militarily trained Spaniards together with breakaway, populous states that sought independence from tyrannical overlords. (2010:215)

Indigenous allies were therefore vital to Spanish conquest. They were also vital to what the ongoing chain of conquest, as well as to creating and maintaining empire. Restall shows how following the Aztec downfall, indigenous allies then accompanied Spaniards for subsequent conquests. But was this really a Spanish conquest, or something different? “As symbolized by place-names in highland Guatemala to this day, Nahuatl became lingua franca in New Spain. In many ways, these campaigns were a continuation of the Mexica expansionism” (Restall 2003:123).

Similarly in Inca Peru:

A tiered structure of indigenous officeholders provided the bedrock for both the consolidation of the immediate conquest era and the subsequent three centuries of Spanish hegemony in the Andes. . . . Political control of the conquered Andean territories depended on controlling the numerous indigenous peoples. In the long term, conquest and colonialism therefore depended utterly on maintaining the loyalty of native Andean officeholders. Had they deserted en masse, colonialism might well have been stopped in its tracks. Any study of Andean office holding is, then, a study in collaborationism. However, indigenous elites were for the most part not betrayers of their peoples, but rather intermediaries or brokers mediating between the colonial state and the communities they ruled or for which they were otherwise responsible. (Cahill 2010:223-224)

This point is dramatically illustrated–although rather strangely–in a NOVA/National Geographic feature, The Great Inca Rebellion. It’s rather misleadingly titled, and a too-CSI-imitating account of a rebellion against Spanish colonialism. We eventually discover (spoiler alert!) the crucial role of club-wielding, traditional-weapon-bearing indigenous allies in defending the Spaniards. (See also the March 2013 blog-post review of this film Old New World News: The Great Inca Rebellion That Nobody Knew About for 400 years!)

Restall also illustrates in his chapters on the “Myth of Completion” and the “Myth of Native Desolation” that it is incorrect to assume that simply because the Spaniards portrayed the land as occupied and under control on a map does not mean this represented the facts on the ground. Restall here draws on Gustavo Verdesio’s 2001 Forgotten Conquests: Rereading New World History from the Margins and other sources to tell a quite different story:

Looking at Spanish America in its entirety, the Conquest as a series of armed expeditions and military actions against Native Americans never ended. Florida’s Seminoles were still fighting Spaniards when the colony was taken over by the United States (to whom they have never formally surrendered either). The Araucanians of Chile–who fought for decades and eventually killed the black conquistador Juan Valiente–resisted conquest into the nineteenth century, when they continued to fight the Chilean republic in the name of the monarchy they had previously defied. The Charrúa of Uruguay were not finally subdued until the new nation’s president organized their massacre in the 1830s. Argentines also faced–and eventually slaughtered with machine guns–unconquered native peoples in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Guatusos-Malekus of Central America were enslaved and slaughtered in the late nineteenth century. Yaqui resistance in northern Mexico also lasted into the modern period, while at Mexico’s southern end, the Maya of Yucatan pushed the colonial frontier back in 1847 to its sixteenth-century limits, and a string of Maya polities persisted there into the early twentieth century. (2003:72)

This is not of course to minimize the effects of Spanish conquest and colonialism–in fact, the effects often outran the colonizers, and the silver from Spanish America would effectively pull all the world’s peoples into a global market. However, the idea that indigenous peoples rapidly disintegrated in the face of guns, germs, and steel is not supported.

Did indigenous allies make a bad bet?

In many portrayals of history, even those that might acknowledge the role of indigenous allies in Spanish conquest, the indigenous allies often become the dupes. They are the ones fighting local skirmishes, unable to see the global dimensions. Or they are the ones taking advantage of temporary conditions that they would surely regret in the long run. Did these indigenous allies make this kind of terrible miscalculation, a bad bet on history?

Cahill seems to claim as much:

The Spanish incursion represented an opportunity for a recovery of autonomy in partnership with a powerful ally, which, to all appearances, seemed only interested in booty. In any case, anyone was better than the Incas. Insurgent Andean provinces could always settle accounts later with the newcomers, should they prove recalcitrant. From a native Andean viewpoint, the quarrelsome conquistadores, who were riven by internecine disputes embracing even civil war, were dispensable allies, right from the first moment of contact. It was a gross miscalculation. They couldn’t have been more wrong: the Spanish defeat of the Incas presaged the end of the great native lords themselves. (2010:225)

Certainly some people must have reconsidered their alliances–with all wars people often wonder after the fact whether the “winners” truly won. Betrayal after winning victory is hardly unique to the Spanish conquest. Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution is just one of too many examples.

However, much of this speculation depends on who, where, and how long the time frame. For some groups, the more grisly effects of Spanish colonialism did not materialize until much later–during their own lifetimes, they may have gained an autonomy that would not have been possible under Aztec or Inca rule. Local perspectives could be quite ambiguous, as Restall illustrates in the 16th-century The Song of the Aztecs:

As the Mexica, Tlaxcalans, and Huejotzincans were all Nahuas, the song’s lyrics present the war as a kind of civil or local conflict, between rival city-states within the same ethnic and linguistic area. The Spaniards play important roles, but secondary ones as agents of native ambition whose eventual triumph really isn’t a triumph–a “victory” whose flawed and partial nature is ripe for parody because the Spaniards seem unaware of its incompleteness. . . . This spin on the Conquest as a native civil war resulting in an incomplete Spanish domination offers an alternative to the predictably hispanocentric perspective of the Spaniards, and is one that is readily found in native sources. (2003:46)

Similar perspectives might be gleaned from the peripheries of the former Inca empire, which in some cases went for many years without anything resembling effective colonial control. Cahill’s research from the Inca heartland may indeed tell a different story, and inevitably there were peoples who grossly miscalculated, but it would still be difficult to make one blanket generalization regarding the fate of indigenous allies.

What about the germs?

To conclude Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Restall recounts what he sees as the key factors, the non-mythological explanations: “This trilogy of factors–disease, native disunity, and Spanish steel–goes most of the way toward explaining the Conquest’s outcome. Remove just one and the likelihood of the failure of expeditions under Cortés, Pizarro, and others would have been very high” (2003:143). In this formulation, Restall seems to be a minor modification of the Guns Germs and Steel explanation, swapping out only native disunity for guns.

However, and as stated above, Restall is significantly underplaying his own evidence. Indigenous allies were crucial to conquest and colonization. Without indigenous allies, there could have been no siege or prolonged battle against the Aztec or Inca. Steel was undeniably importance for unleashing display violence, but in the medium-to-long term, indigenous forces could adapt technology and fighting methods. Disease is undoubtedly important in the wake of conquest, but there is simply no way the Spaniards could have held out among the Aztecs or Incas armed with steel and differential immunities.

Cahill readily acknowledges the role of germs in the long term. However, he is quite clear that “there is scant evidence that European disease affected the course or outcome of the wars of conquest in the 1530s” (2010:229), and “there is an unresolved debate as to whether smallpox was introduced into the Andean kingdoms at an early or a late date. . . . If Huayna Capac did indeed die of smallpox, it is strange that his northern army–he had been ruler of Quito since his father’s death there–was apparently unaffected by smallpox” (2010:230). This is indeed one factor that seems generally strange in this at times overblown account of “virgin soil” disease, in which indigenous peoples seem to all crumble before European germs–if this were the case, why do the diseases seem to more affect the armies of the conquered, rather than spread through the ranks of the indigenous allies, who would have been closer to the Europeans?

There is no reason to downplay the terrible demographic collapse in the wake of the Conquest–what Eric Wolf calls “The Great Dying.” However, disease does not seem to have been a decisive factor in the initial wars, and rather plays out in the medium and long-term transformation. As Wolf notes,

the advent of pathogens, however, does not in itself furnish an adequate explanation of what happened. One must ask also about the social and political conditions that permitted the pathogens to proliferate at so rapid a rate. On the islands and in the borderlands of the Caribbean, these conditions clearly included the profligate use of Indian labor in the search for gold, and (after 1494) the massive intensification of slave raiding and slavery. . . .
[In] highland areas malnutrition probably increased the virulence of the new diseases. Food supplies both in Mesoamerica and the Andes depended, in the first instance, on highly organized and intensive systems of land use. Any dislocation of these systems–through warfare, foreign encroachment, or death by illness of some part of the labor force–threatened the survival of the remaining population. Europe and the People Without History 1982:133-134)

Or, as Burbank and Cooper write: “In some estimates, the population of Mexico fell from 25 to 2.65 million in the half century after the conquest, that of Peru from 9 to 1.3 million, but others argue that the baseline figures are hypothetical and the impact of disease not so easy to measure. That extensive suffering followed conquest is not in dispute” (2010:163-164).

I am not sure why Restall does not pursue a more sustained argument with regard to germs and steel interpretations. He does take Diamond to task with respect to the literacy claim and the claim that the Spaniards were perceived as gods. On the issue of germs and steel, my guess is that he sees his project as allied with a revisionist understanding to overturn and unearth the still-regnant racist interpretations that ascribe Spanish conquest to innate superiority. There may also be a kind of deference to historical authority. After all, for the historical guild, the role of germs and technology had been debated decades before Diamond:

The historians most responsible for converting this generation to the “guns and germs” theories were led by William H. McNeill, who argued for both things; Carlo Cipolla, who stressed the guns and also added ships; Geoffrey Parker, who popularized the “Military Revolution” theory of superior European combat powers; Alfred Crosby, who best argued the case for epidemic devastations among “virgin soil” populations lacking immunities; and Jared Diamond, the most recent and possible most widely read synthesisers of the “guns and germs” combination. (Technology, Disease, and Colonial Conquests, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: Essays Reappraising the Guns and Germs Theories 2001:xi)

Indeed, even in a volume of essays devoted to reappraising, George Raudzens presents the essays as relatively minor modifications:

None reject the importance of such broad causes and indeed emphasise the ongoing validity of parts of these generalizations. But all argue that these big theories are oversimplified and that other causes must be added which were from time to time more important than “guns and germs” by themselves. The objective of this work as a whole is to refine and improve the big generalizations historians must make in order to reach the widest possible audience, among themselves and beyond themselves. (2001:xii)

Considering the persistence of racist and other stereotypes directed at Native Americans and indigenous peoples, I certainly sympathize with the desire to be careful when questioning accounts that themselves tried to attack racist interpretations. However, non-racist explanations had been around for at least 30 years before Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel–as I point out in the appraisal of Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, Diamond seems to be unaware of Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Eric Wolf and others who were working on these very issues. Moreover, although this anti-racist stance appeals to the liberal readers who already want to embrace it, it has not been an effective counter to so-called “race realism” and the renewed focus on biological race in the last decade (see the discussion in Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, and the Anthropological Concept of Culture).

In other words, the reliance on disease as a way to counteract what Restall calls the final “Myth of Superiority” effectively short-circuits what may be the more important and uncomfortable issue of assessing the role of indigenous allies–and a host of others–in the rise of the West. This is a task for anthropology.

The Geography of Management & Silver

The European movement into the Caribbean and the Americas is crucial to understanding how Europe became the West, part of an intertwined geography of management and geography of imagination. This was an historical process, at every moment contingent, with uncertain outcome, but with nevertheless powerful effects. The former heartland of Aztec and Inca empires would deliver enormous quantities of silver to Europe and effectively create a truly global market. However, even with silver, a most obvious instance of a geography of management, there is room for surprise. For example, Carlos Marichal’s analysis of The Spanish-American Silver Peso: Export Commodity and Global Money of the Ancien Regime, 1550-1800 suggests that in addition to this silver “making world trade a reality,” a great deal of this silver ended up not just in Europe but in China and India (2006:26,42-43). Moreover, it was the Mexican silver peso that was the antecedent to the US dollar:

Silver pesos began to circulate ever more widely and soon became among the most widely used metallic currency in many of the thirteen colonies. It was no surprise, therefore, that during the War of Independence (1776-83) the government of the Confederation of the United States should have adopted the silver peso as the metallic reserve for its new paper currency of dollars. The first issue of paper money specified that the bills were payable in “Spanish milled dollars,” which actually meant Mexican silver pesos. Subsequently, the monetary law ratified by the U.S. Congress on April 2, 1792, established that the metallic currency would be the silver dollar and that it would be equal in value to the silver peso of eight reales. In fact, it may be recalled that, in practice and law, the Mexican silver peso remained legal tender in the United States until the mid-nineteenth century. (2006:47)

And it may be recalled that the now-fading U.S. popular expression of “two bits” as worth one quarter is precisely derived from the Spanish sliver peso of eight reales. Silver from the mines of Potosi was a dramatic creator of a world economy, a key part of how the world became global in the 16th century. (I originally thought this was mainly the Mexican peso, but on a 2017 trip to Bolivia was informed that the US$ was more based on the Potosi mines in what is now Bolivia. See Is Capitalism the Best Economic System?)

The Geography of Imagination

The Spanish conquest was also crucial in forming a geography of imagination.

Though the phrase “noble savage” was not coined until 1609 (by a French chronicler named Lescarbot), and did not become a full-fledged and complex myth until the 1850s, the roots of that construct and its attempt to reconcile two otherwise contradictory strains of ethnocentric perception can be found in the attitudes of Columbus and Conquest-era Spaniards. Furthermore, perceptions of the nature of Native Americans at the time of Contact served as the basis for perceptions of how natives reacted to conquest and colonization. (Restall 2003:107)

This geography of imagination not only entails a perception of natives. As Trouillot analyzes the Caribbean experience, “Modernity creates its Others” (2003:45). The metanarrative of the West entails multiplicity:

As a historical process inherently tied to modernization, modernity necessarily creates its alter-native in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and in all areas of the world where the archetypal Caribbean story repeats itself with variations on the theme of destruction and creolization. . . . The Caribbean story as I read it is less an invitation to search for modernity in various times and places–a useful yet secondary enterprise–than an exhortation to change the terms of the debate. What needs to be analyzed further, better, and differently is the relation between the geography of management and the geography of imagination that together underpinned the development of world capitalism and the legitimacy of the West as the universal unmarked. Anthropologists need to take further distance from North Atlantic universals as carriers of that legitimacy. As a discipline, we have launched the most sustained critique of the specific proposals rooted in these universals within academe. Yet we have not explored enough how much these universals set the terms of the debate and restricted the range of possible responses. In the context of this much-needed reformulation, the Caribbean’s most important lesson is a formidable one, indeed. That lesson, as I see it, is that modernity never was–never could be–what it claims to be. (2003:45-46; see also Globalization Stories: Systematic Erasure of Continuous Encounters)

Whenever people ask what “we moderns” might learn from “those traditional peoples,” it is crucial to look back at the history of the Caribbean and the Americas, the myths of the Spanish conquest. That examination reveals not inevitability, but contingency. The outcomes could have been different. Those outcomes powerfully shape other possibilities, restricting responses, as Trouillot puts it. Nevertheless, this perspective may

bring us to understand the risks, collusions, and uncertainties from the perspective of those whose well-being is at stake. This opens up the analysis to the promises and dangers of history; contingency matters because it shifts the options for justice and repression, exploitation and creative hope. (Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection 2005:270)

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Spanish Conquest: Indigenous Allies and the Politics of Empire.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 1 February 2013. Revised 20 June 2021.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

Living Anthropologically is part of the Amazon Associates program and earns a commission from qualifying purchases, including ads and Amazon text links. There are also Google ads and Google Analytics which may use cookies and possibly other tracking information. See the Privacy Policy.