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The Armature of Conquest: Spanish Accounts of the Discovery of America, 1492-1589.

Of all the books inspired by the Columbian quincentenary, this is easily one of the most challenging. Bodmer, a professor of Spanish at Dartmouth college, uses early Spanish chronicles to take the reader on a journey of exploration into the ideology of conquest and how it fared in the face of new world realities. What emerges is a richly detailed analytical history of the gradual awakening of a critical consciousness concerning accepted versions of the discovery and conquest of America.

The author begins with Columbus, whose unshakeable belief in the myths that had inspired his epic voyage prevented him from understanding the reality of what he found. Dominated by his commercial goals, he even saw new world peoples as commodities. Conquistadors quickly picked up on this to convince themselves they had a right to use Amerindian labour for their own personal benefit.

In contrast to Columbus, Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of the Aztecs, had a lively appreciation of Amerindian cultural reality. He was also a far more astute observer, and very ambitious. Deliberately manipulating his reports to glorify his own achievements, he set the pattern for the mythification of the conquistadors.

On the other side of the coin were the expeditions that failed. In these cases, the environment rather than the natives became the enemy; the quest for booty and glory became a desperate wandering in search for food and a way out. The best-known of the narratives of failure is that of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, in which Nunez provided the first challenge to Cortes's successful conquistador. Nunez, "the lost conquistador," wandered with three companions for nine years in the American vastness, surviving because of good treatment by the natives. Nunez eventually returned to Spain to tell the tale, and to attest to the fact that the image of Amerindians initiated by Columbus and promoted by imperial interests was wide of the mark, to say the least. His experiences had taught him that the "other" could be fully human. Amerindians, he wrote, were "well conditioned people"; not only that, "of all the people in the world, they are those who most love their children and treat them best."

Such attempts to accord Amerindians their due in the scale of humanity did not stand a chance against tales of untold wealth hidden in the American equatorial interior. Oddly enough, the first victim of the growing list of expeditionary failures to find the elusive treasure was not the myth itself, but the image of the heroic conquistador. Repeated disillusionments set Spaniard against Spaniard, unleashing fratricidal violence. The archetypical personification of this process was Lope de Aguirre, who became disenchanted with his leader, led a plot to destroy him, and then degenerated into senseless cruelty. In Bodmer's view, Aguirre's rebellion was a misguided attempt to return to an idealized European past, when feats of arms made heroes.

Bodmer's analysis of these and other chronicles culminates with her study of Alonso de Ercilla's epic poem La Araucana, which she describes as one of the richest and most complex literary attempts ever made to represent the "deepest meaning" of the conquest. The narrator is Ercilia himself, who started his new world career as a dedicated conquistador, slowly realized the falsity of the myths that justified the conquest, rejected them, and acknowledged Amerindians as the equal - even the morally superior - to Europeans. Ironically, in his poem he can only express this equality by Europeanizing and idealizing his Amerindian characters. Bodmer justifies this on the grounds that the social atmosphere of sixteenth-century Europe did not allow Ercilla a choice, as otherwise he would not have been taken seriously. In Bodmer's view, La Araucana, as the first Spanish American literary expression of a divided conscience, was also the first to portray Amerindians as superior human beings.

The one reservation to be made about this thought-provoking study of mythification, disillusionment, and recognition of the other, is that its restriction to Spanish sources places a heavier burden on the Spanish experience than it should be asked to bear. From the time of Columbus onward, new world accounts were quickly translated and avidly read throughout Europe, a process enormously accelerated by the recent development of the printing press. While the Spanish experience was crucial to the formation of early European attitudes toward Amerindians, its voice was not the only one that was heard. France and Holland, for example, quickly outdistanced Spain in the publication of American materials. The attitudes that developed toward the new world were shared throughout Europe; this is not to deny the centrality of the Spanish experience, but simply to point out that it did not exist in a vacuum. That said, this is a sensitive, not to say provocative, study of worldviews in conflict, and should be read by all those concerned about the position of aboriginal peoples in the world today.
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Author:Dickason, Olive Patricia
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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