- Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest, and: Conquest and Catastrophe: Changing Rio Grande Pueblo Settlement Patterns in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (review)
- Duke University Press
- Volume 51, Number 3, Summer 2004
- pp. 649-653
- View Citation
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Ethnohistory 51.3 (2004) 649-653
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In Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest, José Rabasa analyzes the ways in which the written word contributed a rhetorical, or nonphysical, form of violence to the colonial project in Latin America. Our understanding of violence, argues Rabasa, cannot be limited to "acts of war" (5); it must also acknowledge that textual representations of violence, as well as colonial tracts that presented rationalizations for colonization such as Las ordenanzas sobre el buen tratatamiento de los Indios, structured the thinking of those who colonized the New World. These representations and texts had material effects—they led people to behave in demeaning and violent ways toward indigenous peoples. "Colonial programs, representations, and theories do things: they formulate speech acts that structure (among other things) patterns of settlement and modes of subjecting Indians" (28). They thus contributed to what Rabasa calls a "culture of conquest": "a set of beliefs, images, and categories that tends to determine the ideology not only of those who perpetrate atrocities but also of those who condemn them" (43). [End Page 649]
For example, how an event was depicted in colonial texts such as Gaspar de Villagr�'s account of the Acoma massacre of 1599 in Historia de la Nueva México could contribute to the culture of conquest. Through different rhetorical strategies, these texts create such a distance between those who suffered at the hands of conquistadors and missionaries and those who read accounts of their suffering that they prevent the audience from empathizing with indigenous peoples. Audiences might even derive pleasure from extreme accounts of violence, because the materiality of pain is never conveyed and colonial authors employed "a whole series of epic topoi" to draw the reader's attention away from human suffering (such as portraying the vanquished as impotent, thus justifying violence against them by more "virile" forces) (145).
Rabasa's argument that texts have material effects is a provocative one. I wondered, however, about audience: Wouldn't texts like Villagr�'s Historia de la Nueva México have to be widely read to shape, in a sense, the collective consciousness of colonizers in such a way that violence toward native populations was the result? Who in the New World read Villagr� at the time of its publication? It seems that such arguments would carry more weight if a more direct link between the texts and the actions or behaviors of colonizers could be made. This is an issue to be considered by anyone interested in the intellectual aspects of colonial or imperial politics and processes.
In making such arguments, Rabasa's broader point seems to be that theorists cannot simply approach colonial texts as objective sets of evidence to be read for facts about what "really happened" during the conquest and colonization of Latin America. This is an undoubtedly important—if not novel—argument to make. The problem is that Rabasa treats the topic quite heavy-handedly. For example, he warns his readers that if they do not keep these points in mind, they risk romanticizing the colonizers and further perpetrating violence against indigenous peoples. He asks his readers to consider "what deeply embedded historiographical prejudices keep these readings today from making allowances for indigenous rights to violently oppose Spanish invasions" (32), and he stresses that "we ought to keep in mind the violence one exerts in privileging...