- Door of the Seas and Key to the Universe: Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darién, 1640-1750
The Darién region, comprising the eastern third of the Panamanian Isthmus, was for several centuries both a colonial backwater and a locus of geopolitical rivalry and conflict between Spain and northern European [End Page 846] powers—conflict in which the indigenous group known as Tule or Kuna played a prominent part. Much has been written on the initial Spanish discovery and conquest of the isthmus, on seventeenth-century English buccaneers, and on the short-lived Scots Colony of 1698–1700, but serious professional histories of the region are scarce.2 Ignacio Gallup-Diaz's incisive, theoretically sophisticated, and absorbing study of the politics of the "tribal zone" of the colonial Darié n advances Isthmian ethnohistory by a whole order of magnitude.
Gallup-Dâaz shows that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spanish authorities tried to control the Darié n and to counter pirates and would-be colonists by establishing mission reducciones and, even more, by enlisting native leaders as clients through payments and gifts. He argues persuasively that this colonial system was a joint product of native and imperial expectations and, less persuasively, that Tule chiefs were a completely new development, as the aboriginal system had been dominated by shamans called lele. The core of the book consists of a masterful analysis of a dynasty of mestizo middlemen named Carrisolio, whose founding ancestor, partly raised among the Indians, facilitated Spanish access to the region. Gallup-Dâaz shows that the Carrisolios, despite their success in extracting grants and titles from the crown, could not keep ambitious Indian men from establishing their own relations with colonial authorities, and that the system they furthered failed under the strains of imperial conflict and native rebellion.
Gallup-Dâaz's impressive mastery of the primary sources, recent ethnohistorical writing, and Atlantic historiography might usefully have been reinforced by a larger dose of South American ethnology, thus avoiding naïve characterizations of indigenous subsistence and kinship and the dubious assumption that chiefs and shamans cannot coexist politically. It might also have encouraged him to justify rather than assume the validity of using myths collected in 1970 to illuminate seventeenth- and eighteenth-century indigenous polities, especially as Patricia Vargas and Mary Helms have used the same collection of narratives (though less satisfactorily) to reach different conclusions.3 That being said, however, several of the parallels between mythological leaders and their historically known counterparts on which he elaborates are striking and persuasive.
Door of the Seas clarifies numerous outstanding questions, including the political context of well-known pirate narratives, the significance of Indian independence and unity to Scottish claims on the Darién, and the religion and politics of French pirates and colonists in the region. The greatest disappointment is that the book ends somewhat abruptly in the mid-eighteenth century, with the briefest of conclusions, leaving the increasingly militarized conflict of the second half of that century and the [End Page 847] denouement that ensued in the 1790s to a later work that, one hopes, the author will provide.
Door of the Seas is one of the first in a new series of electronically published works called Gutenberg <e>, a joint project of Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association. Like others in the series, it includes an appendix of original documents. As important as this new venture is, it would be a shame if exclusively electronic distribution kept Gallup-Dâaz's excellent monograph from the wide readership it deserves.
1. Each chapter is paginated separately. The price quoted is for the book purchased separately. A year's subscription giving access to all the books in the series costs $195. One-week free trial memberships, in which one can download books without...