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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.3 (2005) 143-165

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Ambivalence, Mimicry, and Stereotype in Fernández de Oviedo's Historia general y natural de las Indias

Colonial Discourse and the Caribbean Areíto

State University of New York at Buffalo

The conquest of America consists of a series of violent and elaborate ceremonies of possession. Along with the obvious physical presence of the Europeans, these ceremonies inevitably involve discourses. In "Taking Possession and Reading Texts: Establishing the Authority of Overseas Empires," Patricia Seed explains that after marking physical presence on the land, "[t]he second part of the Roman-derived concept of possession was manifesting intent to remain, which Columbus did, in his son's report, by 'appropriate ceremony and words'" (1993, 112). Later, the Crown derived its authority to impose rule over the Amerindian societies from the papal bull of 1493. The requerimiento, a judicial document that advised the Indians of their new religious and political obligations and gave them the option of accepting Christianity or being conquered, was required reading by the conquistadors before taking any action (a fifteenth-century procedural equivalent of the Miranda rights). In theory, the reaction of the Indians determined what kind of action would be taken, military or administrative. [End Page 143] If discourse provided the initial procedure and justification for conquest, it also played an important role in the ongoing colonial attempt to apprehend and assimilate the newness of the Americas. Conquistador and historian alike expressed their experiences and observations through historiographical discourses in letters, chronicles, and histories. The analogous nature of this textual enterprise to the physical conquest has led scholars to label it the "intellectual conquest" and those who participated in it, "intellectual conquistadors" (Brading 1991, 32; Merrim 1989, 165).

The contact between the two continents might be termed a "dialogue," for both Europe and America affected the other, however lopsided the influence may have been. However, this dialogue was of a peculiar nature. The Europeans were active agents, attempting to interpret and understand what they saw as a "New World." Indigenous Americans were certainly capable of representing themselves, and they did so in many ways; but European perception was often blind to indigenous modes of representation.1 From the European viewpoint, therefore, the Indians played a passive role: the continent was made to speak by the European chroniclers. In New Worlds, Ancient Texts, Anthony Grafton explains that European knowledge was based not on empirical observation but rather authoritative texts: "the Bible, the philosophical, historical, and literary works of the Greeks and Romans; and a few modern works of unusually high authority" (1992, 2). Europeans approached the New World from an established, rigid Old World perspective attempting to fit the round peg of America into the square hole of Western European knowledge. As Edmundo O'Gorman points out in The Invention of America (1961), in many ways America was invented by Europe rather than discovered. That is to say that most of the new information about America and the world was not recognized as genuinely new but rather made to fit into old paradigms. This process, although perhaps overtly dialogical, is inherently colonial. Of course, the European paradigm was increasingly modified, but only when forced by irrefutable fact, and even then vestiges of the old tenaciously clung to and subverted the new. The New World never escaped from this Old World colonial influence, which has shaped, in many ways, the nature of modern America and almost totally determined how the West perceives it. [End Page 144]

Although this colonial insertion of America into established Western systems has had lasting effects, it was impossible to maintain the old ideas completely. Many scholars have shown how the sixteenth century was a time of change in academic knowledge and method. It is difficult to quantify precisely the effect that the encounter between the Americas and Europe had on the West or to separate this event from other factors that influenced change both before and after...


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