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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006) 542-546

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Enlightenment Ascriptions of Colonial Identity

University of San Francisco
David J. Weber, Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005). Pp. 480. $35 cloth.
Rafael Rojas, La escritura de la Independencia. El surgimiento de la opinión pública en México (México: Taurus, CIDE [Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas], 2003). Pp. 326.

In the sixteenth century the Spanish theologians and missionaries, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas and José de Acosta, S.J., formulated categories of peoples according to which they classified indigenous Americans as barbarians, unbelievers, pagans and heathens. Their work, drawing primarily on religious distinctions inherited from the Greek world, described the Indians they found in Spaniards' first landfall in the Caribbean, and then in Mexico and the high Andes. In the eighteenth century other Spaniards (most notably the Italian-born Alejandro Malaspina) explored the far reaches of the empire, coming into contact with new tribes and nations. These secular travelers began their voyages expecting to base their assessments on views of American nature created by modern philosophers (principally Montaigne, Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau) and scientists (Bougainville, James Cook, de Pauw) from other European nations. They ended up altering these fixed theories of either primitive degradation or an Edenic pastoral world and making up their own minds as to varieties in the Indian types they were encountering. By the eighteenth century Spain was a Bourbon-ruled nation and its intellectual culture much indebted to French Enlightenment thinkers.

Weber's wide-ranging and superbly researched book studies the Enlightenment discourse according to which American peoples in the Spanish empire were discussed. By the eighteenth century secular humanism and then the revolutionary rhetoric of equality and fraternity had largely replaced religious thinking regarding human nature. Rationalism required that men observe processes of cause and effect, rather than rely on the static essentialism ancient books taught. In Madrid doctrines of enlightened despotism and the divine right of kings had supplanted earlier Hapsburg modes of ruling. By then an administrative network had been established in the Americas, and the reports that soldiers and missionaries had earlier furnished were now enriched by recommendations from Spanish civil servants. These, often more pragmatically, were focused on conquest and domination, and recognized that one monolithic theory did not serve in all cases; baptism did not guarantee an Indian's conversion to Spanishness. Thus some American administrators said that indigenous peoples should be separated from civilized society because of their inherent backwardness and degraded state, yet others recommended that, as rational human beings, they be integrated. Weber says that the Spanish Crown never satisfactorily resolved this dilemma, deciding one way or the other on a governing policy. However, the debate was lively, informing the language of the legal system by which the king and his ministers governed at home and overseas. [End Page 542] Although Weber's focus is Spanish America, he often considers Anglo America—in considering, for example, that Englishmen tended to exclude Indians from their society whereas Spaniards included them (5).

Weber's focus on the eighteenth century causes him to examine the success of two centuries of Spanish rule in the Americas and, particularly, those areas on the borders of Spain's empire which were not yet known, not yet fully pacified and thus not yet consolidated into Church and state jurisdictions, and regions contested by other powers (the English, the French, the Dutch, the Russians, and even the young United States). Thus his use of the term "bárbaros," or savages, refers to the descendants of those Indians first encountered in the Conquest who by the eighteenth century had been degraded by disease and their servitude to Spanish overlords, as well as to those peoples relatively untouched by European civilization. The word is meant to shock readers of today, suggesting historical movement in the term's valences from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, as well as Spanish doubts as to what qualities native American peoples could be thought to...


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