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Reviewed by:
  • Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700
  • Christopher Schmidt-Nowara
Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700. By Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Historians of the Atlantic world are committed to looking beyond the boundaries of area studies and to capturing the connections that drew together Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans during the making of New World empires and the stitching together of complex commercial networks. Scholars of the Iberian empires have recently produced major re-evaluations of the contours, cultures, and politics of the early modern Atlantic world.1 Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, already a pioneer in this field, has contributed an iconoclastic, provocative work that will stir debate in various areas of scholarship on the European colonial empires. He does so in part by arguing explicitly that Iberian and British ideologies of empire were not only comparable but also deeply engaged in dialogue with one another. Moreover, as his title implies, he seeks to place the Iberian empires at the center of Atlantic history, challenging what he considers to be an anachronistic emphasis on the British Atlantic. Finally, the author makes telling observations on the silences in Latin American historiography as practiced in the United States.

What brought Iberian and British colonization together was a common obsession with the Devil in the New World: “some justifications for colonization in Puritan colonial Massachusetts were really not that different from those espoused in, say, Catholic colonial Lima. . . . British Protestants and Spanish Catholics deployed similar religious discourses to explain and justify conquest and colonization: a biblically sanctioned interpretation of expansion, part of a longstanding Christian tradition of holy violence aimed at demonic enemies within and without.”(9) Cañizares-Esguerra demonstrates this shared religious outlook with great verve, drawing not only upon learned treatises, epic poems, and chronicles of conquest but also striking visual sources, most of which are from the Iberian world.

The author begins with a close analysis of the “Satanic Epic.” In the Spanish and Portuguese empires, poets praised the conquistadors by painting them as latter-day versions of classical heroes such as Ulysses. The major difference was that these sixteenth-century epics were Manichean, representing divine struggles between the Christian God and Satan, who was alive and active in the Americas. A description of Cortes’s encounter with the cannibalistic indigenous leader Canetabo rendered by Francisco de Terraza illustrated for Spanish readers the diabolical presence: “Canetabo himself is a Satanic monster: huge, fat, with hands drenched in blood and blackened with smoke, and a striped black-red face with red mouth and teeth, spilling blood.” (41) Colonization in the Iberian domains was thus conceived as an act of liberation from the Satanic thrall and of punishment for devil-worshipping. The Elizabethan conquerors shared this ambition of taking war to Satan but with a crucial difference: in the Iberian world the colonizers and their poets saw the Indians as the victims and/or accomplices of the Devil but Sir Walter Ralegh and others made war against the “Spanish Antichrist.” Over time, however, as English colonies took hold in North America, the Puritans and others endorsed a version of the Iberian satanic epic with the indigenous peoples as the proxies or playthings of Satan.

Chapters three through five make similar connections. Across the Americas, Iberian and British colonizers found signs of Satan’s sway. The New World appeared as “a world upside down.” (120) All was inverted by the Devil as he mimicked God; the Aztec, for example, became in Spanish eyes the inverse of the Israelites: Satan’s chosen people. Puritans and Iberian colonizers shared an “allegorical reading of the Book of Nature”(121) Tempests, tobacco used by indigenous shamans, and other flora and fauna were signs of the demonic presence. But there were also signs of liberation, such as the passion flower, so called in Iberian America because it was composed of the elements of Christ’s passion. To combat the Devil, Puritans and Iberians alike practiced “spiritual gardening” in the New World to keep Satan at bay.

These chapters make for thrilling reading. Cañizares-Esguerra writes with zest and an obvious love for the history of ideas. He brings...

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