- “Strange Lands and Different Peoples”: Spaniards and Indians in Colonial Guatemala by W. George Lovell etal.
Dividing their book into fourteen chapters with a succinct but eloquent conclusion and complemented by a genuinely useful appendix, George Lovell, Christopher Lutz, Wendy Kramer and William R. Sweezey weave archival sources, early histories, and secondary literature into a coherent treatment of sixteenth-century Guatemala. While the book’s final two chapters are dedicated to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the core concentrates on the mechanisms and processes that set the foundation for Spanish colonial rule. Given the importance of the sixteenth century in the development of colonial society, this decision seems both prudent and logical. Indeed, as historians of the region have argued, patterns of rule and social strata that characterized the early period continue to haunt modern Guatemala.
Lovell and Lutz, both established and highly respected scholars of colonial Guatemala, draw from a rich archival source base that includes documents housed in Spanish and Central American archives, namely the Archivo General de Indias and the Archivo General de Centro América, respectively. They also engage the too-often ignored chroniclers such as Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán in addition to the writings of Spanish conquerors like Hernando Cortés, indispensable classic works by the likes of Murdo MacLeod, and recent works by Florine Asselbergs and Paul Lokken. Lovell and Lutz take seriously Kathryn Burns’ suggestion that historians must not only historicize sources but that they should also strive to thoroughly interrogate their contents. In so doing, Lovell and Lutz illuminate important questions, among them the purpose of Hernando Cortés’ letters and the amounts of tribute collected by the Spanish crown.
This book is part institutional history and part ethnohistory, with a strong undercurrent of quantitative history running throughout the narrative. The authors elucidate the intricate negotiations between Spaniards and indigenous peoples. As in other regions under the yoke of imperial rule, Spaniards in Guatemala negotiated with native communities to successfully impose their cherished institutions. The book richly details the ways in which introduced institutions such as encomiendas and municipal councils had to conform to local realities. That Spaniards imposed their institutions from a position of authority, invariably guaranteed by force of arms, does not diminish the historical agency exercised by natives. Indeed, the fact that Spaniards relied on [End Page 156] indigenous forces to supplement their ranks points to the complex ways in which native peoples pondered the propitious moment and circumstance to seek alliances with the newcomers.
For reasons not clearly articulated, the book ignores the participation of Africans. While information on Africans during the Central American conquest campaigns remains poorly studied, possibly offering an excuse for excluding them from those events, their essential roles as intermediaries between Spaniards and natives, and later as fundamentally important labor in concerns such as sugar plantations, argues for a serious treatment of Africans in colonial society. While Lovell and Lutz focus primarily on indigenous and Spanish interaction, those historical processes cannot be fully understood without including Africans in the discussion. Also, the book largely eschews theoretical prisms that would have strengthened arguments for the rise of a core and peripheries and indigenous agency. In a way the book offers a corrective to excessively theoretical works that employ psychoanalytic theories as universals for human behavior regardless of place and time, yet it ignores the writings of scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein and Anibal Quijano and thereby limits its potentially wider appeal. However, these issues do not detract from the book’s thoroughly documented conclusions or its overall superlative quality.
The authors succeed in presenting an amply detailed general history of early Guatemala. That they do so in elegantly written and approachable prose adds to the book’s force. Written for specialists and non-specialists alike, the book offers an engaging history that captivates readers with just the right amalgam of details and...