- The Unsettlement of America: Translation, Interpretation, and the Story of Don Luis de Velasco, 1560–1945 by Anna Brickhouse
The achievements of Anna Brickhouse’s The Unsettlement of America: Translation, Interpretation, and the Story of Don Luis de Velasco, 1560–1945 are many. Her study excavates little-known archives that span the Iberian-Anglo worlds from Columbus’s putative discovery to the mid-twentieth century; it enacts a reading practice that radically rewrites our narratives of canonical texts; it shifts the focus from imperial knowledge production to indigenous knowledge production with self-consciousness and regard for the materials; and it intervenes in the ongoing, if somewhat embarrassingly Anglo-American, centrism that continues to organize US literary history, embarrassingly because of the field’s well-meaning, if woefully unrealized, intentions to move beyond such limitations. In a frequently hyperbolic genre, I realize that such praise labors under the suspicious eyes of readers, but as her analyses of the diverse archive makes clear throughout, we simply lack the vocabulary and methodology with which her own book might be recognizable. What stands as The Unsettlement of America’s greatest achievement is not this new critical vocabulary, however, but how utterly compelling her story is—I could not put it down.
At the center of this compelling story is the Algonquian-speaking Indian Paquiquineo, later christened Don Luis de Velasco by the Spanish agent Antonio Velazquez, who takes the Ajacán Indian back to King Philip’s court in Madrid after his ship, the Santa Catalina, is hit by a storm while attempting to settle Florida in 1561. The European record of Don Luis de Velasco reveals that he was esteemed by King Philip II, was educated at the court, and received clothing, allowance, and communion upon his confession. Brickhouse details his subsequent transatlantic travels between [End Page 953] Spain, Mexico, Peru, and Cuba, during which time he came into contact with other Ajacán Indians and indigenous Mexicans, contact that enabled not only “transmission of information and understanding” between the itinerant natives but also solidarity—a “sensibility of unsettlement”—that Brickhouse suggests determined the “unexpected failure” of both the 1562 and 1566 voyages to and the 1570 destroyed settlement of Don Luis’s native Ajacán (50, 93).
The details of Don Luis’s invisible, authorial hand in unsettling his homeland are remarkable and complex and, as Brickhouse admits, necessarily speculative. Don Luis’s role in the failed 1562 voyage to Ajacán was as a guide to the Dominicans while they looked for a way to embark on the coast of La Florida, and then as a translator between the Spanish and Ajacán natives, throughout Spain’s establishment of a new settlement. But during their stop in Mexico City, Don Luis and his Algonquian-speaking companion became very ill, which indefinitely postponed their voyage. Brickhouse reads their simultaneous illness—and miraculous recovery—as a strategic obstruction to the settlement of Ajacán. The cosmopolitan translators, who begged to be baptized on their deathbeds in the New World after likely repeated rejections of the same in Spain, may have understood the legal consequences of conversion, that is, the protection and “full liberty” to either remain in Mexico or return to Spain. Under Spanish colonial and religious law, conversion to Christianity meant that Don Luis de Velasco could not return to his homeland without religious supervision for fear that he might “apostatize”; but it also provided him with a means of apprehending “the culture of conquest and a site of relative refuge within which to do so” (52–53). Moreover, Brickhouse conjectures, Don Luis and his companion may have understood that by converting to Christianity they could impede, or defer, military occupation of Ajacán. That Fray Pedro de Feria, the head of the Dominican Order in Mexico City, understood their conversion as a religious triumph rather than a military obstacle reinforces an interpretation of Don Luis de Velasco’s intentional “unsettlement” of his native land.
The failed 1566 expedition led by...