A Peru of Their Own: English Grave-Opening and Indian Sovereignty in Early America
Abstract

Abstract:

Grave-opening was a shared European practice of possession and knowledge production in the early Americas, identifying what indigenous peoples believed of the afterlife and what items they valued. If mortuary practices such as interring wealth with the dead were deemed idolatrous, then the disruption and looting of graves and the people who made them was permissible. Nowhere was grave-opening more profitable than in sixteenth-century Peru, where the dispossession of the wealthy and sovereign Inca dead transformed Spanish imperial fortunes. But English cosmographers also explored the conversion of New World interments, seeing correspondences between Tudor reformation of the English afterlife and Spanish efforts in Peru. At Baffin Island, Roanoke, Guiana, and other places, English subjects surveyed the local dead, seeking a Peru of their own. Yet retracing English entanglement with Spanish grave-opening reveals the disentanglement of their colonial models as well. At Jamestown and Plymouth, settlers destroyed elite interments and associated markers of power and historicity; heartbroken indigenous kinspeople punished the English accordingly. Abandoning Peruvian precedent, English promoters of colonization portrayed North America’s Indians and their dead as less sovereign and more diabolical than the Incas, justifying a deeper extirpation of their bodies and history from the land.