- How to Write the History of the New World: Historiographies, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World
In How to Write the History of the New World, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra argues that questions of historiography are best approached as questions of epistemology. In the eighteenth century, according to the author, Northern Europeans developed a “new art of reading” (12) in which the historical reliability of texts came to be judged by their internal logical consistency. Armed with this new critical method, enlightened historians like Cornelius de Pauw, the Comte de Buffon, the Abbé Raynal and William Robertson dismissed accounts of the civil and natural history of the New World written by Spanish-American clerics in the sixteenth century. The Amerindian sources on which these narratives were based were no longer viewed as historical documents, but as evidence of the primitiveness of the Amerindian mind which had produced them (and the backwardness of the Spanish mind which had credited them as historical). Instead, Northern Europeans conscripted Amerindian artifacts like quipus, pictograms and calendrical wheels as evidence to support a central project in enlightened historiography: a natural history of the progress of the mind, based on “conjectural histories of writing” (95). The history of civilisation could be constructed by insisting on a teleological progression in forms of writing: from the visual artifacts of primitive native Americans to the abstract, rational thought of enlightened Europeans.
In response, eighteenth-century Peninsular Spanish and “clerical-Creole” New Spanish writers (209) crafted what the author calls “patriotic epistemologies” (206–10) to refute Northern European disparagement of the natural and civil history of the New World, and the intellectuals who had written it. By adopting enlightened internal criticism, and using older interpretative strategies such as reading images as hieroglyphs or Neo-Platonic symbols with occult meanings (which the author characterises as the “Spanish American Baroque,” 320), Spanish and Creole scholars sought to undermine the credibility of enlightened conjectural histories. Their strategies were many and varied. The Mexican Francisco Clavijero insisted conjecturalism lacked a proper empirical basis in established facts; José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez challenged the imposition of systematic European taxonomies on New World nature (using American natural curiosities, for example, to subvert Linnaean classification); and a host of writers denied that “philosophical travellers” from Europe would ever be able to read the Amerindian sources necessary for writing the history of the New World. “Patriotic epistemologists” thus sought to rehabilitate the historical credibility of native American testifiers (specifically those of noble origin, to whose descendants Creole historians had become subsequently connected), as well as the scholarly reputation of their sixteenth-century forebears, whose histories were informed by these sources. Simultaneously, scholars in Spain founded public archives from which patriotic histories could be constructed, to answer both the charge of Spanish colonial barbarism, and Spanish intellectual decline in the eighteenth century. In so doing, Spanish and Creole intellectuals offered epistemological alternatives to the Enlightenment historiography with which they were polemically engaged.
This is a work of prodigious learning, with potentially far-reaching implications for the intellectual history of the early modern Atlantic world. It creatively adapts recent themes in the historiography of early modern science to offer a new approach to the “dispute of the New World.” The author’s treatment of this theme is distinctive for his insistence that what underlay the question of what was known about the New World were deeper convictions about how things could be known—through what critical techniques, and based on what kinds of sources, could American “matters of fact” be established? The author thus lends a critical self-reflexiveness to accounts like Antonello Gerbi’s path-breaking La disputa del Nuovo Mondo: Storia di una polemica, 1750–1900 (Milan-Naples: Riccardo Ricciardi, 1955), by relating conflicts of historical interpretation to the issue of “historical epistemology” (6), while also broadening his inquiry to consider both the natural and civil history of the New World and, finally, challenging the Eurocentrism of even the most...