Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures

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‘Cannibals and Kings’: An Exchange

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Receive exclusive offers and updates from Oxford Academic. Amerindians allied to the Spanish were initially termed guatiao.

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  • Like caribe, aruaca implied a political and social orientation, ranging from alliance to submissiveness. Guatiaos, and later those termed aruacas, actively participated in ethnic soldiering for the Spanish conquest. The filter of caribe and guatiao or aruaca therefore dominates the cultural politics of primal anthropology in the vast majority of early materials, beginning with Columbus. Ethnological information was thus crucial to the colonial project.

    The writings collected in this volume reflect precisely this role of providing anthropological intelligence on populations for purposes of their governance or conquest, and the relationship between such intelligence and military-political ambition has remained fraught right up to the present day. The selection in this volume of passages from his Letter and extracts from the Journal of his first voyage to America is crucial to appreciating this process of ethnological codification.

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    It will be apparent that in fact the distinction between the caribes and others is far from certain in these writings but continues to gain significance as the Spanish occupation of the Caribbean islands takes hold. When Christopher Columbus — sailed east from Spain in the late summer of , he hoped to find Asia. Instead his fleet arrived in the Caribbean. It ran to nine editions before the end of and was published in many cities outside Spain.

    The emphasis in the Letter is on the charm of the islands and the variety of their natural resources, especially precious metals. The people are described as naked and timid, lacking weapons, almost infantile. Columbus wrote his Journal Document 1b on most evenings of that first voyage.

    He probably intended it for the Spanish monarchs, to whom a copy was later given. Apparent contradictions of fact and interpretation are evident in the Journal, suggesting a text that had not been extensively rewritten. Chanca was quick to identify human remains, perhaps of funerary origin, as firm evidence of the cannibal propensities of the caribes. The resulting document, newly translated for this volume Document 3 , has had a very complex history, but is the most extensive eyewitness account we have of the people of Hispaniola, who would disappear soon after the Spanish occupation of the island, either killed by war and disease, absorbed into the emerging colonial society, or fleeing from the epicenter of contact.

    The term guatiao, although still used by Figueroa, was increasingly restricted to the Caribbean islands alone, and disappeared altogether as the alliance with the aruacas came to dominate Spanish regional policy. Neither term really designates a distinct ethnic population. Rather, they were characterizations based on how such populations were seen in relation to Spanish ambitions. In fact, unlike the population of Hispaniola, which although nominally guatiao had fiercely resisted Spanish colonization, the aruacas emerged in the sixteenth century as firm supporters of the Spanish, even accepting black slaves from them to work aruaca tobacco plantations at the mouth of the Orinoco.

    In this way there was a rewriting of both the political history of the initial occupation through downplaying resistance on Hispaniola, as well as a continuing policy of political discrimination, deriving from the ethnological frameworks created by Figueroa and Navarrete. The result has been that those initial observations by Europeans of the native population have become enshrined in the literature concerning the Caribbean region. Unfortunately, much recent scholarship has continued to reproduce these ideas. Part of the purpose of this volume, therefore, is to make evident the way in which early European writing and policy in the Caribbean was a way of re-forming the political and cultural realities of the indigenous population.

    This fallacious distinction was generalized ultimately across the whole of the northern part of the South American continent, with continuing implications for contemporary anthropology Whitehead a. Recent scholarship on the native population of the Caribbean has begun to make good that deficiency, but the tenacity of this ethnological dualism partly stems from the historical reason that it was directly adopted into Spanish colonial law, which defined caribes as any and all natives who opposed Spanish occupation in the Caribbean Hulme and Whitehead ; Sued-Badillo ; Whitehead The result was that caribes were discovered on the continent as well as the islands, and the policy of directly enslaving those who could not be brought within the colonial system of repartimiento a forced redistribution of native lands and peoples was applied widely.

    The political orientation of native societies over such issues thus strongly conditioned their political responses to all Europeans.

    The diplomacy initially exercised toward the caciques of Hispaniola strongly contrasts with the summary military invasions of Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and the Venezuelan littoral, the early hunting grounds for slavers seeking labor to replace the wasted population of the Greater Antilles. These ethnological definitions were also responsive to the unfolding needs of the emergent colonial system. For example, in the case of the caribes it was finally necessary for the Spanish Crown to dispatch a special legal mission, under the licenciado magistrate Rodrigo de Figueroa, to make an evaluation as to the caribe nature of the native populations of the Caribbean islands and Venezuelan littoral.

    Not only were the ethnological judgments of the colonists often self-serving, but the colonial impact itself resulted in the emergence of new political groupings among the native population, reflecting these new political realties of ethnic and ethnological profiling.

    Preeminent among these new potential allies, and culturally and linguistically related to the peoples of the islands, were the Lokono. Probably the first direct contact between Europeans and the Lokono did not come until the s, when a Spanish fleet under the command of Diego de Ordaz, with orders to explore and settle the Orinoco region, lost one of its vessels off the Atlantic coast south of the Orinoco. Many tales circulated in subsequent years as to what had become of the crew and colonists, including suggestions that they had largely survived the shipwreck and were still living among indigenous groups.

    Sometime in the s this notion was dramatically confirmed by the appearance of an unnamed morisco in the Spanish settlement of Margarita, center of the Spanish pearl-diving industry off the coast of Venezuela. The morisco claimed to be one of those survivors and to have been living ever since with other Spanish who were rescued by aruacas of the Berbice and Corentyne rivers. This incident is important not only for the historiography of Spanish colonization but also for the likely implication that the aruacas, principally consisting of the Lokono of the Guyana coastal savannas, had consciously developed their knowledge of these strange colonizers through pursuing all kinds of contacts with them.

    The native population was polarized around the question of how to meet and deal with the European invaders. Some favored appeasement, others confrontation, but no single strategy was successful over time, and actual responses were often highly variable, even within the same village or household. Nonetheless, the encounter with Europe was a fundamental disjuncture in native patterns of historical development, and it is the nature of that disjuncture and the new historical trajectories born of that encounter that are reflected in all the materials collected here.

    Their inhabitants, however, who had long been supplying food to Margarita, had constantly visited and lived with him. As the hub of the Spanish presence in the region, Margarita had manifest impacts on the native polities as far south as the province of the aruacas Lokono. The state of constant war between aruacas and caribes reported at the opening of his account signals the significance of such an alliance, which is given a further subtle twist when Navarrete suggests that the aruacas were themselves in the process of driving out the caribes, who were the former rulers of the region.

    Navarrete notes that great war fleets of aruacas were gathered each summer to raid the caribes, underscoring their military capability in contrast to other guatiaos. His discussion of warfare and prisoners taken in battle is also a rhetorical opportunity to reinscribe the motif of cannibalistic caribes, who transculturate their prisoners spiritually through anthropophagic sacrifice, as opposed to the civilizing aruacas, who do so socially through enslavement.

    Commissioned by Christopher Columbus in , it represents the first systematic attempt to describe a culture of the Americas. He resided first on the north coast of the island of Aiti Hispaniola in the province of King Mayobanex and then, in early , moved south to the province of King Guarionex, where he lived for nearly two years.

    Despite the brevity of the resulting account—about eight thousand words—it is of singular significance to historians and anthropologists of the Caribbean, not just for its ethnographic descriptions of the natives of Aiti, but also for the way in which its many linguistic and textual transformations through the centuries have made it a continuing vehicle for historiographical and ethnological debate.

    The Antiquities is also an unfinished manuscript, even in its first published form. Added to this is the fact that although it is an attempt at systematic ethnographic representation, it is somewhat enigmatic in its choice of ethnological subject matter. His very presence in the scenes that he records signals that they belong to a past that is now finished for the peoples of America, supplanted by the future that he represents. The Antiquities opens with a description of the cosmology of the first beings of the native world, the wanderings of the culture hero Guagugiona, and the creation of women by men.

    He also relates information on native attitudes to the Spanish and the prospects for their conversion. Hence I believe that I will put first what should be last, and will put what is last first. But all that I write in this way is narrated by them just as I write it, and thus I note it down as I heard it from the peoples of the country.

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    For there were three spoken on this island: he knew only one, however, that of a small province. Of the universal language he knew very little, like the rest of the Spaniards, although more than others because no-one. Further compounding this situation is that his account survives only as a translation into Italian, so the possible shortcomings of the translator, Alfonso de Ulloa, have to be considered as well.

    In particular, his length of residence in Hispaniola, especially the years he spent in the province of King Guarionex, described in chapter XXV, suggest that whatever his linguistic capacities, he had the opportunity to observe much of daily life and the ritual practices of the ruling families. But it does allow us, rather than blaming the failings of its creator, to appreciate better why the text came to have the form it does, and why what we might see as fatal flaws are in part due to the legal and political role the document came to play.

    Editing in any way a legally notarized deposition was no less of a suspect practice then than it is today. Paradoxically, the original is now only known through its simulacra, the first of which was the basis for the translation here, and which itself was produced in pursuit of a legal case by Ferdinand Columbus.

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    Moreover, since the Antiquities was personally commissioned by Christopher Columbus, it is infused with the aura of that name. Indeed, this close association of the Antiquities with the tribulations of the Columbus family is directly relevant to understanding the form in which the manuscript was published. The Antiquities is a compelling and unique document of initial contact with the indigenous population of Hispaniola, which, through exposure to European diseases or flight away from the sites of Spanish settlement, had all but disappeared by the s as colonization of the southern continent picked up pace.

    The Antiquities was thus by this time already a historical record of a vanished native culture. The need for an ethnographic description of Hispaniola stemmed not from an abstract interest in human variety but from a pragmatic interest in the control and conversion of the native population through domination of its leaders.

    The slavery of black Africans, which Las Casas briefly advocated precisely as a means to salvage the indigenous population, eventually provided a solution to this colonial dilemma. Rodrigo de Figueroa was commissioned in to investigate and discriminate caribe populations throughout the Caribbean and coastal South America. This portrayal both licenses the legal enslavement of vast numbers of native peoples and, by allusion to the supposed depredations of the caribes, allows the Spanish Crown to evade moral responsibility for the destruction of the Hispaniolan natives.

    The nature of its transmission requires that we critically assess how the Antiquities functioned in the context of demonstrating Columbus family claims to Hispaniola, since it certainly seems as if Ferdinand was intent on marshaling any and all evidence he could for that purpose.