On Narrative and Empire

One of the key ideas presented in recent episodes is the notion that narratives are a crucial means of justifying and legitimizing the actions of the power structure. There are, of course, many successful examples of narrative construction, but one example I focused on was the Spanish state’s attempts to establish a unifying legitimizing narrative. These attempts, for a variety of reasons, were never quite successful. Lacking a narrative construct that could make sense of the novelty of Spanish-American empire and justify the conquest and rule of faraway lands filled with people with whom the Spanish had no historical relationship, narrative chaos ensued. 

Ideally, the power structure within a society is able to establish a unifying narrative that orders and structures how individuals perceive and justify their actions. For example, the accounts of the conquistador class in the Americas often hit the same notes as the traditional Reconquista narratives that they were so steeped in. Thus, in the narratives of Bernal Diaz and Hernan Cortés, descriptions of Tenochtitlan made it resemble Moorish cities of an earlier era while Santiago, the patron saint of Castile, would sometimes show up in accounts of the conquest of Peru just as he did in reconquest narratives (however, in his traditional role as matamoros [the “moor-slayer], he was an odd fit in a context where not a Moor could be found). As much as conquistadors wanted to outfit themselves in the garb of reconquista heroes, the Spanish crown was less comfortable with this narrative device. 

Santiago Matamoros, 18th c. Peru
18th c. painting of Santiago Matamoros from Cuzco, Peru

For one thing, the original papal grant that justified their rule over their American territories said nothing about defeating the enemies of Christ. Rather, it spoke specifically of the duty to, “lead the peoples dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion.” Just as importantly, by claiming the legacy of the reconquest, the conquistadors were also laying claim to the traditional rewards of the conqueror, including land, titles of nobility, and access to the wealth of the conquered territories. As thrilled as Spanish monarchs may have been with the potential of their American territories, giving so much autonomy to a bunch of unruly upstarts 3,000 miles away across an ocean made little sense given their desire to centralize and bureaucratize their power both at home and in the empire. Thus, as the 16th century went on and the imperial apparatus slowly diminished the autonomy of the conquistadors and their heirs, the narratives that arrived in letter form to the Council of the Indies in Seville became increasingly aggrieved and entitled in tone. One petitioner, Lope de Pilar, wrote to the king in 1570 to laud his own contributions to the empire and complain about the sorry state of affairs under the new Viceroy Francisco de Toledo. Wrote Pilar: “The extravagance of Toledo results in the suffering of more deserving people who with their lances gave him the plazas he now rules.” 

Indigenous people also had their own interest in combating the preferred legitimizing narratives of the center. This was true even for those from communities who had allied with the Spanish during the initial conquests. Siding with the Spanish had come with rewards and especially for indigenous elites, during the first generation at least, this could mean maintenance of status, landholdings, and exemption from labor. Yet, if the Spanish crown was grateful for these contributions to its “royal hacienda”, that gratitude was limited. A 1571 letter from one Doña Maria Ramirez to the royal council in Madrid narrated how the family of her recently deceased husband, Juan Serra de Legicamo, who was a direct descendant of the Inca royal line, had remained loyal during the rebellion of Manca Inca. Despite this service to the crown, the family was forced to live off a small grant that only provided 400 pesos a year. Significantly, accounts like that of Doña Maria were not meant to challenge Spanish legitimacy. Rather, as an almost certainly christianized (based on their taking of Spanish names) Incan elite appealing to the center of Spanish imperial authority in the name of her deceased husband whose family was a loyal participant in the establishment of Spanish authority in Peru, she was simply requesting that they be given their proper place in the story.  

However, if the state had little interest in maintaining the status and autonomy of the conquistador class, they had even less in trying to differentiate between natives who had taken part in the conquest on the side of the Spaniards and those who had been conquered. Loyal or not, the increasingly encompassing category of indio left little room for such nuance  Indeed, even the residents of the many towns and villages that had neither been subject to any formal conquest, nor had fought against the Spanish invaders nevertheless found themselves treated as a conquered class within the more formal and bureaucratized system of rule that had emerged by late in the 16th century. 

One of the most remarkable, illustrative, and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at narrative construction was written from the isolated Andean valley of Vilcabamba. Since 1536, Vilcabamba had served as a sort of rump-Incan state first under the rule of Manco Inca (who had escaped there after a failed rebellion against the Spanish) and then his sons Titu Cusi Yupanqui and Tupac Amaru. For much of the next 40 years Vilcabamaba existed parallel to the increasingly consolidated Spanish viceroyalty of Peru. Viceroy Toledo, however, arrived in Peru with strict instructions to fully establish Spanish legitimacy by rooting out any competing claims. Where Vilcabamba had once been tolerated it was now marked for destruction.

Incan ruins in the valley of Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Possibly in response to this new pressure, Titu Cusi, with the help of friendly Spanish friars, crafted his own legitimizing narrative. While the details are interesting, what is far more significant about this narrative is that it represents the degree to which, just two generations since the arrival of Pizarro and his men, even opponents of Spanish rule had assimilated significant elements of traditional Spanish cultural, political, social, and narrative norms. And it was just the most prominent example of this fact. Throughout the Americas significant numbers of indigenous people found themselves, knowingly or not, forced to contest Spanish rule using a language, a set of laws, and even an understanding of history that was not completely theirs. Titu Cusi even noted at one point that if his father’s authority had not been usurped by Pizarro and his supporters, “[he] thought it possible that the Inka dynasty could become a Christian royal house, peers alongside the greatest crowns of Europe.” This was far from a searing rebuke of the Spanish presence in the Andes as much as it was a critique of their specific behavior. Contesting Spanish authority within a framework that was Spanish in design and implementation had the contradictory effect of legitimizing much of the structure of Spanish dominance. Thus, even though Titu Cusi argued that the Spanish actions in Peru represented more of a usurpation of authority than a conquest, his means of making these claims, through a written appeal in Spanish to the “royal conscience” of Philip II, represented an implicit recognition of Spanish imperial sovereignty.

In 1492, even before Columbus sailed west from Cadiz, the great Spanish humanist Antonio de Nebrija, published the Castilian Grammar, the first work to attempt to establish the rules and grammar of the Castilian language. In the prologue to his work, Nebrija wrote, “Language has always been the perfect companion to empire.” To the extent that this is true, it is at least partially explained by the fact that an imperial language could serve as the vehicle for the dissemination of stories. It is through those stories that norms are constructed, sets of assumptions are established, and an entire framework for ordering, organizing, understanding, and interacting with the world around us can come into being. Thus, one of the most significant legacies of the period of European empires is the manner in which the stories of those empires spread throughout the world. 

Dedication and prologue to Antonio de Nebrija’s Grammatica Castellana, 1492

As the above examples demonstrate, the Spanish empire was relatively successful in convincing people like Titu Cusi, Lope de Pilar, or Doña Maria Ramirez that it was in power. Where it was less successful was in constructing narratives that could create a common belief  for why it should be in power. Maybe the reason for this is that the stories it told to make sense of itself to itself were too wedded to a historical context that did not easily fit the realities of cross-oceanic empire. No single narrative thread was able to collectively satisfy the interests of conquistadors, missionaries, and indigenous elites, or the centralizing desires of the Spanish crown. And neither were competing European states convinced by papal grants or traditional rights of conquest. Pamela Crossley has suggested that the early-modern world  was one in which the old Medieval universalisms had been dismantled, leaving behind states that were increasingly defined by new particularisms. In the following centuries, on the other hand, certain regional particularisms became universalized and, in turn, helped to “underwrite our current notions of modernity.” Thus, the modern era saw not only the rise of European global empires, but a new set of legitimizing narratives. Notions of civilization, of the nation, of progress, and of race became a set of beliefs that were shared across European borders while helping to define a sense of history that explained and justified imperial rule. These same ideas were then exported around the world as part of the ideology of empire and would ultimately come to define for so many people what it meant to be modern. Of course, other narratives continued and still continue to be told, but increasingly engagement with modernity meant engagement with European storytelling devices. Like Titu Cusi then, those who sought to challenge power often did so using the very language and within the very narrative structure that power had provided them. Such challenges could only ever be partially successful. At best, they could lead to the end of an empire’s reign even as the old narratives have largely continued to rule over our post-colonial world. 

73 delegates to the first meeting of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1885. Self-styled as “loyal opponents” of British rule, in its early years members of the INC tended to be Western-educated, English-speaking, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and businessmen who were more likely to critique the manner of British rule than the liberal narrative that justified that rule.

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