There are countless historical narratives about the conquest of Latin America and the Caribbean. The dominant narrative claims that it was a spectacular victory by a few hundred Spanish conquistadors over millions of Indigenous people. This narrative is so dominant that even leftist academics reproduce it.
In “Open Veins of Latin America,” for example, Eduardo Galeano maintains that the Spanish were seen by native Mexicans as “the god Quetzalcoatl returning.” This, according to Galeano, explains their state of “terror” and their subsequent defeat. It should be pointed out, however, that this narrative is rooted in accounts produced by conquistadors, not Indigenous people. We should also keep in mind that the conquistadors undoubtedly wanted to portray their legacy in a heroic light while omitting and downplaying the role of native allies, something which is currently taboo in leftist and nationalist circles.
Is There a Case for “Native Allies?”
The Spanish colonization of Latin America and the Caribbean, spearheaded by the Italian-born Christopher Columbus, was a violent and disruptive event that altered the region’s social, economic and political structures. The complexity of this event has largely been overlooked due to a standardized rendition narrated by its victors. In this version, which continues to be widely accepted, the role of native allies during the conquest is more or less omitted, perhaps with the exception of popular stories like that of Malinche. Is it an accident that Malinche, an Indigenous woman who is now synonymous with being a traitor, is the most commonly-repeated example of betrayal during the colonial era? This account of the conquest as an exclusive Spanish feat is due to the probanzas that were written by conquistadors to promote themselves to Spanish authorities as “bold and self-sacrificing leaders,” warding off competition from other actors and ensuring weighty rewards for themselves.
Another contributing factor to the erasure of native roles during conquest can also be attributed to nationalist and anti-imperialist discourse that developed during the first half of the 20th Century. One can understand why in Mexico and Peru, for example, where the Tlaxcala and Huanco kingdoms played decisive roles in the Spanish victory over Indigenous peoples, nationalist discourse has tended to overlook this history and focus on resistance to colonization instead. To bring up this sensitive part of our region’s history is not in any way meant to absolve the genocidal actions of the colonizers. Rather, it’s meant to examine what really happened so that we can learn from the mistakes that were made. Furthermore, it’s meant to debunk the narrative that a few hundred Spaniards single-handedly defeated the “primitive” Indigenous peoples.
The Legend of Europeans as “Gods”
Another account that we must immediately dismantle is the one that suggests that Indigenous people perceived European conquistadors as gods or deities. This account is widespread, both in academia and in popular thought, despite a lack of evidence corroborating this. The power and endurance of this theory may be due to the fact that it conforms to the narrative that native peoples were less civilized than Europeans at the point of contact. The narrative that suggests that natives saw Europeans as divine beings are not only something the Spanish promoted, but that was an important part of the colonial logic of European colonizers in general. Native Hawaiians, for instance, were said to have thought that English colonizer James Cook was their god Lono. However, an investigation by Gannath Obeyesekere shows that the natives, in fact, thought of Cook as a chief and deified him only after his death as is customary in their culture.
It has to be said that the contact between two distinct cultures with alien cosmologies is bound to create confusion and, as a consequence, the fostering of assumptions. This, especially when we consider that colonization was fueled by racist depictions of the Indigenous as a “child-like” species. There is not enough evidence to suggest that the natives believed that Europeans were gods or deities, yet the persistence of this idea suggests that there were, and continues to be, an important underlying purpose that allows it to survive. During the initial period of conquest, the motivations for such narratives of European superiority (and divinity) pitched against native “primitiveness” was intrinsically tied to rewards in the form of offices, titles and pensions for the colonizers. The continuation of those myths throughout the centuries has served the purpose of cementing an underlying perception that Indigenous people are naturally superstitious and “child-like” in their logic and, therefore, in need of a parent-like figure to govern them. This, of course, has been somewhat challenged by Latin American leftist governments that have managed to overturn some of these colonial ideas within the last couple of decades.
Debunking Western Superiority and Promoting Latin American Human Agency
The Spanish conquest of the Americas is, then, oftentimes seen as a one-way process. It suggests that a few hundred conquistadors came and subjugated millions with the use of superior military technology, a superior cosmology and exceptional political strategies, or so the story goes. The human and environmental complexities (if we include crucial factors, such as the spread of disease) are regularly omitted. This is either because the European victors had an interest in downplaying these complexities or because national discourse in later centuries took advantage of the established narratives for their political strategies, among many other reasons. While it is understandable that complex histories must be sometimes simplified to make it appealing and relevant in a nation-building context, these complexities could actually help to promote a more profound understanding of history and, as a consequence, help us avoid mistakes committed in the past.
Today, challenging these long-established myths of European superiority and native primitiveness could help to establish a more wholesome understanding of a nation’s historical and social trajectory. The importance of unpicking the history of conquest in an accurate way is that it gives us the chance to destroy the perception of Western superiority during the colonial period, ongoing perceptions of Western superiority, and, perhaps most importantly, giving our present and future generations an accurate view of our history. Decolonizing and reclaiming our history will serve an important role in our struggle against the current system of conquest: capitalism-imperialism.