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The Spaniards came to the New World with a dual mission of seeking wealth and spreading Christianity. To achieve the goal of conversion, missionaries learned native languages and sought to understand the cultures. Using the Roman alphabet, they transcribed languages and created grammars and dictionaries, all to translate and disseminate their Christian message. Out of the commitment to their goal of conversion, missionaries became the first ethnographers. Although much of their work remained unpublished, much of what we know about the Inca, Aztecs, and Maya is found in these manuscripts. However, some missionaries also destroyed many native texts and cultural objects, considering them works of idolatry.

Christ Figure Created in the Americas

Little is known about this diminutive wooden figure found in a dry cave in southeastern Dominican Republic. It is possibly one of the oldest Christian images to have been created in the Americas.

Fragment of Christ figure. San Rafael Cave, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Taino, sixteenth century. Carved lignum vitae. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (058.00.00)

Photo ©Justin Kerr, Kerr Associates

First Dictionary Printed in the Americas

Alonso Molina was one of twelve missionaries to arrive in Mexico immediately after the conquest.  His Vocabulario was the first dictionary printed in the New World and the first systematic analysis of an indigenous American language.  Missionaries learned indigenous languages to communicate better with the native peoples whom they were trying to convert.  Much of the information scholars have today about pre-contact life comes from these priestly efforts.

Alonso de Molina (d. 1585). Vocabulario en lengua castellana y Mexicana (Vocabulary in the Castilian and Mexican languages). Mexico: Antonio de Spinosa, 1571. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (099.00.00, 099.00.01, 099.00.02, 099.00.03)

Explaining Indian Life

The Mexican-born Franciscan friar and artist Diego Valadés worked as a missionary among the Chichimecas in Zacatecas and Durango in Mexico.  As a device to facilitate the missionary work of priests and preachers, he wrote, and likely illustrated, the Rhetorica Christiana.  The illustrations added a visual element to help missionaries to understand Indian life in the New World.

Diego Valadés (b. 1533). Rhetorica Christiana. . . . (Christian Rhetoric . . . ). Pervsiae: Petrumiacobum Petrutium, 1579. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (101.00.00, 101.00.01, 101.00.02, 101.00.03)

Vocabulary of the Galibi Language

Pierre Pelleprat, a French Jesuit professor and author, was a missionary among the Indians of the Caribbean islands, the east coast of Venezuela, and finally in New Spain (in the 1650s and 1660s).  Pelleprat recorded his observations in a book about the missions and marvels, dress and activities, and customs of the peoples there.  He also compiled this vocabulary of the Galibi language meant to assist missionaries in preaching the gospel.

Pierre Pelleprat (1606–1667). Introduction a la langue des Galibis, sauuages de la terre ferme de l’Amerique (Introduction to the language of the Galibis . . . ). Paris: Cramoisy, 1655. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (100.00.00, 100.00.01, 100.00.02, 100.00.03)

Handbook for Priests

This remarkable composite manuscript, in at least two Mayan languages as well as Latin and Spanish, was most likely created by Dominican priests working with Indian populations in the middle of the sixteenth century in the highlands of Guatemala. It contains a variety of materials in Kekchi and Quiché, including the lives of saints, religious instructions and hymns, guidance on marital arrangements, and the Church feast days. That such a book, destined for daily use, survived at all is extraordinarily rare. The bound manuscript, shown here with a document that was discovered tucked inside, provides a unique window into issues of cultural interaction and missionary practices during the early period of contact.

Priest’s handbook, Guatemalan highlands. Bound manuscript, ca. 1544–1570. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (103.00.00, 103.00.04)

King Phillip’s Concerns

After King Phillip II ascended the Spanish throne in 1556, he concerned himself with every detail of Spanish colonial life.  In this letter to Archbishop Pedro de Contreras of Mexico City, he expresses anxiety about missionaries not learning the languages of their flocks, thus hindering the process of their conversion.

King Phillip II (1577–1598). Autograph letter to Archbishop Pedro de Contreras, December 2, 1598. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (105.00.00)

The Old Ways

Diego de Landa went to Yucatan as one of its first Franciscan missionaries and converted many natives to Christianity.  Many of his flock, however, did not abandon their traditional religion when they accepted the new one.  Starting in 1562, Landa interrogated hundreds of indigenous peoples and burned countless books of “Devil worship.”  Soon after he returned to Spain, he wrote this indispensable account of Maya history and culture.  He returned to America in 1573 as Bishop of Merida.

Diego de Landa (1524–1579). Relation des choses de Yucatán . . . par l'abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg (Account of things of Yucatan . . . Translated and with an introduction by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg). Paris: Auguste Durand, 1864. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (102.00.00, 102.00.01, 102.00.02, 102.00.03)

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