By DONNA URSCHEL
The so-called Spanish conquest of indigenous people in the Americas has fascinated men and women for centuries.
According to one viewpoint, however, the success of the Spanish was due more to the welcoming and hospitable nature of the natives, a concept called the “stranger effect,” than to military prowess.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto discussed the “stranger effect” in the second annual Jay I. Kislak Lecture, “Re-thinking Conquest: Spanish and Native Experiences in the Americas,” at the Library on Nov. 9. The natives in the Americas, he said, acted on a propensity to welcome and be hospitable to the Spanish newcomers and to confer power on them. “It was a negotiated reception of the new elite,” said Fernández-Armesto, speaking to a capacity crowd in the Coolidge Auditorium. “It was not a military event.”
Fernández-Armesto is the author of the newly released “Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration” (Norton). He is the Prince of Asturias Professor at Tufts University and a professorial fellow of Queen Mary and visiting professor of global environmental history at the University of London.
In the entertaining lecture, Fernández-Armesto said, “The key to understanding what really happened requires a shift of perspective, which I’m always recommending. By shifting the perspective do we come to understand that the indigenous people were freely choosing to associate with the Spanish.”
The professor reviewed several long-held theories about Spain’s proclaimed conquest. The first, a theory popular with the clergy, attributed the conquest to a “providential miracle.” The second was a racial explanation: The Spaniards were inherently superior.
“This idea that Spaniards were superior to their enemies was a view conceived under the literary model,” Fernández-Armesto said. The pulp fiction at the time dealt with chivalrous explorers going on adventures and conquering monsters in battles. At the same time, to achieve ennoblement, a Spaniard had to serve the monarchy valiantly. Consequently, many conquistadores, in their journals and other writings, cast themselves as individuals of exceptional prowess and extraordinary service to the crown. “But like stories of today’s superheroes, it was simply not true,” Fernández-Armesto said.
The professor also debunked the prevalence and importance of superstitions and rituals of the indigenous populations. He said the Aztec and Inca practice of performing rituals did not contribute to the Spanish conquest. “All people have irrational rituals. But when we look at the rituals in other people, we think poorly of them,” he said.
Fernández-Armesto described other myths: Spain’s reputation for technological superiority was not correct. It had maritime superiority but not much else, because there was no resupply of munitions. Although many of the native people fell ill of smallpox, the occurrence of that illness does not explain the conquest, because the environment was not good for Spaniards either, he argued. The conquistadores encountered malaria, altitude problems and unfamiliar pathogens.
Instead, the professor maintained, the secular, historic hatred among the indigenous peoples played an important role. “The arrival of the Spaniards was minor compared to the internal animosities,” Fernández-Armesto said. The indigenous people chose freely to associate with the Spaniards, because the newcomers were not enmeshed in local hatreds.
“They had a sensibility to the usefulness of the stranger,” he said. The natives wanted to forge alliances with the Spaniards to use them against their enemies and to escape their own feuds. “The indigenous people welcomed the Spaniards and made accommodations with them, hoping those accommodations could work for them.”
A brief question-and-answer period followed the lecture, and a book-signing concluded the event.
In addition to “Pathfinders,” Fernández-Armesto has written many books, including “The World: A History, Volume II, Since 1300” (2006); “Ideas That Changed the World” (2003); “The Americas” (2003); “Food: A History” (2001); “Civilizations” (2000); and “Millennium: A History of Our Last Thousand Years” (1995).
The annual Kislak lectures are a component of the Kislak American Studies Program established at the Library of Congress in 2004 by the Jay I. Kislak Foundation. The first Kislak lecture, titled “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” was given by Jared Diamond. In addition to the annual lecture series, the Kislak gift includes an important collection of books, manuscripts, historic documents, maps and art of the Americas. It contains some of the earliest records of indigenous peoples in North America, as well as superb objects from the discovery, contact and colonial periods, especially for the areas of Florida, the Caribbean and Mesoamerica.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.