Language is words only in part. To study a language is to be exposed to the culture and customs of those peoples who have developed it. Spanish, like all languages, has risen from many sources, each a people who added layers of vocabulary and nuance.
In the seminar “Writings and Re-writings of the Discovery and Conquest of America” the intersection of two worlds is to be considered: the world of sixteenth century western Europe, particularly Spain, and Portugal, and the cultures which existed in the Americas, particularly Amazonia at that time. We will discuss the collision and permeation as understood by writers of the time and by modern writers seeking new interpretations. We will be looking for the historical roots of 20th century problems.
I consider this curriculum unit to be the third in a set of three units which explore seepage between the cultures that came into contact as a result of the voyages of Columbus. My first paper, written in the “Latin American Short Story” seminar presented by Roberto Gonzáles Echevarr’a in 1987, was an analysis of “The High Road of Saint James” by Alejo Carpentier. In it the world of sixteenth century Spain is illuminated as the protagonist travels to the West Indies. The second of these papers was written in 1991 in the seminar on “Regions and Regionalism in the United States: Studies in the History and Cultures of the South, the Northeast and the American Southwest” presented by Howard Lamar. Entitled “Between Aztlán and Quivira: Europeans and Indians in the Southwestern United States,” it is a study of the cultures which existed in the Southwest in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, and includes the impact which Europeans had on these cultures and peoples.
In this third unit, I hope to explore the interaction between the two worlds: Europe in transition from the Middle Ages to Enlightenment, and America in transition from harmony with nature to resistance on annihilation.
I hope to cultivate in students the realization that language, history and culture are dynamic disciplines, that the status quo is change. I hope they will recognize the issues of cultural survival and revival. Students will discover the enormity of the shock of the initial contact between Europeans and the peoples native to the Americas, particularly to the Indians of the South American lowland rain forests. We will also study the political and diplomatic history in Europe which had so great an impact on these people.
It has been said that in North America the discovery and conquest are history unlike in Latin America, where the conquest and discovery are not complete. The last North American Indian resistance fighters, the Chiricahua, were subdued by the late nineteenth century. Though many strong Indian tribes and nations thrive in the USA even now, they are contained on reservation lands. Their internal governance is by tribal law, but their relations with the US federal government are managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In Central and South America in many areas Indian autonomy exists, if not unmolested, at least in a state of non-acceptance of European dominance. The Indians of Guatemala, descendants of the Maya, speak Nahuatl and live in friction with their neighbors, descendants of the Spanish, over the rights to the land. In Peru the leading edge of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) are young women descendants of the Inca. Their cultural training passed down for generations is a communal way of life. They are impatient with the inefficient ways of this government. They speak Quechua and appear determined to reverse the rape and conquest of five hundred years ago.
This paper will focus on the peoples of the jungles of eastern South America, the people who live in the Amazon rain forest and Alto Parana. At the time of the invasion from Iberia there were two and one-half million people who lived in the endless forests of the great rivers, perhaps three thousand tribes, perhaps more. They lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers in a tropical world where animal and plant species flourished in abundance. Even Columbus thought he was nearing Eden as he touched on the mouth of the Orinoco River. Their culture was full of magical beliefs. They built no permanent structures, living as they did amid plenty. Their gods were animalistic. The great God of the Guarani was purely beneficent, capable only of good. No evil punishment could stem from him. They had no gold; they used no metal. They wore few clothes; tropical rain forests are warm and damp. They had no sense of time, other than before and now. Their beliefs were strong, strong enough to bind them into groups for survival, strong enough to maintain ways and rituals which fostered them, though out of context the Europeans may have felt these to be barbaric.
Into this simple paradise, an ecosystem of animals and humans without arrogance, stepped the velvet-clad Iberians, glittering chest plates and heavy swords. They wore hair on their faces and were tall, ever so tall. And they were seeking gold, at first the metal which they would strip from the high mountain people. Later they sought “red gold,’ the warm-blooded kind which they could sell in the markets of Hispanola to be plantation slaves. And if the Indians died in slavery, there were plenty more, a boundless supply in the rich rain forests of the Amazon. Brazil outlawed slavery in 1888, the last ‘western’ country to make illegal the ownership of humans.
But the story does not end. Even today there are stone age tribes in the rain forests whose lives are being eaten away by the destruction of their habitat. Their sacred trees are cut down, and the forest which is their collective memory is being turned into plantations for rubber and beef.
My plan in this unit is to present the history of the discovery and conquest of the South American lowland rain forest people in stages. The first section will explore the conflict between Spain and Portugal over the rights to unexplored territories. For this we will use maps and overlays. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and the resultant 20th century national boundaries in South America will be a focus point in this segment of the unit.
The second section of the paper will encompass the early history of the exploration and conquest of South America focusing particularly on the comparison between the Spanish and Portuguese custom or style of expansion. The systems of agriculture and slavery will be compared.
In a third section, I hope to expose students to the reactions the natives may have had to the Europeans. I will include early writings about the initial contact between Europeans and South American Indians. I plan to use excerpts from Columbus’ diaries about the people he ‘discovered’. In contrast I will use excerpts from
to suggest the response to the Europeans which the Indians had. Some passages from
The Harp and the Shadow
will also be helpful.
In the next section of the paper our journey through time will take us from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas to the 1750 Treaty of Madrid which reestablished the territorial claims of Spain and Portugal. We will study the Jesuit expansion and establishment of missions (reducciones) especially in Paraguay. We will focus on the growing jealousy about Jesuit power in Europe leading to the expulsion of Jesuits from the Americas in 1767. At this point the class will watch the movie “The Mission.”
Our study will continue with writing, excerpts from novels, journals, newspapers, National Geographic and other sources about the continuing threat to the natives of the Amazon and Rio de la Plata basins. We will look at sections from
by Vargas Llosa, and Hudson’s novel,
. which was made into a romantic and panoramic film about the endless green rain forest. There are several very new books about the vanishing tribes of Amazonia.
Finally we will end our journey with the very real questions of 21st century obligation to the stone age people who survive. As Vargas Llosa clearly describes, any contact destroys the cultural fabric and thus the existence of these people. Even benevolent contributions toward food, sanitation, and shelter cut the threads which bound the Indians in groups which could survive their environment. Issues of progress, growth, environment, development and responsibility will be explored.