Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Steve Stern

Stern, Steve J. Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.

Steve Stern’s Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 centers on colonial Huamanga, a strategic military and economic region along the route between Lima and Potosí. It was the location of the Huancavelica and Castrovirreyna mercury and silver mines, which along with Potosí formed the “twin economic pillars” that underwrote much of Spain’s colonial expansion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (xvii). Stern focuses on Huamanga to answer the questions of how Andeans “met the challenge of European conquest,” the impact their resistance had on the formation of colonial institutions, and what this area can tell us about the broader history of class formation.

Growing out of his doctoral dissertation, Stern used archival resources from fifteen archives, including the AGI in Seville, the BNP and AGN in Lima, municipal, juridical, and ecclesiastical archives in Ayacucho, as well as collections in Madrid, Washington D. C., and at Yale University. From this material, Stern compiled tables on debt, wages, tributary populations, and labor contracts for the cities of Huamanga and Castrovirreyna. His research allowed him to write a fascinating history of the rise of the Taki Onqoy movement, the decline of indigenous ayllus, and how Spanish colonists effectively exploited indigenous rivalries, all from the point of view of indigenous communities.

Stern’s exploration of this last issue, indigenous rivalries, is especially insightful, employing Marxist and Gramscian theories of class analysis to show how the cooptation of the kuraka class, also known by the Caribbean term cacique, was an essential feature of colonial domination. For example, in chapter two Stern highlights how Spanish encomenderos in the early years of colonization needed favorable relationships with kurakas to extract the cooperation of indigenous communities (31). Some would give land to these native elite to buy their “collaboration,” which, Stern argues, offered the kurakas a better chance of survival (33-34). This chapter makes use of the writings of Spanish jurist Juan Polo de Ondegardo and the Andean writer Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, emphasizing how Spanish courts came to occupy a central role in the adjudication of internal indigenous disputes, opening communities to external intromission (45).

Chapter three, on the nativist revival movement known as Taki Onqoy, or “dancing sickness,” explores how Andean communities employed religion as a tool of resistance (52). The movement called for solidarity and the rejection of class divisions among indigenous communities, as well as a rejection of Hispanic culture, as part of a battle between Christian and Andean religious power. Stern argues that while the Taki Onqoy movement ultimately failed to achieve a neo-Inca insurrection and led Andean to accept the “reality of defeat,” the movement scared the Spanish enough to spur them to accept reforms that protected indigenous communities from some of the most outrageous abuses (75-77).

On the other hand, the resistance also led to the partial implementation of a series of resettlements, or reducciones, to better control indigenous communities. The most important period of reform came under the administration of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, between 1569 and 1581, which resulted in the creation of new power structures that realigned colonial society. One of the political reforms carried out was the creation of the position of corregidor, who acted as judge, administrator of the mita and tribute, as well as the executor of the law. These officials were at the center of what Stern called colonial “power groups,” extending helped push Spanish hegemony even deeper into Andean society (93).

According to Stern, in order for a corregidor to effectively impose state control on indigenous communities at this time while simultaneously enriching themselves and their allies, the official would need ties with a series of powerful agents, including local indigenous and Spanish elites, cabildo functionaries, rural priests, local encomenderos, merchants, and other important members of local society. This “mesh of mutually cooperating exploiters” created ties of kinship, patron-client relations, and internal hierarchies that operated to extract profit from native labor (95). However, according to Stern, their changing interests sometimes served as a check on abuse, allowing Andeans space to resist through the assertion of their legal rights, playing these elites off of one another.

Stern’s chapters four through six, on the political economy of colonialism, the Spanish justice system, and the political economy of dependence, respectively, would be of most interest to dedicated scholars of the region. His discussion of the mita, the use of wage labor at the mines, and the rise of agricultural haciendas and textile workshops, anticipate other scholarly works, such as Karen Spalding’s Huarochirí, Brooke Larson’s Cochabamba, and Peter Bakewell’s Miners of the Red Mountain. Stern argues that native communities’ use of the Spanish legal system to demand revision to their tribute payments was a strategy of resistance that frustrated attempts to exploit them, reduced the effectiveness of the mita, and led to labor crises at the mines (123, 128).

The debate over the role of wages is especially significant, if a bit in the weeds. Stern argues that indigenous resistance to coerced labor played an important role in the rise of voluntary labor agreements and the offer of wages. But unlike Bakewell, Stern seems unwilling to accord too much importance to this innovation, instead seeing wages as a “more sophisticated” system of labor exploitation, emphasizing the role of force as the ultimate factor in colonial economic institutions (92, 157). In contrast, Bakewell gave more importance to voluntary labor contracts.

Chapter seven, “Tragedy of Success,” focuses on indigenous elite and the stratification of indigenous society. Stern argues that the cooptation of the elite “buttress[ed] colonial domination” and led to decline of the Andean kinship groups, known as ayllus (159). He says that by turning indigenous communities against each other, elevating Hispanicized Andeans over their more traditional kin, and providing space for indigenous upward mobility through integration into a market economy, Andean communities became what he terms a “defeated people” (182). In comparison, Tristan Platt’s work, Estado boliviano y ayllu andino (1982) argues that ayllus in what is today Bolivia remained relevant social and political institutions until at least the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

The strengths of this chapter are its focus on women, mestizaje, indigenous conversion to Christianity, and the adoption of European economic institutions. Yet Stern seems too willing to vilify these new indigenous elites. Given his early focus on Andean internal rivalries, it would have been interesting to see how these changes in the early-seventeenth century compared to pre-Hispanic social relations. For example, what happened during the wars of Incan conquest? Perhaps similar relationships developed between upwardly-mobile Andean communities and their new rulers from Cuzco. Alternatively, a global comparison of how other conquered societies were incorporated into new cultural systems could provide insight into this interesting facet of human social adaptation.

N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, 2017

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