Survival and Subjugation in Colonial Latin America

By N. H. Gill
Nov. 24, 2018

Indigenous elites stood at the intersection of political subjugation and cultural survival in Spanish and Portuguese America. Over more than three centuries they acted as intermediaries between their communities and outsiders, as defenders before the law, and even as collaborators with local power groups in the exploitation of their own people. As such, they wielded enormous power that Europeans struggled to control throughout the colonial period. Yet over time, the Iberian monarchs were able to exact some form of cooperation and slowly pressure renegades out of power. In other cases, elites were coopted to such a degree that they lost legitimacy in their communities and became ineffective leaders. But ultimately, these outcomes served neither Europeans nor Native Americans, a predicament that sheds light on the difficult role occupied by this ethnic elite. Because physically conquering whole continents was beyond the capability of Spain and Portugal, both colonial powers relied on indigenous elites to project European hegemony into indigenous societies, especially in areas far from the vice regal centers of power. This resulted in a slow but enduring form of subjugation. Also important to the creation of this soft power was the Catholic Church, whose indoctrination, control, and education of generations of Amerindians proved a formidable tool of cultural conquest. Still, the power and persistence of indigenous societies at the end of the colonial period stands as a testament to the partial successes of the indigenous elite in helping their communities adapt to historic change in colonial Latin America.

In the early conquest period, Spanish and Portuguese colonists encountered various forms of social hierarchies in different parts of the region, but two broad categories of elites emerged as the most relevant: the religious and political. Interestingly, priests and prophets seemed to provoke Europeans in deeper ways, leading to an early pattern of violent repression. Alongside this stands the co-opting of what could be termed the more secular leadership of kurakas, as they were known in the Andes, or caciques, a Taíno term used in other regions of Spanish America. Conditions in Brazil present variations that are not easily captured by patterns seen in Spanish America. There, whether from epidemics or less sedentary forms of traditional organization, indigenous populations were lower and lived in less densely-populated groups, which complicated Portugal’s efforts to organize labor systems for the agro-export economy it was trying to build on the Atlantic coast. Given these regional conditions, mixed European-Americans, known as mamelucos, played a larger role there, acting as intermediaries between indigenous communities and colonial settlers in Brazil.

With this framework in mind, if we first look at the Andean region, Steve Stern’s penetrating work, Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest, highlights the interplay between religious and political resistance in the first decades after the Spanish arrival. Looking at the relatively core area of Huamanga along the important Lima-Cuzco-Potosí highway, Stern argues that much of traditional Andean political economy remained in place after conquest with Spanish overlords replacing Incan authorities, but not fundamentally ending the basic ayllu-based economy. Up until approximately 1570, the Spanish in the Andes used pre-Colombian social organizations. In that system, kurakas were expected to defend their peoples’ interests, distribute lands, adjudicate internal conflicts, oversee the circulation and storage of goods, and organize and maintain religious rites. This began to change as encomenderos plied the kurakas with land and other concessions, giving them advantages in the early commercial economy.

Under these conditions, the indigenous elite were the first to become Hispanicized, allowing Spain to gain a foothold in the Andean world. However, Stern argues that kurakas walked a fine line between the use and abuse of their kin. If unable to protect their people they could lose their communities’ respect. On the other hand, by too often refusing Spanish demands, they could be punished or replaced. Ultimately, Stern says, kurakas failed to protect their communities, as seen in the rise of the Taki Onqoy movement. This religious resistance movement challenging all things Spanish was pushed by middle and lower-ranking segments of indigenous society, not the elite. Forced to choose between abandoning the source of their new privilege or supporting a movement against a powerful colonial force, Stern says many kurakas sided with the Spanish.

Cerro Rico del Potosi, Pedro Cieza de León (1553)

The many crises of this period spurred support for reform, which in the Andes came in the late sixteenth century from a series of viceroys, most notably Francisco de Toldeo. As new mercury-amalgamation techniques revolutionized silver production, a new phase of colonization began that required more workers and further undermined traditional social ties between indigenous communities and the elite. The creation of the República de Indios and the República de Espanoles added new administrative positions, such as the alcalde mayor and corregidor de Indios, which gradually led to the creation of what Stern calls “power groups.” These groups were a mixture of Spanish, mestizo, indigenous, and other local notables, who allied to exploit local communities for commercial profit. This shows change in the role of indigenous elite, from the post-Conquest period of Spanish colonization, when kurakas more often worked to protect their kinfolk, to later times when kurakas and other indigenous elite began to achieve some commercial success and depended more on the Spanish for their future.

Karen Spalding’s Huarochirí, an Andean Society under Inca and Spanish Rule complements Stern’s assessment of the changing role of the indigenous elite in the early years of Andean conquest. Looking at Huarochirí, a somewhat peripheral region but close enough to Lima to benefit from its commerce, Spalding agrees that Spanish conquerors’ initial strategy was to maintain Incan hierarchies, but to replace traditional Incan governors with encomenderos. Her overall critical interpretation coincides with Stern’s, comparing the kuraka class to a blade slicing through the body of traditional Andean society. Spalding argues that the kuraka elite became intermediary power brokers who were most successful when they were able to keep tribute flowing while simultaneously preventing the Europeans from interfering with the internal structure of their communities.

Spalding’s work also provides an interesting discussion of how elites operated in areas outside of the core Andean regions of Lima and Cuzco, showing how rural areas like Huarochirí benefitted from de-centralized control that allowed them to continue many of their traditional practices. Spalding’s long research horizon allows her to connect early revolts, such as the Taki Onqoy movement, with the later Túpac Amaru II movement, complicating Stern’s claim that by 1640 Andeans were a defeated people. Still, both concur that the Andean elite initially accepted encomendero rule as a way to preserve their traditional roles as community leaders. For Spalding, the Toledan reforms that formalized the position of kurakas as an arm of the colonial state were significant because they made local elites dependent on the Spanish Crown as opposed to their communities.

Reflecting the cultural turn in Latin American historiography, the essays from David Patrick Cahill and Blanca Tovías’s 2003 edited volume, Elites Indígenas en los Andes focus more specifically on elites’ role as cultural mediators. Collectively, the authors argue that indigenous elites were the ones who negotiated the implementation of colonialism, softening the blow, but also the ones who extracted surpluses from their own people. While many exploited and abused their communities, others helped protect and shield them from colonial predations.

Kerstin Nowack’s chapter on the royal line of Incan women focuses on the role they played in the survival of the Incan nobility in the early years of the colony. She argues that many Incan noble women suffered sexual abuse and violence at the hands of the conquerors, often becoming the wives or concubines of conquistadores and symbols of prestige to the Spanish. These unions could have led their families’ to support the Spanish out of fear for what would happen to the women if their people rebelled, she argues. Nowack explains that these marriages, often forced, also served to Christianize the women and remove a political threat.

David Cahill’s discusses Cuzco’s Incan nobility and their attempts to maintain an elite position in Spanish society for three hundred years. He focuses on the repercussions of the Andean uprisings of Tupac Amaru II in the 1780s. Cahill discusses their role in religious ceremonies, such as Corpus Christi, and how they defended ritual positions as leaders of the festival. When Spanish authorities tried to strip them of this role, the Incan nobility defended their status by reminding the Crown that their ancestors’ help was crucial in the military conquest of the Andes. Cahill, like the work of Inga Clendinnen, who will be discussed later, also considers the role of education and the importance of schools, such as the Colegio San Borja for the sons of kurakas, on the formation of the identities of Cuzco’s Incan nobility in the late eighteenth century.

Martín Monsalve’s explores the long-running disputes between lesser kurakas and Catholic priests who resided in local villages in one of the volume’s more interesting essays. He describes how kurakas used Spanish culture to expand and maintain their own power. Focusing in the relatively core areas of Lima and Puno, Monsalve, like other authors discussed above, highlights the importance of kurakas in in the economy, but also for helping indoctrinate their villages in the Catholicism. Like Cahill, he stresses the importance of kuraka education and literacy, saying that to maintain their status as local leaders they often tried to outshine local priests in the observance of Catholic rituals and festivals. Kurakas were also willing to challenge priests when they thought the clergy was undermining their authority. His main argument is that while kurakas were essential in the colonization of the Andes, they were also capable of taking advantage of the privileges of their office to push back against colonial authorities.

Interestingly, Monsalve’s work challenges Stern’s negative portrayal of kurakas as collaborators in the conquest of the Andes by showing how the accumulation of prestige items, such as Spanish clothing, hats, weapons, and horses, actually increased kurakas social status in both Andean and Spanish eyes. This social esteem was critical to their ability to challenge local power groups on their own terms. In other words, they learned to play the colonial game to increase their own power and better protect both their positions and their communities.

Turning to Mesoamerica, the Spanish colonization of the Maya world in a relatively peripheral region of the Spanish colonial empire presents an interesting contrast to the core areas of the Peruvian viceroyalty. In the earliest years of colonization in Mesoamerica, the Catholic Church was essential to the conquest. Because of a challenging environment, whose harsh climate and lack of precious-metal deposits made it economically unattractive in the early years of conquest, the Spanish relied more on religious indoctrination than military force to project their power in this region. As such, the roles of religious education and literacy were integral to colonization efforts there. Inga Clendinnen’s 1987 monograph, Ambivalent Conquests, emphasizes this situation in the Yucatan, exploring how religious and political elites, known as batabob, navigated the arrival of a particularly violent wave of conquisitadores and Franciscan priests.

Monte Alban, Mexico
Photo by Matthew Essman on Unsplash.

Understanding religious practices is key to appreciating the role of the elite in the Mayan world. Clendinnen helpfully explains the cyclical nature of Mayan religion and importance of how to read and record past events, focusing on the role of literacy in chronicling the past and exploring the future. The author says that relatively quickly Mayan priests were hunted down and usually killed, whereas some political leaders were tapped to fill new leadership positions. Like the Andes, Spanish settlers maintained indigenous hierarchies, relying on local leadership structures to carry out what Clendinnen describes as a plunder economy. Also similar to the Andes, the arrival of Franciscan missionaries seems to played a significant role in Mayan society in the first century of colonization. Like in Cuzco, schools for the sons of elites were created as a means of evangelizing the wider indigenous population with the boys as “mediators” between Spanish and indigenous communities. Over time, especially after the 1562 inquisition, Clendinnen says that the conquest eroded many traditions, but left local leadership structures and economic bases relatively unchanged until at least the seventeenth century. Along the way, Indigenous lords made a “calculated accommodation” with Spanish rule.

Thus far, the essay has considered regions of Spanish America, but the role of indigenous elites in Brazil was also important but took a different shape. Alida Metcalf’s Go-Betweens and the Colonization of Brazil, about the first century of Portuguese exploration and settlement in northeastern Brazil, stresses the role of third parties called “go-betweens” who she argues were critical in the ultimate success of Portugal’s venture in the Americas. Go-betweens acted as multicultural brokers between Europeans and Native Americans, holding a somewhat analogous position to Andean kurakas and the Mayan batabob in the mediation of conquest. Metcalf’s theoretical development of these go-between includes physical, transactional, and representational actors who helped shape relations between Europeans and Brazilian indigenous communities. While conceptually useful, this framework seems too broad, especially within the category of representational go-betweens.

Metcalf’s strongest section deals with the role of mamelucos and native prophets in the development of the early colonial economy, which centered around slaves, sugar, and brazilwood. According to Metcalf, they were essential in wresting the continent away from its native inhabitants. In the earliest years of colonization, mamelucos often worked in cooperation with indigenous chiefs at the expense of Portuguese interests because their survival in the peripheral sertão depended on their ability to work with and dominate indigenous groups. Over time they became the most successful in convincing indigenous groups to “descend” to Portuguese settlements and submit to Portuguese authority. Later, as the power of the Portuguese state increased, these mameluco go-betweens tended to favor the interests of the colony over the interests of the indigenous villages.

Looking beyond Metcalf’s work, it appears economic differences may have played a significant role in the different outcomes between Brazil and the Andes. In the early colonial period, the Portuguese were interested in the extraction of brazilwood and sugar, both European-controlled markets, whereas in the Andes the Spanish continued to rely on native economies to supply their mining economy. Where elite intermediaries like mamelucos emerged from Brazil’s colonization process itself, Andean leadership structures were carried over from the Incan state.

Shifting our focus to colonial New Spain, Yanna Yannakakis’ 2008 book The Art of Being In-between focuses on what she calls “native intermediaries” in Oaxaca to answer the question of how a state can govern culturally-diverse areas like colonial or modern Mexico. Similar to Metcalf’s “go-betweens,” Yannakakis explains that these native intermediaries served as cultural brokers and helped give shape to the social and institutional boundaries that governed colonial relations. Serving the Spanish brought benefits, but also came at a high cost. An illustrative example is the Analco people, whose ancestors helped the Spanish conquer northern Oaxaca and earned themselves more than two centuries of legal privileges in colonial society in return for their collaboration. Their open assistance with the Spanish gave them a sense of community identity and made them feared by other indigenous groups, yet they were also hated. Over time, as their role became unnecessary to the effective control of native populations, they lost power and in the Bourbon administrative reforms of the late colonial period were stripped of their privilege. Overall, her work shows that collaboration afforded regional elites with a degree of independence and autonomy in the exercise of their power.

Complementing Yannakakis’ work for the Andean region, David Garrett’s Shadows of Empire is a history of the Incan noble classes of Cuzco in colonial Peru at the end of the colonial period. His work shows the arc of historical change that occurred over the colonial period. Encompassing both urban and rural descendants of the former ruling class of native lords, Garrett explores the role of noble identity in the defense and perpetuation of this elite class in Cuzco. Looking at elite reactions during the Great Andean Rebellion of the 1780s, in which the urban elite was conspicuously hostile to the rebellion in the south, Garrett argues that in the Titicaca area provincial kurakas suffered the brunt of the uprising as communities turned against them as well as members of the Spanish ruling class. At the heart of the refusal of Cusco’s indigenous elite to support the rebellion were their different political interests, which by the late eighteenth century were no longer the same as those of indigenous peasants, giving them strong motivations to support the status quo.

Based on the literature considered above, several conclusions can be made. First, generally speaking, the role of indigenous elites can be said to have changed over time from early defenders of their native communities, to complex intermediaries responsible for ensuring indigenous compliance with colonial rule, to increasingly-alienated exploiters. As several authors emphasize, by the end of the colonial period many in this elite class had adopted European customs and lifeways and openly allied themselves with Europeans. However, this gradual shift away from their communities undermined their power and effectiveness for both indigenous groups and Spanish administrators, leading to their ultimate downfall as a colonial class.

Second, distance between the so-called core and periphery played a major role in the development of the indigenous elite in the colonial period. In areas like Mesoamerica, Mayan leadership structures and modes of production changed less, allowing native leaders to remain vital to local societies and to choose, within limits, which features of colonial rule benefitted them most. In central areas like Cuzco, intermarriage, political cooptation, and cultural assimilation worked much faster to undermine traditional relationships between villagers and their native rulers. Garret’s work on the Andean rebellions of the 1780s highlights this divide between the urban, Incan elite of Cuzco and their rural counterparts. In the end, both groups paid the price for popular insurgency.

Third, variations in local economic systems probably played a significant role in how these elite classes developed over time. In the case of Brazil, where lower population densities required the creation of new labor systems, the local elites who emerged from these processes were often racially-mixed individuals. Their ability to mediate between European and indigenous cultures and worldviews made them essential in convincing local groups to descend into the Portuguese sphere of power.

Finally, in all of the areas considered here the physical enormity of the land, the differences between local cultures, and the relatively few European colonists who settled there meant that colonial projects could not be carried out by military conquest alone. The Iberian monarch needed the active participation of local leaders to project hegemony outside of colonial centers of power. In this respect, the Catholic Church played an influential role in carrying Spanish culture into the periphery and breaking down cultural resistance to colonial rule. By educating indigenous children and requiring indigenous leadership to accept Christianity, at least on the surface, European colonists slowly brought the Americas under their control. Yet instead of vilifying this elite, the challenge of colonial historians is to understand the contexts these assuredly conflicted intermediaries lived in as they tried to navigate their peoples’ subjugation and survival.

Feature Image: Complejo arqueológico, Pisac, Peru, by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos.

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