Friday, November 26, 2004

Thinking like a continent

James Drake has an interesting article in Journal of World History (15.3, 2004) (here, Project Muse subscription required) that explores how Americans came to think of themselves as (in his words) a continental society. He compares two cases, Anglo-America and Spanish America, to see how the people conceptualized their relationship with the land they inhabited as well as Europe.

The larger current has to do with geopolitical thinking. Continents became a category that interested European intellectuals, especially as they attempted to understand differences between themselves and the peoples elsewhere in the world. Europe had natural barriers that allowed civilization to flourish without excessive war, unlike other continents.

The English colonists combined the category of the continent with their perception of the relationship with the land. Drake sees the Boston Tea Party as revealing: it shows how the colonists identified themselves as the new indigenous people of the Americas. It was not just the local Native Americans that they were replacing, but a whole continent of people who, in their opinion, did little to develop the civilization of the continent. The new Americans were there to do what the old Americans failed to do.

Drake, in the process of comparing Spanish and Anglo-America, draws on an event from Mexican history that resembles the Boston Tea Party. The Spanish Mexicans never saw themselves as the replacements for the natives; they were overlords and conquerors. Nevertheless they took the identity of Indians to protest the policies of the mother country:
Under the leadership of Hernán Cortés's son Martín, who had assumed the title Marqués de la Valle de Oaxaca, a number of colonists planned a rebellion, feeling the crown had violated their rights. As heirs of the conquerors, they saw their fathers' rewards as their entitlement, their just inheritance. After the conquest, the Spaniards had divided among the conquerors the right to extract tribute or labor rights from the region's Indians. This lucrative institutional arrangement, known as the encomienda, had long proven a sticking point in relations with royal authorities. Hint of its demise at the hands of royal authorities regularly ignited discontent.

When rumors circulated in 1565 that the crown intended to withdraw support for the encomienda, conquistador elites and their heirs conspired to revolt. This plan, known as the conjuración del marques, never reached fruition, but in a dramatic ritual these colonists asserted their views. Donning the garb of Mexican chieftains and Indian warriors, they paraded through the streets of Mexico City toward the house of Martín Cortés. When they arrived Cortés flung open the gates and the crowd gave him a crown of flowers. Accepting the offering, Cortés returned to his business and the "Indians" dispersed. Cortés and his fellow demonstrators had symbolically reenacted the submission of Moctezuma to the Spanish. When the leaders of the incipient revolt were later put on trial, the judges saw the meaning clearly. In marching through the streets dressed as Indians and handing Martín Cortés a crown, the demonstrators, in the words of one judge, "meant to indicate that the Marqués was to be king of this land.


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