The Bishop's Utopia
Envisioning Improvement in Colonial Peru
Emily Berquist Soule
2014 | 320 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History | Latin American Studies/Caribbean Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Utopias in the New World
Chapter 1. The Books of a Bishop
Chapter 2. Parish Priests and Useful Information
Chapter 3. Imagining Towns in Trujillo
Chapter 4. Improvement Through Education
Chapter 5. The Hualgayoc Silver Mine
Chapter 6. Local Botany: The Products of Utopia
Chapter 7. The Legacy of Martínez Compañón
Conclusion. Martínez Compañón's Native Utopia
Sources and Methods
Appendix 1. Ecclesiastical Questionnaire Sent to Priests Prior to the Visita Party's Arrival
Appendix 2. Natural History Questionnaire Sent to Priests Prior to the Visita Party's Arrival
Archives and Special Collections Consulted
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Utopias in the New World
From the moment the Spanish set foot in what would soon be known as the "New World," they were seeking mineral wealth, neophyte Catholics, free labor, natural resources, and wondrous marvels. But above all, the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic ventured to the other side of the world in search of dreams. They envisioned shining cities of gold and palaces overflowing with jewels and silver. They dreamed of forests where rainbow-hued birds fluttered overhead. They imagined becoming little monarchs with their own kingdoms and vassals. They dreamed of their epic deeds being immortalized in history books. And some of them believed that with all this behind them, they would return to Europe and claim the international dominance that they were convinced was the destiny of Spain.
What happened to those dreams—the civil wars between brothers, the capture and execution of kings, and the decimation of an estimated 90-95 percent of America's original peoples—has fascinated readers for centuries. These stories of darkness and depravity are an inseparable part of the history of the Spanish in America. Gripping as they are, they are not the only stories. Though the history of Spanish America is darkened by figures such as Bishop Diego de Landa of Yucatán, who in just three months arrested and tortured 4,500 Mayans on suspicion of idolatry, and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, a Spanish legal theorist who tried his best to prove that the Indians of America were natural slaves who benefited from captivity, these are not the only figures from the colonial period worth remembering. They lived alongside others less notorious—men who believed in harmony, prosperity, and exchange. Although these men also struggled with paternalism, orthodoxy, and even aggression, they held fast to their visions of a more perfect world in America.
One such man is the subject of this book. Sent from Spain to the north of Peru in the final third of the eighteenth century, Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón dreamed of refashioning the rich natural environment and diverse peoples of Trujillo into a veritable utopia. He imagined a dreamlike world where Catholic morality and Spanish propriety would flourish in European-style towns. Indian children would attend primary schools to learn the basic reading and writing skills that would assist them in their future work as tradesmen or agriculturalists. Even the haphazard settlements outside Peru's notoriously abusive silver mines were sites for his vision of industry, order, and peace. Under Martínez Compañón, Trujillo became a laboratory for improvement where local communities participated in engineering their own futures, deciding for themselves the meaning of utopia and their place in it.
But the Bishop's utopia in colonial Peru was not only centered on the lives of natives; it also depended upon the natural world around them. Trujillo's environment was an Edenic paradise replete with exquisite flowers, exotic fruits, strange marine species, and fantastical animals. The Indians' ancestral knowledge was the key to observing, cataloging, and unlocking the vast potential of these riches. So the Bishop invited the natives of Trujillo to be his collaborators in a decade-long natural history project that cataloged the people, plants, animals, and past of the province. During almost three years of travels throughout his territory, he collected from locals in each district "a sample of all the specimens that are not found in other [towns]." Ultimately, this effort produced a natural history collection composed of thirty crates of local specimens, including carefully inventoried native antiquities, dried plants, soil samples, and local manufactures. The boxes were remitted to Spain in 1789 and 1790, where some of the archaeological artifacts still survive in Madrid's Museum of America.
As he traveled throughout the mountains, deserts, and jungles of Trujillo gathering his collection, Martínez Compañón kept careful notes of all that he saw, hoping one day to compile them into a "Historical, Scientific, Political, and Social Museum of the Bishopric of Trujillo del Perú." He died before he was able to begin writing, so scholars can only fantasize about the treasures that such a book might have held. But as he worked on his collection and his notes, the Bishop also asked local illustrators to produce almost 1,400 exquisite hand-painted watercolor images depicting the world around them. After his promotion to the archbishopric of Bogotá, he compiled these into a "paper museum" in the style of the early modern visual compendiums by Athanasius Kircher, Cassiano dal Pazzo, and Federico Borromeo. The Bishop organized his "museum" into nine separate volumes depicting cities and towns, people, botanical specimens, animal, bird, and marine life, and native antiquities. They were edged in gold gilt, hand-bound in red Moroccan leather, and titled simply Trujillo del Perú.
Received most enthusiastically by Crown and Church functionaries throughout the viceroyalty, the books offered a world in miniature. Volume 1 told the story of what Martínez Compañón had accomplished in Trujillo, beginning with a detailed topographical map of the diocese, as seen in Plate 1—particularly timely because just four years earlier, imperial officials had issued a frantic call for maps of the colonial provinces. The Bishop also used the book to display the vast array of reform projects that he had enacted or begun during his time in Trujillo. By his own calculations, these included fifty-four primary schools, thirty-nine churches built "from their foundations," twenty towns, six new roads, and three irrigation channels. The volume also included a painted procession of Trujillo's bishops, their lace chalices and thick black cassocks accented by ornate jewelry. Nestled among them were two portraits of Martínez Compañón himself. The first shows a younger man clasping a Bible to his chest in deep contemplation. The second portrait features a sterner man whose face wears the signs of his advancing age.
Volume 2, depicting quotidian life, opens with a series of "type" images of Indians, mestizos, Spaniards, and people of African descent, echoing the contemporary craze for ethnographic portraiture. More impressive than the Trujillans' various intricate costumes, however, was the industriousness that marked their daily lives. The images showed them at work raising sheep, harvesting wheat, hunting animals, and manufacturing textiles. Even in their free time, they behaved like obedient, loyal subjects—like the two Indians playing cards in Plate 2. Not only was this couple supporting the profitable Crown monopoly on playing cards; they were also virtuously declining to gamble with actual money, choosing instead to use feathers. Like the majority of the native peoples shown in the volumes, these Indians have fair complexions and light hair, optimistically indicating that the Bishop's efforts to Hispanicize them had been so successful that their very flesh had begun to lighten.
The watercolors in the remaining seven books depicted natural items and man-made objects. Volumes 3, 4, and 5 showed a dazzling array of medicinal herbs, trees, shrubs, and other plants that Indians used in their daily lives, many of which held useful cures for sickness and disease. Volume 6 contained images of monkeys, llamas, lizards, and even an anteater. This was followed by a book of birds, one of marine life, and an exquisite collection of archaeological drawings.
Such a comprehensive natural history was intended to bring Bishop Martínez Compañón praise in the metropolis. Even today, botanists, archaeologists, and ethnomusicologists recognize his research as one of the most complete sources of information on northern Peru in the colonial period. The Bishop hoped that the impact of his work would extend beyond museums and cabinets of curiosities. By surveying Trujillo's natural resources and deciding how best to utilize them, he planned to transform his corner of the Spanish world into an orderly, profit-producing slice of empire. He trusted that studying such subjects as "geography, metallurgy, mineralogy and botany" would be useful for "industry and commerce" because the data could be employed for financial gain and because pursuing such knowledge would help to "distract my diocesans from laziness," as he put it.
Yet, as he looked back at his specimens and illustrations, Martínez Compañón worried that his natural history was "a bit vulgar and common" and perhaps "not all organized as well as it should be." He may have guessed that his work would have one distinct problem in the eyes of the Madrid establishment: it did not conform to the contemporary parameters of natural history research, which privileged the Latin-based binomial classification system and called for technical natural history illustrations that could be analyzed and utilized by trained experts throughout the European scientific community. In the Trujillo natural history, in contrast, specimens were named either in the local Peruvian tongue of Quechua or in Castilian. The descriptions in the Bishop's collection inventory did not provide the proper Latin name and discuss the species and variety of the item in question. Instead, they focused on the geographical location of the plant, whether the climate of its provenance was "hot" or "cold," and how the locals prepared the specimen for medicine or food. The botanical images themselves were also problematic: rather than portraying their subjects in the most "objective" manner possible, they were impressionistic, focusing on details that their illustrators deemed most important instead of depicting the plants' reproductive organs, which most interested European-trained botanists.
The locally based view of nature that dominates the Bishop's utopia exemplifies an American-born scientific epistemology that was linked to—but, in many ways, differed from—the dominant scientific epistemologies of the Enlightenment. Though European scientific observers privileged data that could easily be plugged into "universal" systems of knowledge—mainly the binomial classification system developed by Karl Linnaeus—a smaller, competing scientific methodology flourished on the ground in America. This privileged native languages, scientific traditions, and ways of understanding the local environment. As a small but dedicated group of Creole scientists in Lima sponsored studies and wrote books defending scientific data generated from Indian informants in Peru, from Trujillo, Martínez Compañón and his local collaborators made their own contributions. The watercolor images and the natural history collection that they produced aggregated and displayed local knowledge of the natural world. Their work did not follow the standards of natural history illustration prescribed by academies in the metropolis, and it did not use the Linnaean system of classification that the Spanish government had made standard for naturalists working in America since 1752. Instead, the Trujillo information privileged local names, classifications, and uses, and it produced images that centered on basic description rather than parsing specimen components, as European standards suggested. Though Martínez Compañón hoped that his scientific work would be of use—or, at the very least, of interest—to bureaucrats and naturalists in Madrid, he held fast to his vision of a local utopia in Trujillo, recording, preserving, and displaying a vision of the natural world that proved that the Indians were, as he put it, "men given a rational soul just like ours."
Back in Spain, the experts at the Royal Pharmacy, Royal Botanical Garden, and the Royal Natural History Cabinet were uninterested in such rhetoric; they seem to have viewed the watercolors and the collection as inferior, rustic, and essentially useless. They made no effort to publish any of the Trujillo work or to use it as an exemplar for similar projects. The inventory was ferreted away in royal archives, the collection promptly disassembled, and its parts disseminated without being cataloged. The nine volumes of watercolors were relegated to the dusty shelves of the royal library. The utopia that Martínez Compañón had struggled to create and depict was mostly forgotten—until now.
The Bishop's Utopia returns this encyclopedic natural history to the ideological center of Martínez Compañón's time in Trujillo. It combines analysis of the visual data and the collection inventory with extensive archival research conducted over ten years in order to confirm that all this was mainly about one thing: the Indians. As Martínez Compañón wrote to King Charles III, it was the Indians of America who had populated his dreams as a young man in Spain. In 1786, the Bishop admitted that, like many learned Spaniards, he had "read and heard about the misfortunes and disgraces of the Indians of America, and believed that their luck was unhappy in general." But what he had imagined, he admitted, could not begin to compare with the tragedy that he had witnessed during his twenty-three years in Peru. His time there, he wrote, had shown him that the majority of the Indians of Trujillo were "a miserable people . . . wherever one looks." He believed that the Indians' unhappiness was in many ways the fault of the Spanish, who had failed to properly instruct them in Catholic spirituality and European sociability. This neglect was manifest "in their souls" because "in their profound ignorance, they have no idea of good, bad, or virtue." Equally upsetting was the physical misery that the Indians endured. "In sickness and in health," he wrote, "[they] are treated with positive indolence, inhumanity, and cruelty . . . . [They receive] no help when they ask for it—not even that commonly given to beasts." Yet he also knew that despite the abuses and misfortunes that they had endured, it was the Indians of America who could provide the labor necessary to revive the empire's finances. In fact, Martínez Compañón's utopia in colonial Peru was altogether predicated upon the Indians. He imagined how to improve the Indians' financial, social, and religious lives through his schools, towns, and mining reforms. He also wanted to capitalize on their knowledge of local plant and animal life in order to bring the Spanish Crown, viceregal administrators, and the Indians themselves a financial windfall.
Improving the Indians was the Bishop's foremost concern over the twelve years he served in Trujillo, but they were by no means the only inhabitants of Trujillo; the bishopric was also home to large populations of mestizos and people of African descent, but it was the Indians whom the Bishop repeatedly singled out as the focus of his reform efforts. He spent almost three years traveling the deserts, mountains, and rainforests of his bishopric, meeting them and assessing what their communities needed most. He found them living in dispersed settlements with no communal support. So he worked with them to establish twenty new towns that would dot the landscape with neat plazas, town councils, and parish churches. When he saw that Indian children could not learn basic reading and writing because Trujillo's rural areas lacked primary schools, he ordered the construction of fifty-four schoolhouses, two Indian colleges, and even a school just for girls. When he discovered the horrific conditions that Indian laborers endured working at the Hualgayoc silver mine in Cajamarca, he imagined an extraordinary plan to help them, one based on a utopian mining town where workers would be given free land and farm implements in exchange for their labor underground.
Although this agenda of socioeconomic reforms marks Martínez Compañón as a classic reforming prelate of the Bourbon period, it also reveals him to be an iconoclast who promoted an expansive, innovative vision of improvement that was fundamentally utopian. The utopia that he imagined in Trujillo was a real-time contribution to the debate over the New World, one that used local initiative and natural resources to construct a program of improvement demonstrating how the people and nature of Peru were useful and productive. In Trujillo, Martínez Compañón used native knowledge and manpower to construct a utopia based on local circumstance. He fostered an agenda of social improvement and gathered a body of natural history data that offered locally calibrated solutions to economic and social problems while simultaneously demonstrating that the Indians of Trujillo were capable of becoming the very sort of useful subjects the Spanish Crown sought.
Like all other utopias that came before his and followed it, this grand vision of an idealized life never materialized as the Bishop had imagined it. But utopias would not be utopias if they existed in the material world: they are dreams, imaginings, hopes for a better future. In The Bishop's Utopia, Martínez Compañón becomes an eloquent guide on an intellectual journey through the eighteenth-century culture of reform in the Spanish Atlantic world. The boundaries and parameters of what he imagined were marked by European reform culture and referenced past efforts of improvement in America; but ultimately, they were the product of the time and place and situation in the north of the Viceroyalty of Peru in the late eighteenth century.
Because Martínez Compañón's imagined utopia was so inextricably linked to local context, it provides a unique opportunity to examine how the rhetoric of reform was adapted and promoted on the ground by colonial communities. Instead of reacting against the Bourbon reform agendas with violence, the people of Trujillo absorbed the discourse of reform and refashioned it into a locally based vision of improvement that would better suit their needs. With Martínez Compañón as their guide, they imagined their own utopia in a distant corner of the Spanish Empire. They willingly adopted the rhetoric of urbane civility, public happiness, and economic utility, using it to envision how to improve their own local communities in the ways they would benefit from the most. They initiated projects to incorporate their settlements into towns and to build local primary schools. In so doing, they learned how to manage complex bureaucratic processes, how to gather and distribute information in ways that bureaucrats would accept, and how to ask for what they wanted in terms that would appeal to elites.
The Bishop's efforts were meant to improve the lives of Trujillo's Indians, helping them become the very sort of useful subjects that reformers in Madrid hoped to make of plebeians throughout the empire. But at an even deeper level, this agenda of social engineering and the Trujillo natural history project made an ideological statement about who the Indians were. Seeking to counter European detractors who characterized them as underdeveloped and backward, Martínez Compañón vividly displayed the Indians' ability to produce useful knowledge, their conformance to Catholic morality and Spanish behavior, and their capacity for hard work that would enrich the state. Though it operated in real time, not on the written page, the Bishop's utopia in Trujillo was his own contribution to the much-contested matter of whether the people and the environment of America were inherently inferior to Europe's. In his utopia, the people of Trujillo would work with him to improve their own future, standing as a shining testament to his conviction that Indians were "equal, or very little different to the other men" around them. The Bishop's Utopia tells the story of his struggle to make this a reality in his own little corner of the vast Spanish empire.
Visual Culture as Historical Documentation
Central to the story told here is that which Martínez Compañón himself wished to tell—the one that he left behind in the nine volumes of watercolors, Trujillo del Perú. The 1,372 images that constituted this "paper museum" were organized into different books, each with its own narrative in pictures. The first held maps, city plans, architectural drawings, and portraits of leading local officials, secular and ecclesiastic. The Bishop had ingeniously designed it to preface his work in Trujillo and familiarize imperial bureaucrats with the people and places that had been key to his accomplishments. The second volume, depicting quotidian life in Trujillo, portrayed a universe in miniature with Spaniards, Indians, mestizos, and mixed-race castas engaged in their daily lives; sharing meals and music, plowing fields and harvesting wheat, tending sheep and spinning thread. Green was the predominant hue of the botanical illustrations of trees, herbs, plants, flowers, and shrubs that made up volumes 3, 4, and 5. A menagerie of animals, from the comical anteater, its tongue replete with shiny black ants (see Plate 3) to the fetchingly large-eyed guanaco camelid, filled the pages of volume 6. Birds and marine life each merited a separate volume, and the set closed with intricate archaeological illustrations of local ruins, burial sites, and ceramics. Had it ever been completed in the way that the Bishop had hoped, the "Historical, Scientific, Political, and Social Museum of the Bishopric of Trujillo del Perú" would have carefully situated each specimen within its proper scientific category, proudly naming it for posterity and for the benefit of the broader European scientific community. Unfortunately, Martínez Compañón was unable to begin writing the manuscript before his death in 1797.
However, the great repository for colonial Spanish American documents, Seville's General Archive of the Indies, holds a valuable document that allows the dedicated researcher to begin piecing together how the project may have developed. The Bishop and his staff completed the "File About the Remission of 24 Crates of Curiosities of Nature and of Art, Collected by the Bishop of Trujillo [today archbishop of Santa Fé], and Sent by the Viceroy of Lima, Arrived on the Frigate Rosa" in 1789. This was an inventory that accompanied the immense natural history collection sent to the king of Spain that same year. It painstakingly described the botanical specimens, taxidermied animals, pre-Hispanic artifacts, and local manufactures packed in the crates. The anteater shown in volume 5 of the watercolors was included, its tongue carefully preserved, wrapped in paper and nestled alongside its body. The inventory described the ingenious way the so-called oso hormiguero, or "anting bear," used its tongue to eat: "arriving at an ant hole, it probes it with its tongue," the description read, "and sticking it all the way out, holds it steady until it is quite full of ants. Once it is, it recoils it and swallows them." Whoever had observed the anteater knew even more about the species: "it is calm if not chased and harassed," the informant claimed. "But once threatened, it gives enough fight to kill the man or dog that pursues it." Yet this was the last surviving information about the animal that the Bishop and his informants had found so intriguing. Like the vast majority of natural history items remitted from the overseas kingdoms in the early modern period, the anteater's body, tongue, and the other elements of the collection were parsed up and dispersed to the appropriate metropolitan institutions, including the Royal Museum of Natural History, the Royal Pharmacy, and the Royal Botanical Garden. In the end, most were discarded, lost, or their provenance obscured by categorization and re-categorization, transfers and moves. So the watercolor illustrations and the written inventory were all that remained of the Bishop's animals, birds, and fish, great and small, rare and mundane.
Despite these losses, the textual and visual record of the Bishop's natural history research still stands as one of the most intricately detailed natural history sources of its day. Remarkably, Martínez Compañón at no time benefited from any official patronage or financial support for his work as a naturalist, yet he managed to produce one of the most thorough visual and material compendiums of the colonial period in Peru. In order to incorporate this extraordinary body of information into my historical analysis, I analyzed the visual documents like textual ones; drawing contrasts and comparisons, looking for what was there as well as what was absent, keeping in mind the creators and the context, and looking for the multiplicity of meanings that one image can hold. Often these clues were exceedingly subtle and took multiple viewings to catch, such as the tiny inkwells hidden in the student tables in the illustration of the school at San Juan de la Frontera de Chachapoyas (see analysis in Chapter 4 and Plate 4), which signified that the school's plans were too elaborate for local reality and local pocketbooks; or the small leafy green plant held in the left hand of the "hill Indian" (see Plate 5), who was depicted in the very act of gathering plants for the Trujillo collection. In other cases, my work with the images became a sort of cross-reading with the documents, a methodology best exemplified by the analysis of the "mestizo scarred by uta" image that opens Chapter 6 (see Plate 6). By pairing the image with corresponding documentation and supplementing with detailed research into regional ethnobotany, I uncovered more about native epidemiological knowledge in the colonial period than I thought possible using "just" an image and a few sentences of a document.
The visual information that the Bishop commissioned left a source so rich and varied that my main challenge was in choosing which portions of it were the most relevant; yet sometimes, I faced the opposite problem: a decided lack of information. Writing a book that dwells on a central character that revealed so little about himself, his motivations, or his understanding of his place in the world was no simple task. Perhaps Martínez Compañón's self-pitying quip that "before I was bishop, everyone wrote to me, but afterward, I don't get letters from anyone" was not far from the truth because his archival trail contains frustratingly little personal correspondence. Unlike the New England Puritans who so conveniently bestowed upon researchers a wealth of diaries detailing their spiritual progress and their experiences in the material realm, the early modern Spanish had no tradition of diary writing or public commentary on their interior lives. Church and state archives contain caches of personal correspondence only in the rarest of cases: my work in no fewer than twenty archives and special collections in nine cities of four countries turned up only one set of personal documents from Martínez Compañón. The Hermenegildo family of Lima had saved the Bishop's letters to Antonio Hermenegildo de Querejazu and Agustín Hermenegildo de Querejazu, a father and son who became his friends, confidants, and collaborators. The 250 letters that he wrote to them twice a month over a fourteen-year period reveal how he worried about his health, doubted the skills of physicians, and loved to dispense advice about family life. They show Martínez Compañón to be a curious student of the natural world, a dedicated follower of imperial politics, and a loyal friend.
While the letters shed light on one set of the Bishop's friendships with other men of privilege, it was difficult to integrate these glimpses of his interior dialogue with his ceaseless activities in Trujillo, about which he once commented that "day or night I have hardly stopped running around like a crazy person." I needed to show how he came to develop such an ambitious program of improvement for his bishopric, to understand what had prompted him to imagine how a mining camp of exploited Indian laborers could become a plebeian utopia, or how shoeless and illiterate Indian children might one day learn to read, write, and practice trades so successfully that they, too, might achieve the privileged title of don. What about his time in Peru inspired him to combine his contemporaries' ideas of assisting the Indians, improving the plebeians, and mapping the natural world into one massive project to create a better future? Simply telling the story of his life and his influences as a way to explain his motivation would be insufficient. I wanted to give a sense of a mind, a time, and a world. So I followed the example of other historians who have experimented with integrating historical analysis with narrative techniques, including Rhys Isaac, John Demos, and Peter Mancall. The resulting scenes re-create conditions on the ground in real time at pivotal points in Martínez Compañón's life: as a young man on the docks of Cádiz, eagerly waiting for his ship to depart for the New World; traveling on foot from Montevideo to Lima; a new bishop entering his cathedral city for the first time. Documents indicate that these events actually took place, although they do not elaborate on contextualizing details. To extrapolate, I began with whatever archival records were available, matching dates and details as closely as I could. I supplemented these data with reports by historical contemporaries who visited the same locations in the late eighteenth century, as well as historical maps, newspaper accounts and official documentation produced by the massive bureaucratic machinery that hummed at the heart of the Spanish Empire in America. I read widely in secondary sources for additional texturizing details—as in the case of the San Francisco church in Bogotá, one of the sites of several of the funeral services held in honor of Martínez Compañón. These scenes became not only opportunities to make the Bishop more real but also chances to immerse myself—and, I hope, my readers—in the sights, smells, and sounds of the world in which he lived.
By the time Martínez Compañón arrived in Trujillo in the 1780s, Europeans had been dreaming about America and its potential for almost three hundred years. The very first reports from the Indies depicted lush tropical gardens with peaceful, accommodating natives. Calling the island of Hispaniola a "wonder," Christopher Columbus insisted that "there are six or eight kinds of palm trees ... and fruits and herbs ... marvelous pine groves ... honey, and many kinds of birds, and very diverse fruits ... many mines and an immeasurable number of people." He breathlessly reported to his benefactors in Spain that "the hills and mountains and the plains and countryside and the earth [are] so beautiful and fertile." Not only was Hispaniola's natural world richly fecund, he wrote, but its people were also ideal vassals. Columbus reported that they lived in spacious, orderly towns, with competent, forthright officials who oversaw their most precious resource: gold. Even better, the "Indians," as Columbus called them, were inherently generous. "Whatever thing they have, if you ask them for it they would never say no," he insisted. Although they were not yet Catholic, "they do not know idolatry; rather, they believe with certainty that all strength, all power, and all good exists in the sky." Conveniently for Columbus and his crew, the Indians were convinced "that I have come down from that highest mansion with my ships and my sailors." Perhaps this was why they were so "inclined to the love and service of Their Majesties [the Catholic Kings of Spain] and of the whole Castilian nation."
Since Columbus wrote these words at the end of the fifteenth century, generations of readers have tirelessly scanned them for hyperbole, inaccuracy, and outright fabrication. His disastrous career as governor of Hispaniola only cemented his reputation as a selfish charlatan: he was condemned as a ruthless tyrant and brought back to Spain a prisoner, where he lived his last days in shame and poverty. He, with his invented tales of an American utopia, died lonely and humiliated. But such debacle aside, there was something utterly compelling about his letters, both now and in the early modern period. Renaissance Europeans were so drawn to his lavish descriptions of the wealth and prosperity awaiting them in America that they printed his first letter eighteen times within four years of its appearance, making it available in Latin, Italian, Spanish, and German. Columbus's writings soon inspired others to produce similar accounts—so many that by 1597, a Venetian bibliographer estimated that the first letter from the Americas had inspired twenty-nine other titles about the Indies. Although a generation previously, Europeans had wondered whether the world beyond them teemed with monstrous Cyclops, vicious Amazons, and dog-headed humans, Columbus's reports from the Indies confirmed that in some ways, America was much more familiar than they had guessed.
This fascination with a newfound world engendered a veritable a rush toward utopias in the literary culture of the Renaissance, one that included such popular books as Thomas More's Utopia (1516), Tomasso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623), and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627). These works imagined idealized states where educated, peaceful people wanted for nothing. Some scholars have suggested that the utopia genre was so popular because it offered a momentary escape from the religious wars and economic dislocation that plagued early modern Europeans' everyday lives. But escapism was not the only reason readers scanned their library shelves for tales of faraway lands of perfection. Utopias were also comfortably familiar because they appealed to some of the most fundamental beliefs of Christianity. Paradise in the New World could easily be equated to the abundant Garden of Eden, the perfect afterlife in the celestial heavens, and the longed-for millennial end of times that would save the souls of the converted during the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New World utopia could also be conveniently slotted into popular tropes of classical mythology, such as the idyllic pastoral state of Arcadia or the mythical continent of Atlantis, which seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher even went so far as to map in his Mundus Subterraneus.
In 1515, when Thomas More was writing about the original fictional utopia, his imagined society of Bensalem, from the dark streets of London, he certainly had America on his mind. The book's narrator claims that its stories are based on the experiences of a young man called Raphael Hythloday, who "took service with Amerigo Vespucci" and "after much persuasion and expostulation ... got Amerigo's permission to be one of the twenty-four men who were left in a fort at the farthest point of the last voyages." This fictitious narrator described Utopia as an island of cities "identical in language, customs, institutions, and laws" as well as in their physical appearance, since all had been erected "on the same plan." The walls surrounding the towns contained public hospitals and primary schools, and priests were the citizens revered over all others.
Scholars have long recognized that More was inspired by the encounter between America and Europe, an interaction that was, at that time, indubitably dominated by the Spanish. By 1515, the Spanish could already claim that Columbus had completed his four voyages under their flag; the pope had divided the world in two, to be shared between them and the Portuguese; and Diego de Velázquez had conquered Cuba. They had also seen five years of "success" at their first permanent settlement in the Western Hemisphere: Santa María in the territory that would later be known as Panama.
As the words of Utopia emerged on the paper before him, More may have thought of how America was not the only place where the Spanish were enjoying unprecedented predominance. Charles I's ascension to the throne of Spain in 1516 and his designation as Holy Roman emperor three years later meant that his territory now encompassed Burgundy, the Low Countries, parts of Germany and Austria, the Iberian Peninsula, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Spanish Indies, and even outposts in North Africa. Never one for modesty, Charles immediately began a campaign to make over Spain's imperial image in a manner befitting its burgeoning global dominance. He ordered that the front of the Spanish eight-real coin (see Plate 7) be emblazoned with an emblem that he commissioned to reflect Spain's new role at the center of a rapidly expanding world. It featured two pillars towering above ocean waves, with the motto plus ultra (more beyond) on a banderole flag, and later, a Spanish crown floating above it. The king and his contemporaries would have recognized the columns as the Pillars of Hercules, which the mythical hero erected at the known boundaries of Europe and North Africa. Beyond these pillars, the legend told, lay the great mysteries of the unknown. By designing an emblem that claimed this untapped potential as part of Spain's imperial destiny, Charles permanently and publicly marked what he imagined would be a glorious future of Spanish expansion in the New World and beyond.
But for all his enthusiasm, Charles was well aware that remaking the myth of Hercules required a bit of revision. The symbol needed to convey a sense of emboldening, not fear of what lurked in the vast "out there" where man had yet to venture. So he enlisted Spanish historian Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa to do a key bit of public relations. In his popular History of the Incas, Sarmiento reworked the myth of Hercules and the pillars, claiming that though Hercules had originally inscribed the columns with Ultra Gades nil, or "there is nothing beyond Cádiz," after the discovery of America, Charles sent workers to correct the inscription accordingly. According to Sarmiento, the king ordered Gades (Latin for Cádiz) and nil ("nothing") removed, replacing them with a new inscription: ne plus ultra, which Sarmiento translated as "farther beyond there are many lands." Placing this symbol on the Atlantic's most commonly circulated coin was an obvious claiming of Spain's leading role in the ever-expanding universe of man's consciousness. It reflected the emperor and empire's wildly optimistic hopes for the immeasurable potential of Spain's "New World." It was a tactile reflection of a utopian moment when the world seemed full of promise and possibility.
Politically and economically, the so-called Spanish Conquest certainly delivered. In just forty-one years, the Spanish had "discovered" the Indies and conquered the great Aztec and Inca nations. They captured staggering amounts of gold and silver, which they piled onto treasure fleets that cut across the ocean waves, relentlessly pursued by pirates and buccaneers. Columbus's prognostications about the vast untapped resources of America—especially the mineral ones—seemed thrillingly prophetic. A land with so much wealth in gold and silver could readily become a utopia like those that the Renaissance authors had imagined.
Yet amid such fabulous wealth and excess, a small minority of Spaniards was starting to realize that in the everyday lives of most people in colonial Spanish America, utopia was very far from reality. In his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, first published in Seville in 1552, conquistador-turned-Dominican-friar Bartolomé de Las Casas vividly recalled the atrocities of Spanish behavior toward the Indians, describing how Spaniards "smilingly" maimed, tortured, and enslaved innocent natives. It was not long before the rest of Europe caught wind of Las Casas's accounts, and by the end of the century, his work had been republished and translated so many times that it was accessible in some form to "nearly anyone literate in his own language." In the seventeenth century, Dutch printer Theodor de Bry published ten more lavish editions of the Brief Account with woodcut engravings featuring sensational images of Las Casas's most vivid scenes, such as a Spaniard dashing an Indian baby against a rock and an Indian chief being burned at the stake. These lurid images helped make the book an "unquestioned commercial and propagandistic success" that would ultimately become the "cornerstone" of the Black Legend of Spain's singular cruelty in the New World.
Even if Las Casas's work was purposely provocative, he reported on the grim reality of the encounter between the old world and the new in America. But as he might well have imagined, the horrors of the early conquest soon gave way to less shocking—but equally insidious—injustices to native peoples. The imagined utopia slipped further from reach as an Indian slave trade flourished in the first half of the sixteenth century in Central America, with Spaniards exporting chattel slaves to Panama and Peru. Once the idea was first articulated in the 1512 Laws of Burgos, Indian family and kinship groups were periodically broken up and relocated into settlements called reducciones, where the Spanish imagined that they could be more easily monitored for "correct" behavior—and forced to pay tribute and labor duties. Natives were also bound to the Spanish through the encomienda system, which rewarded Spanish conquistadores for their service to the Crown by giving them Indian vassals to use as laborers. Spanish legislators reasoned that as vassals, the Indians owed tribute, in the form of cash, goods, or labor, for the "privilege" of being governed by Spaniards. Some met these duties through a practice known as the mita in Peru and the repartimiento de Indios in New Spain, wherein they were forced to work in rotational labor drafts in fields, workshops, or mines for two to four months out of the year.
By the 1530s, the injustices against the Indians had multiplied so many times that Spanish bureaucrat Vasco de Quiroga penned a treatise about the legal and ethical wrongs of Indian treatment in New Spain and sent it off to Madrid. In addition to listing countless injustices, Quiroga's Information on the Law provided a blueprint for how the Crown might raise an improved society from the ashes of destruction in America. To conceive of this new colony, Quiroga drew on one of the visionary works of his day: Thomas More's Utopia. Like More, he imagined a society composed of extended families that shared community property. Children would receive free primary education, as well as instruction in farming techniques and Christian doctrine. The towns that he would create for the Indians would feature free hospitals to care for the elderly and infirm. They would be overseen by just Spanish officials and priests. The Indians who came to reside in his so-called pueblo-hospitales had to contribute to the communal lifestyle by working in trades, crafts, or agriculture. They were even given usufruct rights over their property, so they were able to pass it on to their children. Quiroga had faith in his agenda because he was convinced that the Indians were a childlike, uncorrupted race whose souls could be carefully molded—like "soft wax"—through evangelization and proper socialization.
To make his utopian vision a reality, Quiroga purchased portions of the land that he needed and requested that local landowners donate the rest. He relied on the Indians themselves to help erect the settlements: they would build the thatched huts that would be their homes, they would adorn the churches where they would worship, and they would farm the fields that would provide them with sustenance. To further entice them, he offered baptisms and hosted games and activities for children. Soon Indians who had no prior sustained contact with Spaniards were voluntarily arriving at Santa Fé de México, Santa Fé de Laguna, and Santa Fé del Rio—and choosing to stay. Quiroga ensured that the towns and the hospitals would have a steady supply of Spanish priests when he founded the College of San Nicolás in Pátzcuaro, which would train clerics in native languages. By 1534, news of his efforts had reached Madrid, and Charles signed a royal decree granting his projects official approval. Two years later, he was rewarded when he was promoted to become bishop of Michoacán. Quiroga's utopia enjoyed the support of the Crown, administrators in America, and the townspeople themselves. The hospitals operated for thirty years. By 1570, the town of Santa Fé de México was home to around 500 Indians. Their descendants still live nearby.
Although Quiroga's utopia flourished, it failed to inspire a more systematic improvement in the way Indians were treated in colonial Spanish America. Labor drafts, special taxes, seizure of communal land, and violent persecution of native customs continued. By the mid-eighteenth century, Spanish ministers were forced to recognize that though their financial and political problems extended beyond America, revamping colonial policy—and especially its treatment of the Indians—was Spain's best hope at reversing its downward spiral. In 1743, Spanish minister José del Campillo y Cossío submitted to King Philip V a comprehensive plan for economic reform in the Indies, called the New System of Economic Government for America. Campillo suggested that Spain follow the lead of the French and the English in reconceiving its colonies. The Americas, he argued, should no longer be viewed as "overseas kingdoms" or portions of Spain that happened to lie an ocean away. Rather, they should have their own laws and statutes that reflected their status as colonies whose purpose was to provide Spain with raw materials and a market for finished commercial goods. Campillo argued that the legal and administrative structure that Spain had erected there was essentially unworkable. Looking to the French Bourbon system, he suggested that the corrupt regional administrators called corregidores be replaced with Crown-appointed bureaucrats known as intendants. Bureaucrats and administrators would gather valuable data about their districts and use it to design social and economic reforms. Campillo further maintained that people would become more productive if they lived in town settlements rather than in rural areas. He even thought to intervene in church administration, suggesting that many bishoprics were too large to adequately administer to the faithful or oversee the clergy, who had fallen into a state of disastrous disorder. His ideas became the basis of the eighteenth-century Spanish reform agenda known as the Bourbon reforms. Along with similar movements in Portugal, France, and Austria, these focused on gathering useful information that could be used to improve the populace and thereby enrich and empower the state. In the Spanish Empire, they reached their peak under the rule of King Charles III in the 1770s and 1780s—the very time when Martínez Compañón found himself in Peru.
While the central concepts of the Bourbon reforms were applied throughout the Spanish Empire, the program had a special focus in America. There, it rested largely on Campillo's assertion that it was "the Indians" who were the "true Indies and the richest mine of the world." Their labor, purchasing power, and knowledge of the American environment held vast untapped potential, and he recommended that Spanish reformers focus their efforts accordingly. They were to "reduce the Indians to civil life, and treat them with kindness and sweetness; [and] pique their interest in industry, and in this way make them useful vassals and Spaniards." Campillo suggested that the king send the Peninsula's most adept thinkers to America, where they would observe the treatment of Indians and file reports about their status. Then they would help to teach Indians about which crops were the most profitable. They should arrange for them to be given land to cultivate, along with the accompanying rights so that they might pass this land down to their children. Campillo argued that the Indians should learn to speak Spanish fluently. Indian leaders should be encouraged to dress like Spanish plebeians so that they might inspire their communities to do the same. Overall, Campillo's plan for economic government was a pragmatic eighteenth-century vision of a colonial utopia that rested on the backs of natives who behaved like Spanish plebeians. Like the utopias that had come before it, it was a best-case scenario, a dream of what the Spanish could do in America. Forty years later, when Martínez Compañón dared to imagine how he might implement a similar project of improvement in his own jurisdiction of the vast Kingdom of Peru in the wake of the largest Indian rebellion the Spanish had ever faced in America, he had Campillo's blueprint to guide him but a much more complex reality to contend with.