THE FIRST MODERN AMERICAN
INCA GARCILASO AND THE BIRTH OF A HYBRID SOCIETY
Luis Francisco Martinez Montes
From Spanish and Mestiza, Castiza, by Miguel Cabrera, 1763. Museum of the Americas, Madrid.
In the Anglo-American standard narrative the first modern Americans are, of course, the Founding Fathers. Even at the other side of the pond, when in the late 1960s Kenneth Clark first mentioned America in his highly popular and critically acclaimed book and TV series on Civilisation, the man he introduced as the epitome of the emerging American Age was Thomas Jefferson. The reason he occupies such a prominent place in Lord Clark’s predominantly Eurocentric plot, has to do, I think, more with Jefferson’s aesthetic choices, quite similar to those cherished by the British historian, than with his inconsistent political ideals or dubious morality. We know that, though in theory Jefferson was enthusiastic about freedom, political representation and the equality of men—he was the main author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence—in practice he had no qualms about being the owner of at least two hundred fellow human beings and having a quite unequal affair with one of his female slaves, a mulatto named Sally Hemmings, with whom, as a DNA test conducted in 1998 demonstrated, he fathered at least one child. Jefferson was also one of the most vocal proponents of the new Republic’s territorial expansion at the expense of the native Amerindians, whom, despite rhetoric sometimes worthy of Bartolomé de las Casas, he considered as little more than a temporary nuisance, people who had to give way to the new masters of the land or risk being deprived of everything, even their lives. In a response to a letter addressed to him by James Monroe, the Governor of Virginia, Jefferson made it clear that, in his mind it was “impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will… cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface”. For a man who did not recoil from satisfying his most basic passions with, at least, one of his slaves, the abhorrence of any kind of contact with the “lower” races lest they contaminate the purity of the new republic sounds, at least, hypocritical. But it should not come as a surprise if we consider that, at the end of the day, Jefferson’s frame of mind was moulded in a very colonial English cast.
For the vision that Jefferson had for his America was in fact a replica of an idealised community inhabited by Protestant Anglo-Saxon yeomen living in perfectly proportioned Italianate mansions surrounded by immense expanses of American virginal nature and devoid of any miscegenation with non-white peoples.
To this end, as a more than decent architect and designer, he tended to surround himself with visual representations of Palladian harmony, such as his mansion at Monticello or the University of Virginia, conceived of as a pastoral house of knowledge, and unsullied European plant transplanted on American soil.
Jefferson’s Monticello, the myth of an unsullied Arcadian America.
The Anglo-American colonial vision inherited by the likes of Jefferson radically diverged from the Hispanic experience in America, based, true enough, on conquest, but also on a conscientious effort at creating a mixed civilisation that at some point took on a life of its own.
One of the first and finest products of such a hybrid world was the astonishing figure of Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, better known as Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Though largely unknown outside the confines of the Hispanic World, he was the first transatlantic man, and in fact the first cosmopolitan man issued from the interbreeding of Europe and America. He was, in a way, the anti- Jefferson.
He was the son of a Spanish conquistador, Sebastián Garcilaso de la Vega, and an Inca princess, Chimpu Ocllo, christened Isabel Suárez. He was born in Cuzco, the former Inca capital, in 1539, the same year when another conquistador, Hernando de Soto, left La Habana and started the exploration of La Florida, an immense territory that then encompassed the current US states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.
In his later years, this coincidence inspired Inca Garcilaso to write a chronicle known as La Florida del Inca, published in 1605. It was the first work written on the history of the Americas by an American of mixed descent in a European language.
As a child, Inca Garcilaso was raised in a bilingual environment, learning Spanish from his paternal side and Quechua from his maternal relatives. As he later said, he absorbed Quechua with his mother’s milk. As he grew, his life became enmeshed in the complex interethnic and interclass relations that resulted from the mixing of the first generation of conquistadors with the local nobility. Under pressure from the authorities, his father was forced to marry a Spanish lady, whilst the Inca princess had to do the same with a Spaniard of lesser means. Their young son remained under paternal custody. Before passing away, the father recognised his natural son and bequeathed him a considerable sum so that he could complete his education in Spain. When he left Peru, on January 1560, Inca Garcilaso was already familiar with the history of the Incas and had acquired some knowledge of Latin and the classics with the canon of Cuzco Cathedral. Upon his arrival in Spain, he settled in the Andalusian town of Montilla. Still bearing his Christian name of Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, he was determined to obtain the crown’s recognition of his late father’s deeds and he travelled to Madrid with this goal in mind. Unfortunately, his father had made powerful enemies in the Council of the Indies, who accused him of having aided and abetted the rebellious party in Peru’s civil wars. To demonstrate his betrayal to the king, some of the counsellors quoted the chronicles of the conquest of the Inca Empire, to the despair of the aggrieved young Peruvian who never afterwards forgot the power of the written word and its capacity to distort what he knew, or thought he knew, to be the real facts. Frustrated by his lack of success but better educated in the complexities of Spanish-American relations as seen from the Court he returned to Andalusia and started a new phase in his life, first as a soldier in the fight against the uprising of the Moors, or moriscos, and then, enriched by a series of family legacies, as a man of leisure and humanist writer. In fact, he became the first American-born humanist. Another, more decisive change took place when he decided to reaffirm his maternal identity by emphasising his Inca ancestry. So he did in his first work, published in Madrid in 1590. It was a translation from the Italian of the Neo-Platonist Dialogues of Love by Juda Leon Abravanel, a Sephardic Jew born in Portugal of Spanish descent who had settled in Italy after the expulsion in 1492.
In his dedication to King Philip II, he described himself as Garcilaso Inca de la Vega and his work as the first fruit of Peruvian, and thus, American letters. His was the first book written and published in Europe by an American. It was a momentous event. Through his mediation the cycle of the Conquest was coming full circle: for the first time the New World was discovering and interpreting the Old.
The Indian’s Translation of the Three Dialogues of Love by Leon Hebreo from Italian into Spanish by Garcilaso Inca de la Vega, 1590. The first book written in Europe and on a European topic by an American was also the first example of American humanist letters.
Whilst, as a humanist outsider, Inca Garcilaso was attracted to the mixture of classic and cabalistic traditions in Juda Leon’s writings, as a mestizo he became increasingly interested in studying the origins of the new civilisation that was emerging from the confluence of his two ancestries. Fascinated since early childhood by the exploration of La Florida, a distant and exotic, for him, part of the New World, he devoted several years in Spain to tracing and interviewing the survivors of De Soto’s expedition. With the results of his quest he started writing the Florida of the Inca, a narration of the journey to La Florida and the deeds of the “heroic gentlemanly Castilians and Indians” in those remote North American regions. The manuscript was published in Lisbon in 1605 and it was another first, in this case the first history of America written in a Western language by an American, the first modern American historian: Inca Garcilaso, half Spanish, half Inca.
Garcilaso’s mixed origins are evident in his treatment of De Soto’s expedition. Until then, the history of the New World had been written either from the perspective of the conquerors or, less frequently, from that of the vanquished. La Florida del Inca is the first instance where there is an attempt at merging both views, thus creating an original American narrative. Shortly afterwards he embarked on a more ambitious journey. Always conscious and increasingly proud of his maternal origins, he set about writing a history of the Inca Empire, the Tahuantinsuyo or the kingdom of the “four divisions” in Quechua. Before him, Pedro de Cieza de Leon, a Spanish conquistador and man of letters, had already published in 1533 a Chronicle of Peru, the first European history of the lands conquered by Pizarro and his men. Though highly balanced in its treatment of the Incas and the conquistadors, Cieza’s work reflected a Eurocentric point of view. Even so, he did not fail to convey the virtues of the Inca rule. I cannot refrain from quoting him at some length on this regard:
‘It is told for a fact of the rulers of this kingdom that in the days of their rule they had their representatives in the capitals of all the provinces, for in all these places there were larger and finer lodgings than in most of the other cities of this great kingdom, and many storehouses…. In all these capitals the Incas had temples of the Sun, mints, and many silversmiths who did nothing but work rich pieces of gold or fair vessels of silver; large garrisons were stationed there, and a steward who was in command of them all, to whom an accounting of everything that was brought in was made, and who, in turn, had to give one of all that was issued…. The tribute paid by each of these provinces, whether gold, silver, clothing, arms and all else they gave, was entered in the accounts of those who kept the quipus and did everything ordered by the governor in the matter of finding the soldiers or supplying whomever the Inca ordered, or making delivery to Cuzco; but when they came from the city of Cuzco to go over the accounts, or they were ordered to go to Cuzco to give an accounting, the accountants themselves gave it by the quipus, or went to give it where there could be no fraud, but everything had to come out right. Few years went by in which an accounting was not made….’.
Image of the Inca in Cieza’s Chronicle of Peru, 1553.
Not surprisingly, the positive appraisal of the Inca’s rule offered by Cieza was repeated, with caveats, by Inca Garcilaso in the first part of his history of Peru, entitled the Royal Commentaries, published in Lisbon in 1609. The second part, The General History of Peru, appeared in 1617 and it was devoted to the time of the conquest by Pizarro, the ensuing civil war among the Spaniards and the final imposition of royal power.
Through his work, the author’s mixed identity is reaffirmed and the attempt at elevating the Inca past from the debris of defeat to a status similar to that of the new masters’ constitutes the main thrust of the narrative. This is so even visually since, to emphasise his main purpose, Inca Garcilaso invented a coat of arms, which appears in The Royal Commentaries, where both his paternal and maternal lineages are given a similar heraldic treatment.
Coat of arms of the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega representing his mixed Spanish and Inca ancestry. The emblem reads: “with the sword and with the pen”.
Despite their autonomy as separate works, the Florida del Inca, the Royal Commentaries and the General History of Peru constitute a unitary attempt to give voice to the defeated in such a way that their deeds and memory could be considered worthy of becoming an integral part of the emerging Hispano-American reality. In his effort at bridging the two worlds, Inca Garcilaso did not shy from depicting the most tragic aspects of the conquest, like the execution of Atahualpa, and echoed the local nobility’s anguish at seeing that their rule had been turned into serfdom. At the same time, always proud of his paternal heritage, he also exalted the heroic deeds of the conquistadors. This apparent ambiguity has being the source of much debate among scholars, but in my opinion, though interesting from a psychological or social perspective, it is secondary to the true importance of Inca Garcilaso as a real example, contrary to Jefferson’s idealised status, of the emerging, contradictory American man. And even such a description is subsidiary to his relevance in the history of civilisation, of literature to be more precise, since he was, more than anything else, a man of letters, a creator, and it is to this essential dimension that we shall turn our attention.
Though a faithful follower of Cervantes in his condemnation of the fantastic chivalric genre, in his chronicles Inca Garcilaso mixed facts and fiction, subjective reminiscences and documentary evidence, all filtered through his powerful imagination in a way that prefigures the great Latin American novelists of the twentieth century. For, as his fellow countryman, the novelist and Nobel Laureate Vargas Llosa has written, he was above all a literary genius, whose graceful use of the Spanish language, his lyrical evocation of the Inca past, conceived almost as a Platonic republic, and his epic recreation of the conquest rank him among the best writers of the Golden Age.
He was, as well, the first Hispano-American to be conscious and proud of his multiple identities: his General History of Peru is dedicated to “Indians, Mestizos and Criollos of the Kingdoms and Provinces of the great and rich Peruvian Empire, by the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, their brother, compatriot and countryman, health and happiness”.
What a pleasure it must have been to meet this elderly Inca, Spanish and cosmopolitan man in his Andalusian garden, listening to his stories and seeing him pausing for a moment, gazing beyond the undulating landscapes towards his beloved Andes, an ocean and half a continent away. Thanks to him, Vargas Llosa concludes, Spanish, the vernacular born at the remote border between the Basque country and Castile, became a universal language, shared and enriched by men and women of all races, inhabiting all the varied geographies of a vast and expanding Hispanic world.
The type of early modern man represented by Inca Garcilaso was nowhere to be found in colonial Anglo-America. To grasp his originality, we should imagine a mestizo of mixed Algonquin and English bloods educated in England in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, fluent in his paternal and maternal languages plus Latin and Italian, translating a Neo-Platonic Jewish author and writing in elaborate Elizabethan English a chronicle of North America from the point of view of the Amerindians as well as of the new settlers.
The reader can keep on imagining, because there is no Inca Garcilaso in the history of Anglo-American culture. Neither was there in the thirteen colonies the equivalent of Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, a pure Quechua who in the early 1600s wrote, in the language of the conquerors, a proposal to ameliorate the treatment of the natives addressed to the King of Spain. His First New Chronicle and Good Government, illustrated with the author’s own drawings, some of them with an acerbic satirical vein, is one of the first accounts of post-Columbian America written from the point of view of the native populations in a European language.
Poma de Ayala walking with his son towards Lima, the capital of Spanish Peru, to protest against the abuse of the indigenous peoples.
Actually, to find the first example of an Amerindian writer in English we have to wait until 1768, a century and a half after the foundation of Jamestown. The name of the writer was Samson Occom. He was a Mohegan Indian who was raised in a Presbyterian environment. After becoming a preacher, he was devoted to the education of his fellow Native Americans and to that end tried to establish a school for them, a real rarity in Anglo-America. Unfortunately, his partner in the venture, an English missionary called Eleazar Wheelock diverted the money Occom had obtained from charity to the foundation of Dartmouth College, one of the still existing Ivy League universities, where English colonialists were accepted instead of the natives. Frustrated by the episode, and by the discrimination he was subjected to among the Anglo-American Protestants, in 1768 Occom wrote a brief autobiography entitled A Short Narrative of my Life, where he recounts the ill treatment he and his fellow tribesmen had suffered at the hands of the English and expresses the resentment he felt about it:
‘I owe them nothing at all; what can be the Reason that they used me after this manner? I can’t think of any thing, but this as a Poor Indian Boy Said, Who was Bound out to an English Family, and he used to Drive Plow for a young man, and he whipt and Beat him almost every Day, and the young man found fault with him, and Complained of him to his master and the poor Boy was Called to answer for himself before his master, and he was asked, what it was he did, that he was So Complained of and beat almost every Day. He Said, he did not know, but he Supposed it was because he could not drive any better; but says he, I Drive as well as I know how; and at other Times he Beats me, because he is of a mind to beat me; but says he believes he Beats me for the most of the Time “because I am an Indian.’.
Occom’s manuscript was only published in 1982.
Samson Occom, the main, and practically only example of an Amerindian writer in the history of colonial Anglo-America.
When we turn our attention to the literary achievements in the Americas from the arrival of Columbus until the era of the emancipations the difference between the Hispanic territories and the English, Dutch or French colonies is significant. One can write a history of English, French or Dutch literature up to the eighteenth century without mentioning a single major literary work that originated in their respective American or, more generally speaking, overseas possessions. By contrast, no serious history of Spanish literature in the Golden Age can fail to include, among dozens of names, the likes of Bernal Díaz del Castillo and his True History of the Conquest of New Spain; Inca Garcilaso and his Royal Chronicles; Alonso de Ercilla, and his epic poem La Araucana, about the conquest of Chile; Bernardo de Balbuena and his Mexico’s Grandeur; or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the greatest female poets in the history of world literature, whose First Dreams are one of the highest summits of the Baroque in any language.
The same can be said about the visual arts. The richness and variety of the architectural and pictorial Hispano-American tradition, and particularly its successful integration of human diversity, is mostly absent from its Anglo-American counterpart. When in January 2012 the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was inaugurated, many people were ecstatic: “Sensational!” exclaimed the New York Times, as its art critic reviewed the renovated rooms full of colonial New England portraiture and furniture, post-revolutionary landscapes and, above all, the all-dominating imagery consecrated to the closest figure the US has to a mythical founding demiurge: George Washington.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I must confess that I was not moved when I first visited the American Wing, particularly the sections devoted to exhibiting the colonial period. Neither was I particularly touched at the magnificent Boston Museum of Fine Arts when I contemplated there the galleries devoted to the same era.
The portraits displayed in both cases are a dull apotheosis of European figures dressed in imitative English attire, surrounded by imitative English furniture and trying to strike the poses of the English petty nobility and moneyed bourgeoisie. There is hardly any originality in those paintings, either in style or content, except, perhaps, a more realistic approach than in the idealised renderings of prominent figures in vogue in the metropolis, as produced by Joshua Reynolds and other exponents of the Grand Style.
If I had been told that many of those American portraits had being painted in a London workshop, as in fact many of them were, I would not have doubted it for a moment. In fact, the best Anglo-American painter of the epoch, John Singleton Copley, was as obsessed by obtaining fame in England as most of his subjects, particularly women, were eager to be shown according to the fashionable precepts dictated by the distant capital or by Paris. There is not that much that can be called peculiarly American about them, which is all the more striking since some of the sitters were to become ardent participants in the fight against the British tyranny in the name of their natural and inalienable rights. There are also very few hints, apart from the occasional flying squirrel, that they lived their American lives surrounded by American landscapes, as if the painter had made abstraction of the fact that most of his clients were merchants or lawyers from New England and not from England proper.
Portrait of Ward Nicholas Boylston, a Boston merchant, by John Singleton Copley, 1767. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, patriot and historian of the American Revolution, by John Singleton Copley, 1763. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
For me, the three most remarkable aspects of Anglo-American colonial painting, apart from its imitative impulse and almost complete lack of what the Romans would have called genius loci, are, first, how long it took for a genuinely local manifestation of art to be born—more than a century after the first English settlements; second, the almost complete absence of representations of Amerindians and the mixed races, particularly interacting with the Anglo-American settlers in non-virginal environments; and, third, the non-existence of a non-white school, or schools, of colonial painting. I shall clarify what I mean with some examples in a moment. Though there are some paintings of natives, and individuals of mixed races in colonial Anglo-America, they are invariably shown in the tradition either of the noble savage or as frightful warriors, sometimes as enemies, at other times as occasional allies, but always separated by an insurmountable barrier from the white colonialists and never as equal members in a mixed Anglo- Amerindian family.
An all-English-American family, Isaac Winslow and His Family, by Joseph
Blackburn,1755. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Now, to see my point I invite the reader to take a look at the following family portraits. They belong to so- called casta painting, a genre that flourished in Mexico and, to a lesser degree, in Peru in the eighteenth century, at the same time that the colonial Anglo-American portraitists were at their busiest taking orders from the rich Anglo-American elite.
From Spanish and Black, Mulato, by Miguel Cabrera.
From Spanish and Indian, a Mestiza, by José Joaquín Magón, 1770. Museum of Anthropology, Madrid.
The difference between Hispano-American family paintings and their New England counterparts, produced at exactly the same period and on the same continent, is striking. Whilst in the latter case the posers are models of racial purity, in the Casta genre we can find a bewildering display of human diversity. I ask the reader the following question: can you imagine Mr. Winslow posing with his legitimate Indian wife, if he would or could have had one, or Mr. Jefferson sitting with his slave mistress? Or would the good society of Boston or Salem have permitted the public representation of a white woman walking in a public park with her black husband? And if the answer is negative, as is most probably the case, why was it so?.The reason is obvious:
From a black man and a Spanish woman, Mulato. Anonymous, circa 1780.
The Casta genre is the pictorial culmination of two centuries and a half of cultural and racial mixing, itself the by-product of a giant effort of civilisational miscegenation. By contrast, eighteenth-century colonial Anglo-American paintings, whether in the form of individual or family portraiture, were a clear manifestation of a deliberate policy of racial and cultural exclusion, with very few exceptions.
Experts can endlessly discuss the social, political and even scientific meaning of the Casta genre: was it an expression of a society obsessed by race or just fascinated by the almost infinite possibilities of attraction among racially diverse human beings? Was it a neutral description of genetic differentiation, the natural result of sexual intercourse in ethnically diverse communities? Or did it respond to a implicit moral agenda? Whatever their meaning, and it might be a combination of all of the possibilities mentioned above, these paintings represent, at least for me, a higher standard of civilisation than the one reflected in colonial Anglo-America, for in them, and through them, we have access to a world that, though by no means egalitarian in terms either of race or class—what society was at the time, or at any time for that matter?—had at least learnt to live with, and to a certain degree to accept, all the shades in which human diversity can present itself to the eye of the beholder.
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