Article — From the December 1990 issue

Questions of Conquest

What Columbus wrought, and what he did not

In Madrid not long ago, a shadowy group calling itself the Association of Indian Cultures held a press conference to announce that its members (it was not clear who these men and women might be) were preparing to undertake, in Spain and also throughout Latin America, a number of acts of “sabotage.” It is, of course, a sad fact of life that in a number of Latin American countries–in Spain as well–the planting of bombs and the destruction of property continue to be perceived by some as a means of achieving justice, or self-determination, or, as in my country, Peru, the realization of a revolutionary utopia. But the Association of Indian Cultures did not seem interested in seizing the future. Their battle was with the past.

What are to be sabotaged by this group are the numerous quincentennial ceremonies and festivities scheduled for 1992 to commemorate the epochal voyage nearly 500 years ago of Columbus’s three small caravels. The Association of Indian Cultures believes that the momentous events of 1492 should in no way be celebrated; and although I have yet to hear of other persons willing to make the point through subversion, I do know that the group will not lack for sympathizers.

The question most crucial to these individuals is the oldest one: Was the discovery and conquest of America by Europeans the greatest feat of the Christian West or one of history’s monumental crimes? It is a question they ask rhetorically and perhaps will answer with violence. This is not to say that to discuss what could have happened as opposed to what did happen is a useless undertaking: Historians and thinkers have pondered the question since the seventeenth century, producing wonderful books and speculations. But to me the debate serves no practical purpose, and I intend to stay out of it. What would America be like in the 1990s if the dominant cultures were those of the Aztecs and Incas? The only answer, ultimately, is that there is no way to know.

I have two other questions, both having to do with the conquest, and I happen to think that an honest and thoughtful discussion of them is as timely and urgent as any others one could pose just now about Latin America. First: How was it possible that cultures as powerful and sophisticated as those of the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians–huge imperial cultures, as opposed to the scattered tribes of North America–so easily crumbled when encountered by infinitesimally small bands of Spanish adventurers? This question is itself centuries old, but not academic. In its answer may lie the basis for an understanding of the world the conquest engendered, a chronically “underdeveloped” world that has, for the most part, remained incapable of realizing its goals and visions.

The second question is this: Why have the postcolonial republics of the Americas–republics that might have been expected to have deeper and broader notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity–failed so miserably to improve the lives of their Indian citizens? Even as I write, not only the Amazonian rain forests but the small tribes who have managed for so long to survive there are being barbarously exterminated in the name of progress.

To begin to answer these questions, we must put down our newspapers and open the pages of the books that allow us to see close up the era when the Europeans dared to venture to sea in search of a new route to India and its spices, and happened instead on an unspoiled continent with its own peoples, customs, and civilizations. The chronicles of the conquest form an astonishingly rich literature–a literature at once fantastical and true. Through these books we can rediscover a period and a place, much as the readers of contemporary Latin American fiction discover the contemporary life of a continent. In their own way, the early chroniclers were the first Magical Realists.

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2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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