May 4, 2020
The Global Spanish Empire tackles broad questions about Indigenous cultural persistence, pluralism, and place making using a global comparative perspective grounded in the shared experience of Spanish colonialism. Edited by Christine Beaule, and John G. Douglass, the volume’s eleven case studies include regions often neglected in the archaeology of Spanish colonialism. The time span under investigation is extensive as well, transcending the entirety of the Spanish Empire, from early impacts in West Africa to Texas during the 1800s. The contributors examine the making of a social place within a social or physical landscape.
Here, Beaule and Douglass discuss the book, and the unique approach of looking at Spanish colonization globally.
This book has a unique wide scale approach in looking at the colonial Spanish empire beyond the Americas. What drove you to bring this book together?
Christine Beaule: John and I proposed an electronic symposium for the SAA meetings in 2018 on ethnogenesis because we were both very interested in identity formation processes in Spanish colonial contexts. We ended up with 16 papers, and a very well attended symposium. The discussion between the participants and audience members that day was highly engaging and interesting. Winning the SAA-Amerind Foundation prize meant hard decisions about how to winnow the papers down to ten (plus an introduction), but our workshop at Amerind was one of the most personally and professionally rewarding experiences we have ever had. Everyone learned so much from each other, particularly about case studies and regions that we rarely bring into conversations about the archaeology of Spanish colonialism. Moreover, it quickly became apparent on day 1 of the workshop that our ethnogenesis theme was not going to work for the book. The opportunity to talk it through in person, and to put our heads together to work out new themes and a different organizational schema, was invaluable. We believe that the volume is much more cohesive and focused because of the process. From the electronic symposium through several days of working together in person on our chapters, without interruptions or distractions, the process was ideal.
John Douglass: Christine and I went to grad school together many years ago and had wanted to collaborate on something. We both have been researching different aspects of Spanish colonialism for quite some time in different parts of the world from one another, so it seemed like a good match to work on this project together. We both wanted to learn more about other parts of the Spanish Empire than what we were familiar with because, in the end, we wanted to learn more about the parts of the world we did know through comparison. The group of colleagues we worked with on this project really were fantastic as their work spans close to 500 years, and is situated all across the globe.
Why is it important to look at colonialism on a global scale?
Christine Beaule: There is much to learn from in-depth analyses of the impacts of colonialism in a single community or region. However, a comparative approach allows us to see patterns over a longer span of time, as well as bringing disparate regions into conversation with each other. In doing so, we gain perspective on local impacts and local agencies that would not be visible otherwise. As Americanists, John and I do not always have time to keep up with the abundant literature produced by our regional colleagues, let alone cutting edge scholarship about other colonized regions of the world. Comparative projects like this one help us see those all-important similarities and differences in the ways that Indigenous cultures were impacted by and responded to colonialism. Although we often speak of colonists and Indigenous communities in binary terms, each of these groups was itself multicultural, so identity categories such as native and Spanish are problematized when we take a global perspective. Finally, I think that it is important to include cases in which strong Spanish footholds were not successfully established, or where efforts to incorporate peoples in regions outside colonies failed. Although they’re harder to see archaeologically, they remind us that Spanish colonialism was not monolithic or homogeneous, and that its impacts on local religious practices, political organization, and economies were similarly varied in scope and kind. Scholarship in regions such as Central America, Africa, the U.S. southeast, Pacific and Caribbean islands, and the Philippines help us all see the full range of impacts and responses, in ways that focusing on single colonies or heartlands of colonialism do not.
John Douglass: This book focuses not just on the global scale, but the global scale through time, which is an important piece of the puzzle. Chris DeCorse’s chapter looks at the very early spread of Spanish colonialism in west Africa in the 1400s and the last chapter is Steve Tomka’s work looking at what is now southern Texas and northeastern Mexico, and all the other chapters in the book are in other portions of the globe between these two points in time. To me, one of the main utilities of looking globally is that we are able to have comparative viewpoints on the ebb and flow of Spanish colonialism and the diverse actions and reactions by indigenous peoples the Spanish worked hard to colonize (with mixed results). I was also so impressed at the way different chapters were able to communicate with one another due to this global approach. The cultural, linguistic, and social historical connections between the Pacific and South America, between the Philippines and Mexico, between Colombia and west Africa, and many more such examples in the book, all led to extremely interesting conversations.
How does this approach possibly change the way we look at the studies of colonization?
Christine Beaule: Work on this project and others like it has taught me to question assumptions and generalizations about colonialism and colonization. Living in Hawaiʼi, an island archipelago that was colonized and overthrown relatively recently by the U.S., colloquial conversations about colonialism and indigeneity are part of daily public life. The opportunities I have had to work with so many brilliant archaeologists studying Spanish colonialism around the world have equipped me to challenge others’ generalizations about European and American imperial histories. When we are able to see the failures of colonization efforts, the pluricultural actors in these histories, and patterns of cultural persistence through time, it teaches us to talk about colonialism in more nuanced ways. For me, that more nuanced understanding is a gift, one that I try to share with family, friends, students and colleagues here in Hawaiʼi, and one that I look forward to developing further in our next academic project.
John Douglass: Again, to me, the comparative approach of our volume helps bring us to fresh and new ideas about Spanish colonialism and indigenous actions and reactions to it. I’ve done a lot of research on Spanish colonialism in Alta California over the years and my eyes have been opened up in numerous ways by learning more the Spanish colonial experience – including both successes and failures – in other parts of the world. California was relatively late in the sequence and by then the Spanish has honed their models significantly. At the same time, we see some of the same difficulties and gains that were previously experienced in other parts of the world.
Was the Spanish approach to colonization the same globally? How?
Christine Beaule: Oh my goodness, no! Like all imperial powers, the Spanish borrowed an imperfect model from others (in this case, the Portuguese in west Africa), and modified it over time. There were certainly patterns that colonial decision-makers in Europe and in local contexts outside of Iberia tried to impose. Spatial patterns in planned colonies in Central America and missions in Texas and Guam provide one set of examples. Restricted access to sartorial and other material goods under racialized sociopolitical hierarchies are another category. These impositions, like ideological elements of Catholicism, were imperfectly adopted or enforced. The realities of each situation throughout the empire, and through time, meant that translations of beliefs and practices were incomplete. Local geographies and resources (material, capital, and human) meant that outside ideals, categories and standards required modifications. And, of course, Indigenous resistance and cultural persistence meant that, like many other non-colonial cases of intercultural interaction, people did not simply passively substitute one culture for another. The Spanish approach to colonization, as a result of these and many other axes of variability, had to adapt. Even then, they often failed, or some of their successes (e.g., with planned communities) were short lived and incomplete.
John Douglass: To parallel Christine here, while the Spanish did try to adapt in different ways through time, it was a mixed bag in terms of methods and results. I think the Spanish were good, in some ways, in approaching their goals through the lens of the local perspective and situation, although, again, there were varied actions and courses within the same general region. In the case of the Maya, for example, early on the general theme was to do whatever the Spanish could to destroy Maya culture through, among other things, burning almost all examples of their bark paper books. Several hundred years later, the way the Spanish taught local indigenous populations in the highlands of Guatemala about Christianity was through understanding the local oral and written traditions and belief systems, and then recasting Christianity through those same local perspectives. At the same time, like Laura Matthews and Bill Fowler’s example of Ciudad Vieja in San Salvador in the book, the Spanish did try to recreate colonies as they had elsewhere, with poor results.
Looking at all the contributions to this book, were there any surprises that surfaced in Spanish colonization?
Christine Beaule: … our journey began with a focus on documenting variability in processes of ethnogenesis. Once we got a subset of the original symposium’s participants together in a room, we collectively realized that our case studies (with only one exception) did not address ethnogenesis at all the way we were defining it narrowly! The two themes of the edited volume, place making and pluralism, emerged in the course of an intensive discussion of the points of overlap between chapter drafts. That rapid shift in focus informed the workshop discussions for the rest of our time together in Dragoon. I do not believe it would have been possible without the opportunity to work through these issues together, and so the book’s focus turned out to be the first big surprise.
The other surprise was just how powerful the concept of place making turned out to be for our comparative study of Spanish colonialism. We wrestled with conceptions of space and place that incorporated geographic, social, and agency considerations. What we all came up with is a theoretically powerful framework that helped us all to understand and explain patterns in material culture, diverse conceptions and uses of space, and the roots of Indigenous resistance and resiliency.
Because there were so many points of connection between all of the different case studies, despite big differences in their foci and details in their historical trajectories, we came to deeply appreciate how the two related themes wove all of the chapters together into a coherent whole. John and I are proud of both the journey and the final product. We treasure the friendships we fostered and the joy of pure intellectual exchange and growth that this book represents.
John Douglass: I think Christine makes good points. The only other thing I would add is that I was surprised as we discussed our draft chapters during our workshop at the Amerind Foundation how many interesting and pointed connections there were between papers: geographically, thematically, culturally, and the list goes on. This relates to one of my answers above. These connections were clear between the inhabitants of colonies and expeditions even in situations where they were separated vastly geographically or temporally. As one example of many, the papers by Chris DeCorse (west Africa) and Juliette Wiersema (western Colombia) are focused on two regions of the world thousands of miles apart and their papers analyze events hundreds of years apart. Yet, as we discussed the papers in the workshop, we all came to realize that the enslaved, and later freed, Africans working in mines and along the rivers of western Colombia Juliet wrote about were from the region Chris detailed in his paper. These kinds of surprising connections help us better understand the deep, and poignant, history of colonialism across the globe which have created complicated webs of relationships both in the past and present.