The Presses Roll in Colonial Times

By Tarrago, Rafael E. | Americas (English Edition), November-December 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Presses Roll in Colonial Times


Tarrago, Rafael E., Americas (English Edition)


IN THE AMERICAS, THE STORY OF THE INTRODUCTION OF PRINTING BEGAN IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, AND CONTINUED FOR THREE HUNDRED YEARS. WITH SOME DRAMATIC EPISODES--SUCH AS THE PORTUGUESE ROYAL FAMILY'S ARRIVAL IN BRAZIL, WITH PRINTING PRESS, HAVING FLED NAPOLEON'S INVADING ARMIES--AND SOME EXTREMELY ACTIVE PERIODS--SUCH AS THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, WHEN EVERY COLONIAL POWER IN THE HEMISPHERE ESTABLISHED A PRINTING PRESS--THE STORY EXTENDS FROM THE 1530S IN MEXICO TO THE FIRST USE OF MOVABLE TYPE IN THE WESTERN TERRITORIES OF THE U.S. AND CANADA IN THE 1860S.

HOWEVER, BECAUSE OF ITS EARLY BEGINNINGS, DIVERSE EXPERIENCES, AND DAUNTING GEOGRAPHICAL OBSTACLES, THE INTRODUCTION OF THE PRINTING PRESS DURING THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS AFTER THE CONQUEST, IN THOSE AREAS OF THE Americas conquered and settled by Spain, constitutes a complex and fascinating chapter in that history.

Under the Spanish kings of the House of Hapsburg--from Charles I (1516-59) to Charles II (1665-1700)--the kingdoms of the Indies saw the establishment of European-style societies. The nobility of European origin, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the royal bureaucracy were at the apex of these societies, with the universities, professional groups, merchant and miners' guilds, as well as indigenous nobility also important. Early during the formation of these societies, the printing press appeared as an instrument for the dissemination of Christian doctrine and the laws of the king. By taking the title of king of the Indies, the king of Spain considered those distant possessions as integral parts of his monarchy, provinces dependent on the crown of Castile, rather than as colonies in the sense attached to this word by the nations of northwestern Europe since the sixteenth century. By 1800 viceroys of the king of Spain sat in four capital cities: Mexico City, Santa Fe de Bogota, Lima, and Buenos Aires.

Under the auspices of the first viceroy Antonio Mendoza, and of the first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga, Mexico City received the Americas' first printing press of movable type eight decades after it was developed by Johann Gutenberg in Mentz Germany. Bishop Zumarraga's interest in the making of books in Mexico might seem ironic, as he was responsible for the destruction of books in the royal archives of the indigenous king of Texcoco. The peoples inhabiting the Valley of Mexico before the Spanish conquest fashioned books out of long stripes of cloth, skins, and a paper made from the bark of the strangler fig tree, called amate, folding them in pagelike intervals with wooden boards at both ends. These peoples and the Maya were the only pre-Hispanic American peoples who made paper.

However, because of its uneven texture, amate was not suitable for the printing press, and from the times of Bishop Zumarraga there were complaints that the high cost of and limited access to paper was a hindrance to printing.

To acquire their press, the viceroy and the bishop had earlier contacted the well-known Sevillian printing house of Juan Cromberger, and there an Italian printer, Juan Pablos, agreed to take the printing press to Mexico City and to work for living expenses for ten years. In 1539 Pablos printed Doctrina cristiana, in Spanish and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. His first major work was Doctrina breve may provechosa, by Bishop Zumarraga, in 1543. Pablos worked for the state also, and in 1548 he printed Ordenancas y compilacion de [eyes, a compilation of legislation issued by Mendoza. So tightly controlled and jealously guarded were the means to printing production in those early years that an established printer like Cromberger could insist that Pablos melt down his old type rather than sell it, and carry his own imprint, which Pablos did until 1546, when his own colophon first appeared.

Other printers soon followed. In 1550 Antonio de Espinosa arrived from Seville to make new types for Pablos.

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