Exotic Allies: The Dutch-Chilean Encounter and the (Failed) Conquest of America

By Schmidt, Benjamin | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Exotic Allies: The Dutch-Chilean Encounter and the (Failed) Conquest of America


Schmidt, Benjamin, Renaissance Quarterly


A curious vignette decorates the title page of a Dutch pamphlet produced circa 1600 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Published in the final years of the Dutch Revolt and within the context of the virulently anti-Habsburg mood that pervaded the Netherlands, the Spanish and Aragonese Mirror depicts, in both word and image, what the subtitle calls the "unparalleled tyranny . . . of Spain."(1) In the upper corners of the page, two small windows look out onto scenes of Spanish "abominations" committed recently in the Netherlands and neighboring Westphalia. On the right, a halberdier stands gloating over the corpse of a slain Protestant prince; and on the left, an enemy soldier roasts two victims of a desolate Brabant village. Between these scenes is the "mirror" itself, which shows the dark reflection of a mustachioed soldier plunging his sword, in a single thrust, through the bosom of a mother and child. Grisly and gratuitous though they may seem, these were in fact unexceptional portraits of violence by the standards of early modern European propaganda - typical topoi of "tyranny." Below the mirror, however, and at the center of the print is a decidedly unusual depiction of an extraordinary gathering: a group of onlookers assembles to bear witness to the misdeeds of Spain - to draw the reader's attention, as it were, to the narrative themes of the pamphlet. At the center of this crowd stand two slender men whose accusatory fingers extend higher - more pointedly - than all others. Both turn their graceful, Mannerist figures slightly away from the viewer's gaze; for both men, aside from their feather headdress, pose utterly naked. This, by contemporary standards, was exceptional.

Two clues help to resolve this seeming breech of decorum. First, there is a brief caption beneath the vignette that announces, in doggerel verse, the image's didactic theme: "By the Spanish tyranny, in this space displayed, / All the world's nations are rightly dismayed."(2) The gathering, then, is international; and closer inspection reveals an eclectic array of characters and costumes: European ruffs, doublets, and breeches; an extravagant caftan and turban meant to indicate Ottoman, Persian, or otherwise Asian dress; a soft-trimmed hat atop the dusky head of what presumably counts as an African.(3) Within this gallery of continents, the feathered headgear of the two central figures makes iconographic reference to their American origins. The wearers are Indians. Second, note the figure positioned nearest to the Indians (standing just to their right) who watches carefully over them and would appear, by his sweeping gesture, to assume an almost proprietary interest in their welfare. His dashing cloak and the dagger in his belt imply a military background. More telling is the broad-rimmed hat onto which he has affixed a crescent-shaped badge - the mark of the Dutch Geuzen (Gueux or Beggars), the shock troops of the rebel army and vanguard of the patriotic party.(4) The American natives stand closely attached to the rebels and - one might infer - closely allied to the Dutch cause. They have come to join forces against Spain.

I

As the seventeenth century got underway, Beggars chaperoned Indians to protest tyrannies of Spain - this, at least, in the remarkably expansive, wonderfully inclusive imagination of the Dutch. The Spanish and Aragonese Mirror, together with scores of thematically similar works published in the Netherlands, demonstrates vividly the manner in which the Dutch assimilated the New World: creatively, compellingly, and often quite centrally. It also suggests a pattern of Dutch reception that differs markedly from the rest of Europe - or, rather, a pattern of cultural geography in the Netherlands that challenges the widely-held conviction of European indifference to America. The notion of the New World's "blunted" or "uncertain" impact on the Old - a thesis voiced first (and most provocatively) by John Elliott and echoed in most subsequent scholarship(5) - makes little sense in the context of the Netherlands, which had, by the late sixteenth century, warmly embraced America.

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