Toleration and Translation: The Case of Las Casas, Phillips, and Milton

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In an appeal against "that bloody Tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience," Roger Williams, often credited with initiating the debate on the subject in the 1640s, delineated the outer limits of toleration: "By the mercifull Assistance of the most High, I have desired to labour in Europe, in America, with English, with Barbarians, yea, and also I have longed after some trading with the Jewes themselves ... But yet ... I cannot see but that the first and present great Designe of the Lord Jesus is to destroy the Papacy." In the face of anti-Catholicism and the unfolding of the "great Design"--the apocalyptic destruction of the antichrist--the "wild, yet wise Americans" and the Jews themselves become marginally tolerable. (1) When the "great Design" mutated in the following decade into the failed Western Design--the disastrous attempt to assert England's colonial anal commercial interests in Spanish-controlled American colonies--Oliver Cromwell punctuated bis declaration of war against Spain with contrasts between English colonialists and Spanish conquistadors, and with pronouncements on the persecuted Amerindians' right to liberty. Early modern colonial expeditions and New World encounters thus contributed to the formulation of concepts of national, cultural, religious, and ethnic difference and identification. (2)

Paradoxically, theories of toleration served a vital function in English-Spanish relations both in Europe and in the New World, with the distinction between the nations' foreign policies based on England's "moral exceptionalism" and Protestant claims of liberty of conscience. (3) The scale of toleration is examined here in relation to various Latin, English, and Spanish writings, primarily translations, which offer counsel to heads of state, and address questions of national security, European politics, and the New World encounter. As a literary concept, toleration was tempered by representation anal translation--acts of mediation, appropriation, and colonization at once linguistic, cultural, political, and transnational. Translations typically modulate and transform the subject of their source texts; Walter Benjamin observes, for example, that "a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux." Stephen Greenblatt recognizes: "there is no translation that is not ar the same rime an interpretation." (4) Cutting across these meanings are the competing notions of translation as liberating and oppressive, as a vehicle for cultural differentiation as well as for imperial domination. In this study of toleration as reformulated through translation, English writers serve as translators and transgressors, their works documenting, vindicating, and amplifying England's struggles over foreign lands and peoples. In 1656 John Milton's nephew, John Phillips, published The Tears of the Indians, his translation of Bartolom, de Las Casas's A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevissima relacion de la destruccion de las Indias) , which first appeared in English in 1583 as the Spanish Colonie. An examination of the English reception history of Las Casas's Brevissima relacion offers a suggestive context for assessing the negotiations of religious and cultural toleration in translations associated with Milton and his circle, which expound his nation's liberty-loving, imperial character.


The dialectical process of England's identity formation was decisively shaped through its religious, cultural, political, and economic relations with Spain. Despite the 1588 defeat of the Armada and the fracturing of Spain's empire by the end of the Thirty Years' War and the institution of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, Spain maintained a stronghold in the English imagination as a papal, colonial competitor. (5) While Spanish conquests in Europe and the West Indies offered models for England's own colonial ventures, colonialists overwhelmingly viewed their relationship to the Spaniards as adversarial. …


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