Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

English Views of the Indians of Peru

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

English Views of the Indians of Peru

Article excerpt

As English settlements came to be established along the Atlantic seaboard of North America in the seventeenth century, encounters with the native inhabitants of those lands were inevitably to be recorded in words and images. The manner in which this was done was dictated by two factors. The first was a strong fascination for what was considered to be strange, wild and unknown, a response that had marked European travels to distant lands such as Asia for centuries. The second was hitherto unique, namely the need to understand the nature of individuals with whom future English settlers would not only need to live in relatively close proximity, but upon whom they would depend for their survival, at least during an initial period of acclimatisation. As has been pointed out recently, herein lies one of the dilemmas for authors of literature promoting colonisation in North America, for although they recognised that tales of Indian savagery would enthral the reading public, those same tales conversely were unlikely to win similar acclaim from those considering financial investment in New World enterprises.1 Even less were they likely to enthuse those charged with the implementation in the New World of grand colonial schemes, devised in London often with a meagre understanding of the harsh reality of conditions in America. Ferocious, unclothed, barbarian heathens whose manners, beliefs, religious practices and, indeed, in some cases whose very appearance appeared to cast doubt on their very humanity, might attract substantial interest in descriptions of foreign lands, but they hardly constituted effective propaganda for colonial settlement.

Unlike Spanish South America, the North did not at once beckon with irresistible incentives in the form of such enormous and immediate material rewards, that neither the rigours of the voyage and of the climate, a hostile natural environment, nor its existing human population would deter the adventurous or the plain greedy. This is not to say that the North did not enjoy its stock of legends. The Spanish after all had fruitlessly quested after the Fountain of Eternal Youth (in Florida), or the Seven Cities of Cíbola and Quivira (in the south-west and central USA). But in the 1570s, the voyages of Martin Frobisher to his Meta Incognita (Baffin Island) had proved just how tragic and illusory such fancies could be. For under examination in the harsh light of a London day, the black rock he had so painfully gathered in such a distant and inhospitable location clearly did not glitter with traces of gold. Moreover, the alternative lure of discovering a passage for English ships to the fabled wealth of Cathay and Cipango (Japan), somewhere along the Atlantic coast of North America, a concept certainly as old as the first expedition of John Cabot (1497), had also long since been transferred to Arctic regions where it would stay throughout the seventeenth century. Consequently, if colonial settlement in a 'New England' were to be the goal and reward of immigrants, in all aspects of its representation, including that of the native population, North America must initially at least be shorn of any features which might detract from its attractiveness to investors and pioneers. There was nothing new in this. Columbus, of course, had responded in a similar fashion in 1493, bidding for future crown support by writing preliminary reports on the islands of the West Indies, in which he portrayed a simple, innocent, content and, in the main, unwarlike people (cannibals apart), living at one with nature in a supremely fertile and welcoming environment. Only later in the 1620s, as a justification for English settlement (rather than as an excuse for conquest which was the case in Spanish South America), did a more openly critical appreciation of the North American Indian prevail, with its emphasis on savagery and unchristian beliefs.

Turning now to Spanish South America and specifically to the Viceroyalty of Peru, for the most part the above reservations are not valid. …

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