Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Rhapsodic Defence or Enlightened Critique? A Re-Reading of Hernán Cortés's Conquest of Mexico in Carta IX of Cadalso's Cartas Marruecas

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

Rhapsodic Defence or Enlightened Critique? A Re-Reading of Hernán Cortés's Conquest of Mexico in Carta IX of Cadalso's Cartas Marruecas

Article excerpt

Of the 90 letters which comprise Cadalso's Cartas marruecas, Carta IX, which provides a rhapsodic defence of Hernán Cortés's conquest of Mexico, is the only letter to deal exclusively with the Enlightenment polemic over America.1 Not surprisingly, therefore, critical studies of Carta IX have frequently highlighted the letter's importance as evidence of Cadalso's participation in eighteenthcentury disputes over the legitimacy of Spain's New World conquest.2 As Lucien Dupuis and Nigel Glendinning have observed:

Hay motivos para sospechar que Cadalso, al redactar varios trozos de sus Cartas marruecas, tenía presente lo dicho por los extranjeros, pero ninguna de ellas, si exceptuamos la IX, sobre la conquista de América, tiene por objeto principal el poner a salvo la reputación nacional ofendida por ellos. (Cadalso 1966: XII, n. 18)

Yet before analysing Carta IX in detail, it is worth elaborating on what precisely Dupuis and Glendinning meant by 'lo dicho por los extranjeros'. In short, it is a reference to European Enlightenment disputes over the rights of conquest.3 Throughout the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers, most notably the French philosophes (Montesquieu, Voltaire, De Pauw and Raynal), struggled to square the excesses of European conquest with Enlightenment ideologies of toleration, humanitarianism, social equality and reason. Montesquieu, for instance, questioned whether it would have been better if the New World had never been discovered at all,4 while Raynal in his highly successful Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (1770), debunked the notion of conquest as a civilizing mission and exposed avarice, which he described as 'the most ferocious of all passions' (Raynal 1811: 519), as the immoral force behind Europe's 'inhumane plan' (1811: 485). Further, he criticizes the violence used in the pursuit of New World wealth and challenges European notions of racial superiority and civility by asking if 'the savages [were] of the new or old world' (523-24).

One notable feature of Enlightenment disputes over the legitimacy of New World conquest was the marked anti-Hispanic bias of several of its participants. Critics have frequently attributed this 'revitalización del sentimiento antiespañol' (Yagüe Bosch 2005: 121) to the adverse propaganda associated with the Black Legend. As André Pons illustrates,

su imagen negativa de España y sus colonias se remonta sin duda al origen de la Leyenda Negra, por lo cual la llamamos por comodidad 'la herencia' de la Leyenda Negra. Cabe entender por esta expresión un concepto extensivo, es decir toda la representación negativa de la Conquista y de la colonización española, tal como resalta en la literatura dedicada a España y a sus colonias. (2002: 234-35)

Central to the 'representación negativa' of Spanish colonialism were 'les grandes infames actions des conquérants espagnols' (De Pauw 1771, 1: 255), especially those of Hernán Cortés, who Hans-Joachim Lope describes as 'uno de los objetos preferidos de la leyenda negra' (1986: 188). De Pauw describes him as 'le premier brigand' (1771, II: 173) and sees his conquest of Mexico as a series of 'massacres' and 'depredations' (I: 197). Likewise, Raynal challenges the heroic portrait of Cortés, speculating whether 'the faults of Cortés did not overbalance his great qualities' (Raynal 1811: 487). Describing the Spanish as 'destroyers of the New World' (1811: 504), Raynal thoroughly demystifies the Spanish justification of the conquest of Mexico as a Christian civilizing mission, portraying it instead as an act of 'destructive tyranny' (501), motivated exclusively by the search for gold.

Spanish writers, outraged at European invective against Spain's colonial record, responded zealously to the 'críticas derogatorias de fuera' (Pons 2002: 234-35). Yet there was little consensus amongst them on how best to defend Spain. This division gave rise to the 'contraste apología-crítica' (Mestre 2003: 27). …

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