Introductory Essay

The subject of Empire’s Progeny is the long, slow development of racial ideas and structures over the course of European imperialism in the Americas, especially (but not limited to) the Spanish and Portuguese empires.  Simply put, at the end of the Middle Ages, there was no such idea as race in the European imagination — not at least as race is commonly defined today.  Excepting the Americas and Australia, Europeans knew a great deal about the diverse peoples of the world: trade, travel, and migration had brought them contact with myriad peoples from Africa and Eurasia.  Although Europeans had various ideas about what made the world’s peoples different, they did not think in the modern terms of race: that is, they did not conceive of humanity as divided into biologically fixed “races.”  Instead, the primary distinctions they drew were between Christian vs. heathen, civilized vs. barbarous, and nobility vs. commoners. 

Europeans did not conceive of themselves as Europeans nor did they think of themselves as white!  Instead, most knew themselves by their kingdom and village, their faith, their trade and social status, and their degree of urbanity.  “Race” at the time had none of our modern connotations; rather, the word strictly meant lineage. What concerned Christians living in Spain was to ensure that their family lineage retained its “blood purity.” Their paramount concern was to ensure that lines of nobility remained clear of commoner impurities and that Christian families preserved themselves from any taint of Jewish or Muslim (Moorish) blood. Anyone with any social standing at all to defend spent their lives trying to show that their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on were all “true Christians” and that nowhere along the family line was there any religious deviance. Violence was commonly resorted to in order to ensure that offspring brought no dishonor upon the family lineage by marrying low (though in the case of men affairs with lower class women were commonly indulged). Race and identity, thus, were about religion and nobility. Careers, political power, wealth, and one’s place in Heaven were all tied to having an honorable pedigree.

A typical (if exceptionally beautiful) medieval representation of the world. Historians call this type a T and O map, wherein the waterways make a T inside the “ocean sea” that surrounds the world. The base of the T is the Mediterranean and the top of the T is made of the Red Sea, the Black Sea, and connecting waterways. Asia is on top, Africa on the right, and Europe on the left. 1459-1463
Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons.

Contact and the conquest of the Americas very much confounded the European social imagination.  Until that time, all the peoples that Europeans knew about were more-or-less consistent with classical sources of learning (i.e. the Greeks) and the Bible, which they took to be a comprehensive explanation of the world.  After Columbus, however, suddenly they had to account for the Americas, which did not fit onto any map and which were populated by peoples that the Bible had made no mention of.  From 1492 until the late 1500s, there was a lot of uncertainty and much experimentation to define who these peoples were.  You are probably aware of the misnomer “Indian,” which comes from the early misconception that the Caribbean Islands (the “West Indies”) were part of the “East Indies” (i.e. East Asia).  The word “Indian” stuck, but what it meant and to whom it applied remained contested for the next several hundred years. 

People of African descent first arrived in the Americas with Christopher Columbus.  In the early years, most were slaves, some were not, but together they had variety of social roles and lived very different lives as sailors and soldiers, clerks and porters, builders and cobblers, etc. However, as the Portuguese and Spanish regimes matured and became dependent on exploiting labor, they soon found that enslaved indigenous peoples were dying at unsustainable rates due to harsh treatment and communicable diseases.  The imperial solution was to import large numbers of captured and purchased Africans to work in mines and on plantations, amounting to around 5 million sent to Brazil and 4.5 million to Spanish, French, and British islands in the Caribbean (the future United States received about 450,000). In the European Christian imagination, these were “children of Ham” (Noah’s cursed son), who, because of such ignoble parentage and savage customs were “slaves by nature.” Over the following 300 years, slavery became a more and more standardized institution, built around plantation agriculture and the selling and buying of enslaved Africans. Still, the life experience of people of African descent and how the social category of “Negro” was applied to them varied immensely in time and space depending on many circumstances. 

Imperial rulers saw their empires as populated by three main types of humans: Spaniards/Portuguese, Indians, and Africans (negros was the term they used). However, imperialists also found themselves trying to rule over ever more biologically, socially, and culturally mixed populations.  This was all the more complicated because socioracial difference was conceived as not only a matter of biological heritage, but also as a matter of religiosity, culture, and behavior.  The result was discombobulating.  What was one to think of a woman whose mother was known to be part African and part Spanish, whose father was thought to be part Indian and part African, who claimed to descend from a line of Aztec noblemen, comported herself with all the refinements of Spanish high society, was as devout as a priest, and was a healer providing traditional native medicine to wealthy Spaniards?       

To understand what notions socioracial difference meant and how they were experienced in the past, it is critical that we think very specifically about the situations in which these terms were used and by whom.  For instance, if we ask, “What did being Indian mean to an indigenous peasant in rural Oaxaca (a state in Mexico) in the 1600s?”, the short answer is likely “it meant if he was going to sue his neighbor he would have to go the court for Indians, but most of the time he didn’t think of himself as an Indian at all, but as a maguey farmer, Zapotec speaker, and community member of such-and-such village. The Spanish governor in the regional capital, on the other hand, thought all the time about who counted as an Indian, as this dictated the flow of taxes, the opportunities for graft, and the lines of authority and jurisdiction.  Defining Indians was also critical to his sense of self-worth and honor, for he was proud not to be one, and his life was organized around making sure he and his progeny enjoyed all the privileges that went with being recognized as a Spaniard.

Through Empire’s Progeny, we will work together to make sense of this plurality of racial experience and understand how this changed. Near the end of the colonial period, we will witness the emergence of the modern sense of race: that is, the idea that people derive from fixed “races” that are geographically defined, reflect traits that are biologically based and immutable, and are knowable by how the person’s naked body appears. Apprehending the development of racial thinking requires we attempt to put ourselves in the headspace of past individuals, to see the world as they did. When we ask, “What did Negro mean to urban free people of color and runaway slaves in Cuba?” we must resist the assumption that Negro meant anything like Black in the 20th and 21st centuries.  We will find commonalities between historical and contemporary experience, and students are encouraged to seek and discuss such commonalities. But to understand the past and truly reflect on what it means for the present demands that we attend specifically to the differences. Therefore, I created Empire’s Progeny to help us contemplate the past in its own terms.

A note on our own assumptions:

As we question the categories through which people in the past interpreted the world, we must also question our own.  Let us lay out the most basic generalizations and stereotypes all of us have probably imbibed from school and popular culture:

  1. Indians were vulnerable people: weak, unable to defend themselves, and exploited everywhere.  They were largely nomadic, “stone-aged” people overwhelmed by European technology.  They lived close to Nature, with which they had a deep spiritual connection, until imperialism destroyed that way of life.  Once Europeans arrived in the New World, it was a foregone conclusion that they would be decimated and/or extinguished. 
  2. Spanish and Portuguese imperialists were rapacious and murderous, using their technological advantages to destroy Native American civilization.  They were brutish, crude, and pompous overlords and were not intellectually curious people and could not imagine there was anything to learn from indigenous people or from Africans.  These Iberians were superstitious Catholics, trapped in Medieval ideas about the world.   
  3. Africans were powerless slaves.  They never left the plantation and were kept in a state of abject deprivation.  As a people, they were socially and spiritually crushed by the institution of slavery: their connections with their home cultures had been rent and they were incapable of developing a true social or political movement, in part because they lacked any political education or literacy.  They were a broken people who soothed their souls with folk songs, but were otherwise without any capacity to change their world.

Again, these are the dominant stereotypes in our culture today.  They are not 100% false – in fact, many colonists were greedy and rapacious; many indigenous peoples were swiftly annihilated; and many slaves were crushed by the institution of slavery.  But not all.  Perhaps not even most.  While containing some truths, these stereotypes are also quite misleading.  As we shall see in this course, some Spaniards recognized that they did not have overwhelming technological superiority, some indigenous people thrived with the presence of the European imperialists, and many Africans organized, achieved freedom, and became economically successful.  Thus, while we question how others in the past saw the world, we must also accept that our own preconceptions may require considerable adjustment.