Requerimiento

I sat through a thousand classes on the requerimiento [the legal formula Spanish conquistadors recited at the first encounter with each new group of Indians in the New World].

I participated in a million grad school discussions of the requerimiento.

I mentioned the requerimiento un a tribizillion classes that I thought.

But you know what I just realized?

I never read the requerimiento. Like, the actual text. I never read the whole text. It’s so weird. I’m a literary critic who keeps discussing a text I never read. And ok, it’s exactly 500 years before my area of specialization and in a different hemisphere but still.

So I read it. And… that completely transformed my understanding of what it was and what it meant.

It’s an amazing text, but the way we are taught to think about it, and the way we then go on to teach it, is deeply stupid.

29 thoughts on “Requerimiento”

  1. My understanding has not changed after reading it, still pretty much in the lines of Rolena Adorno’s seminar 15 years ago. Intrigued by your reading.

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    1. It turned out to be not a short pro forma statement but a long, earnest, grappling text. I always thought it was a two-sentence thing but it’s a whole world painfully trying to explain itself to another world. It’s a very unique culture that tried to do something like this. Everybody has conquered and colonized everybody they could, but has anybody else even tried to explain their understanding of the universe when doing it?

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      1. I love the “como mejor podemos.” Thank you for drawing my attention to that text. I think I will use it in the classroom. That is, if my program still exists in 2020-21.

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      2. I thought the world trying to explain itself to another world WAS the standard reading. (I’ve taught this text because I’ve taught colonial, but I didn’t study it in school.) Yes, of course one also discusses the locus of enunciation, the power structures involved, and so on, and there are all kinds of jokes about this (the scene in Aguirre der Zorn Gottes, for instance, where the requerimiento is read), but it remains a fact that Spain’s project of empire wasn’t exactly the same as some of these more casual enterprises to create extractive colonies. I’m not saying that makes them perfect, but, etc.

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        1. The way I was taught it, time and again, was that the Spanish would mumble a couple of sentences containing an empty legal formula and that’s it. Now I have a feeling this was done to shore up a sense of US superiority over the earlier empires.

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          1. You didn’t have very good faculty at your schools! This is a foundational text and it’s not THAT long, students can read it and mark it up as reading for one class period. This, and Nebrija’s introduction to his grammar, are important, readable, fascinating, and they add a lot of depth to the discussion.

            It’s not clear to me, though, how not reading it would shore up a sense of US superiority.

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          2. My first reactions re-reading this: the indigenous population was promised freedom if they accepted the colonizers; they weren’t required to convert to Catholicism, even. But, in case they resisted, THEN all hell would break loose on them. The text seems to recognize them as human beings, at some level, in a way we shouldn’t necessarily take for granted. In practice, of course, enslavement and dispossession and forced conversion would happen no matter what. So the logic is: accept us OR ELSE, but we will do the OR ELSE no matter what in any case.

            The reference to the creation of the world 5,000 years before also place things in a very definite historical narrative. You have the creation story, the passing of authority from Peter to subsequent popes, and then the papal authority directly to the Catholic Monarchs.

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            1. The text is interesting because on the one hand it presupposes a great degree of sophistication in the indigenous. But then the same text slips into not expecting any sophistication at all.

              It’s a lot more complicated than I suspected and now I feel stupid for teaching it in a simplistic, condescending way.

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              1. You need it because so many of the texts of the period are making related contortions. Look at the Inca Garcilaso, for instance; if you have this, and perhaps the new rules announced after the Tupac Amaru rebellion, Inca Garcilaso’s rhetorical moves get more interesting even if you haven’t read all his Latin intertexts.

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      3. Also, part of the reason for the explanation is legal. They are going to make “justa guerra” if the natives don’t fall in line, and for that guerra to be justa the rules have got to be known (although ironically, they’re not read in a language the Americans know, etc.).

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  2. The English translation of the 1513 Requerimiento is hilarious. It’s like a proto-EULA, but for the benefit of countries following the Treaty of Tordesillas.

    It’s not like the indigenous peoples are going to appreciate the chain of authority from Jesus to the first pope to the current pope to the most Catholic majesties but Spain and Portugal really did. Notice, though there’s no Nicene Creed in there in this attempt to explain the world.

    Hierarchy and people’s fixed places in the social order were very important. You couldn’t be a lord without servants and vassals underneath you, for example.

    Even funnier is that Latin was the language of international diplomacy and the Church, but the Requirimiento is not, right? One of the sticking points of the Protestant Reformation is that services and holy texts be conducted in the local language, not Latin. It wasn’t until much later, Vatican II, that Catholic services were widely conducted in the local languages. If you’re reasonably certain that the people you’re speaking to understand neither Spanish nor Latin and you’re claiming authority from the Church, why in the world would you pick Spanish for that declaration?

    I’m sure you have a very different interpretation.

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    1. Forget 500 years ago, how many people today come to another country with zero knowledge of the language and expecting to be understood? This is 99% of US tourists, for example.

      But those same tourists – whose ancestors, by the way, tried to explain nothing in any language to their conquests – would poke fun at the idiot Spanish of 500 years ago

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      1. Actually, I’d be interested to find out what WAS explained, by the British and then the US, to Native Americans. There were all sorts of negotiations and treaties, and some aspects of the US Constitution come from the Iroquois.

        So: your professors in Canada and US were like these tourists? Amazing

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        1. In Canada, actually we had very nuanced discussions of the conquest. It’s in the US where it went down the hill and devolved into simplistic sloganeering instead of reading. I remember being very confused after my first class on the colonial era in the US. It was such a letdown because it was all so basic. Las Casas was a hero, he was a saint, he was phenomenal. And over and over again. Ok, great, but why don’t we engage with his texts a little more deeply? No, he’s a saint! But there are some interesting contradictions in his texts… No, he’s a saint!!!! And it was all like that.

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      2. That’s not what I was getting at. I took that translation as a way of explaining the world and the authority of the Spanish forces through the hierarchy which derived from Jesus through the succession of popes to the current Spanish monarchs. In that time, if you’re European, you use the language of diplomacy and the Church if you’re trying to establish political authority, which is Latin. Accept our authority, this is where we get our authority from or die/be enslaved is a diplomatic statement (if hostile.) They use Spanish which tells me they don’t even conceive of anyone in the group they’re reading to as being equivalent or roughly the same rank in diplomatic terms. Back then nobles would talk in the vernacular to peasants.

        Further, if your nominal grant of authority comes from bringing people to Catholicism who you think have no idea what it even is (hence the missionary aspect), the Nicene Creed is about as clear and simple as it gets without going through the whole Bible or the four Gospels. They don’t try to establish the authority of Jesus or the Trinity, but spend a lot of time on everyone else in the chain of authority down, starting with Peter, “Lord, King, and Superior of the universe.” At this time the Papal States exercised quite a bit of military power in their own right. That’s why I think the act of reading of the document is really for the other European powers to recognize the conquests.

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  3. I’m just finishing up a biography of the Emperor Charles V, and it sounds like he had some serious differences with the conquistadors regarding how the new world territories were to be managed. He tried to forbid forced labor, stated in a letter that “the men of Mexico are to left as they are, and render to us only that tribute and service that they formerly rendered to Moctezuma”, and at one point proposed sending troops to “reconquer” the territories from the conquistadors because he thought they were running out of control (he was informed that he had no money for this and had already run up huge debts from his previous and current wars in Europe). He never really had much success in imposing his will because it was all so far away and he was so busy with European concerns most of the time.

    I don’t really know much about the period. Is this impression accurate, or have I been reading a pro-Charles V hagiography?

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  4. When Columbus dragged a group of indigenous people to Spain to be sold into slavery, the queen of Spain forced him to take the indigenous back and set them free. She also actively promoted intermarriage between Spaniards of either sex with the indigenous and granted full rights to their offspring. So yes, it definitely was a complicated process.

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  5. Is there any way to make discussions of classic Spanish texts a regular feature on this blog? This has been one of my favorite threads.

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