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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · November 09, 2016

Jamestown, Peru?

#VastEarlyAmerica 9 min read

Today’s post comes from Christopher Heaney, Assistant Professor, Penn State, 2016-2018 Barra Postdoctoral Fellow, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and WMQ author (October).


“Do we really need a ‘Peruvian Atlantic’ … ?” asked Reader B. For the sake of my argument, I couldn’t help but agree.

The original subtitle of what became my essay in this fall’s issue of the WMQ was “English Grave‐Opening in the Peruvian Atlantic and the Extirpation of Indigenous History, 1554‐1622.” As Reader B suspected, and Josh Piker sagely underlined, such a snarled title promised an argument that wasn’t quite seaworthy; I needed to cut away the borrowed rigging and hoist a sail of my own. That encouraging skepticism was the nudge I needed to re-make my essay inside and out, in order to join the Omohundro Institute’s exciting conversation this year about a more vast early America.

Still, that earlier title was intentional, and, though it distracted from my most central argument, I’m grateful for an opportunity to explain why I hazarded it, especially since I suspect that the title that the article actually traveled under—“A Peru of Their Own: English Grave-Opening and Indian Sovereignty in Early America”—raises red flags of its own, not least of which is the disputable necessity of Peru to early North America. Is there a defense to be made by not just “Facing North from Inca Country”—as Bradley Dixon wittily suggested, invoking Dan Richter—but by following the runoff of the Andes into the drifts and currents of the Atlantic World?

If we sharpen the question, its necessity is clear. Can we fully articulate a globalizing Atlantic World, let alone the entangled start of non-Iberian colonization in early America, without accounting for Andean silver, mined from Potosí’s world-making vein? Without that silver, Philip II could not have pursued his increasingly millenarian ambitions, from Lepanto to the Lowlands, whose effect on Protestant perceptions of Spanish power is established. But that silver’s leaching away by war and debts was also a pre-condition for capitalism’s rise, and the expansion of other European polities’ horizons. Sociologist Jason W. Moore’s prizewinning essays have argued that Peru’s fortune-changing “free gift” of silver incited a wave of sylvan, ecological exhaustion that moved from the Andes to Spain and to northern Europe, “from which the only escape was renewed global conquest and ever-wider cycles of combined and uneven development”—a point that Keith Pluymers connected to Virginia in the WMQ this summer. (Moore’s many essays on the long sixteenth century are brilliant, and should be read widely.) That spread of conquest, flight from tightening resources, and resettlement kept English America linked to Peru’s commodity chain. As Mark A. Peterson has observed, the majority of silver shillings in the mid-seventeenth century Massachusetts Bay Colony were re-minted coins from Potosí. From that perspective, might we consider silver-fuelled competition for new, less-exhausted horizons, and bodies, throughout the Americas and Atlantic World as attempts to acquire—or escape—“Peru” by other means?

Or so one cacophonous footnote of my earlier draft barked.

Wisely, it—along with its “Peruvian Atlantic” callout in the subtitle—was cut so as not to distract from my essay’s more central contribution: how understandings of Peru concretely shaped other European—in this case, English—interactions with other indigenous peoples in the Americas. By looking at grave-opening, specifically, I argue that we can apprehend an earlier model of empire building, based on a surprisingly historical understanding of how Peru was not just its silver, but also the skilled indigneous “Peruvians” who mined treasure for cosmopolitan Inca emperors, whose mortuary wealth and lasting sovereignty were then incorporated by a still more cosmopolitan empire in Spain. Those English understandings of Peruvian grave-opening combined with recent mortuary reformations of the Tudors to shape grave-opening in early English America.

The implications of that observation—made in the spirit of Jorge Cañizares Esguerra and Eliga Gould’s similar interventions—are wide. Does it re-map the course of Anglo-American colonization to consider that it was stitched together from disappointment at supposedly not finding civil, noble, pious, and skillful Indians? The powerful resistance of the Indians that the English did encounter matters—but so does their contingent rejection and removal as relics of an idolatrous earlier age. It thus becomes necessary to understand those earlier Spanish—and indigenous—sovereign, economic, intellectual, and religious models so that we might grapple with how they are not just comparative cases, but potential continuities effaced in practice. (In my article, I argue that English grave-opening began as a means of finding Native American sovereignty, as the Spanish had in Peru, but ultimately became a means of denying it; other scholars are mapping other continuities and less forceful breaks between, for example, learned models of incorporative rule, or approaches to agriculture.)

What emerges, then, is not an early America in which English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French colonies are fleetingly connected by bullets and enslaved peoples, but one in which they are united by a lasting web of indigenous, sometimes independent societies, infrastructure, trade, and sovereignty that we take seriously—what Cañizares and Benjamin Breen have elsewhere called a “Hybrid Atlantic”—whose incorporation, comparison, or denial left enlightening differences in our national histories. (Why is “Smith” America’s most common surname, while in Peru it’s “Quispe,” from “Qispiy,” which means “free”?)

So to Reader B’s excellent question I add a question more—an old one. In 1596, in the second installment of The Faerie Queene, the English poet Edmund Spenser asked “Who ever heard of th’Indian Peru?” He was being ironic at the time, invoking “th’Indian Peru” as a kingdom and people so wondrous that had nonetheless escaped notice—like his Faerieland—until recently, when it changed the world. Over four hundred years later, it seems that we need to ask Spenser’s question again. Our history may yet depend upon it.




[…] Check out this blog post by Christopher Heaney, on why early histories of North America must take in… […]
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