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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

From Conquistador to Hidalgo: A Shift in Mentality

There is little doubt that under the conquistadores the conquered people lived a burdensome existence. The appearance of these alien men meant for the native people their own destruction as an autonomous society, and from then on they had to accept these outsiders as the masters of their own destiny. They were only too aware of their calamity. Witness: their mass suicides. Many of them also rebelled and fought, knowing that it was a fight to the death. But in time, all they were left with was resignation and hatred. They came to terms with their subjection, and adaptive mechanisms began to set in, especially through the mestizos. Surviving and even prospering were not impossible if one could find his/her way through the twists and turns that led to insertion in the new society. And in urban societies, that way was not hard to find. Yet, social insertion did not lessen their hatred. The conquered people accepted the beliefs that were imposed upon them, but they translated those beliefs into their own terms and at the same time created a unique symbiosis between what was theirs and what had been acquired: one day some artist would give it plastic expression; many did it with words, altering—perhaps unknowingly—the deep vein of their traditional wisdom under the weight of the teachings they received. They preserved, however, all that made up their daily life: the way they dressed, their eating habits, their pottery, utensils, adornments, remedies and cures, their farming practices, their ways of buying and selling in the marketplace, their forms of greeting each other, their family life, as much as the Spanish masters would allow. All this they kept very much alive, but with the sense of inferiority that the conquest had suddenly aroused in them. Theirs became the mentality of despair, the attitude of vanquished people who are no longer masters of their own destiny.

The conquistadores were indeed the masters of destiny, that of the conquered people as well as their own. They had very clear and definite ideas about what that destiny was to be: they wanted to possess—for their own benefit and on behalf of their King—the lands, properties and forced labor of the conquered people. They wanted this with a dreadful passion, with a determination that nothing could defeat. Their design was simple but so vast in scope that it encompassed a view of the world they had just come in contact with. It was a world to be possessed and controlled with complete disregard for whatever it had been before. And it had to be possessed by all of the conquerors, in every region, in every valley, and by each of them personally so that each could be, from that very moment, the lord of his own domain. The first and most significant trait of the mentality of conquest was its epic sense of life.

But once the crucial moment of conquest had passed, it was obvious that the new domains had to be part of a stable order, one that ensured both their possession and the privileged condition of their possessors. That stable order could not be the work of a single conquistador, not even of all of them together, but only of the state—Spain or Portugal—as the protector of its military, economic, and cultural rear-guard. That order called for the organization of a new society.

The conquistador, no doubt, had received a system of ideas, some of them about society, in his mother country. He knew, for instance, that in his homeland his prospects were few, whereas the New World was opening to him a wealth of opportunities. Once he arrived in the new lands, he imagined the society that he, with his own hands, would fashioned there. Unlike the nuanced society of his homeland, the one he imagined was brutally divided into two camps: conqueror and conquered belonged to juxtaposed but thoroughly separate strata, with a line between them that no one could ever cross. Thus, his society was to be, in that respect, irreducibly dual. The conquistador brought, de facto, such a society into being and, after the fact, he justified its existence by making it the law. That society was at once the necessary condition for what the conquistador had set out to accomplish and the irreversible consequence of what he had already done.

Soon, however, the church and the state in the homeland of the conquistadores began to question some aspects of that dual society. The Dominicans were the first to raise their voice. In 1510, in a sermon given in Santo Domingo on the fourth Sunday of Advent, Father Antón de Montesinos, speaking on behalf of the entire community, rebuked the encomenderos for their treatment of the Indians and questioned their right to force them into service:

By what right, by what law do you have these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you made such hateful wars against these peoples who used to live meekly and in peace here on their land, where you have now consumed countless of them with your unspeakable killings and ravagings? How can you keep them so oppressed and weary, not giving them any food or nursing them in their sickness. They fall ill because of the excessive labors you exact from them. And they die, or better said, you kill them, only to extract and acquire gold each day. Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not commanded to care for them as you would for yourselves?

A lengthy debate began, with the encomenderos on one side and, on the other, a group of priests and theologians who ultimately won the support of the state. The Laws of Burgos of 1512, and later the New Laws of 1542, reflected the critical views of the priests. Yet these and other provisions served only to improve the personal protection of the Indians and further their conversion, but they did nothing to undermine the foundations of the dual society. Bartolomé de las Casas, Juan de Zumárraga, Vasco de Quiroga, Lázaro Bejarano, Motolinía, Pedro Claver, Francisco Solano, Antonio Vieira, Diego de Avendaño, among many others, were the advocates and persistent defenders of the Indians and, in some cases, of the black slaves as well. They converted and educated them; they protected them against mistreatment, as far as their power and influence could reach; they ministered to them in sickness and tried to make sure that they died with some decency. Many officials fought with remarkable tenacity to enforce the laws for the protection of the Indians; but neither Church nor State was able to make the protection of the exploited more important than the dictates of economic exploitation.

In the view of the encomenderos, some of the State measures were excessive, although, in truth, those measure barely touched their rights and interests. True, the State provided education to the children of the Indian chieftains and gave some form of preferential treatment to some members of distinguished Indian families. But, at the same time, encouraged by Viceroy Toledo, Peruvian jurists set about trying to prove the illegitimacy of the Incas. Indian rebellions were suppressed with deliberate harshness, to set a example, while all necessary precautions were taken to ensure the survival of the new society—Indians, for instance, were legally forbidden to bear arms. The dual society was an unshakable principle, sustained by the State and strengthened by an acceptance of the obligations imposed by charity. But charity was as far as their sense of moral responsibility would go. And this was the second defining trait of the mentality of conquest.

Although fiercely wedded to their conception of a dual society, the conquistadores could not make it fit perfectly into the schemes they had brought from their homelands. What they had conceived was entirely original in terms of social components and, above all, more flexible. To shape their new society, the conquistadores believed they needed a certain degree of latitude, some margin of independence, not simply because the problems they encountered were so unique, but mostly because they were so far away from their homeland. Obviously, they had in fact a considerable margin of independence, but they were still required to account for their actions or were forcefully constrained by a power on its way to absolutism, a power also with a bent for minute detail and subtle casuistry. As if anticipating the monologue of Sigismund, the Baroque response of the conquistadores was: Se acata, pero no se cumple (“the law is obeyed but not carried out”).

If the principle of a dual society was one of the essential traits of the conqueror’s view of his social world, the distinction between “obeying” and “carrying out” was equally essential to his view of the political order in the New World. “Obeying” appropriately named the need to recognize the structure of authority established by the imperial powers, without which the New World could not endure. “Not carrying out the law” pointed to the persistence of an old political conception of the will of the people. This old tradition, born in the Middle Ages and invoked by the comuneros in the sixteenth century, gained strength with the Jesuit philosophers Suárez and Mariana and with the unique experience of the conquest, which demanded independence and decisions suited to the circumstances. Respect for the will of the people—people here understood as the conquering group—was the third defining trait of the mentality of conquest. As the Crown had accepted the principle of a dual society, it also accepted, within certain limits, the principle of respect for its people’s will.

Of course, the mother country was quick to put down, with harsh, authoritative acts, any attempt to overstep the accepted limits of independence: this was how Gonzalo Pizarro, Lope de Aguirre, or Alvaro de Oyín met their demise. But enough latitude and independence remained to accommodate the basic political process that began shortly after the land was settled and the cities founded. In that process, the world of the conquistadores was turned into a world of bureaucrats, and the epic society of bold adventurers into the baroque society of colonizers. This was the stage initiated by Mendoza y Velazco, Hurtado de Mendoza and Toledo, Tom‚ de Souza and Mem de S. This transformation became even more pronounced as the conquistadores began to die off and their descendants inherited their rights and privileges. The last years of Hernan Cortez in Mexico or of Diego Losada in El Tocuyo are perhaps good symbols of the transition. After them, the society of the New World would be one of colonizers, truly submissive to the authority of colonial officials and proud of the power of their mother country.

At this point, the contempt for the American world became more pointed and visible than ever before. America was not a place to settle down: it was a stopover, a place to get rich and attain a social position that was to be enjoyed in the homeland. As early as the seventeenth century, a native of Bahia—Father Vicente del Salvador—would say in his Hístoria del Brasil [History of Brazil]:

And so, there are those who, however firmly their roots are planted in this soil, expect to take everything back to Portugal; they want everything there. And this is true not only of those who were born in Portugal, but also of those who were born here. For both have made good use of the land, not as lords but as exploiters; and only for the sake of profit, they leave it despoiled.

The dream of returning home was revealing not simply of the value assigned to the New World but of how little those born in the homeland were committed or attached to the lands they had come to inhabit. Those who wanted to take everything back to Spain or Portugal, wanted nothing in the New World, nothing for the new society they themselves had fashioned and of which they still were part. What each of them wanted, he wanted only for himself, as part of his personal adventure.

When the conquistadores turned into colonizers, the most forceful trait of the new mentality was the desire for social ascent. This desire was, in fact, an ideology, for it entailed a definite vision of society, of man’s role within it, and of the opportunities it offered to the individual. Society was to serve just one purpose: to enable the colonist to get rich and attain a respectable position so that he might ultimately be recognized as a lord. In the early eighteenth century, Father Antonil wrote about Brazil:

Being the owner of a plantation was an honor to which many aspired, because it means being served, obeyed and respected by many people. And if the plantation owner is, as he should be, a gentleman of wealth and administrative talent, then the esteem accorded to him in Brazil is equal to the esteem that hidalgos in the homeland accord to the titles bestowed by the King.

The right to be respected as an hidalgo was the right to be in command, the right to have privileges that others did not have. These were the concrete signs of the gentrification that was taking place among the colonizers. In that process, those who succeeded in their colonizing efforts would earn all at once the same respect and dignity enjoyed by hidalgos, in Spain and Portugal, who had five or ten generations of noble ancestry behind them. As time went on, what actually mattered was no longer the glory inherited from the founder of a lineage nor even the position his descendants enjoyed. What mattered was the power to increase and multiply themselves that the imperial order gave to all these things. That order was a social system that Spain and Portugal had created, one that rewarded a vast array of individual deeds, all part of a powerful institutionalized structure that weighed decisively on world politics.

To accept that order was to acknowledge the rigorous system that had been fashioned by Manuel I, Juan II and King Sebastian in Portugal and the Catholic Monarchs and the first Hapsburgs in Spain. It was an absolutist, centralized political system in which the vassal was proud of his unconditional obedience to his sovereign, although he knew only too well that his king was at times controlled by court favorites or by elites who wielded power at their discretion. But absolute power guaranteed that the system was kept whole; no one could question it, much less those on the colonial edges of the empire. Behind that structure of power was, in fact, the ideological system of the Counter-reformation, which provided doctrinal grounds for the political and social orders, both in the mother countries and in the colonies. It was the Counter-reformation that inspired and furthered the rise of a Baroque society.

The Baroque society of the Indies, however, could not hold the ideological ground that European absolutism and the Counter-reformation had established in the homeland. In the Indies, Baroque society was a direct consequence of the conquest: it was similar in form but far from being identical to European society. Since the components of that new Baroque society were essentially different, its process of transformation was a constant threat to the formal order of things. The ideology of the colonizers held on to that order, but the experience of everyday revealed that the components of colonial society were moving in different directions. Within the dominant class itself, the distinction between Spaniards or Portuguese and criollos was a source of constant instability. The relation between a Spanish father and his son born in the New World seemed to threaten the unity of the white group: if the opposition was apparent when the father was a conquistador, it became even more visible and harder to reconcile when the father was a mere official or a merchant. Little by little, the criollo, unlike the colonist born on the peninsula, developed an intense attachment to the land, a sense of belonging that grew stronger with each generation. Within the group subjected to domination, the mestizos added to the sense of instability, because they became themselves a sort of concealed bridge across the divide between the two large groups that made up colonial society. And this was so not only because the mestizos received at times the protection of their white fathers or relatives but also because their own condition made them the ideal mediators between the two social groups. To maintain the colonial system strong, it was necessary to hold on to form; yet it was equally necessary to remember a rather obvious fact: it was force that sustained the system.

This coupling of adherence to form and reliance on sheer power shaped the mentality of the colonists who turned into hidalgos. On the Iberian peninsula, nobility—hidalguía—was an image of man that had its roots in feudalism but had gone past the baronial stage and the age of chivalry to fashion a new model—the courtier—suited to the new concept of monarchy that began in the sixteenth century. This new model was obviously reminiscent of Italy and the Renaissance. An hidalgo had to live for his decorum, with honor and grace, and to attest to man’s enduring dignity, as the Italian humanists and the books of chivalry had declared, as Fern n Pérez de Oliva wrote in his Diálogo sobre la dignidad del hombre [Dialogue on the Dignity of Man], or as Baltasar de Castiglione would advise in the book that he entitled, precisely, The Courtier. Castiglione warned that these new-found dignity and decorum were no longer those of the haughty war baron, not even those of the refined lord who took pleasure in receiving knights and ladies in his castle and entertained them with troubadours and minstrels, once his peers had proven their talent in an elegant joust or a daring hunt. They were, instead, the dignity and decorum of the knight who had let go the last vestiges of his old pride and had accepted his place in a strictly hierarchical society presided over by a monarch or a nobleman of the highest rank. In such society, respect for his honor was assured, and favor was possible. He need not be ashamed of begging meekly for that favor or giving a humble, if inflated, account of the services he had rendered. The center of that society was the court—ceremonious and enslaved to etiquette, severe in its forms but plagued by intrigue and greed, always agitated by the hope of attaining royal favor and the fear of losing it. The Portuguese Gil Vicente described that court in the sixteenth century, as did the unknown author of the Epístola Moral (Moral Epistle):

Fabio, las esperanzas cortesanas
prisiones son do el ambicioso muere
y donde al más astuto nacen canas.

[Fabio, the courtier’s hopes are prisons]
where the ambitious man meets death and where
even the heads of the cleverest men turn gray.]

When transplanted to the Indies, the mentality of the hidalgos intensified some of its traits and modified others. In Brazil, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that mentality clung to the forms of rural life, but it slowly began to move towards urban forms, like those that prevailed in Spanish America from the beginning. On the peninsula, it was still possible for a nobleman to reject the new court manners, because he could find refuge in a rural world at one with his own culture and traditions. But rural life in the Indies wasn’t welcoming to those who came from their homeland, precisely because it was completely alien to their traditions and their culture. What resonance, what value would the ear of a miner or an encomendero find in the Arcadian nostalgia of the eclogues of Garcilaso or S de Miranda, or the invitation of Friar Luis de Leín to a peaceful retreat in the countryside, or the thoughts of Antonio de Guevara in his Menosprecio de corte y alabanza de aldea [Contempt for the Court and Praise for the Country Village]? In the late seventeenth century, Gregorio de Mattos repeated those same themes in Brazil, praising the sweet country life and loathing life at court in Bahia:

Se estando au lá, na corte, tão seguro
Do nescio impertinente, que porfía,
A deixei por un mal que era futuro:

Como estaría, vendo na Bahía
(Que das cortes do mundo‚ vil mentira)
Os roubos, a injusticia, e a tiranía?

If, when I was there, in court, so safe
from the impertinent fool, who insists in his folly,
I left in search of a future misfortune:

How was I to be, when I arrived in Bahía
(which is a sham court, the vilest in the world)
and saw all its theft, and injustice and tyranny?

But this was not the general attitude. Even one hundred years earlier, Father Anchieta had nothing but praise for Bahia. In the fall, from April to June, he said, “the ‘noble mansions’ on the main streets were reopened; commerce along the waterfront came back to life, as sugar was loaded onto ships; there were bullfights in the Terreiro, processions marched, and everything was full of life and movement.” Gradually, the gentry came to spend more and more time in their city homes.

A preference for city life had been the norm from the start in Spanish America. In fact, the accepted view held that the city was the specific tool of domination. On that view, the founders had drawn their original scheme, and experience seemed to bear it out. As it grew and became more settled, the city performed with increased efficiency its role of planning and presiding over regional expansion, and as it did so, it made rural life patently subordinate to the urban world. The city appeared more and more as an enclave of a European lifestyle to which groups of non-European origin were gradually adapting themselves. The countryside, in turn, preserved, beneath the surface, the vestiges of the original ways of life and offered an easy haven for all those who somehow sought to sidestep the colonial order.

As the colonists were turning themselves into hidalgos, they became increasingly inclined to reproduce, in some way, the model of the Iberian courts. No doubt, they were well aware of the harsh realities of colonial cities, which were nothing but the product of their designs and ambitions, so bitterly denounced by Balbuena:

Por todas partes la codicia a rodo,
que ya cuanto se trata y se practica
es interés de un modo o de otro modo.

[Greed is in abundance everywhere,
and every word and every deed
is somehow in someone’s interest.]

Yet part of the mentality of the hidalgos—and not just in the Indies—was to embrace that Baroque conception of life, akin to dreaming, in which the harsh truth could be almost completely erased and covered with the vast fiction of the great theater of the world. In the Indies, the mentality of the hidalgos was decidedly urban; its model, however, was not that of the bourgeois or mercantile city but that of the court: a precarious court, barely discernible through the mud and pestilence of the streets, the vacant lots, the ambitious but still half-built churches, the despised lower casts. Behind that precarious appearance, however, lied a vast machinery that governed the existence of the upper classes and allowed them to lead a conventionally noble life.

The image of that illusory court, held by every city, even the humblest ones, was embellished in the descriptions of the mayor viceregal capitals until it became a rhetorical model. There certainly was the occasional skeptical chronicler or satiric poet who would unmask the roguishness of urban life: the “Portuguese Jew,” who described the cities of the Peruvian viceroyalty, Juan del Valle y Caviedes of Lima, Gregorio de Mattos of Bahia, and even Juan Rodríguez Freyle of Santa Fe. But in their descriptions, most of the travelers as well as the chroniclers, who were generally clergymen in the service of the hidalgos, took great pains to emphasize the serene dignity of the noble life they saw—or believed they saw—in those modest but proud cities. They not always speak of virtues, but they do speak of the courtly splendor and the dignity and decorum with which the hidalgos overcame the harsh circumstances of their daily life. This idealized view is brought to an extreme in the poetry of Bernardo de Balbuena and Juan de Castellanos and in the works of the humanist Francisco Cervantes de Salazar.

Since it was so decidedly urban, the mentality of the hidalgos came face to face with the reality of the cities. As noblemen, the hidalgos despised the merchants; but there was, in turn, a vague and widespread attitude that poked fun at their inflated pretentiousness. The hidalgo without means was the one who had to put to the test the strength of his convictions. No matter how hard he would try to maintain the appearance of a noble way of life, he was constantly threatened by ridicule and haunted by the opportunities he would have if he were only willing to accept the real terms under which wealth was possible. Thus, another way of viewing life began to take shape and eventually became a new form of mentality: unmistakably bourgeois on occasion, it was often both aristocratic and bourgeois, as business and economic activity appeared to be increasingly compatible with the forms of life that embodied the claim to old privileges.