Proper Historical Perspective for Understanding Spanish Conquest of New World

In 13 History on 2011/03/31 at 12:46 PM

Crimes are not to be measured by the issue of events” says Cicero, “but from the bad intentions of men.”  Superficial, biased statements are common decrying colonization in America by Spaniards. To understand it you will have to read original sources and endeavor to re-visit the historical scene by re-examining Spanish writings, searching in them for the motivations which impelled the Spaniards and established them in certain relationships with the Indians. With the pen as the tongue of the mind, the writings should mirror the self-image or images, real and distorted, of the Spaniards in their contacts with the Indians.

In reading or writing history today, one must be aware that realistic historical writing  implies understanding hazards: it is impossible to secure the approbation of all readers. The historian, fascinated by generations long gone, hopes to glean from history the story of their life and its impelling forces. Imaginative reconstruction appeals to life. The historian will select those fragments interesting him, and on the basis of the historical evidence available, proceed to deal with the fragments not as they really were, but as he sees them.

In a sense the historian resembles the mystery story writer, reconstructing events in his disciplined imagination. Methodically, painstakingly, he gathers data, to formulate his conclusions. Neither historian nor detective can ever have absolute certainty that the events reconstructed really happened as they described them, but only hope that they did. Frequently, new data or new sources appear, altering the validity of original judgments. New evidence, fresh insights, inspire successive historians to re-evaluate original data, producing consequently new interpretations. Because historians differ significantly in their reconstructions and interpretations, each generation as Carl Becker maintains, writes its own history. In the vivid imagination of each historian, the past takes shape, comes to life — and challenges.

One must evaluate the credibility of the eye witnesses of the past which you consult — the Spanish writers. Can you expect to find in their writings a complete and accurate reconstruction of the past? I do not believe so. What you will find is not the past, the whole past, the absolutely true past, but what they said about their present. Their works provide only segments of human experience. No eye-witness can testify or be cross-examined, no “habeas corpus” can produce the participants. In a sense the historian resembles the mystery story writer, reconstructing the past, of making it live. In doing this, he  cannot disassociate himself  from his own past and present: he will reconstruct history from the perspectives of his own socio-economic-cultural milieu, with its values and prejudice.

The “historias verdaderas”and the numerous “historias generales”: accounts, journals, speculative treatises, letters, enactments and records of the Crown and its officialdom; products of a spectacular host of explorers, adventurers, conquerors, theologians, jurists, missionaries, and a multitude of officials in an ascending and descending hierarchy of importance and influence — all these colonial sources, are only traces of the past: the remains, the incomplete materials which the creative imagination of the historian must utilize to reconstruct the past according to his theory which is: that an analysis of the motivating factors, mentalities and attitudes expressed in Spanish colonial writings, reveals that the Spaniards were guided and justified their goals and actions with a definite “chosen-people” attitude tailored by their specific character, ambitions and vision of themselves.

Now, you have a guide to provide you as accurate a picture as possible of an historical person or event.  Keep it in mind as you read history written by others in what was, or is, their “present.”  Or, try your hand at being a historian of your own “present.”


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