Introduction to Ambivalent Conquests
In this paper I will try to look at Inga Clendinne and her work Ambivalent Conquests in such a critical way that will allow answering several important questions. The first question addressed in the book: what is the crisis, which the writer talks about and what is even more specific what insights do the discussions in the novel raise as to evangelization campaigns in the Yucatan and the relationship between the settlers and the missionaries in the New World.
The other important question is about author’s examination of description of the ambivalent conquests and if this term is the most appropriate to describe the situation. And then we will try to identify any ambiguities standing apart from the material of the book.
While discussing the crisis we should refer to chapter six of the book. There is a possibility that instead of one big crisis there exist 3 crises that are taking place at the same time. All these crisis can be followed through the life and perception of the Indians, Franciscans and the settlers. If we try to understand the crisis from the point of view of Franciscan friars that came to the region as missionaries, the crisis is most definitely that the Indians that they have converted, trusted as Christians, and guided in daily religious life have been deceitful in their proclamations of Christianity.
Besides they have been worshiping idols, committing human sacrifice and also double playing – working against the friars secretly. In their feedback to the situation the friars insist on the programs of purification, to make the region of dangerous and subversive pagan influence cleaner and a safer place to leave.
From the other hand if we try to analyze crisis from the perspective of the settlers, the situation in the case is more convoluted. I think several things, such as the chance of human sacrifice, threatened them and also the possibility of interruption in the labor supplies, because of the heavy strict strategies applied by friars. Some of the settlers were threatened by the chance of all-out indigenous revolt in response to the escalating abuse of the Indians by the Franciscan friars.
Franciscan friars and Ambivalent Conquests
This abuse could in fact have been the reason of the crisis for Indians. During the preceding periods of time, Indians were allowed to live their lives balanced between practicing Christianity, therefore providing cheap labor force fro settlers, and yet participating is some of the religious practices they were used to. Now the Franciscan friars were unleashing an unprecedented level of physical and psychological violence on the indigenous populations. The book says about some individuals confessing to crimes during brutal tortures and committing suicide to escape the torture. Entire villages were left abandoned because of the fears.
The episode does not clarify that there were problems with understanding and accepting cultural practices of Indians by the missionaries and the ways of the implementation of the bringing Christianity of New Spain. The author alludes to conflicts that take place in the church over the question if the Indians should immediately become Christian or should be allowed to be Christian on the surface and to integrate Christian practices into their cultures gradually.
Clearly Franciscan friars were for immediate total conversion of every Indian, but Bishop Toral and most of the settlers were more tolerant and rather satisfied with gradual conversion into Christianity.
Spanish settlers and Ambivalent Conquests
The situation shows the precariousness of the relations between Franciscan missionaries and Spanish settlers. Even though the Spanish settlers were good, religious Catholics, they were at the first place concerned with their livelihood, which surely why they came to the United States. And, when the inquisition of the Indians threatened their labor force, the settlers were left in an awkward situation: do they oppose the friars in defense of the Indians or do they join the friars in their persecution of the Indians? There is not surprise that settlers did not choose any of the options and mostly were trying to escape confronting the situation as much as possible. Thus the attitude of the settlers to Franciscan friars became very ambivalent.
According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, the term ambivalence means “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward an object, person, or action”. This actually is by far most appropriate word to refer to the perspectives of the settlers and on the conquest, especially when they view the religious aspects.
The settlers are shown like if they were supporting friars, friars were supposedly their spiritual leader or liaisons. However at the same time the settlers opposed and feared Franciscan friars, rapidly escalating attack on the Indians nominal Christianity and supposed idolatry.
In fact there existed a real fear that the persecution of Indians would negatively reflect on the labor supply and therefore disrupt the balance: causing useful Indian to get upset and start a revolt against the settlers.
At last we need to see any differences raised by the author’s portrayal of the narrative, and the most important question to be answered concerns Fray Landa, the Franciscan friar. How is it possible that a Franciscan who is supposed to live by the rule of St. Francis of Assisi, in poverty and humility, could commit the atrocities that are portrayed in the text? And what is even more important how could the Franciscan church have supported him in the efforts bringing suffering and fear to other people.
Three crisis examination
We have seen the crisis examined in the text and can conclude that in fact there were 3 separate ones: including the Franciscan friars, the Indians, and the settlers. Besides the work ambivalent is not very appropriate for describing the situation that the settlers met, but possibly for describing the author’s vague commitment to one perspective or the other when describing the crisis or crises. Maybe it is the avoidance of a set perspective in the text that is the most effective manner of conveying the complexity of the situation.
Clendinnen have used the following metaphor – “confusion of tongues”, this could be understood in several ways. One way interpreting it is the language barriers, but it can also mean the failure to understand the cultural norms and traditions, gender roles and religion. This is a 2 way street. The Indians and Spanish and Yucatan Peninsula all struggled with understanding and perceiving one another. Colonization brought about multiple realities and distorted self-images.
The misunderstanding and non-acceptance resulted in violence, Catholic against pagan, Spaniard against Indian, woman against conquistador. The resistance to, and ambivalence of, the conquest can be linked to this “confusion of tongues”. This may be why Todorov appears to strangely respect Cortes for his ability to “divide and conquer” by being able to “read the signs”.
The role of church is vital in the whole book. Cortes thinks that it is essential for Indians to subject themselves to both “mysteries of Christ” and to the Spanish rulers, the basis of the church ruling that enslavement and war could only be made on groups that had rejected the Gospel.
The question of sources has to be addressed as well and Clendinnen devotes a large section to this problem. [pp.165-189] In this is evidence of speculation, and we see her talking rather often in terms like “might” and “probably”. However there are other examples present here. These include the lack of Franciscan letters to home, the validity of confused confessions under torture, the similarity of correspondence sent on behalf of de Landa, and the exaggerated number of deaths. [pp.49,60,93,101,188]
Conclusion of the Ambivalent Conquests
The book is both the specific study of conversion to Christianity in a remote part of the Spanish Empire, it is also a work with issues that have to be understood in European dominion and resistance of the native inhabitants of America. Inga evaluates the increasing conflict between competing and divergent Spanish ways of understanding and also the destructive results they led to. She seeks to penetrate the ways of thinking and feeling of the Mayan Indians in a detailed reconstruction of their assessment of the intruders.
“This is an intricate story, by turns exhilarating and depressing, of cultural interaction among parties whose motives were consciously and unconsciously at variance. . . . Clendinnen’s reconstruction is a model of historical intelligence and anthropological empathy couched in superbly crafted prose.” Frederick P. Bowser, Latin American Research Review
I agree with the critics, the book is not only interesting to read, but is very educational in terms of history and human relations. I really like and I think I will read it at least one more time, since some of the details can not be grasped right away.