A masterful examination of how Fernández de Oviedo’s General and Natural History of the Indies created a new model for writing history that reflected the vastness of the New World and Spain’s colonial enterprise there.
Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557) wrote the first comprehensive history of Spanish America, the Historia general y natural de las Indias, a sprawling, constantly revised work in which Oviedo attempted nothing less than a complete account of the Spanish discovery, conquest, and colonization of the Americas from 1492 to 1547, along with descriptions of the land's flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples. His Historia, which grew to an astounding fifty volumes, includes numerous interviews with the Spanish and indigenous leaders who were literally making history, the first extensive field drawings of America rendered by a European, reports of exotic creatures, ethnographic descriptions of indigenous groups, and detailed reports about the conquest and colonization process.
Fernández de Oviedo's Chronicle of America explores how, in writing his Historia, Oviedo created a new historiographical model that reflected the vastness of the Americas and Spain's enterprise there. Kathleen Myers uses a series of case studies—focusing on Oviedo's self-portraits, drawings of American phenomena, approaches to myth, process of revision, and depictions of Native Americans—to analyze Oviedo's narrative and rhetorical strategies and show how they relate to the politics, history, and discursive practices of his time. Accompanying the case studies are all of Oviedo's extant field drawings and a wide selection of his text in English translation.
The first study to examine the entire Historia and its evolving rhetorical and historical context, this book confirms Oviedo's assertion that "the New World required a different kind of history" as it helps modern readers understand how the discovery of the Americas became a catalyst for European historiographical change.
- List of Illustrations
- Introduction: New World, New History and the Writing of America
- 1. Between Two Worlds: The Life and Writings of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés
- 2. A Reader's Guide to a New World History
- 3. The Historian as Actor and Autobiographer: Tierra Firme 1514
- 4. Eyewitness to America's Wonders: Illustrating a Natural History of the Indies
- 5. Amazon Women and New World Realities: Documenting an Expanding World
- 6. Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico: Truth and Multiple Testimonies
- 7. Native Americans in Oviedo's History
- A. Chronology of Fernández de Oviedo's Life and Works
- B. Map of Hispaniola and Tierra Firme
- C. Translations of Passages from Fernández de Oviedo's Historia general y natural de las Indias
- 1. Prologue, Part I, Book 1
- 2. Book 29, Chapter 6 (Tierra Firme)
- 3. Book 7, Chapter 16 (The Pineapple)
- 4. Book 6, Chapter 33 (Amazon Women)
- 5. Book 33, Chapter 54 (Interview with Juan Cano)
- 6. Book 29, Chapter 26 (Natives of Tierra Firme)
- D. Table. Historia general y natural Manuscript Locations and Illustrations/Woodcuts
- E. Illustrations
In 1493 a fourteen-year-old boy serving as a page for the Spanish prince Juan stood in awe as Christopher Columbus met with the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella. Columbus unveiled to the royal court in Barcelona his findings from his first voyage, displaying colorful parrots, enticing bits of gold, and native people. Nearly forty years later this boy, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, would write about this first presence of the New World on European land in his General and Natural History of the Indies (1535, 1850s). Appointed official royal chronicler of the Indies by the king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (the Catholic Kings' grandson), a post he held from 1532 until his death in 1557, Oviedo lived in the midst of radical changes in western Europe: the Age of Discovery and the birth of the Hapsburg Empire as well as the new intellectual and religious trends born out of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Writing from the island of Hispaniola, the crossroads for the Spanish enterprise in the New World during the sixteenth century, Oviedo composed the most comprehensive history of the discovery, conquest, and colonization of the Americas from 1492 to 1547. Both a chronicle of the Spanish domination of America and a description of its flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples, the two-thousand-page general and natural history is the most authoritative text on the Americas from the first half of the sixteenth century. Granted a royal decree, Oviedo had access to all the official reports about America. In addition, he knew or interviewed many of the major figures of the period. In Europe, Oviedo worked with three generations of Spanish monarchs (the Catholic Kings, Charles V, and Philip II) and an array of prominent political and religious men. In America, Oviedo knew Columbus and his sons, Juan Ponce de León, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Francisco, Gonzalo, Juan, and Hernando Pizarro, Diego de Almagro, Hernando de Soto, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and many others. He also met a number of important indigenous leaders in the Caribbean and Central America. The only other comparable history from the period, the History of the Indies by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, does not include an extensive natural history and was not published until the late eighteenth century. The General and Natural History can help modern readers understand how the new "discovery" became a catalyst for change in European historiography, geography, politics, and philosophy. Indeed, Oviedo's text itself served as a catalyst for European historiographical change.
Oviedo's dilemma was to write a history of a new world at a time when only two types of textual precedents were available: military and navigational accounts and histories written in Europe. The military accounts, for example, Hernán Cortés's letter about the Conquest of Mexico (1520), addressed specific expeditions and concerns. The histories, such as Peter Martyr's De Orbe Novo (1530), lacked the authority of an eyewitness account. Oviedo also looked to contemporary European histories and to the Greco-Roman tradition of Herodotus, Pliny, and Thucydides, among others, but these models fell short. The ancients did not know, much less write, about the Western Hemisphere. Oviedo had to reconcile the established histories with his own observations, frequently citing the ancients while also insisting that this New World required a different kind of history.
Writing over the course of nearly thirty-five years (ca. 1514-1549), Oviedo found that he had to shift his strategies, developing them according to the nature of his topic, as the exploration and conquest actually unfolded. His narrative and rhetorical strategies tell the story of history—both as a written practice and as a series of events—at a crossroads. Faced with an ongoing process of exploration, conquest, and colonization, with multiple and often competing reports from the field, and with an abundant new natural world, Oviedo attempted to give his patron the king the fullest possible account about the American territories, while also promoting his innovations on traditional historiographical methods. He justified his deviations from canonical texts and authorities by creating a central role for himself as the transcriber of his own eyewitness testimony and that of others.
Trained in the Castilian royal court at the beginning of the sixteenth century, exposed to the arts and philosophy of humanist Italy, and charged with official duties in America, Oviedo took a multifaceted approach to constructing his text. He wrote numerous explanatory prologues, interviewed conquistadors, transcribed field reports, debated the existence of mythical creatures, detailed indigenous customs, wrote autobiographical vignettes, and drew illustrations of American flora and fauna. In every case, Oviedo is the central vehicle or filter through which the reader receives valuable information. Future generations will be "awestruck," he boasts, that "a single man could have written such a multitude of histories and secrets of nature" (bk. 39, Proemio). Moreover, he states that the history is "not one of the least but rather one of the most high and copious that has been written by any man since Adam" (bk. 22, Proemio). As the author of both a natural and general history, Oviedo determinedly sought fame as the Pliny and the Herodotus of the New World. His vivid first-person interjections and omnipresence as mediator of sources, information, and meaning constitute the focus of this book. Oviedo's narrative reflects his official duties as chronicler of the Spanish Empire's American possessions and his own agenda as an author and actor within history. He was a man literarily between worlds: he fervently defended the interests of the Spanish monarchy and projected the norms of early modern European culture, and yet he realized that the New World needed a different historical approach.
Oviedo's massive General and Natural History of the Indies follows a rough overall chronological and geographical organization that parallels the conquest and colonization of the Indies. Books 1-19 cover Columbus's trips and the Antilles. Beginning with book 20, the author describes Ferdinand Magellan's voyage to the Moluccas and his subsequent explorations of the Southern Cone, rounding the Río de la Plata area and returning to the Caribbean, to what today is Trinidad, Venezuela, and Colombia. He then describes the expeditions to and settlement of Panama, parts of Central America, and the Yucatán. Books 33-40 detail the Conquest of Mexico and some of the North American territories. Oviedo then turns back to Central America, but this time to Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, before continuing down the Pacific coast to Peru and Chile (bks. 46-49). Book 50, the so-called Shipwreck Narratives, is a collection of the unfortunate stories of some expeditions.
In 1535, the first nineteen books (of what would become fifty books) were published along with what would become the fiftieth book. Within twenty years it was reprinted (1547) and translated into French (1555) and Italian (selections, 1556). Although it was not published in full until the mid-nineteenth century, the importance of Oviedo's History was immediately recognized by his contemporaries. The text offered the most comprehensive coverage of the Indies in the first half of the sixteenth century, and it provided the best access to a large number of primary sources. While men close to the events in the Indies, for example, Fernando Columbus and Las Casas, often criticized Oviedo's narrative renditions of historical events, a circle of Venetian scholars comment that the history is "the most pleasant which any person has ever got to read." In fact, Oviedo's text became a crucial source of information for many people dealing with a variety of issues raised by the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish humanist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, for example, drew on it to bolster his arguments in the famous mid-sixteenth-century debates with Las Casas about the justice of the conquest. Another humanist historian, Francisco López de Gómara, refers to Oviedo's and Martyr's histories as the only true accounts.
In subsequent decades and centuries, historians and scientists discussed the chronicler's contributions, often pointing to his work as the first to describe natural phenomena in the Indies. The history written by the mid-sixteenth-century Jesuit natural historian Bernabé Cobo follows Oviedo's, the eighteenth-century Italian forerunner of cultural anthropology, Giambattista Vico, mentions Oviedo on the subject of human sacrifice, and Alexander von Humboldt considered him, along with José de Acosta, the founder of physical geography. Oviedo's writings about America's natural world were the first of their kind; Spain's other notable early natural historians, such as José de Acosta, Nicolás Monardes, and Francisco Hernández, did not write until the second part of the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, Oviedo's work was often cast in the shadow of his archrival Las Casas. As the discourse about the conquest shifted during the sixteenth century, Oviedo's History came to represent the darker side of the conquest, while Las Casas's writings were seen as defending the Indians (a point I will take up in chapter 7).
In an attempt to recover Spain's leadership in the development of science, the Spanish Royal Academy of History in the eighteenth century tried to collect and publish for the first time the complete fifty-book General and Natural History. This was part of a larger plan to publish many of Spain's early chronicles of America. As María Teresa Nava notes in her studies on the topic, at various times during the course of a century scholars, among them Juan Batista Muñoz (whose partial copy is still extant), began the lengthy process of preparing Oviedo's work for publication. The effort to publish the entire History finally came to fruition in the 1850s with José Amador de los Ríos's monumental edition. Amador's panegyric introductory study portrayed the chronicler as a Renaissance man and a Spanish hero of a lost American empire. Nearly a hundred years elapsed before scholars produced more critical studies of Oviedo. First with the four-hundred-year commemoration of his death (1957) and later with the five-hundred-year commemoration of his birth (1978), some Spanish scholars created the portrait of an imperial hero, while others severely criticized Oviedo's view of native Americans and the wordy style of his history. A notable exception to this trend was Juan Pérez de Tudela's introduction to a reprinted edition of the history in 1959 and Antonello Gerbi's extensive study, Nature and the New World (1975). Both authors attempt to correct biographical errors and provide a more balanced context for understanding Oviedo's life. In addition, several scholars, such as Daymond Turner, wrote a series of articles and a bibliography which help document the historical setting in which Oviedo lived and worked. With the dynamic reevaluation of colonial texts and contexts that occurred around the quincentenary of Columbus's landfall, scholars increasingly began to analyze the representational strategies the chronicler employed (for example, Bolaños, Greenblatt, Merrim, Pagden) and his political motivation (for example, Brading, Kohut, Mojica, Rabasa). But they have been limited to articles or book chapters in their scope and length. They often focus on a single aspect of Oviedo's history: for example, a study of the natural history without regard to its role in the general history or a study of a specific conquest without taking into account Oviedo's general plan for the Spanish imperial project. The tide may be turning, however, as a handful of valuable dissertations in Spain, Britain, and the United States have been devoted to studying Oviedo from literary and historical perspectives (for example, Beckjord, Carrillo, Méndez, Rodríguez, Romano, Sampedro). One of these theses, De la Naturaleza y el Nuevo Mundo (2002) by Alexandre Coello de la Rosa, was published as a monograph. These studies exemplify the renewed interest in Oviedo as a figure who merits full-length study.
There is a significant gap between this scholarly production—much of which is available only in Spanish—and the frequency with which Oviedo's work is invoked in a myriad of fields, including, among others, botany, ethnography, history, literary studies, and zoology. People turn to his text for the first descriptions of pineapples, sloths, and canoes as well as of native Taíno dance (areitos) and detailed information recorded from now lost sources, such as Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's report about his trek across what is today the Southwest United States. This frequent reliance on Oviedo as a source begs the question of why this lacuna in scholarship exists. A large part of the answer lies in the text itself. At over two thousand pages filled with multiple accounts of a single event, the history can be unwieldy. The author's uneven narrative flow and style make for difficult reading in some passages, yet vivid reading in others. These variances in style and narrative strategies have too often been tagged as proof of Oviedo's poor authorial capacity. In addition, perhaps because of this, we lack an authoritative edition and an English translation. The only full edition of the history, that of Amador de los Ríos, is a hundred and fifty years old, and it is full of inaccuracies, perhaps the most serious being that it drastically altered many of Oviedo's original illustrations and moved them to an appendix. Access to Oviedo's work is further complicated by the lack of a complete autograph manuscript; only about half of the History is extant, and it is dispersed among several libraries.
In this book I aim to address, at least in part, several of the gaps with regard to the accessibility and reliability of the General and Natural History of the Indies. I reproduce, to the extent possible, his original field drawings, which were among the first European images made of the New World. In addition, Nina M. Scott provides in English translation samples of several genre types found in the history, and these furnish the keys with which to interpret Oviedo's representational strategies. To date there are no translations of sections of Oviedo's history that reveal his overall purpose and method. In general, translators have excerpted material dealing with specific historical figures, such as Cabeza de Vaca, De Soto, and Columbus, or have focused on a particular geographical region, such as the Amazon or Puerto Rico. Scott's passages in translation offer a sampling of the range of material covered in Oviedo's text. The selections highlight his historiographical material: discussion about historical method (prologues), autobiographical accounts (the colonization of Central America), natural history (the pineapple), general history—which included secondhand reports about mythical human beings (Amazon women) and interviews with witnesses of the conquest (Mexico-Tenochtitlan)—and descriptions of Native American cultures. Many of these deal in particular with Oviedo's acute consciousness as a historiographer living in a new world.
Each of the six translated selections corresponds to one of my six chapter studies and illustrates the historian's complex intermingling of New World topics, representational strategies, Spanish politics, and personal ambition. I study Oviedo's efforts to convey graphically American reality to European readers and explain them by placing his efforts in the context of the intellectual and cultural transformations taking place in the early modern period. In particular, I focus on Oviedo's compositional challenges as a writer of the New World and suggest how period conventions may have informed the author's choice of genre and representational practices. In so doing, my studies encompass theories of knowledge, sight, genre, and experience.
Besides being a dedicated writer sensitive to the representational dilemma facing a historian of the Indies, Oviedo was a contentious Crown bureaucrat and an ambitious Spaniard seeking his own fame and fortune in America. Thus, each chapter also situates Oviedo's discussion of nature, history, Native Americans, and conquistadors within the context of relevant biographical data about the author and the overarching politics of the Crown and courts at the time Oviedo records specific information. His legal battles and changing administrative positions in the Indies often deeply influenced his historical account. Writing from about 1514 to 1549, Oviedo began his life in the Indies as one of the early settlers and Crown administrators in Central America but later became an established keeper of the fort in Santo Domingo and the royal chronicler of the Indies. His perspective changed from that of a colonizer fighting for rights to profits to that of an opinionated historian who observes and records what he sees and hears, for the king and for posterity.
In order to accomplish the cultural, historical, and biographical contextualization of Oviedo's representational practices and influences, I have based my reading of the History on knowledge of his entire work—including, most significantly, the complex process of composing and recomposing the text. As mentioned above, Oviedo wrote over decades, decades that reflect important changes in European intellectual practices, in the conquest of America, and in the author's circumstances. Through extensive archival research on sections of Oviedo's extant manuscript, contemporary copies, and the nineteenth-century edition, my book sets out for the first time a detailed chronology of the author's constant, at times obsessive, revisions and additions to the History. Oviedo considered his text to be an open repository for new information. He made continual revisions and updates and added testimony as he collected it, practices that have caused confusion in earlier studies. A systematic chronology can throw new light on our interpretation of Oviedo's natural, general, and autobiographical history and reveal his concept of writing and making history. He did not produce a fixed text but rather conducted an ongoing project in which he created a central—though changing—role for himself within the shifting nature of the conquest and updated information about a new world.
A focus on the complex, changing text and context will allow us to see the epistemological and philological underpinnings of Oviedo's discussion of the Indies as well as the economic, political, and moral contours of the text. The historian's representation of America and his own role within it had deep ethical and political implications for himself and others. In my analysis, I open the reading of Oviedo to a complex matrix of considerations that helps uncover Oviedo's worldview, neither adopting it nor ignoring the fact that a violent conquest took place with his full engagement in it. As we will see in the chapters that follow, as Oviedo became less concerned with participating in the governance of the newly colonized areas and, after 1532, more concerned with his role as the royal chronicler, he tended to focus more on the methodological challenges of writing a history of the Indies, which often involved more detailed descriptions and moralizing and less schematic information and legalistic reports. Through a reconstruction of Oviedo's writing of certain parts of his text, we see the explicit and implicit purposes of his History. The author's uneven style, repetitions, and contradictions often tell the story of his evolving roles as historian and actor in history.
I use a series of case studies to analyze Oviedo's historiographic strategies; they include an examination of his self-portraits, drawings of American phenomena, approaches to myth, process of revision, and depictions of Native Americans. In every case I reconstruct key aspects of cultural practices, political and personal contexts, and compositional dates. Before beginning the case studies, in an opening chapter, "Between Two Worlds: The Life and Writings of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés," I detail Oviedo’s career as a court page, author, Italian courtier, and New World bureaucrat. This chapter places the historian in the context of the emerging Hapsburg Empire, Renaissance Italy, and the conquest of America. Oviedo was a man between two worlds. He lived for nearly equal periods of time on both sides of the Atlantic. While in Europe, he worked as a bureaucrat and in the royal courts. In the New World, Oviedo had a long and varied career as town councilman, supervisor of the king's gold, and keeper of a fort. In the few trips he made back to Spain after 1515, Oviedo presented numerous legal cases about the governing of the Indies and information about Native Americans. This chapter also sketches the relationship between Oviedo's life and his writings. His most important legacy is a corpus of about ten major books, works that display his knowledge of a broad range of historical events, literary genres, and historical, ecclesiastic, and juridical discourses. He was a prolific writer who played many roles as a participant-observer of the tumultuous politics of America and Spain in the early modern era. His life was driven equally by loyalty to the monarchy, personal ambition, and a love of America.
The next chapter, "A Reader's Guide to a New World History," examines the prologues to each of the three parts of the History. The first prologue, in particular, reveals Oviedo's careful manipulation of historiographic and linguistic norms as he explains why a new world required a new historical method. Between the lines, we glimpse the linchpin of the entire text: the author's own central, authoritative role as the on-site historian. Oviedo states that information about the Indies cannot be learned from the great texts of classical antiquity or in the hallowed halls of any of Europe's best universities. This chapter contextualizes Oviedo's prologue, placing it within period debates about the limits of book learning and the value of experience. By the time Oviedo wrote the prologue to the third and final part of his History, some dozen years after the first, he broadened his role as scribe and interpreter of America: he increasingly became a judge of men's actions and an avid advocate for imperial policies.
Chapter 3, "The Historian as Actor and Autobiographer: Tierra Firme 1514," takes a closer look at Oviedo's role in the early years of the conquest and colonization of Central America—the years when he served as a royal bureaucrat rather than as a historian—and examines the abundant stories and autobiographic details within the History (bks. 26, 29). The author blends elements from classical history with the emerging autobiographical genres of the period, especially the legalistic relación and confessional narrative (vida), to create a narrative space and authority for his personal role as a good governor and as a good witness for both king and God. Upon closer examination, this self-portrait is telling: it coincides with Oviedo's repeated efforts to obtain a coveted governorship and to censor the governor of Castilla del Oro, Pedro Arias de Ávila, or Pedrarias Dávila.
Subsequent chapters turn to Oviedo's representational strategies for both the natural and general history. Studying first the depiction of the natural world, in chapter 4, "Eyewitness to America's Wonders: Illustrating a Natural History of the Indies," I study complex relationship between Oviedo's verbal description of New World phenomena and his nearly eighty field drawings. I look in particular at his discussions of the link between sight and truth, between the writing of history and the attaining of knowledge. The author's illustrations and commentary help us to understand better the role of visual epistemology during the period and the role of experience within it. This relationship between the creator of text and image, and the reader and knowledge, however, was not static. As Oviedo revised sections of the history and wrote new chapters, his ideology about the role of images and the author evolved. A study of the illustrations reveals Oviedo's transformation as a historian over time and the emerging concepts of scientific illustration.
Continuing a close interrogation of the construction of Oviedo's text over time and its implications for understanding the evolution of his historiographic method, chapter 5, "Amazon Women and New World Realities: Documenting an Expanding World," discusses the major changes in Oviedo's writing project. Composing his text about the Indies over a period of thirty-five years, the author changed his method and organizational structure—most importantly in the early 1540s. After examining the deep revisions he made to his text at this time, I turn to a case study that reveals how Oviedo continued to debate the "truth" of New World realities, even when he became more of an official transcriber than a personal witness of events. Nearly a dozen passages in the History address the possibility of republics of women, "Amazon-like" women, living in America. As evidence mounted that these women, if indeed they existed, did not look like the Amazon women portrayed in the Greek myth, Oviedo was reluctant to let go completely of the association of the New World reality with the Old World myth. We see this through a study of revisions made to the original accounts in the autograph manuscript. As a man who knew how to use myths to attract readers, he may have resisted discarding well-known fabulous and fantastic stories. Clearly, the development of a more modern historiographic practice was not always a linear process.
Chapter 6, "Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico: Truth and Multiple Testimonies," delves further into Oviedo's emphasis on eyewitness testimony, his own role as the mediator of truth, and the need for constant revisions. Taking a key chapter from the history of the Conquest of Mexico (bk. 33, chap. 54), I study Oviedo's transcription of an interview with an informant in which polemical issues about the conquest are discussed. By the mid-1540s new versions of the events of the Conquest of Mexico made clear that the material Oviedo had included earlier, based on Cortés's letters, was inaccurate. By including verbatim his own questions and the responses of a dissenting view of Cortés's role, the historian manipulates the material to revise the previous account and to reestablish the veracity and authority of his own history. Oviedo's use of dialogued prose rather than of summarizing historical narrative is central to understanding the author's justification of his historiographic method and indirect criticism of Cortés.
Chapter 7, "Native Americans in Oviedo's History," turns to the controversial issues surrounding Oviedo's representation of Native Americans. No study of the historiographical method and ideology he employs in his general and natural history would be complete without an attempt to sort out the often contradictory portraits he paints. His text had important political implications in the discussion of and ultimate ill-treatment of the Indians. On the one hand Oviedo accused Native Americans in the Caribbean of being idolatrous. On the other he praised certain aspects of their culture and provided some of the first extensive ethnographic information about indigenous communities. Based on the approximate dates of composition and types of indigenous groups depicted, I trace the trajectory of Oviedo's descriptions of Indians. In particular, I examine three influences on his text: knowledge about his subjects, policy about the Indians, and his role at the moment of writing. As we see throughout Oviedo's text, history and representation are far from static. Moreover, we see clearly the limitations of European models and worldviews for describing and understanding vastly different cultures.
My reading of Oviedo's History as a complete text, using a threefold approach of rhetorical conventions, biographical and political contexts, and compositional dates, helps us broaden and deepen our understanding of this key Spanish chronicler. We glimpse the myriad philosophical, representational, political, and personal challenges facing a European writer of America and see that Oviedo was as complex and contradictory as the times in which he lived.