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MEXICO: Sahagun and Mexican History

Walden Browne, Sahagun and the Transition to Modernity (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000, pp.260) is Volume 20 in the Oklahoma Project for Discourse and Theory. The series attempts to interpret for example authors in terms of current philosophical and social theories, in other words to bring together various disciplines.

Francisco Rivera (1500-1590) was born in Sahagun, a historic town southeast of Leon with a Franciscan convent. He studied in Salamanca and took the name of his home town when he entered the Franciscan order. He came to Mexico in 1529 with 19 other friars, and he dedicated his life to the study of the Nahuatl language and Aztec history. His works are of the utmost importance for the study of Mexican history. Amazingly, some of them have not been published or the Nahuatl texts translated.

His most important work is the Historia de las cosas de Nueva Espana, in which he tells the story of the Conquest from the Indian viewpoint. The Franciscans did a remarkable job of converting the Indians, but even so their account of the Conquest did not jibe with that of the Spaniards. It was doubtless because of this that Philip II ordered Sahagún to stop his work, since Indian sources were regarded as the work of the devil.

We have a special interest in conflicting versions of history which are either the cause of or the result of war. History is written by the victors, but the vanquished have quite a different version. Apart from its historical interest, this version is important because it stays in the minds of the descendents of the vanquished. The theory or myth of the Noble Indian, so popular in modern times (witness the failure of the Columbus celebrations in 1992) has made the version fashionable, to the dismay of traditional historians. The Indianist position is implicit in much of the unrest in places like Chiapas, Guatemala and Peru.

So sweeping and undiscriminating is the condemnation of the Conquest that the missionaries who defended and protected the Indians are often unfairly included in it. Bartolome de las Casas is about the only one who escapes unscathed, but he was a Dominican, and the Franciscans like Sahagun were as humans much more kindly. History if not fair, but the devotion of the ordinary Indians to their Catholic faith is proof that there is among the unlettered a deep gratitude for the work of he friars.

Ronald Hilton - 8/12/00