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SPAIN and Spanish America: Pagans and missionaries



José Manuel de Prada rejoins: "Well, I don't think I have an idealized image of the Indians, but I hate the whole rhetoric about the Spaniards civilizing them. Their cultures were already quite sophisticated before the contact withe Europe. As for cruelty and oppressive political regimes, in what regards that they where neither better nor worse than the people who came to "civilize" them. I don't really praise the Jesuits. Their missions were also very destructive of the Guarani culture and religion, but at least they preserved the lives and dignity of their wards. And they deeply admired their language, which is one of the best documented and studied in the Americas, thanks to the rigorous scholarship of the Jesuits.

Concerning the Maya, it is worth mentioning the recent discovery, at the site of Dos Pilas, in Guatemala, of a long inscription which suggests that the downfall of Maya civilization took place in the wake of a very long and destructive war among the two Maya "superpowers", Tikal and Calakmul. Indeed, at story to learn from! It was recently reported in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/19/science/19MAYA.html?tntemail1
The idealization of Maya culture was largely due to the excessive influence of British archaeologist Sir Eric Thompson (1898-1975). His influence was such, that for decades he actually stalled the progress of Maya studies. In spite of the fact that he himself had unearthed evidence that pointed to the contrary, he insisted that the Maya were the peaceful merchants and star-gazers he wanted them to be. And till they day of his death, he maintained that Maya glyphs were purely ornamental, even though a Russian scientist, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, had demonstrated in the 1950's that they glyphs were indeed a true writing system. See Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (London, 1992). This is not the only instance of a charismatic and obdurate scholar hindering the progress of a whole discipline!"

My comment: WAIS is concerned about different views of the world, and this provides an excellent example. José Manuel lives in Barcelona, and the rhetoric to which he objects came mostly from Madrid. It provoked a counter rhetoric among Latin American leftists. Those of us who are not caught up in the argument can take a more detached view. We have our own myths. The imaginary noble cowboy is the most blatant. He is the modern counterpart of Spain's medieval hero, el Cid, whose tomb Spanish realists wish to lock with seven keys. But at least he existed.

Last week in Spain there was a startling historical resurrection. Prime Minister José María Aznar, whom I respect, is a very sober individual; he began life as an accountant. I was shocked that he chose to marry his daughter in a grandiose and expensive ceremony in El Escorial, the palace-monastery of Philip II. Was he just a doting father, or was he sending us a message? From El Escorial one looks out over the plain where Philip II built Madrid to be the capital of "the Spains". Was he reminding people that Madrid is the capital of Spain?

I knew Eric Thompson at Harvard in 1938. His scholarship was then unquestioned. Old age is unkind to some people. As for the Russian scholar Knorosov, I had correspondence with him, and he sent me a copy of his book. It is not light fiction. He wrote it with the help of the computers at Novosibirsk.

Ronald Hilton - 9/21/02


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