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Moving to the Suburbs: Reducciones in Recent Latin American Historiography

By N. H. Gill
          In 1503, the Spanish monarchy issued its first decree for the resettlement of indigenous groups in the Caribbean so that they would “live together” and “not remain or wander separated from each other in the backcountry.”[1] 

As the European conquest spread to North, Central, and South America, these new settlements – known as reducciones and congregaciones in Spanish and descimentos in Portuguese – became sites of forced labor, evangelism, experimental agricultural, and refuge. Through a series of imperial policies decreed over the next decades and centuries of colonial rule, Spanish and Portuguese officials attempted to reshape the New World, including its human and natural landscapes. How colonial historians explain this process and indigenous peoples’ reactions to it is the focus of this essay.

In a review of the recent historiography of reducciones, several trends emerge that signal a shift in our understanding of the practice. As this paper will show, one common element is that Spanish and Portuguese officials did not implement the resettlements without significant input from local communities in the Americas. These works reflect postmodern and postcolonial theories and represent a shift away from world-systems approaches, such as those of Immanuel Wallerstein and Eric Wolf, which analyze the resettlement of indigenous groups as a function of early European capitalism.[2] In contrast, the authors reviewed here situate their analysis within the Americas, concentrating on the active roles played by local officials, mestizos, Indian elites, and the millions of indigenous people who lived through the changes.

Furthermore, all the works analyzed in this essay employ an analytical framework that focuses on physical and cultural space to answer questions such as: how did local knowledge and land practices inform imperial policy; what role did warfare between indigenous tribes have on the acceptance of these settlements; how did perceptions of distance influence the perceived need for relocating Indians; how did semi-sedentary and non-sedentary communities adapt to more-sedentary lifestyles; and how did the natural environment contribute to different outcomes across such vastly different spaces.

The authors reviewed also seem to agree that the early reducciones were often imposed by force and served to create pools of indigenous labor. However, several authors show that the choice to inhabit these new spaces, as well as the shape and location they took, depended significantly on historical settlement patterns, the natural environment, and indigenous knowledge of the local landscapes. Taken together, these histories represent a new way of understanding colonial resettlements and what may have been one of the biggest forced migrations in human history.

Locating the Reducciones

While the use of the term reducciones varied among the works reviewed, all of the authors recognize an underlying element of coercion in the early resettlement policies.[3] For example, Jeremy Ravi Mumford, writing about sixteenth-century Peru in his monograph Vertical Empire, says Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo “ordered the native people of the central Andes to abandon their homes and move to new towns founded after a Spanish model.[4] Heidi Scott, discussing the same event in her book Contested Territory, describes the process as the imposition of a “colonial spatial order” stemming from a “desire to create a sedentary and rooted society.”[5]

Also acknowledging elements of pressure, Cynthia Radding’s Landscapes of Power and Identity, a comparative history of Chiquitos and Sonora, defines reducciones as “mission towns intended to enforce permanent settlement in nomadic frontiers.”[6] Historian David Weber’s description of the Interior Provinces of New Spain in his regional history Bárbaros emphasizes the manipulative way that “savages” were treated in missions, saying that in some areas even “slaves were better off.”[7] However, like Dana Velasco Murillo in her monograph on silver mining in colonial Zacatecas, Radding, Weber, and the Brazilian historian Heather Roller also present contrasting examples of areas where the decision to relocate was voluntary.[8] Through an extensive mining of local archives with an eye toward how Native Americans and Europeans negotiated power in the borderlands of the colonial world, those authors show several cases where the decision to resettle was even initiated by indigenous groups. They also show the degree to which the success or failure of the reducciones depended on Crown officials’ willingness to adapt to local conditions.

Interestingly, Roller’s Amazonian Routes explores how Jesuit and imperial authorities relied on members of corporate Indian communities, known as Indios aldeados, to persuade unsettled tribes to move downriver into Portuguese descimentos.[9] There, her focus on mobility and distance sheds light on the relationship between indigenous groups and the rivers of the Amazon basin, and how local social networks helped the Portuguese implement their resettlement policies. A separate study on colonial Guatemala, Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery by Sylvia Sellers-García, also highlights cases of willing relocation, as well as compulsory migration.[10] Yet by focusing on space and the environment, all of the authors are able to provide a nuanced view of how we should understand the policies of the reducciones. They also shed light on why some groups willingly chose to resettle while others fled whenever possible. The essay that follows explores these issues and shows how the authors’ use of space enriches the historiography of indigenous resettlements in the Latin American colonies.

Methodologically, the essay is divided into three sections reflecting a dialectical analysis: the first analyzes the rhetoric and initial goals of the imperial powers when they embarked on the reducciones and descimentos; the essay then explores how indigenous groups reacted to the measures, as well as the ways in which the natural and human environments influenced their decisions; it concludes by looking at the negotiated outcomes of the different settlements and the ways in which imperial and indigenous actors worked to shape these colonial landscapes over three centuries of shared space.

Rhetoric of Reducción and Imperial Design 

As mentioned, the first official attempt to resettle indigenous groups in the Caribbean came from a royal decree issued by the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand in 1503. As Mumford notes, Catholic friars and conquistadores had begun experimenting with resettlements soon after landing in the New World as the impact of disease and warfare in the densely-populated communities reduced the availability of indigenous workers for the nascent encomienda system.[11] However, as the language of the decree illustrates, Spanish officials were conscious of their limited ability to project control over scattered populations and therefore sought to impose a recognizable spatial order on the Americas from the very beginning. Yet subsequent decrees show that the Crown went further than was strictly necessary to force Indians to relocate. Proclamations included rules on the distribution of living spaces, beds and sleeping arrangements, bathing habits, body paint, clothing, and even purges.[12]

The Crown’s concern for such minutia raises the interesting question about the how reducciones were also used as cultural weapons. Indeed, the royal decrees on reducciones issued in 1509, 1512, 1523, 1538, 1546, and 1549 all deal in some way with acculturation and political control.[13] Mumford quotes the Council of Bishops of Mexico City in 1546 saying that for Indians, “to be truly Christian and civilized [políticos], as the rational men they are, it is necessary [for them] to be congregated and reduced into towns, and not to live scattered and dispersed in the mountains and wilderness.”[14] In this respect, the language of the decrees, becoming Christian and civilized in a town, shows that the official rhetoric of the reducciones involved more than just creating pools of forced labor, it also linked European spatial order with political and moral progress.

Heidi Scott, who also examined Toledo’s reforms in sixteenth-century Peru, echoes Mumford’s emphasis on the so-called civilizing elements of resettlement policy. The reducciones, she says, “reflected a powerful desire to arrest uncontrolled indigenous mobility and to make native populations visible and easily accessible, as well as to initiate them into a life of policía.”[15] As we will see later, the emphasis on mobility is important. Scott also notes that the term policía is significant. Citing Richard Kagan’s translation of policía to mean “civilized life,” she further underscores the intentional way in which reducciones were designed to teach Indians to live like Europeans.[16]

Going even further, Scott shows how Jesuits in the 1620s would physically hunt down Andeans’ sacred places and objects, known as huacas, and mark them with crosses to break the power of their spirits and their cultural attachments to the land. As she says, “the extirpators’ act of planting crosses may be understood as the expression of an impossible desire to ‘fix’ the landscape.”[17] It may also be understood as an attempt to sever these spiritual links to the environment and replace them with a relationship to the Church and Crown.

Spain’s experience with resettlements in sixteenth-century Peru was marked by both the steep topography of the Andes as well as the concentrated populations of sedentary people whom they encountered there. The reducciones that were created during the period of the Toledo Reforms also occurred within areas where the Spanish already exercised a high degree of control over the local population. However, in areas where indigenous groups had developed semi-sedentary and non-sedentary lifeways, such as the colonial borderlands of Chiquitos and Sonora, the colonial implementation of the reducciones was distinct. In those areas, Radding explains that “indigenous agrarian systems, responding to the environmental conditions of each of these regions, conditioned the character of the mission enterprise.”[18] That native peoples had developed successful cultural and agricultural practices, revolving around seasonal mobility and migratory patterns, came to represent a unique challenge for the design and implementation of the Crown’s envisioned reducciones.[19]

Located in the humid, tropical forests of what is now Bolivia’s Department of Santa Cruz, Chiquitos was an area known to the Jesuits for rainy and dry seasons, seasonal flooding, rich soil, and abundant honey and wax supplies for the colonial markets.[20] Before colonization, native economies were dependent on swidden agriculture, hunting and gathering, as well as complex social trade relationships that connected communities with distant areas. In the colonial period, the presence of abundant water supplies and seemingly fertile soil allowed the Jesuits to form reducciones of over one thousand people, often located outside of traditional indigenous settlements.[21] In contrast, Radding explains that Sonora’s dry climate and relatively scarce arable land often led the Jesuits to establish their new missions on sites previously inhabited by Native Americans.[22] As the author says, the missions’ “physical existence depended on the multiple resources of game, wild plants, and cultigens that, in turn, required access to different ecological niches within widely defined territories.”[23] In both of these areas, indigenous communities relied on their traditional agricultural practices for subsistence and used the missions as places to obtain meat rations, tools, and trade goods distributed by priests.[24]

In the Chiquitos area, the Jesuits began operating missions in the 1580s, but their activities were limited to areas controlled by encomenderos.[25] It was not until the late seventeenth-century that the priests began expanding their operations into the population at large. In the early period, Jesuit efforts were concentrated on new converts, brought into the missions by entradas. These entradas, according to Radding, were “overture[s]—both peaceful and coercive—made to native rancherías [hamlets smaller than a village, often seminomadic] to accept mission life in the uncertain climate created by the fearful sequence of epidemic diseases and by Spanish demands for forced labor under the encomienda system.”[26] At this time, she says, the missions were “less a settled compound than an itinerant foray into the forests.”[27] In the Sonora region, the missions accompanied the expansion of mining operations in Nueva Vizcaya and the Sierra Madres. In a bid to exert greater control over this area, colonial authorities asked the Jesuits to begin building a series of missions to bring more Indians into the colonial sphere.[28]

Chantal Cramaussel’s research on a similar area of northern New Spain provides a look at the use of forced labor and the concomitant need to resettle Indians into new spaces. As the Spanish frontier expanded, local populations were absorbed into the colonial economy and indigenous labor pools were created for the benefit of European colonists.[29] She says that “the relatively high demographic density of the local Indian population allowed Spaniards of this region to maintain a dispersed settlement pattern, in which estancias and haciendas were placed next to missions and rancherías.”[30] As this suggests, local populations were relocated to areas near the colonial production centers. Furthermore, these Spanish enclaves depended not only on Indian labor but Indian crops as well.

In this respect, there are similarities between the ways that Cramaussel, Mumford, Scott, Radding approach reducciones in the early colonial period— as a means to create indigenous labor pools for the colonial economy. However, as we can see from Cramaussel and Radding’s studies, the spaces where the reducciones took place were also dependent on the natural and cultural environments.

In terms of the physical spaces created in the new settlements, Radding describes the Jesuit reducciones as “established town sites that encompassed the church, an adjoining convent…a colegio for instruction and the deliberations of the cabildo, and additional workrooms and storage areas for granaries, merchandise, and mission produce.[31] From a colonial official’s perspective, this contrasts favorably with Scott’s description of the Andean town of San Juan de Matucana, a poorly-serviced parish in the “colonial heartlands” of Peru, where a church dispute erupted in 1630 between two priests over the poor state of that parish’s flock.[32] While some differences between the missions described by the two authors may be due to the fact that Scott and Radding are examining different time periods, the descriptions highlight important differences between reducciones established for religious instruction and those that were primarily used to provide pools of workers for colonial labor drafts.

This can also be seen in Velasco Murillo’s work on colonial Zacatecas in which she says that in the early years, “semisendentary and nonsedentary peoples did not interest Spaniards because they did not serve their purposes: they lacked the political and social structures and organizations that facilitated the extraction of resources in labor or kind.”[33] When contrasting the accounts of the reducciones of the central Peruvian highlands with those in Chiquitos and Sonora, it is clear that the type of community present, sedentary, semi-sedentary, or non-sedentary, as well as cultural practices and the natural environment, played a fundamental role in the shape that the new settlements took.

Returning to Radding’s work, it is also interestingly that as time passed and the Jesuits moved away from the model of providing forced labor for the encomiendas in Chiquitos, the focus on Christian conversion became the driving imperative. The author shows that this divergence between the underlying interests of the priests and those of the encomenderos increasingly led to disputes between the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown.[34] However, at least through the seventeenth and early eighteenth-centuries, enough overlap existed around the region to make the two institutions figurative bedfellows, albeit not always comfortable ones.

If we turn our attention to the Portuguese colonies and the Amazonian borderlands of northern Brazil, we see interesting similarities and differences in the way that colonial authorities resettled native populations there. Roller’s book, Amazonian Routes, focuses on the role that indigenous mobility played in defining what came to be known as the descimentos. She defines these as “resettlement[s]…of an independent native group from the interior to a colonial village” or they could refer to the “expedition that persuaded them to resettle and conducted them downriver.”[35] In this example, the very term descimentos, as opposed to reducción or congregación signals an important difference in terms of how the colonial powers viewed the resettlements taking place. As Mumford notes, while relocating indigenous groups into a central locations was sometimes called congregaciones in Mexico and Guatemala, the term reducción was often used to describe the larger process of “cultural transformation.”[36] Etymologically, he says, reducción is derived from the Spanish verb reducir, translated as “to reduce” in English, with both terms reflecting the Latin word ducire, which, with the prefix “re-,” means “to lead back.”[37] On the other hand, Roller translates descimento literally as “descent,” in this case, down the Amazon River.[38] Focusing on the second-half of the eighteenth century, Roller is interested in the process by which semi-sedentary indigenous groups were persuaded and coerced to give up their traditional living sites and resettle into Jesuit and Portuguese towns downriver.

Roller is also writing against anthropological and historical narratives such as Betty Meggers’ Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise and Eduardo Vivieros de Castro’s book The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul. Roller challenges Meggers’ use of the term “wet desert” and “counterfeit paradise” to describe the Amazon region, saying they distort our views of what’s possible in the environment and how humans adapted to it. She argues that Vivieros de Castro’s focus on “inconstant” Indians is also a flawed view of indigenous mobility because it attempts to portray Indians as being “inherently prone to an unsettled existence and likely to flee at the first attempt to root them in place.”[39] To this end, her monograph focuses on how Amazonians used mobility along their riverine world to facilitate a settled existence in the descimentos. She also explores the role that Indios aldeados had in convincing other groups to relocate, illustrating different ways of understanding how these unique rainforest communities moved in new colonial spaces. In terms of the broader historiography of colonial resettlements, her study reveals a different side of European attempts to reorganize communities of semi-sedentary and nomadic groups at the edges of the Brazilian empire. Similar to Radding’s work in Sonora and Chiquitos, Roller also emphasizes the importance of indigenous groups’ far-flung social networks to their survival in a challenging environment.[40]

Along Spain’s northernmost and southernmost borders in what is now the United States, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, Weber presents even more examples of how a seemingly simple policy like the reducciones had drastically different outcomes depending on where it was applied. Looking at the first attempts to establish missions in the Araucanía region in southern Chile he shows how the Spanish tried for 150 years to form indigenous settlements with no luck. While they were able to perform thousands of baptisms, they could not convince Indians to relocate.[41] Perhaps Spain’s inability to enforce the reducciones played the deciding factor in the failure among the Mapuches of the southern Andes. Imperial attempts to make inroads into the Argentine pampas were initially unsuccessful as well.[42]

Like Radding, Webber shows how early missionaries had some success in persuading Indians to relocate when they were able to provide refuge for populations who had already been reduced by warfare or ravages by European diseases.[43] To this point, he cites Daniel Reff’s 1991 book Disease, Depopulation, and Culture in Northwestern New Spain, and anthropological article “Missionization among the Coastal Chumash of Central California” by Daniel Larson, John Johnson, and Joel Michaelsen.[44] Interestingly, Weber also connects space to the spread of a smallpox epidemic in Araucanía, highlighting what he calls the “porous” nature of the borders that divided the Spanish and Indians.[45]

In conclusion, the works cited above all advance evidence that convincingly argues for a situated analysis of the implementation of colonial policies of reducciones and descimentos. While the authors agree on Europeans underlying interest in reorganizing Indians to create labor pools, they also show how the presence of sedentary, semi-sedentary, or non-sedentary groups, their knowledge about their ecological landscapes, as well as the natural conditions that varied between sites, impacted the options that were available to imperial planners before resettlement policies ever made it into practice. Before authorities could begin to fashion a sustainable policy to reorganize the American landscapes, they needed help from the Indians.

Reactions to Reducciones

So if Spanish officials were interested in the reducciones in part to extend their control over local populations and acculturate them to European customs, what did the indigenous think? What reasons did they have for entering into or fleeing from the new towns? To better understand indigenous peoples’ reactions to these new places, it is helpful to understand what the old places meant. To begin this section, we turn to Keith Basso’s work Wisdom Sits in Places, a history of Western Apache place-names, which emphasizes the phenomenological event that occurs when humans and places form attachments, or a “sense of place.”[46] Places “are as much a part of us as we are part of them,” Bassos says, and “senses of place also partake of cultures, of shared bodies of ‘local knowledge’ with which persons and while communities render their places meaningful and endow them with social importance.”[47] The author notes that threatening a community’s attachments to place can also be seen as an attack on the people themselves. As shown by Basso, for indigenous groups like the Western Apache, the land was not only a productive factor for subsistence, it was also endowed with cultural and historical significance, including the ability of a sacred place to relay a valuable story of survival or wisdom.[48]

Heidi Scott’s book also highlights the sacred aspects of Indians’ ties to the land. In her discussion of the deity Pariacaca in an eponymously-named mountain near Huarochirí in the Peruvian Andes, she says that “in the eyes of native inhabitants…the legends surrounding the deity and his exploits were evoked no less by the agricultural landscapes of everyday life than by the dramatic features of high peaks and deeply-cut valleys.”[49] Like the Western Apache discussed by Basso, Andean “recalled the stories about how they had been brought into being” by reflecting on the physical landscape.[50] by the agency of their principle deity. In this sense, if we focus on the way that indigenous peoples’ ties to land went beyond mere habitation of space, the resistance or acceptation of the reducciones takes on a different meaning.

The historiography of these resettlements also shows that the colonial economy and labor systems had an important impact on indigenous reception to the new towns. In areas such as the Andes, subject to the forced labor drafts known as mita, the threat of dying in a colonial mine or being poisoned by mercury provided a strong incentive to flee the new settlements. By the turn of the sixteenth century, Scott says that “many of Peru’s reducciones were descending into disarray as their native inhabitants fled…in the hope of freeing themselves from the burdens of labor and tribute.”[51] Mumford adds to this descriptions, saying that Indians also left these new towns to escape “the corruption and abuse” they suffered from clergy and colonial officials.[52] In this respect leaving the reducciones, even if it meant abandoning a sacred past, often meant being more free.

In other areas, this search for freedom from colonial control also occurred, even if the Spanish portrayed it as a moral decline. Sellers-García shows this in her discussion of Guatemalan Archbishop Pedro Cortés y Larraz, who wrote in the late 1760s that Indians who leave the reducciones “gain only freedom from good conscience and freedom to disobey the law,” inadvertently highlights the liberating impact of living outside Spain’s sphere of power.[53] As mentioned earlier Weber cited the inhumane conditions of Texas missions, which provided a deterrent to the overall success of the reducciones, too.

Yet in other areas, like New Spain, some Indians chose to relocate to Spanish towns. Velasco Murillo’s work sheds light on this process in colonial Zacatecas. While the author does not specifically focus on the reducciones, her analysis of the migration of wage laborers into the mines of Zacatecas shows that indigenous people also left the settlements to seek better pay. It should be noted that Velasco Murillo’s work focuses primarily on the process through which “orderly and populated barrios” were formed in Zacatecas and eventually gained their own indigenous cabildos and status as vecinos. However, for the purposes of this essay, we will instead try to hold a mirror to her work in order to see what it can show us about why indigenous people left the rural reducciones in the first place.[54] Regarding the sixteenth century, she notes that the Mixton War, in which the Zacatecos and their neighbors, the Cazcanes, led a rebellion against colonial authorities in 1540 to 1542, destroyed both “Spanish and allied” indigenous settlements over “attempts to exploit the native population for tribute and labor.”[55] With both sides weakened by war, she shows that the “[t]ensions between Spaniards and native peoples decreased significantly in the 1590s when the crown, drained of men and money, decided to abandon its military campaigns and pursue more conciliatory tactics.”[56] Importantly, these tactics included incentives like favorable treatment and subsidies. Additionally, Indian laborers who migrated to Zacatecas were freed from tribute collection and the rotary labor draft. As she says “[w]ages and exemptions served as ‘pull’ factors for emigrants, while the combination of heavy tribute and repartimiento obligations in home communities functioned as ‘push’ factors.”[57]

If we look at how Radding discusses this, she says that in terms of voluntary migration, “living in a polity accorded legitimacy to native peoples….‘Reduced’ Indians were distinguished from nomads and freed from the threat of enslavement as piezas de rescate.”[58] Other factors that acted to pull Indians into the reducciones included seeking refuge from intertribal warfare and disease. In both Chiquitos and Sonora, Radding emphasizes that “skirmishes within tribal groups and between bands that constituted a strong motive for seeking out Spaniards as allies for taking vengeance or seeking protection from enemies.”[59]

Historian Jeffrey Erbig, in a 2016 article published in the Hispanic American Historical Review, highlights a fascinating case of how Portuguese and Spanish mapping expeditions in the Rio de la Plata region led colonial officials to court indigenous groups in a bid to convince them to settle their area of the border region and thereby increase their legal claim to sovereignty.[60] He argues that mapping efforts were mediated by autonomous indigenous communities and that native peoples appropriated imperial border-making efforts for their own purposes. As he writes, this process “was not simply a case of one imperial power paying off local indigenous leaders to gain the upper hand against another…it was part of a longer story of the transformation of a borderland space, during which particular caciques and their tolderías were the principal power brokers and Iberian agents were often their clients.”[61] In this way, the map-making process brought the empire into the borderlands and served as an assertion of power, but local communities were able to manipulate the two imperial powers, at least early on, to impose their own conditions on the form that the resettlements took. Or, as Erbig shows, it could even invert the predominant ruler-subject relationship between imperial authorities and native tribes.

Further north in the Amazon basin, Roller sheds light on how Brazil’s long history of hunting for slaves along the rivers acted to entice indigenous communities to enter the descimentos to escape from the ravages of slavers.[62] Access to markets also represented another reason for moving, she says. Quoting a colonial official in 1792, Roller highlights that the Portuguese knew that trade was an important incentive to convince groups to relocate. “Trading with the gentio is necessary…as it serves as [a means of] persuasion,” the official said. In this respect, maintaining “friendly relationships with colonial Indians and settlers” was good for business.[63]

Similar to the Indios aldeados in Brazil, who helped the Jesuits persuade other groups to come down the river and settle in the mission towns, several of the other histories reviewed highlight the powerful role that the Indigenous elite played in facilitating the reducciones. According to Radding, “[c]aciques provided the foundation for governance within the missions, from the initial phase of entradas to the maintenance of law and order in the settled reducciones.[64] For them, the calculation was often economic, she says, and the “[n]ative caciques and commoners conditioned their labor and obedience to ecclesiastical and civil authorities on both economic and political terms.”[65] Mumford echoes this argument when he says that “Indian elites did not necessarily reject the policy; some found that assuming the role of alcaldes and regidores strengthened their status. Others, though, feared that it would undermine their communities' land base, and their own incomes.”[66]

Reiterating this relationship between Crown officials and indigenous elites, Weber provides an interesting anecdote about a group of Yuma Indians who controlled a strategic crossing on the Colorado River between Mexico City and California.[67] In return for their cooperation, the Yuma asked for “baptism, missions, and guns,” and they managed to convince the Spanish to build two missions near their river crossing in 1780.[68] The Spanish also offered a series of gifts and even brought one chief to a celebration of the king’s birthday in the royal palace. However, the Indian demands continued and the Spanish were unable to provide enough incentives to hold the Yuma in the missions. Eventually, the spaces were destroyed by the Indians and abandoned. This illustrates, perhaps comically, the extent to which enticements were used to persuade indigenous communities to relocate.

Another common element that ties all of these examples together is the role that space played in determining how reducción policies were applied in the colonies. As we saw in the first section, indigenous practices of sedentary, semi-sedentary, and non-sedentary engagement with the environment had a significant impact on the type of reducciones that the Iberians employed in their colonies. As discussed in the second section, space also impacted the response of the indigenous people to the resettlements. A third conclusion that can be drawn from the literature reviewed is that the communities’ distance from colonial centers of power often impacted how the resettlement measures were enforced. In borderland areas, distant from Mexico City or Lima for example, the texts reviewed show that the absence of a strong colonial presence led to increased opportunities for abuse against indigenous populations. It also left local populations at the mercy of other warring indigenous tribes. While violent factors, such as the slaving expeditions in Brazil, seem to have contributed to indigenous flight, they also provided incentives for Indians to seek out Spanish protection. In contrast, indigenous groups living in areas closer to the colonial capitals tended to be subjected to more pervasive forms of control than those on the frontier.

Negotiated Spaces

So, if imperial planners and indigenous communities didn’t always agree on how to reorganize their territories, how did they reconcile their differences? Was the power relationship a one-way street, as earlier historical works suggest? Or were Indians able to have a meaningful impact on crown policy, too?

If we approach the question chronologically, we can see in Mumford’s and Scott’s studies of sixteenth-century Peru similar arguments that show how earlier historical narratives that frame the Toledo Reforms as top-down policies created and enacted by colonial officials are flawed. Instead, the two authors attempt to show how the colonists incorporated local Andean culture and knowledge of the environment into their plans. An example of this is Mumford’s description of the intellectual influence that the Incans had on Viceroy Toledo, who incorporated their practices of vertical agriculture into his design of the reducciones. Drawing on John Murra’s work on the Andean “vertical archipelago,” developed in the 1970s, Mumford shows how the viceroy eventually approved a settlement system that allowed mobile foresteros to continue migrating between communities throughout the year, thus facilitating the extended agricultural practices used by Andeans.[69] This case illustrates one way in which indigenous practices significantly shaped imperial policy. As such, Mumford criticizes two of the viceroy’s 1930s-era biographers, Roberto Levillier and Arthur Zimmerman, for assuming that Toledo had a “straightforward goal of replacing Andean lifeways with Spanish ones,” as opposed to one that was informed by local knowledge.[70]

Scott also emphasizes the active role that Indians played in the Andean settlements. Through a close analysis of how indigenous landscapes impacted Spaniards’ understanding of the New World, she argues “that the conquistadors’ physical engagements with landscape, and consequently their portrayals of it, were strongly shaped by the agency of indigenous groups and by their physical presence or absence.”[71] Scott also highlights the disagreements that local encomenderos had with Toledo’s resettlement policies, saying that some saw the reducciones as a threat to their access to indigenous labor.[72]

Similar to Mumford’s criticism of the “straightforward” narratives of Spanish imposition of the reducciones on the natives, she criticizes art historians Thomas Cummins and Valerie Fraser for mistakenly portraying Toledo’s reducciones “as powerful manifestations of an almost instinctive colonial desire that was shared by all Spaniards.”[73] Colonial officials like Toledo were also forced to modify their plans because of the imposition of the American environment on their conceptions of European space insofar as the environment limited the land’s carrying capacity. Too great a distance from suitable subsistence plots often led to starvation and flight, she says. According to Mumford, even some “friars complained that the resettlement harmed Indian society, especially when it removed them from their fields.”[74] In this respect, colonial officials like Toledo were forced to adapt their original plans to incorporate both indigenous practices of vertical agriculture, as well as listen to local encomenderos who lobbied to protect their own particular interests.

If we look at the Chiquitos and Sonora regions, Radding also shows how the Spanish “learned to accommodate mission discipline to alternating seasons of hunting and cultivation.”[75] This is similar to the overarching argument made in Roller’s work that, by embracing mobility in the Amazon basin, the ecclesiastical and crown officials were able to create more durable settlements than if they had stubbornly insisted on static residence in a fixed place along the river.[76]

In conclusion, this essay has shown a shift in the historiography of colonial reducciones, notably that the European powers were not able to implement their resettlement policies without significant input from indigenous communities in the Americas. By concentrating on how the experience was viewed from the Americas and not from the European seats of empire, the authors acknowledge the agency of millions of indigenous people who experienced these changes, and often died in the process. Furthermore, by using an analytical framework that privileges physical and cultural space in historical archives, the authors shed light on multiple questions concerning the specific implementation of the resettlements in Latin America. While most of the works reviewed acknowledge the use of the reducciones as instruments to create ready pools of indigenous labor, they also show that the choice to inhabit these new spaces, as well as the physical contours and locations that they took, often depended on traditional settlement patterns, the natural environment, and the indigenous communities’ unique knowledge of the colonial landscape. 

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8. Mumford, Jeremy Ravi. Vertical Empire: The General Resettlement of Indians in the Colonial Andes. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
9. Murra, John V. The "vertical control" of a maximum of ecologic tiers in the economies of Andean societies. Place of publication not identified: Publisher not identified, 1981.
10. Roller, Heather F. Amazonian Routes: Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.
11. Radding, Cynthia. Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
12. Scott, Heidi V. Contested Territory: Mapping Peru in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.
13. Sellers-Garcia, Sylvia. Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.
14. Velasco Murillo, Dana. Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546—1810. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.
15. Weber, David J. Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
16. Zimmerman, Arthur F. Francisco Toledo, Fifth Viceroy of Peru, 1569—1581. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1938.
17. Vivieros de Castro, Eduardo. The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul: The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in 16th-Century Brazil. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2011.

[1] Jeremy Ravi Mumford, Vertical Empire: The General Resettlement of Indians in the Colonial Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 44.
[2] Cynthia Radding, Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), xvii-xviii.
[3] This essay will use the term reducciones to refer to Spanish resettlements and descimentos for areas controlled by the Portuguese.
[4] Mumford, Vertical Empire, 1.
[5] Heidi V. Scott, Contested Territory: Mapping Peru in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 75.
[6] Radding, Landscapes of Power and Identity, 381.
[7] David J. Weber, Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 92.
[8] Dana Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546—1810 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 37; Heather F Roller, Amazonian Routes: Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 4; Radding, 69; Weber, 92.
[9] Heather F Roller, Amazonian Routes: Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 13.
[10] Sylvia Sellers-García, Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).
[11] Mumford, Vertical Empire, 1, 44. This essay uses Cynthia Radding’s definition of encomienda as grants of Indians held in service; see Landscapes of Power and Identity, 378.
[12] Ibid., 44.
[13] Ibid., 209n6-209n8, 210n10, 210n23-211n24.
[14] Ibid., 49.
[15] Scott, Contested Territory, 69.
[16] Ibid., 186n86; Richard L. Kagan, Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493—1793 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 26.
[17] Ibid., 101. Here, the author references Raymond B. Craib, Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
[18] Radding, Landscapes of Power and Identity, 61.
[19] Ibid., 57.
[20] Ibid., 1.
[21] Ibid., 65.
[22] Ibid., 63-64.
[23] Ibid., 57.
[24] Ibid., 56.
[25] Ibid., 58.
[26] Ibid., 378, 381.
[27] Ibid., 59.
[28] Ibid., 59-60.
[29] Chantal Cramaussel, “The Forced Transfer of Indians in Nueva Vizcaya and Sinaloa: A Hispanic Method of Colonization,” in Contested Spaces of Early America, eds. Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
[30] Ibid., 199.
[31] Radding, 219.
[32] Scott, Contested Territory, 75, 79-80.
[33] Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians, 23.
[34] Radding, Landscapes, 74-75, 115.
[35] Roller, Amazonian Routes, 306.
[36] Mumford, Vertical Empire, 48.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Roller, Amazonian Routes, 306.
[39] Ibid., 2; Betty Meggers, Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise (Chicago: Atherton, 1971); Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul: The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in 16th-Century Brazil (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2011).
[40] Ibid., 13.
[41] Weber, Bárbaros, 126.
[42] Ibid., 68.
[43] Ibid., 93.
[44] Ibid., 303n11.
[45] Ibid., 224.
[46] Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 106.
[47] Ibid., xiv.
[48] Ibid., 52.
[49] Scott, Contested Territory, 97.
[50] Ibid., 97.
[51] Ibid., 71.
[52] Mumford, Vertical Empire, 153-154.
[53] Sellers-García, Distance and Documents, 55.
[54] Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians, 89.
[55] Ibid., 27.
[56] Ibid., 31.
[57]Ibid., 37.
[58] Radding, 165; Here, the author is using piezas de rescate to refer to “Indians captured directly from their communities or seized from enslavers,” 381.
[59] Ibid., 68.
[60] Jeffrey A Erbig, Jr, “Borderline Offerings: Tolderías and Mapmakers in the Eighteenth-Century Río de la Plata” (Hispanic American Historical Review 96:3, 2016: 445-480).
[61] Ibid., 446.
[62] Roller, Amazonian Routes, 98.
[63] Ibid., 81.
[64] Radding, Landscapes of Power, 171.
[65] Ibid., 84.
[66] Mumford, Vertical Empire, 49.
[67] Weber, Bárbaros, 242.
[68] Ibid., 242.
[69] Mumford, Vertical Empire, 10. John V. Murra, The "vertical control" of a maximum of ecologic tiers in the economies of Andean societies (Place of publication not identified: Publisher not identified, 1981).
[70] Ibid., 8, 198n6; Roberto Levellier, Don Francisco de Toledo, Supremo Organizador del Perú: Su vida, su obra (1515—1582), 3 vols. (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1935-1940); Arthur F. Zimmerman, Francisco Toledo, Fifth Viceroy of Peru, 1569—1581 (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1938).
[71] Scott, Contested Territory, 14.
[72] Mumford, 50; Scott, Contested Territory, 69-70.
[73] Scott, Contested Territory, 70, 186n88. See Tom Cummins, “Forms of Andean Colonial Towns, Free Will, and Marriage,” in The Archaeology of Colonialism, eds. Claire L. Lyons and John K. Papadopolos (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2002); Valerie Fraser, The Architecture of Conquest: Building in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1535-1635 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). In terms of the divisions between the Crown and local colonists though, it is noteworthy that neither Scott nor Mumford provides a substantive analysis of the civil war that resulted in the death of Spanish Viceroy Blasco Núñez Vela in 1546 after he attempted to enforce the New Laws of 1542 that were designed to help protect Indians from some of the more egregious abuses of the forced labor regimes.
[74] Mumford, Vertical Empire, 49.
[75] Radding, Landscapes of Power and Identity, 57.
[76] Roller, Amazonian Routes, 3.


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