Epic Histories of the Spanish Americas

True political success lies not so much in obtaining great power as in being able to keep it. This, at least, was the musing of Hieronymite friar Jerónimo de Román as he contemplated the many fallen empires, past and present, in his survey of political systems across the sixteenth-century globe. To those fighting and writing on the peripheries of the Spanish monarchy, which at its greatest extent held together territories across five continents, the fragility of imperial power was often acutely apparent. The theme appears frequently in narratives of the Arauco wars – the protracted conflicts with the Indigenous peoples of the Chilean frontier which were never fully resolved – but also in histories closer to the Spanish heartlands.

In my early days as a graduate student, one group of these writings particularly captured my attention: epic poems written in Spanish which retold the conquests of the Americas and their aftermath in verse. As a former student of Classics, I was familiar with the canonical epics of Greek and Latin antiquity, which continued to be the model for much of the later western literary tradition: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and especially Virgil’s Aeneid. I was intrigued by the ways in which these Spanish poetic sagas were like but also very unlike them. The poems struck me as full of twists and turns, tripping me up with unexpected questions which I could not immediately answer. They had moments of intense pathos – vignettes of the Mapuche leader Caupolicán serenely stepping up to his brutal execution, or of the freezing, starving settlers of the Magellan Strait slowly giving up hope of rescue – which sometimes rubbed shoulders with irreverent flashes of humour. Often they did not quite do what they set out to do on the title page. Alonso de Ercilla’s Araucana presents itself as a history of the discovery and conquest of Chile, but actually boils all of this down to a few stanzas (‘it is not my intention to bore you’, the poet explains) before dedicating the rest of the sprawling work to how the Spanish lose and win battles but never quite win the war against the Indigenous Araucanian rebels, or patriots (the poem makes both perspectives possible). Building on the runaway success of La Araucana, Pedro de Oña’s Arauco domado claims to make good what Ercilla left out but soon veers away from recounting victories to inventing love stories between the Araucanian characters. Juan de Miramontes’s Armas antárticas starts by praising the victory of Catholic arms against the pagan deities that preceded them but ends up wondering why it looks as if God has now abandoned his faithful in the struggle against Protestant English pirates such as Francis Drake.

I soon realised that I needed more than a classical and poetic training to figure out what was going on in these works. I came to the conclusion that writing epic poetry in this period was also a way of formulating political ideas, ones that could not be explored in quite the same way in other genres. How far could and should one go in extracting reprisals of a defeated enemy? What happens when one side in a conflict appears to constitute a political unit, but not one that fits the usual categories: a group of fugitive African slaves, say, or a pirate vessel, or an Indigenous polity without a king? In what ways does the Viceroy of Peru resemble and differ from a European monarch? By drawing on all sorts of contemporary strands of thought – from Machiavelli to Jesuit chroniclers – the poets began to form part of a web of debates over conquest after the conquests, and whether it was still ethical or possible. The city of Lima came to the fore as being at the heart of many of these debates, a place where policies were formed and people and ideas converged, which had a strong sense of its interconnectedness with other parts of the globe. From here, looking southwards to Chile but also to other frontiers, it sometimes seemed that it was easier to start a war than to finish one, not least when one side and the other see the world and politics in completely different ways. It takes a lot of imagination – and imagination is what the best of these poems offer – to chart a path towards lasting peace.

IMOGEN CHOI is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Oxford.

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