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Book Review

 

White, Ronald. Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas (Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2005). 430 pp, $17.00.
 
   

     For western conceptions of history, 1492 is a landmark year that brought about the "discovery" of a new world; a virgin land ripe for development and the spread of Christianity. However, with the luxury of hindsight scholars have become more sensitive to the negative effects European contact and colonization had for the Americas. In 1992, this led many to protest and question the 500th year anniversary of Columbus' accidental discovery. After all, it is rather difficult to commemorate an event that led to cataclysmic loss of life. Yet despite the spread of "conquerors guilt," the encounter between Old and New Worlds remains a compelling story in world history. Not only is it important for its historical significance, but encounters between the two worlds have also become a means with which to study cultural change. Indeed, in Stolen Continents Ronald White explores the ramifications of cultural encounters in the Americas, but with a twist: White seeks to tell the story from the point of view of those who were vanquished, thus dispelling myths that continue to be perpetuated. (5)

     Recognizing the enormity of his project, White limits himself to discussing only five different cultures: the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, Cherokee, and Iroquois. White chose these five civilizations in particular because they "were among the most complex societies at the time of contact; for this reason they left the best records." (8) Perhaps more importantly, the chosen five have "…kept alive their languages, religions, certain arts and sciences, and countless intangibles of culture against all odds." (8) The book is divided into three parts, with five chapters devoted to the cultures he chose to study. White follows rough chronological order, exploring the initial contact with Europeans, the colonial period, and the formation of independent states in North and Mesoamerica.

     White weaves together an accessible and intriguing narrative from secondary and primary sources. Indeed, the value of the book—apart from its engaging, if at times polemical prose—are the voices he brings forward. Professors wishing to present the conquest of Mexico from the perspective of the Mexica have had to rely on two collections of primary sources: Stuart Schwartz's Victors and Vanquished (2000) and Le—n-Portillo's Broken Spears (2007). The problem with these collections is that they do not provide a good narrative of the events. White not only tells a good story, he also includes interpretations of those events from the perspective of the Mexica. White's inclusion of the Cherokee and Iroquois also provides an excellent comparative edge to Latin Americanists teaching Aztec, Maya, and Incan history.

     White's effort to break the silences of the five cultures is commendable given the relative paucity of materials. For the Aztecs, White relies mainly on book 12 of the Florentine Codex written by Friar Bernardino Sahagún. Although Spanish, Sahagún used works by Aztecs to piece together a sympathetic account of the plight of the Aztecs during the conquest. In order to break the silences of the Inca, White uses the accounts of four Andean writers: Titu Kusi, Pachakuti, and Waman Puma. These accounts may be largely unknown to non-specialists; if that is the case, then White has done a great service to by quoting lengthy passages from these works. Mayan sources come from the Annals of the Cakchiquels, a historical work written by members the Xahil branch of the Cakchiquels. Cherokee and Iroquois voices are heard from the negotiations between these peoples and the U.S., Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.

     White's use of these sources will no doubt provoke some debate. Of the five cultures White studied, only the Maya and the Aztec had written forms of writing. Sources from an Aztec perspective are problematic because they were filtered thru men like Sahagún who—though sympathetic to the Aztec—had their own motivations. Inca voices are particularly difficult because their method of recording information (the quipu, strings that conveyed information through color, the position of knots) has not been accurately deciphered by scholars.

     Stolen Continents would make an excellent addition to three different types of courses. First, for introductory courses in Latin American history, White's book would provide excellent reading for the Conquest because it provides an accessible narrative that includes Maya, Aztec, and Inca voices. In a world history survey course, Stolen Continents can be used to explore cultural encounters and their ramifications. Indeed, the comparative scope of White's work facilitates the inclusion of Latin American, U.S., and European history. Students will be interested to know how the Iroquois influenced Karl Marx and provided the inspiration for representative government. (116-118) Additionally, the broad chronological scope White uses brings the historical experiences of these five cultures to the present. Perhaps the most useful way to use the book in a world history course is to chart the different ways these five cultures resisted European power. The Aztec of Mexico blended their cultural mores into Spanish traditions, creating a syncretic culture that served to both acquiesce to and resist Spanish hegemony. The Maya, Inca, Cherokee, and Iroquois demonstrated more active forms of resistance. Asking students to explain how and why different cultures reacted to different colonial powers would be a useful written exercise.

     The last type of course this book could be used in is historical methods courses. Two central questions students can be asked are how do we get at historical truth? Is historical truth even possible? Students could be assigned portions of Trouillot's Silencing the Past where he discusses the various ways silences occur in the production of history. No matter what type of course Stolen Continents is used in, it will no doubt provide material for stimulating and in-depth discussions on the effects of Europe's encounter with America.

 

Alberto E. Nickerson
Michigan State University

 

 
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