Roberts seems generally unconcerned about the limitations his lack of sympathy for, and knowledge of, his principal subjects’ worldview might place on his understanding of their expedition. He avails himself of the expertise of Southwestern historians and Harvard archeologists to illuminate his subject, but he never thinks to turn to a Christian theologian for insight into the missionaries’ motivation. His bibliography does not contain a single book written from an explicitly Christian viewpoint.
Ultimately, Roberts comes to respect the expeditionists’ bravery. But if he thinks Christian missionaries ever could have had anything of value to offer the Pueblo, Paiute, Hopi, and other Indians encountered by Escalante’s group during their expedition, he never admits it. He also cautions us not to place much stock in Escalante’s accounts of natives occasionally listening patiently, even happily, to the friars’ preaching. How far we have come from Bolton, the Methodist scholar who believed that, despite the atrocities committed by the Spanish Empire, the diseases it unwittingly introduced, and the instability it fomented, the civilization—including the religion—the Spanish carried with them were nevertheless positive aspects of our collective inheritance.
Needless to say, that opinion is now out of fashion. Some would reduce the entire Spanish legacy in the Americas to nothing more than genocide. Roberts doesn’t go that far, but he would presumably assent to the now-conventional view that the Spanish—soldiers, friars, and settlers alike—are best understood as brutal, power-hungry, fanatical, and corrupt. The Black Legend is alive and well.
The irony is that no pre-Christian Indian would or could judge the Spaniards in the same ways Roberts and many other contemporary historians do. Indians in the Southwest may have considered the Spaniards implacable enemies for any number of justifiable reasons—including their lust for gold, their slave-taking, and their expropriation of land on which the Indians had lived—but the Indians would not have accused the Spanish of violating their human rights or committing war crimes, for these concepts are part of our Christian heritage. Some native peoples would likely have seen the Spaniards as great warriors who possessed unique influence over cosmic forces, perhaps sent by the gods as punishments for their own or their enemies’ misdeeds. And what the Spanish did to the Indians, warring tribes had long been doing to each other. Neither war nor genocide were introduced to the New World by the Spanish.
America’s Spanish heritage is a complicated one, and the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans who participated in the conquest and colonization of the Southwest have things to answer for. But we cannot adequately evaluate their legacy if we do not at least try to escape the imaginative restrictions, scholarly biases, and moral self-satisfaction of our own time.
On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest
W. W. Norton
$26.95 | 360 pp.