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October 2009

Cross-Cultural Diplomacy in Seventeenth-Century Chile
by M. Andrea Campetella


Visions in Chile


Alonso de Ovalle, Historica relacion del reyno de Chile, Rome, 1646.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

In 1639 Francisco López de Zúñiga, marquis of Baides, was appointed as the new governor of Chile. It was definitely not the best of positions in the New World—Chile was one of Spain’s most remote possessions, infamous for the permanent state of war with the unconquered Araucanian Indians. In late December of 1640, after taking his post as governor and commander of the army, Baides launched the customary summer offensive against the Araucanians. This time, however, the military campaign turned into a fascinating episode of cross-cultural diplomacy that extended into January of 1641 and culminated with a formal peace agreement. 

We know about this thanks to Jesuit Alonso de Ovalle’s Relación verdadera de las pazes que capituló con el Araucano rebelado el marqués de Baides (Madrid, 1642). Chilean-born Ovalle was acting as an agent for the Jesuit Order in Spain when he published this account, which he wrote on the basis of letters and documents from Baides and from his fellow Jesuits in Chile. The account later became part of Ovalle’s Histórica relación del reyno de Chile, the first full history of Chile, published in Rome in 1646—an edition with golden edges and beautiful engravings that can be found at the John Carter Brown Library.

Ovalle tried to fit the events of that summer of 1640 to 1641 into one of the standard narrative frameworks from the Age of Spanish Conquest: divine intervention facilitated the conquistadors’ task of bringing Indians into the Christian fold. But the realities of seventeenth-century Chile were a far cry from those of sixteenth-century Mexico or Peru, and imposed their own twists and turns onto the story Ovalle wanted to tell.  The Jesuit could not know this but, as we will see, the events in the Araucanía anticipated eighteenth-century patterns of cross-cultural relations, rather than reproducing sixteenth century ones.

The account opens with the omens and miracles that announced the coming of a new era to indigenous peoples, and especially to their leaders—as had happened in Montezuma’s Mexico. In the Araucanía, Ovalle tells us, God had “softened the rebel Araucanians’ cold hearts, and moved them to lay down their arms and offer peace” through portents that had taken place just before Baides’ arrival. Royal eagles, which the Indians had seen for the first time when the Spaniards initially arrived in the region in the sixteenth century, returned. Miraculous visions of fighting armies appeared in the sky, a victorious Spanish side under the command of a valiant knight on a white horse. Most ominous of all, a volcano erupted with a blast that caused all pregnant women to lose their babies, and with torrents of molten rock that made rivers boil (cooking all the fish in them!) and turned the overflowing waters into thick mortar that ruined fields and threatened to reach the higher ground where the Indians had their homes. The image above illustrates these miraculous events.

Trembling with admiration and horror, Ovalle says, the Indians received Baides and his impressive army (“the best, fastest, and bravest to tread on America”) with humble peace offers. In a standard conquest narrative, the Spaniards’ magnanimous acquiescence to the peace would have followed, on the condition that Indians abandoned their heathen ways and sealed their acceptance of the Christian faith with a symbolic gesture, such as the erection of a cross.  But Ovalle had very different events to narrate.

Although Baides accepted the peace offer, not a word about conversion to Christianity was uttered.  Instead, the offer opened a round of diplomatic rituals, which followed Indian rather than Spanish norms, and which counted with the governor’s respect and participation. During the main ceremony, one of the Araucanian leaders, Antegueno, approached Baides with a branch of canelo (winter’s bark, a sacred tree) in sign of peace. The cacique gravely explained that it was their custom to open negotiations by sacrificing ovejas de la tierra (“sheep of the land,” the name Spaniards gave to llamas).  The animals’ spilled blood meant that they could not “backtrack from their promises or be disloyal, even if it was necessary to shed the blood from their own veins and lose their lives.” Following Antegueno’s speech, each of the two-dozen or so participant caciques killed a llama, removed its heart, and sprinkled the canelo branch in Antegueno’s hand with blood.  Indians then sat around the sacrificed animals and the talks began. The main caciques gave long and elegant speeches for, as Ovalle explains, “these Indians are rhetoricians by nature, and they pride themselves on making a good speech.” They expressed their grievances with Spanish abuses to Baides, who offered the Crown’s protection if the Araucanians consented to vassalage. In return, the governor explained, they only had to provide service of arms to the Crown, and let the Spaniards live in the area, but they did not have to provide any obligatory tribute or labor. Once the two parties came to an agreement, celebratory speeches ensued, and Antegueno offered the blood-speckled canelo branch to Baides, who received it with “great demonstrations of appreciation and attentiveness.” 

Ovalle’s account tries to come to grips with the extraordinary circumstance of a Spanish official of Baides’s rank not only tolerating, but also fully participating, in heathen rituals. The Jesuit takes pains to show that, although undoubtedly heathen, the rituals had some basis in sacred texts such as Exodus 12, when God ordered that blood be sprinkled on doors as a sign of peace. Ovalle also minimizes Baides’s failure to demand that Indians convert, by noting that the Araucanians already knew about Christianity from their many decades of contact with the Spaniards. The proof? Indians “invoked the sweet name of Jesus when sneezing, tripping over, or getting hurt.” Finally, the Jesuit emphasizes that, given the Spanish lack of success with “bellicose spirits and bloody determinations” in Chile, Baides was right in “trying a new course,” and attempting the pacification of the Araucanians through “sweetness, gentle treatment, and flattery.”

Ovalle might have been surprised to know that sweetness, gentle treatment, and flattery were precisely the means that, a century later, Bourbon officials championed in many frontiers of the Spanish empire. Worried about unruly border zones in an age of heightened inter-imperial rivalry, Bourbon officials sought alliances with unconquered Indians through diplomacy, gift-giving, and friendly trade. Diplomatic ceremonies that mixed Indian and Spanish customs became common occurrences. Had Ovalle lived then, he would not have had to worry about justifying these practices or reconciling them with the Spanish duty to evangelize. But our Jesuit would have likely felt dismay at the reason: in the enlightened Bourbon era, commerce—rather than religion— was seen as the primary agent of cultural change. As a well-known policy tract from the period asserted, “there is no savage who cannot be dominated by industry and made sociable by a ready supply of the things he likes.”*

*Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América, quoted in David J. Weber, Bárbaros. Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 182.

Andrea Campetella, Washington University in Saint Louis, was a Donald L. Saunders / Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Research at the John Carter Brown Library in the summer of 2009.


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