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Mexicolore contributor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Conquest and the ‘Stranger Effect’

We are most grateful to our Panel of Experts member Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto for this insightful contribution on what he has called the ‘Stranger Effect’... This piece follows a lecture that Professor Fernández-Armesto gave on this subject at Canning House, London, in March 2013. He has kindly allowed us to reproduce an introductory piece on this fascinating question from his forthcoming book Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States...

Pic 1: A ‘cacique’ from Tepetlaoztoc complains to ‘encomendero’ Miguel Díaz de Aux in the late 1520s about the latter’s brutal treatment of the local community; Kingsborough Codex, fol. 11b (detail)
Pic 1: A ‘cacique’ from Tepetlaoztoc complains to ‘encomendero’ Miguel Díaz de Aux in the late 1520s about the latter’s brutal treatment of the local community; Kingsborough Codex, fol. 11b (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

All indigenous peoples had traditional hatreds and conflicts of their own with neighbours. They made use of the Spaniards for their own purposes in the service of their internecine [civil] wars. That does not, however, explain why in so many cases they deferred [bowed] to the newcomers and assigned them places of command in war, or authority (pic 1) afterwards.
The solution to the problem lies in what I call the stranger-effect - the propensity [tendency] some cultures have to receive the stranger with exceptional honour. In our modern Western societies, the propensity is hard to understand. ... We mistrust strangers. We reject them. We call them “illegals.” We impose on them bureaucratic or fiscal [monetary] burdens. If we admit them, we make them unwelcome and typically assign them low status and demeaning work. In other times, however, and in other parts of the world, people have not, in these respects, behaved like us.

Pic 2: Moctezuma meets Cortés; (detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 2: Moctezuma meets Cortés; (detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Sacred rules of hospitality oblige people in some cultures to greet strangers with their best gifts and goods and women and even actual deference. When Spaniards found themselves treated this way in parts of the Americas, they felt godlike - and with some reason: the anthropologist, Mary W. Helms, has collected many instances of cultures in which the value of visitors from afar increases with the distance they seem to have travelled, because they bring with them the aura of the divine horizon. This does not necessarily mean that people mistake them for gods, but it does explain why their persons are regarded as special, even sacred.

Pic 3: Pilgrim path waymarker, Ireland
Pic 3: Pilgrim path waymarker, Ireland (Click on image to enlarge)

Though the notion is remote from modern Western sensibilities, I think the most hardened, secular-minded Westerner can understand it, if he or she thinks of how we add value to goods according to the distance they traverse. In my local grocer’s shop - allowing for relatively modest differences in production and delivery costs - domestic Parmesan commands a much lower price than the kind imported from Italy, not because it is worse, but because it is familiar. The exoticism of the foreign product imparts prestige. So it is, in many cultures, with people. In Christendom in the past, pilgrims profited from a similar effect, acquiring prestige with their neighbours, on returning home, in rough proportion to the remoteness of the shrines they visited.

Pic 4: Cortés dines with Moctezuma’s envoys soon after landing at Veracruz; detail from part of the “Enconchado’ series of oil paintings showing scenes from the Spanish Conquest; Museo del Prado, Madrid
Pic 4: Cortés dines with Moctezuma’s envoys soon after landing at Veracruz; detail from part of the “Enconchado’ series of oil paintings showing scenes from the Spanish Conquest; Museo del Prado, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

To defer to the stranger - given an appropriate cultural context - is often a highly commendable, rationally defensible response. The stranger is useful as an arbiter or judge, because he or she is uninvolved in existing factional [tribal] and dynastic conflicts and can bring an objective eye to matters of dispute. For the same reasons, strangers make first-class bodyguards or close counsellors for existing rulers - which is how many European intruders (and even runaway black slaves, who sometimes ascended to positions of power in indigenous society without any of the advantages commonly said to be decisive in the case of European conquistadores) began to acquire eminence in American and Asian polities in the early modern period.

Pic 5: Painting depicting a Mexican ‘mestizo’ in a ‘Pintura de Castas’ from the Spanish colonial period. The caption states “Spanish and Indian produce Mestizo”
Pic 5: Painting depicting a Mexican ‘mestizo’ in a ‘Pintura de Castas’ from the Spanish colonial period. The caption states “Spanish and Indian produce Mestizo” (Click on image to enlarge)

The stranger is often physically attractive, perhaps for evolutionary reasons or perhaps for sheer novelty. In the Caribbean, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo thought native women “were very chaste with their own men, but gave themselves freely to Spaniards,” in what sounds like an act of physical hospitality instanced in many other cultures. In any case, the stranger typically represents an excellent choice of marriage partner for powerful or ruling families by virtue of arriving untainted by any previous associations with local rivalries. To this day, all over the world, where monarchies still exist, heirs typically marry foreigners or, increasingly nowadays, social outsiders, for this very reason.

Pic 6: A Spanish friar stands at the centre of this depiction of the Conquistadores’ meeting with the Aztecs; detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 6: A Spanish friar stands at the centre of this depiction of the Conquistadores’ meeting with the Aztecs; detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The proliferation of stories of stranger-kings in many parts of the world - stories, that is, of individuals whom polities have entrusted with kingship after arrival from afar or return form long and distant exile - demonstrates the value of strangers as rulers. Even in Europe, many royal dynasties have traced their origins to stranger-founders, and legends multiply the instances. Such cases are very frequent in Southeast Asia and parts of the Americas and Africa. That touch of the divine horizon, moreover, makes the arriviste from afar a good candidate for sanctity. Many conquistadores in the New World really were holy men - friars who arrived with little or no military support but commanded their hosts with surprising, if sometimes precarious, success.

Picture sources:-
• Image from the Codex Kinsborough (Códice de Tepetlaoztoc) scanned from our own copy of the El Colegio Mexiquense a.c. facsimile edition, Mexico City, 1994
• Photos of the mural by Antonio González Orozco taken by Eva Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• Images of pilgrim path waymarker and painting of a mestizo from Wikipedia
• Photo of scene from the Enconchado series taken by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 30th 2013

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