Oct. 19-25, 2001
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bookcover Study of captives in early Hispanic America shows varied treatment

By Robert Brickhouse

In 1628, a Spanish-colonial military captain named Francisco Nuñez de Pineda y Bascuñán was captured by Indians on the frontier in Chile. When he was freed several months later, he wrote a detailed account that shocked his contemporaries.

In contrast with some other captivity stories of that period, he said the Indians greeted him not with torture or enslavement but with a series of banquets and fiestas that continued throughout his stay. “We ate and we drank splendidly.” Because his tale glorified Native American life and also contained harsh criticism of Spanish military practices, his manuscript wasn’t published until the 19th century.

Bascuñán’s story is one of dozens of accounts, many of them previously unpublished, that are analyzed in a new book by a U.Va. Latin American Studies scholar that is the first comprehensive historical examination of Indian captivity in Hispanic America. Historias de la Frontera: el Cautiverio en la America Hispanica (Histories of the Frontier: Captivity in Hispanic America), by Fernando Operé, covers captivity accounts over four centuries in Spanish-controlled territory stretching from the American Southwest south to Patagonia.

The captives, whose stories are among the first descriptions of Native American life and the New World’s most remote regions, included men and women of European, African and mixed origins. Operé’s research offers a wealth of details about many varied Native American customs and early trade and migration patterns.

He traveled to archives in Chile, Argentina, Spain, New Mexico and elsewhere to track down manuscripts of captivity stories, many of which were testimonials that former captives later gave to government officials. The book is published in Spanish by Fondo de Cultura Economica (Buenos Aires), and Operé is looking for an American press to publish an English translation.

Unlike in North America, where captivity narratives — from Captain John Smith’s in Virginia to tales of the Wild West — became part of popular culture, in Hispanic America there was little contemporary interest in these emotional and exciting accounts, said Operé, a professor of Spanish and director of U.Va.’s Latin American Studies Program. Today these early Spanish accounts offer important descriptions for making cultural comparisons among different parts of the Western Hemisphere.

Taking captives was a widespread practice among Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans, Operé pointed out. Indians took captives for many reasons: to rebuild dwindling populations, to put them to work and to trade for goods.

eginning with Columbus, Europeans began taking Indians captive too, often enslaving them in Hispanic America. The story of white captivity there is part of the overall Indian resistance to the European invasion, Operé said.

In Hispanic America, male captives taken by Indians were often traded for goods or sometimes killed, while women were often kept to work, cook and bear children. Because of this, captive women played a key role in the mingling of European and Native American cultures there, Operé found. Women of Spanish origin influenced the Indians in food, dress, arts and crafts and agriculture and also brought back Native American knowledge and customs when they were liberated.

Among the most important and best known Hispanic America captivity narratives is that of the shipwrecked expeditioner Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who journeyed overland with Native Americans from the Texas coast through the Southwest in the early 16th century. It provides the first inside account of a European living among Native Americans deep in the New World. Unlike Bascuñán’s sumptuous experience in a different climate and region, Cabeza de Vaca describes a world of nomadic hunter-gatherers constantly searching for food.

Despite the important role of captives and their firsthand descriptions of Indian peoples and the land in Hispanic America, “many of their voices have not been heard,” said Operé. Captivity narratives weren’t popularized in Latin America when many Europeans lived side by side with Native Americans from the start, soon raising families and creating a new society with them. The dominant Christian culture of Europe had problems accepting that some captives chose the Indian way of life. Also, acknowledging any stories about captivity showed weaknesses in the mighty Spanish colonial empire.


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