Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra

Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550-1700

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550-1700. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. xiv + 327 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8047-4279-5 (hardback). £49.95 (UK), $63.00 (USA). ISBN: 978-0-8047-4280-1 (paper). £17.95 (UK), $25.95 (USA).

Reviewed by Antonio Barrenechea, University of Mary Washington (Online, October, 2008)

As suggested by its title, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra’s new book combines two seemingly separate and asymmetrical narratives: the Iberian conquest of America and the Puritan colonization of New England. Distancing himself from colonial historiography that privileges proto-national and Anglo-centric storylines, the author undertakes instead a pan-American inquiry. Through this comparative framework, he argues that the major maritime powers of early modern Europe envisioned transatlantic expansion through a common spiritual lens. Cañizares-Esguerra writes: ‘British Protestants and Spanish Catholics deployed similar religious discourses to explain and justify conquest and colonization: a biblically sanctioned interpretation of expansion, part of a long-standing Christian tradition of holy violence aimed at demonic enemies within and without’ (9). In Puritan Conquistadors, the author conducts a vibrant trans-hemispheric analysis of literary and cultural texts, including images gathered from European and American archives. This is among the best critical works from the United States to engage seriously with the transnational and multilingual histories that characterize the period of European and Indigenous cultural encounters in the Americas.

Chapter Two frames the argument by introducing the ‘satanic epic,’ by which the author indicates a discourse that defined the heroic struggle of European nations against the devil and his army of infidels. Although traditionally associated with Iberian Catholics, the satanic epic was also fashioned by Puritan and Anglican conquerors. Cañizares-Esguerra casts a panoramic eye upon texts from four different traditions. He discusses epic poetry, most notably Alonso de Ercilla’s La Araucana, Elizabethan poetry written in honor of the pirate-conquistador Francis Drake, Puritan poetry composed after the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, and the epic images of Atlantic navigators drawn by the Flemish painter Johannes Stradanus (part of a greater Catholic tradition). According to the author, by promoting a view of European knights slaying the devil as an act of Christian service, these texts created the moral justification for holy warfare in the Americas. European encroachment thus heeds a divine mandate to subjugate Amerindians via the mighty sword of the conquistadors. ‘Colonization becomes a fulfillment of Biblical, apocalyptical prophecies,’ Cañizares-Esguerra explains, ‘an act of liberation and wrathful divine punishment’ (37).

Chapter Two goes on to discuss the redeployment of this European discourse by Hispanic creoles, American-born Spaniards who had a patriotic investment in the development and representation of their own New World societies. In a fascinating reversal, many of these men—including intellectuals involved in establishing the Mexican cult of the Lady of Guadalupe—painted the Spanish peninsulares as closer to the devil than the Amerindian societies that the Iberians had originally sought to destroy or convert to Christianity. Although it is not much more than a brief afterthought, the chapter concludes with a section that lays the groundwork for future work in literary studies. Here, the author invites scholars to reread John Milton’s Paradise Lost within the context of the Spanish epic tradition, whose satanic imagination most likely influenced one of the greatest works of British literature.

The third chapter reveals how European nations crafted a demonological discourse to bolster Christian crusades based upon typological readings of the Bible. Cañizares-Esguerra notes that, in the stories and cultural practices of American Indians, Europe saw not difference or parallels that expanded their worldview, but an upside-down universe in which ‘the devil mimicked God both through Amerindian rituals and institutions that inverted Christian Church structures and through Amerindian historical narratives that perversely imitated those in the Bible’ (83). The author locates the emergence of this inverted paradigm in the history of Mexico as written by Juan de Torquemada, a Franciscan who linked Aztec national origins to the Biblical exodus of the Israelites. The building of Mexico City upon the ruins of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlán, an anti-Jerusalem, thus marked the triumph of God over Satan.

Cañizares-Esguerra concludes the chapter by discussing the religious use of crosses in pro-evangelical narratives. Here as elsewhere, he strives for a comprehensive treatment of America by juxtaposing Iberian and British examples, and argues that ‘[b]oth imperial projects understood colonization to be an epic struggle of reconquista against the devil’ (118). Yet Cañizares-Esguerra’s Spanish examples, drawn from Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, are much more thorough than his treatment of John Smith, Thomas Morton, and other British imperial agents. As such, the claim that ‘[a]lthough the Puritans rejected the Cross as idolatrous, they were willing to embrace the Bible as a charm’ is a suggestive analogy rather than conclusive proof of how Puritans used religious symbols against Amerindian enemies of the Church (117).

The next two chapters take up the issue of the American natural world. ‘The satanic epic,’ Cañizares-Esguerra writes, ‘not only organized the way Europeans understood their relations with external human enemies (e.g. Amerindians, heretics, imperial bureaucrats, peninsular upstarts, pirates), it also informed how Europeans related to Nature itself’ (176). Chapter Four examines how European intellectuals imagined New World climates, plants, and animals as demonic incarnations that required cleansing by agents of God. To make his argument, the author analyzes literary masterpieces, including Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, botanical treatises, books of teratology and zoology, and images of American monsters and marvels printed and disseminated by Theodore de Bry and others. For Cañizares-Esguerra, such representations structure colonial narratives and show that both Catholics and Protestants imagined the New World ‘as a false paradise that to be saved needed to be destroyed by Christian heroes’ (121).

The chapter concludes by exploring how, paradoxically, the American wilderness facilitated its own redemption: ‘If Satan’s long-held sovereignty in the New World had managed to leave an imprint on the fauna and flora of the Americas, it was clear that the arrival of the Europeans with their message of liberation was bound to manifest itself in the natural world as well’ (155). Here, Cañizares-Esguerra turns to the male and female saints who controlled the natural elements, including sea monsters and satanic storms that threatened transatlantic navigation. He also includes a brief but fascinating discussion of the passionflower, which was thought to legitimate settlement by manifesting the signs of Christ’s suffering. As he does in other chapters, however, the author sometimes interjects ideas that he leaves undeveloped. His use of the category of the ‘baroque’ to categorize allegorical readings of nature, for instance, is somewhat unclear and seemingly out of context. The baroque possesses a long transatlantic genealogy (a tradition that U.S. literary scholars are currently reviving) but the author’s haphazard treatment runs the risk of trivializing an intercultural aesthetic that is central to the New World experience.

Chapter Five demonstrates how the Puritan and Spanish clergy aimed at expunging the devil by transforming the wilderness into a well-hedged garden. According to Cañizares-Esguerra, the Spanish and British creoles ‘sought to establish a New Jerusalem in the Indies by multiplying blossoming gardens: individual souls of outstanding piety and well-tended collective spiritual vineyards’ (33). The author traces this trope of gardening through the lives of saints, including Saint Rose of Lima, the first saint of the Americas, and Mariana de Jesús, known as the Lily of Quito. As members of a blossoming Christian garden, these individuals mark the shift from European depictions of America as satanic to creole portrayals of America as a providential landscape for the cultivation of Christian societies. Cañizares-Esguerra also notes that, while the Puritans were vehemently opposed to the notion of human sanctification, they nevertheless held an eschatological view of colonization: ‘Like their Iberian cousins, the British-American Puritans both tied the language of spiritual gardening to a discourse of providential election and wove the history of their spiritual gardens into millenarian narratives’ (212). It is in this sense that Cotton Mather and others used Biblical typology to suggest that the Israelite colonization of Canaan prefigured their establishment of plantation societies in New England.

The final chapter introduces the notion of a ‘pan-American Atlantic’ paradigm as a corrective to Transatlantic Studies scholarship that remains limited to the Anglophone world. The author laments that ‘for all the greater global awareness on the part of U.S. colonial historians, the fact is that their Atlantic remains very much ‘British’’ (218). This chapter serves as a critique of the field as well as a review of American Studies scholarship that has expanded the academic focus. Most notably, Cañizares-Esguerra includes a favorable discussion of Herbert Eugene Bolton, the first historian to write a hemispheric American history, and of his followers in the U.S. academy. The shortcoming of the chapter, however, is that it ignores literary studies, in which the hemispheric paradigm has gained the most intellectual ground over the last five years. In addition, while Cañizares-Esguerra provides a fascinating and thoughtful survey of the discipline of history and clarifies his own contribution to it, the chapter reads more as a separate article or as a belated introduction to a book that tends to fall somewhat short on sustained literary interpretations.

Although the ambitious scope of its author sometimes leads to organizational pitfalls, Puritan Conquistadors is an exciting interdisciplinary work that contributes much to the fields of history, literary studies, and Transatlantic Studies. Cañizares-Esguerra’s argument that an isolated understanding of the Spanish or British yields a partial and flawed picture of the New World is the book’s strongest suit and is a bold challenge to early Americanists to rethink familiar disciplinary boundaries. In Puritan Conquistadors, the author and Stanford University Press have also made available a plethora of British and Spanish-American images preserved at the John Carter Brown Library, the Newberry Library, and other major centers for early American research. Along with Cañizares-Esguerra’s comparative history and insightful exegesis, this visual catalogue makes it essential reading for all scholars of colonial America, both North and South.

© Symbiosis, 2008