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Slavery, Subjugation, and Empire in Cortés Totoquihuatzin’s Latin Epistle to Charles V

John Izzo

Columbia University

In what would become known as the Valladolid Debate, between 1550 and 1551, the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies summoned Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de las Casas to debate whether the indigenous people of New Spain were Aristotelian “natural slaves” (Lupher 2003, Martínez Torrejón 2013). No indigenous representatives were invited to the Council to offer their views on Spanish imperialism and the enslavement of their people; however, this paper argues that a highly allusive Latin epistle to King Charles V, composed the following year by Don Antonio Cortés Totoquihuatzin, an Aztec (henceforth Nahua) scholar, should be reinterpreted as an indigenous contribution to this controversy, one which began decades earlier and continued for many more.

Laird 2016 has analyzed some of the rhetorical and historiographic strategies of Totoquihuatzin’s prose and its intertexts, and McDonough 2018 has studied it alongside other letters from indigenous elites to the King (see also Osorio Romero 1990). Such studies interpret these indigenous letters as concerned solely with local issues; however, recent work by Masters 2018 has demonstrated the central role that petitions like these could play in colonial policy. This paper thus argues that although Totoquihuatzin wrote his epistle with local concerns in mind, this did not preclude his engagement in a broader debate on imperialism. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that, as Totoquihuatzin states, he wrote his letter because, “it was not permitted that we present our case to your sacred council (tuo sacro isti senatui)” – the same council at which the Valladolid Debate had occurred the previous year. In order to engage in this dialogue, Totoquihuatzin employed classical allusions and technical Latin terminology laden with meaning in contemporary debates on Spanish imperialism.

Read in this context, the letter’s intertexts – many of which point to passages of literature that discuss slavery, subjugation, and imperialism – take on new meanings. An allusion to the Book of Job seems to initially cast Charles V as the biblical protagonist, only for the people of Tlacopan to become its subjects, who, like Job, deserve to be compensated for their losses (in their case, those suffered under Spanish imperial rule). A brief reference to Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae, which compares the people of Tlacopan to cattle, demonstrates that it is the excessive cruelty of the Spaniards that has made the Tlacopanecs into slaves, not their inherent natures (cf. Aristotelian “natural slaves”). A short allusion to Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum draws an analogy between King Charles’ imperialist policies and those of Julius Caesar in Gaul, a popular point of reference in Spanish debates (Lupher 2003) and one that might have further implications for Totoquihuatzin’s diplomatic epistle.

In explicating Totoquihuatzin’s complex views, this paper also places his letter in dialogue with documents concerning the Aztec Triple Alliance and its own practices of imperialism (Lockhart 1992, Berdan et al. 1996, Townsend 2006, Mata-Míguez et al. 2012). In doing so, it draws attention to Totoquihuatzin’s sophisticated indigenous perspective on the legality and justice of servitude and imperialism.

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Subverting the Classics in the Early Modern Americas

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