Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier

The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest

Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier

Latin America Otherwise

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Book Pages: 376 Illustrations: 2 color photographs, 17 b&w photographs Published: August 2000

Author: José Rabasa

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Mexico, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier José Rabasa examines the conjunction between writing and violence that defined the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of the Americas (particularly North America) and in doing so, he reveals why this conjunction remains relevent and influential today. Rabasa elaborates a critique of Spanish legislation that prescribed forms of converting Indians to Christianity and subjecting them to Spanish rule, which was referred to by some as “peaceful conquest.” He argues that the oxymoronic nature of this term demands an oppositional mode of inquiry based on an understanding of violence that expands beyond acts of war to include symbolism, interpretation, legislation, and other speech acts that he refers to as the “force of law.”
To advance his argument Rabasa analyzes visual and verbal representations, colonialist programs, and the theories of colonization that informed the historiography of sixteenth-century New Mexico and Florida, which includes the territory from the Pacific coast to Kansas, and from present-day Florida to Tennessee and Arkansas. Using little-known materials from the northern borderlands of Spanish imperial expansion, Rabasa works to complicate notions of violence and their relationship to writing. Understood in juxtaposition with modern texts on postcolonial theory, his description of the dual function of these colonial texts—to represent material acts of violence and to act as violence itself—also emphasizes the lingering effects of this phenomenon in contemporary intellectual work and everyday life. In this way Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier serves not only as an explanation of what colonialist texts do but also instigates new ways of thinking about colonial discourse.
This book will interest scholars of colonial studies and early North American history, as well as a broader audience interested in interdisciplinary perspectives on the topic of racial, ethnic, and literary violences.


“[A]n important contribution to critical thinking about early-modern European colonialism in the Americas . . . . Rabasa is to be commended for having painstakingly and penetratingly analyzed actual articulations of legal norms in the configuration of a series of important historias and relaciones. At the same time, he has brought into focus the history of conflicts between Spanish colonialist expeditions and native peoples of North America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries . . . . Writing Violence constitutes a significant intervention in current debates about the project of subaltern studies and its critical potential as a counterpoint to hegemonic liberal and conservative models of historiography.” — Antony Higgins , Nepantla

“[B]orderlands historians or Latin Americanists interested in the applications of postmodern literary theory to historical documents will find Rabasa’s work intriguing.” — Dedra S. McDonald , Journal of American History

“[I]t is Rabasa’s willful engagement with postcolonial theory (as a perspective that neither privileges European culture as its referential framework nor accepts the idea that colonization carried civilization) that makes this text so useful to historians, especially U.S. historians who often avoid the postcolonial question. Furthermore, Rabasa’s critique of the various legalistic supports for conquest and the representation of conquest in what is now New Mexico and Florida are invaluable for historians of those regions. Instead of being at the far outer edges of the Spanish empire, both regions are at the center of, and critical in, the Spanish colonial project. It is on the violent edges of empire that the workings of colonialism and its various neocolonial forms of today, can best, if brutally, be seen.” — Lance R. Blyth , Florida Historical Quarterly

“[Rabasa's] book will inform and intrigue both historians of colonialism and scholars of colonial literature.” — Charlotte M. Gradie , H-Net Reviews

“Massively researched and richly learned, this memorable and highly provocative book from the distinguished author of Inventing America (1993) is a major contribution in showing how writing itself can be a form of violence. . . . Dense, nuanced, multilayered, this book, consistent with postmodernism, will mean whatever the reader brings to it. Recommended . . . as a work to be reckoned with.” — D. W. Steeples , Choice

“The theoretical breath and historiographical scope of Writing Violence reaches far beyond the Northern Frontier of Spanish colonial expansion in America. This book should thus have wide and important repercussions across the human sciences. But it will be of necessary importance to students of empire and coloniality as present and ongoing enterprises.” — Sara Castro-Klarén , MLN

“This complex and passionate book does justice to the painful history it examines.” — Kathleen Ross , Hispanic American Historical Review

"Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier is an important work, and its significance for scholars researching the colonial era should not be underestimated." — Sonya Lipsett-Rivera , New Mexico Historical Review

"[A] much needed contribution to the neglected field of colonial Spanish chronicles of the present-day United States."

— Charles B. Moore , South Atlantic Review

"[F]ascinating. . . . [L]eaves readers hungry for more. . . ."

— Christopher Schmidt-Nowara , Sixteenth Century Journal

"[The book has] brilliant insight, a gorgeous lesson." — Dana D. Nelson , American Literary History

"Rabasa’s essays provide thoughtful interpretations."

— Cynthia Radding , American Historical Review

"Rabasa's dense argument but reasonably accessible writing style offers an interpretation and critique from which historians and anthropologists interested in the period of contact and conquest can learn." — Susan Kellogg , Latin American Research Review

"The essays are thought-provoking pieces. . . . Without a doubt, Rabasa's well-written book is engaging and challenges the reader to negotiate the fine line between interpretations expressed historiographically and history itself." — , Colonial Latin American Historical Review

"While Rabasa weaves a complex array of discourses from many disciplines and critical approaches, he uses them to argue clearly that writing becomes an act of violence. . . . Assessments of Spain's evolving legal codes as subtext for historical writing, Inca Garcilaso's proposal of an alternate historiography, and showing how writing produces subalternity, are among the significant achievements of Writing Violence." — Gregory Shepherd , The Latin Americanist

“Rabasa covers a rich range of topics that offer stimulating new insights into violence as a cultural and ideological element in the formation of colonial American societies.” — Maureen Ahern, Ohio State University

“Rabasa provides a compelling understanding of the cultural worlds of the Spanish conquerors as they collided violently with Native Americans in the contact zones--in Florida, California, Texas, Chile, and Argentina. In so doing he devastates the rationales underlying violence in sixteenth century Spanish history and fiction, and thus challenges the readers to reconsider the rationales by which English and American settlers inhabited the West, and which they called ‘frontier violence.’ ” — Patricia Seed, Rice University

“Rabasa uses a comparative approach that leads him to incorporate a fascinating and very diverse body of materials.” — Beatriz Pastor, Dartmouth College


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

José Rabasa is Professor of Latin American Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism.

Table of Contents Back to Top
About the Series

List of Figures


On Writing Violence: An Introduction

1. Reading Cabeza de Vaca, or How We Perpetuate the Culture of Conquest

2. The Mediation of the Law in the New Mexico Corpus, 1539–1609

3. Aesthetics of Colonial Violence: The Massacre of Acoma in Gaspar de Villagrá’s Historia de la Nueva México

4. Violence in de Soto Narratives: Moralistic Terrorism in Oviedo’s Historia general

5. “Porque soy indio”: Subjectivity in Garcilaso’s La Florida del Inca

6. Of Massacre and Representation: Painting Hatred and Ceremonies of Possession in Protestant Anti-Spanish Pamphleteering

Epilogue: Before Histories





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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2567-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2535-2
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