Rhetoric in the New World: Rhetorical Theory and Practice in Colonial Spanish America

Guaman Poma's depiction of Pizarro presenting Atahualpa with the Bible
Don Paul Abbott.  Rhetoric in the New World: Rhetorical Theory and Practice in Colonial Spanish America. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.  135 pp.

Don Paul Abbott’s Rhetoric in the New World: Rhetorical Theory and Practice in Colonial Spanish America (1996) examines early strategies for communication and persuasion used by the Spanish evangelizers in colonial Mexico and Peru.  The book includes an introduction and six chapters.  In the introduction Abbott explains that the book examines the attempts of Spanish rhetoricians to adapt classical concepts in order to fit the New World.

The first chapter, “Rhetoric: Old World and New” focuses on “Old World” humanism and the classical tradition.  Cicero’s De inventione, for example, becomes a central text in theorizing religious conversion because of its focus on the power of eloquent speech to forge civilization.  Cicero’s vision of “rhetoric as a civilizing force” provides the rationale for the persuasive conversions of indigenous populations of the Americas.  At the same time, the Columbian encounter with the New World tested the effectiveness of the classical European rhetorical tradition in a different cultural context.

Abbott uses Luis de Granada’s work to show how evangelical rhetoric changes in the Americas.  Luis de Granada’s Breve tratado is a short and simple work providing a summary of Christian belief and intended to guide missionaries in converting the inhabitants of the newly “discovered” Americas.  While Granada believes that the peoples of the Indies are rational, he suggests a simplified approach to sharing the gospel.  Abbott compares the Breve tratado with Granada’s long and thorough Ecclesiasticae rhetoricae (1576), a similar guide, but geared toward an “Old World” audience in response to the Tridentine push (1545-63) to revitalize Catholicism. 

Abbott suggests that the differences in Granada’s two texts reflect a divide in how the peoples of the Americas and the Old World were perceived; traditional rhetoric would continue to be a tool for religious conversion in Europe while a simpler approach to teaching the gospel would be used in the Americas. 

“Bernardino de Sahagún and the Rhetoric of the Other” focuses on the discourse of the Aztecs as preserved in the anthropological work of Sahagún.  Abbott considers the problematic aspects of Sahagún’s data collection and the validity of his findings given that he worked with scribes and depended on their translations.  Abbott emphasizes the importance of Book Six of the Florentine Codex for understanding the history and culture of the Aztecs.  Abbott also underscores the importance of public speeches in Mexica life and posits that, based on the Aztec model, public discourse likely originated in the ceremonial aspects of human societies. 

The third chapter examines Rhetorica Christiana (1579) the work of missionary Diego Valadés.  Valadés’ work departs in significant ways from European rhetoric; it includes illustrations to aid in learning and stresses the importance of memory as a way to retain content.  Valadés based his adaptations on the Franciscan Friars’ use of “methods congenial to the native mind”.  According to Abbott, Valadés’ work shows how the cultural conditions of the New World influenced the European rhetorical tradition in the Americas. 

“Bartolomé de Las Casas and José de Acosta: The Other as Audience” examines the rhetorical theories of Dominican Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas and the Jesuit Priest José de Acosta.  Bartolomé de Las Casas recommends peaceful persuasion of the Indians based on the idea that all human beings are essentially the same and that peaceful persuasion is the one and only acceptable method of converting people to Christianity.  De Las Casas also builds his argument on the classical rhetorical tradition.  For example, he references Cicero’s ideas concerning the civilizing power of rhetoric. 

Abbott compares Bartolomé de Las Casas with José de Acosta whose Tercero catecismo and De procuranda stress the differences of the New World and the Old.  According to Acosta, Old World methods of conversion are not suitable for the New World because the audiences are fundamentally different and the Indian audience is much more limited in what they can understand.  Acosta argues that the technique for conversion must depend on the degree of “barbarism” of the population and this is measured by the degree of illiteracy and the distance between a given aboriginal language and Latin.

The fifth chapter focuses on El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Guaman Poma de Ayala.  Abbott shows that El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Guaman Poman are positioned right at the border between cultures.  First, Abbott takes up the work of El Inca Garcilaso who was born in Cuzco of noble Spanish and noble Incan lineages and educated in traditional European rhetoric.  His Royal Commentaries is a text that uses the tools of European rhetoric in an attempt to persuade the Spanish to change colonial policy.  His argument is based on demonstrating the degree of “civilization” of the Incas and by giving examples of the “barbarism” of the Spanish in the colonies.  He likens Quechua to Latin and the Incan to the Roman Empire.  Abbott devotes much more time in this chapter to El Inca Garcilaso than to Guaman Poma.  Abbott highlights the sermonic nature of Guaman Poma’s Nueva crónica and also the visual orientation of the work.  Guaman Poma takes on the role of the preacher and relies heavily on images to convey meaning to his reader.

The final chapter looks at the failure of European rhetoric in the Americas though José de Arriaga’s Extirpación de la idolatría en el Perú (1621).  In spite of the widespread efforts at persuasion and conversion, the Spanish were faced with persisting indigenous “idolatry.”  The extirpation campaign represents a more authoritarian and desperate attempt to destroy the religious practices of the Andeans.  Abbott argues that this religious persecution resulted in the creation of two separate Peruvian societies; one European and one Andean.     

In Rhetoric in the New World Abbott gives excellent examples of the role of rhetoric as a tool to persuade the religious conversion of indigenous populations.  Ultimately, his last chapter on José de Arriaga shows the persistence of indigenous idolatry and how Spanish policies turned to coercion and away from rhetorical persuasion.  In spite of the failings of European rhetoric in the Americas, Abbott shows that the works of Diego Valadés, El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Guaman Poma de Ayala represent a new rhetoric of the Americas born at the interstices of the encounter of European and American cultures.