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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Book Review of "New Spain"

Mexico to the uninitiated is a far off land in a little known continent, one at least that doesn’t figure very high in news reports in South Asia. However Central America shares many commonalities with South Asia.

Commonalities and dissimilarities

From a political and developmental perspective Latin America and South Asia have been plagued with military rule and civil wars apart from being part of that famous club called the ‘the third world.’ In the context of this review of N. Cheetham’s book ‘New Spain’ however what I’m seeking to examine here are the similarities and dissimilarities between the colonial experiences in both continents.

In New Spain or Mexico as it subsequently became known as, the Spanish colonial enterprise was imbued with the streak of Catholic evangelism without which the political project to colonize that country doesn’t make much sense to understand. That was however not the case necessarily with the British colonial endeavor in South Asia which essentially began as a commercial venture under the aegis’s of the East India Company. The failure of political authority in both countries, vis-a-vis the Aztecs in Mexico and the Mughals in South Asia enabled the outsiders to extend a political hegemony over these realms.

Considering the centrality of the military endeavor in both enterprises I wouldn’t necessarily agree with his contention that the conquistadores in Mexico came to be in course of time overshadowed by the friars. I disagree because in the ultimate analysis evangelizing efforts would have been short changed without an overriding military guarantee in the background. This is all the more relevant in that native religions in Mexico succumbed to the Spanish Catholic onslaught unlike in South Asia where evangelizing attempts and concomitant social reform attempts were put entirely on the backburner after the revolt of 1857.

The fundamental dissimilarity between the Spaniards in Mexico and the British in South Asia or for that matter the Americans in Afghanistan are that the latter two projects were primarily military endeavors whereas the Spaniards in Mexico attempted a far more all encompassing project. There is also the fundamental difference that the Spaniards were themselves originally under Moorish rule, an aspect that has been discussed exhaustively in books like ‘The Splendor of Moorish Spain’ by Joseph McCabe which I recall reading many years ago.


Therefore we have to acknowledge that the veneer of colonial rule was only surface deep in South Asia compared to Mexico which is probably why there is a recrudescence of primeval tendencies based on religion in these former British territories.

This book would have been all the more better if it had been accompanied by comparing the Mexican colonial experience with that of Afro-Asian countries, a shortcoming which I have partially attempted to redress here from a South Asian perspective. It would also have benefitted by a more thorough discussion of local terminology which would be unfamiliar for non-Hispanic readers. For example some terms like ‘Pulque’ a local liquor have only been explained near the end of the book after having been used extensively throughout. Nevertheless this book is as good as any in understanding the Hispanic world of the sixteenth century and the birth of Mexico.

Source by Siddhartha S. Bhadrakumar

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