Captivity narratives in Spanish-American colonial literature

Date of Completion

January 1997


Literature, Latin American|Literature, Romance|History, Latin American




Spanish American captivity narratives deal with captivity either in the hands of Indians or privateers. The Spanish Conquest gave rise to a mythmaking heroic discourse assuming the superiority of the conquistador and his European culture while subsuming the Indian as inferior. Relationships between the Spaniards and the Indians were defined in terms of master and slave. Captivity narratives demystify the heroic discourse of the Conquest, subverting the roles whereby the Indian becomes master and the Spaniard slave. They describe hardships, give detailed accounts of the land, its inhabitants and their customs, and include topics such as turning native, cultural adaptation, and shamanism. Captivity becomes a transformative experience whereby the captive seeks not wealth and renown but survival, and develops different strategies for doing so. His initial stereotyped vision of the Indian as a heathen and cruel barbarian evolves into one that humanizes him so that he becomes eventually a fellow-man. Ultimately, the captive may question the Conquest itself and the evils it imposes on the Amerindians.^ The perspective of captivity allows us to regroup texts, reach new insights, and interpret in new ways works belonging to different genres. Narratives about the first Spanish captives appear as episodes in Bernal Diaz's Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva Espana, Oviedo's Historia general y natural de las Indias, Landa's Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan, and Gonzalez de Najera's Desengano y reparo de la guerra del reino de Chile. Major works such as Cabeza de Vaca's Naufragios and Pineda y Bascunan's Cautiverio feliz, illustrate fully the transformative and demystifying aspects of captivity among Indians.^ Silvestre de Balboa's Espejo de paciencia and Siguenza y Gongora's Infortunios de Alonso Ramirez, deal with captivity among pirates. Following the end of the Conquest, Indians have been either subdued or decimated; the enemies now are privateers belonging to nations disputing Spain's decaying imperial supremacy. The capture of Spaniards becomes an affront inflicted on Spain through her subjects. Pirates acquire the negative characteristics previously attributed to Indians. ^