A Colonial Frontier: Interethnic Interaction, Indigenous Agency, and the Formation of Colonial Society in the Gobernación of Popayán, 1540–1615

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In my dissertation, I investigate the formation of colonial society through the interactions that took place between the Spaniards and the indigenous peoples, focussing on the period from 1540 to 1615 in the district of Popayán in present day South-Western Colombia. My goal here is to cast new light on the formation of colonial society by studying how it was affected by conflicts and cooperation between the indigenous communities and the Spanish conquerors in a region that thus far has received less attention in scholarship than the central areas of the Spanish colonial empire.

I pay special attention to indigenous agency in the process of colonial society formation and the important roles they played in the formation of colonial society. They were by no means passive by-standers or simply objects of the Spaniards’ actions, but were instead independent actors who developed different strategies in the face of the challenges brought by Spanish colonialism. However, their actions also should not be viewed as mere reactions to the actions of the Spaniards. They pursued their own aims and goals.

The aim of my study is to explore the complexity of the social dynamics and the power relations between the different actors at the grassroots level, and how this affected the local colonial society. I investigate this process and its peculiarities in a certain defined geographical area while discussing its significance in the larger context of Spanish colonialism. I put the development in Popayán into its context by looking at it as part of the larger empire building process. Therefore, while I am interested in what made Popayán special, I also pay attention in what the example of one particular frontier region can reveal about the complexity of the colonial processes in general.

This study is based on Spanish documents that are spread across several archives, namely Archivo General de Indias (AGI) in Seville, Spain, Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Bogotá, Colombia, Archivo Nacional de Ecuador (ANE) in Quito, Ecuador and Archivo Central del Cauca (ACC) in Popayán, Colombia. The sources include court records, inspections, demographic materials, petitions, and complaints. In addition to archival sources, I also use chronicles written by Spanish conquerors and learned men, as well as other published sources.

The documents were born during the process of the colonial state’s creation and cannot be separated from it. Thus, they are not objective sources of information, but rather an integral component of the state formation process. The state needed to control its subjects, and the emerging structures were upheld through institutions based on written documents. As such, the documents do not merely describe reality, but also played a visible role in creating it.

This sets many limitations, but it does not mean that the material is not of use for a critical historian. Post- and decolonial theories offer tools for interpreting colonial documents. With this theoretical framework in mind, I piece together the social history of local dynamics from fragmentary evidence by close reading the documents. Archival material on the indigenous peoples of Spanish America is extremely rich. Their agency is often hidden but treating the documents as kind of ethnographic scenarios and always questioning the categories and classifications embedded in them it can be teased out. Therefore, I engage in a sort of thick description to try and grasp the context in which the actions made sense to the people engaged in them.

Popayán was a colonial frontier, characterized by instability, unpredictability, and heterogeneity, and the interethnic relations were conflictive. Violence was a recurrent reality that marked the relationships between the Spaniards and the very diverse indigenous population of the gobernación. The Spanish invasions to the unconquered zones as well as indigenous raids against the Spaniards continued for long after the initial conquest was over. In addition, everyday violence went on throughout the entire colonial period as the Spaniards attempted to harness the indigenous societies to fulfill their insatiable demands. Indigenous resistance, both active and passive, also continued, even though their societies suffered a great deal because of conquest, colonization, and depopulation. The Spanish dominion was fragile.

The colonial bureaucracy started to grip the region more strongly since the 1550s, but that process was slow and faced many setbacks. The crown enhanced its position by acting as a mediator in local affairs. It balanced between increasing its control of the region and not shaking up the status quo too much. The indigenous communities quickly to use the legal system for their benefit. However, the institutions remained weak in the region.

Spanish willingness to work through the indigenous communities’ traditional leaders created the new institution of the colonial cacique (chief). The caciques became indispensable intermediaries between their communities and the Spaniards. However, they were dependent of their people and could be easily replaced, which curbed their transformation into colonial agents. The indigenous societies of Popayán changed profoundly during the 75 years covered in this study. It was a necessity caused by invasion of outsiders, but the process of cultural transformation was carried out according to the needs of the natives themselves. While they were looking for ways to survive in the new situation, they created new cultural forms and gave new meanings to old ones.

The indigenous peoples adapted, collaborated, and resisted in many ways. Their agency played an essential role in the making of the colonial society in Popayán. However, concentrating solely on indigenous agency carries a risk of romanticizing their survival. Many did not survive, and for many, colonialism meant seriously deteriorating living conditions and loss of significant part of their culture. Colonialism is structural violence characterized by unequal power dynamics.

Nevertheless, the indigenous peoples of America were not just passive victims; rather, they were independent agents who pursued their interests in a situation in which their freedom was limited. My thesis contributes to the understanding of the fluid, diverse, intersecting, and overlapping reality of the Spanish American colonial societies molded by the agency of the colonized as well as the colonists.

The former gobernación of Popayán is today one of the regions in Colombia where the presence of the indigenous peoples remains the strongest. Their communities are marginalized and ridden by continuing conflicts that trouble the country. However, they also have a strong tradition of resistance and survival from which they draw inspiration in today’s struggles.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
PublisherTampere University
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-1947-2
ISBN (Print)978-952-03-1946-5
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028


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