Panel 10: New World Antiquities and Histories

Chair: Susan Castillo


Presenter (in absentia): Rolena Adorno

Text: Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (New Chronicle and Good Government)


Felipe Guaman Poma’s Nueva corónica y buen gobierno is a nearly unique text in colonial Spanish American letters. It is at once a personalized version of a history of the Inca empire and its civilization as well as an even longer account of Spanish colonialism in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Peru and long harangues against its injustices. There is no equivalent “exposé” written from an indigenous Andean perspective during the early colonial period. (Indeed, the only other “exposé” is the Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias [Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies]), and its focus is the wide-scale atrocities and destruction committed under the guise of legitimate conquest. Guaman Poma is unique in decrying the day-to-day hardships of life under colonialism, from the side of the colonized.)

The most remarkable dimension of Guaman Poma’s work, however, is its visual content. Of 1200 pages, 398 of them are full-page drawings that narrate, in their own right, and in a way that makes possible the independent reading of them, the tale told complementarily by the prose text. This native speaker of the Andean language of Quechua was rightfully uncertain about the effectiveness of his Spanish prose with its Quechua substratum, and with that in mind, he prepared his drawings. The drawings easily seem “primitive” to those viewers who are primarily connoisseurs of Western European Renaissance and Baroque art but, to any layman appreciating the challenges of precise draftsmanship, they are viewed as being highly skilled.

Thematically, the literary and artistic work conceived by Guaman Poma was to be both historical and prescriptive: a new chronicle of ancient and modern events in the Andes and a treatise on “good government” that would combine Inca social and economic organization with European technical achievements and religious culture modified to meet Andean needs.  With respect to the ancient past, his goal was to relate Andean history to universal Judeo-Christian history, postulating a series of historical ages to do so).  With respect to the recent past, he focused on  the history and achievements of Inca civilization. He called his book a “new” chronicle because he knowingly contradicted many established sources on matters of Inca and conquest political history in order to effectively put forward certain juridical arguments about the rights of native Andeans to hegemony over their own territories.  He framed his outcry against injustice and his formal plans for viceregal reform on the basis of his concerns about the gradual extinction of the Andean race through miscegenation, abusive treatment by the colonists, disease (there had been great epidemics of measles and smallpox in the late 1570s and the second half of the 1580s), and the massive deportations of forced indigenous labor to the mercury and silver mines at Potosí and Huancavelica.  In the subsequent stage of post-February 1615 revision Guaman Poma introduced for the first time his recommendation that native Andeans be admitted to religious orders, he reemphasized his condemnation of tributary Indians who became “false caciques,” thus presenting a view of an increasingly disintegrating Andean society, and he expressed utter despair at the increasing aggressiveness of ecclesiastical campaigns that attempted to root out native religion and resulted in the destruction of lives and the confiscation of  properties (Adorno 1980: xxxviii-xxxix).  In addition, he underscored his perennial complaints about the rapid growth of the mestizo population and the fate of Andeans in the city. With respect to the future, Guaman Poma argued for broad colonial reforms consisting of the  restoration of Andean leadership and the restitution of Andean lands and properties.  He conceived political dominion as a world to be governed by the autochthonous princes of their respective realms under the titular (honorary) headship of the king of Spain.

The links that to date have been drawn between Guaman Poma’s work and various Andean and European intellectual and artistic traditions are manifold.  None, however, is more direct or pervasive than the visual evidence supporting Guaman Poma’s artistic relationship to Fray Martín de Murúa; given the existence of two distinct Murúa manuscripts, it will be possible at last to trace more effectively the emergence of Guaman Poma’s artistry.

In my teaching experience with the Nueva corónica, the questions of greatest interest to students, and the ones most productively explored by them, concern language and culture, and the complexities of Guaman Poma’s cultural identity and the identity politics that are played out in his work. (In the general absence of any knowledge of Andean civilization and history on the part of the students, it is nearly impossible for them to evaluate, or learn from, the content of what Guaman Poma says about these topics.) Hence, the students’ awareness of the writer writing (and the artist drawing), and the complex positioning of that writing and figuring subject, are useful avenues to pursue. By their observations of the dual-medium text, and the use of their speculative imagination, students can productively contemplate the subtle burdens of an indigenous American writing subject, assimilated to European language and religion and conducting an intellectual life under colonialism.  In my presentation on Panel One I made reference to this topic, suggesting that a reading of Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and The Colonized has proved useful in getting students to think about the ambiguity of colonial relationships that defy the dichotomous positioning seemingly named but in fact transcended in Memmi’s text. In the full text of my remarks, “Estevanico’s Legacy,” which is online ( and linked to the Summit’s anthology, I give some examples from Guaman Poma’s work that limited time prevents me from detailing here. Overall, to see the writing subject in a mediating role, and as occupying a highly mediated set of positions, is a useful exercise that also can have implications for the students’ many other readings of writers who are less obviously caught at the intersection between or among diverse languages, societies, and cultures.

The challenges in teaching Guaman Poma’s Nueva corónica are many. Hence, my emphasis now will be on how to meet that considerable challenge. I would like to address this issue from the perspective of available resources as well as those of the needs of the respective Spanish- and English-language readers.

With regard to resources, there is a magnificent one: the complete digitized facsimile of the Nueva corónica y buen gobierno manuscript on the website (

of the Royal Library of Denmark, where the manuscript has been conserved probably since the middle of the seventeenth century. (There are many Spanish and Spanish American holdings in old, northern European libraries, but that’s another story.) Since I served as the scholarly consultant to the Royal Library’ project, I can mention some accessory materials on the website that may be of use, despite the fact that we are still at work on creating other resources that would provide a more complete “tool kit” for the pedagogical presentation of the text. Accompanying the text, in English and Spanish, is my essay on the Nueva corónica that may be of some help in understanding not only Guaman Poma’s life but the kind of life led by other talented Andeans like himself who served as mediators and intermediaries in the negotiations between native Peruvian and Spanish colonial society and institutions.


For students’ use of the digitized pictures, we have provided, again in English and in Spanish, a “clickable” descriptive index of the drawings so that they may be easily accessed. For Spanish readers, Guaman Poma’s handwriting might be fun to read (as a collective classroom exercise, perhaps), and a transcription of the prose text, all 800 pages, is right now being prepared. For the English-language reader, an English translation is indispensable. There is one currently on the Summit website, and Susan has used it in her anthology, but I think we can (and must) now do better. The English-language text to which I refer is Christopher Dilke”s book entitled Letter to a King, but it is not actually a translation of Guaman Poma’s text but rather a translation of a modern interpretation of Guaman Poma’s text, prepared by an officer of the Peruvian military, Luis Bustios Gálvez, in the 1950s.

We simply must do better than this, and I have “volunteered” to do so, when I made a translation of (although never published) selected chapters some ten years ago. In fact, I promised a corrected version for the Summit’s website but, due to my personal circumstances, I was unable to complete it by the date of this meeting. (It is still forthcoming.) In the present case, as in that of Cabeza de Vaca which I mention in another panel presentation, it is a great advantage to have as translator someone who has worked hard on editing the original text in its original language. It creates an intimacy (and a responsibility) with the text in the original language, and that awarenss simply cannot be ignored when undertaking a serious translation of it into another one. My point here is that while one’s working with the original text should insure a competent translation, it also impedes that translation from being done in too facile, too “quick and dirty” a manner.

A final point: The Nueva corónica y buen gobierno is massive: how do we handle it? At a recent meeting at Chicago’s Newberry Library, our colleague Lisa Voigt suggested the creation of some sort of pedagogical package that could be prepared for the Guaman Poma website. That is exactly what is needed. While I envision that it will include maps, a terminological index or a glossary of terms and the like, the heart of it will be a selection of chapters, transcribed in the original Spanish and translation into English, that will attempt to offer a sampling of the kinds of discussion that Guaman Poma entertained and allow for a sense of the scope and coherence of the whole work.

As for further bibliographic suggestions, I would suggest the provocative pages in Mary Louise Pratt’s introduction to Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (Routledge 1992) and the mentions of Guaman Poma in Walter Mignolo’s recent works. For more “basic” information, my chapter in Kenneth J. Andrien’s just-published volume The Human Tradition in Colonial Latin America (Scholarly Resources, 2002) might be useful on Guaman Poma’s life and further bibliography, and my reissued monograph with a new introduction, Guaman Poma: Writing and Resistance in Colonial Peru (University of Texas, 2000), examines the work from the perspective of his engagement with European letters. The new introduction gives tips on where investigations of the Andean side of Guaman Poma’s work are headed.