Rabasa, José. Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000. xiv, 359 pp. $19.95. ISBN 0822325675.

Historians and others have long been interested in the primary sources relating to early Spanish discovery and exploration in the New World. They are relatively scant and familiar to many of us. They comprise much of the stuff that the history of this captivating era is written from, and they align us closely with some of those who made it. 

It is to a particular examination of some of the most prominent of these sources that José Rabasa, a professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Berkeley, sets himself in his latest book, Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier. He also is the author of Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism. In this new book, he examines the role of violence in the formation of the Spanish colonial experience—conflict between the conquistadors and the Indians in the Spanish Americas from Chile to Texas and Florida, but concentrating on the North American frontier. Rabasa’s concern is not merely colonial violence, but more importantly the writing regarding it. He is interested in the sources influencing the historiography of these events in the sixteenth century and examines colonial texts, how they work, and their impact. His approach and objectives are elucidated in a thorough introduction “On Writing Violence.”

Six succeeding chapters each center on a colonial source or group of related literary and some graphic sources to explore the author’s principle theme of violence. These include Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios, the Requerimiento (laws) of New Mexico, and Garcilaso de la Vega’s La Florida del Inca among others. There is assumption on the part of the author that the reader has some previous awareness of most of these sources. These six chapters are followed by a brief, concluding epilogue, “Before History.” Throughout it is clear that Rabasa is more interested in the literary over the historical, delivery over substance, rhetoric over content. He also is perhaps more impressed by historical interpretations and their evolution that a historian might be.

This is a complex, thorough, well-written book. The detailed explanatory chapter notes and extensive bibliography attest to the author’s extensive research of his subject matter. The period black-and-white and color illustrations also are welcome. But this is not a book for the neophyte or casual reader of the history of the sixteenth-century Spanish Empire in the Americas. The reader of this book must have some knowledge of the history and its sources as well as rhetorical theory to fully understand the author’s slant on his subject.

Dennis Reinhartz
The University of Texas at Arlington

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