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Conquistadores del Nuevo Mundo

De Bry's image of Spanish soldiers murdering Native Americans

(From GREAT VOYAGES, Part IV, 1594)

<http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi893.htm>

In 1570 the Spanish Inquisition lay over Flanders. Religious persecution had already driven the mapmaker Mercator off to Germany. Now Theodor De Bry also fled into Germany. De Bry was a superb copper-plate engraver, and therein hangs our tale.

Copper-plate pictures had tiptoed in alongside Gutenberg's new printing press in the late 1400s. The first printed books were seldom illustrated. When they were, it was with woodcut prints. Copper plates gave better pictures and a lot more copies, but you couldn't print them on regular letter presses. They were expensive and hard to make. Mapmakers like Mercator took up copper plate in the mid-1500s. After that, its use began to spread.

In 1590, when De Bry was 62, he and his two sons began a huge book project. They gathered up every available picture and description from the new voyages of exploration. By 1634 the family had used them to create 30 books filled with hundreds of stunning and exotic copper-plate illustrations.

The De Brys redrew pictures and expanded the stories that went with them. They didn't know how to draw American Indians, so they made them look Graeco-Roman. They mixed up cultural details -- like putting Indians from opposite hemispheres in the same picture. Still, these are the most detailed reports of the 16th-century Americas we have.

But the De Brys were Protestant, and they were landlubbers. They had no knowledge of our Native Americans and no love for their Catholic invaders. The results are, predictably, appalling.

The De Brys show us cannibalism and slaughter -- Indians killing and eating Spaniards, Spaniards killing Indians. Strange Shaman rites, along with everyday industry. They stirred in a thematic gallery of recurring grotesque figures. Anthropologist Bernadette Bucher speaks of the semantic wealth and insidious power of this new pictorial mass medium.

The Protestant world was just beginning its own exploitation of these people. The De Brys had to fit these new races into a framework that would make exploitation seem morally acceptable. They worked their way through the data, recasting it. When they were done, they'd created the first iconography of the American Indian and unwittingly bent their historical record as they did.

De Bry's image of Aztecs pouring molten gold down the throat of a Conquistador

(From GREAT VOYAGES, Part IV, 1594)

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