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date: 30 April 2017

Biography of a Colonial Document

Summary and Keywords

What can we learn about the documents we work with if we incorporate a study of document creation, travel, and storage into the consideration of document content? Some well-known documents, such as the Popol Vuh, have backstories that reveal as much as their content. But even obscure documents, such as a dispute over a road detour in 18th-century Guatemala, can be read productively as objects with life trajectories. Understanding the “life” of this document—the world in which it was made, the tools and knowledge of its making, its travel while being written, its storage in colonial and national archives—sheds new light on its meaning. Similarly, all colonial documents can be interpreted in new ways if their lives are treated as part of the interpretation.

Keywords: archives, epistemology, documents, administration, postal system, Guatemala, legal complaints, camino real

Invisible Histories

Archives, particularly well-kept and well-organized archives, can sometimes offer the illusion that they are timeless. They reside in the present, oriented entirely toward the needs of researchers, who are pleasantly unencumbered by the knowledge of how the archive came to be: how the building was acquired, who was in charge of delivering or organizing the contents, who had and has the task of cleaning the shelves, when it was decided that computers really were necessary, and how the rules of the reading room were devised.

So, too, the document can seem shorn of its tedious or convoluted or perhaps unsavory past. One might even argue that the hallmark of a state-of-the-art archive is that it conceals how the document arrived in your hands. You need not be troubled with the process of eliminating vermin, or the politics of deciding who would keep the document when the national boundaries shifted. The well-kept document in the well-kept archive makes a connection between the moments described and the moment of reading: It exists to deliver content, not to describe how it reached its destination.

There is something odd about this, however. If the document in such a case were a person, it would be like greeting an octogenarian who had crossed a continent, suffered multiple injuries, and survived two wars, only to ask if she could remember who attended her sixteenth birthday party.

Of course, as one realizes immediately upon seeing the pages marred by water and chewed by rats, the documents all have individual histories. They arrived in the researcher’s hands easily or almost did not arrive at all. The archives that house them have their own intertwined histories. And documents and archives alike are contextualized by events much larger and longer than the particular ones that the researcher happens to be studying.

While every research project need not be about the path taken by the document, from the moment of its making to the moment of its reading, every research project can only be enriched by knowing about the path. There are questions that can be answered only by knowing about document trajectories. Who made these documents? Could all kinds of people make them, or only some? Are the documents at hand representative of the period, or do they only attend some aspects of colonial life? Does the fact that we have a document in the present mean that it was considered important in the past? Most importantly, how is the document’s making—and then, necessarily, its content—shaped by the world in which it originated? For colonial documents, how does our understanding of them change if we comprehend fully that they are objects made by colonialism?

Extraordinary and Ordinary Lives

This essay suggests ways of answering these questions by offering a document biography: the story of how a document was made and stored and how it arrived in the present.1 For such an exercise, we can learn from the histories of both extraordinary and ordinary documents.

Extraordinary documents with extraordinary histories are not difficult to find in the field of colonial Latin America. While this is partly due to the universal challenges of preserving fragile paper objects over long periods of time, it is also partly due to the nature of colonialism. Consider the diary of Christopher Columbus: Written for Ferdinand and Isabella, it disappeared along with the copy made for the admiral upon delivery to the monarchs. The only copy we have is one partly excerpted and summarized by Bartolomé de las Casas, who reviewed the diary in the 1530s and made notes supporting his thesis on the subject of Indian nature. This abstract by Las Casas was also lost for more than two centuries, resurfacing in 1790 in the library of the Duke of Infantado. Martín Fernández de Navarette, the historian and naval officer who found the document, had been appointed by the crown to scour the archives for material relating to maritime history, and he must have been beside himself upon discovering the seventy-six paper folios, covered with Las Casas’s minute cursive.2 Now in the National Library in Madrid, the document offers a neat constellation of colonial stars: Columbus, the Catholic monarchs, Las Casas, a private library in the hands of the Spanish aristocracy, and a national library in the hands of the modern state. In an abridged way, the document’s trajectory tells a colonial story quite tidily.

Even more so El Primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, authored in Peru by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala between 1585 and 1615. Composed for the king of Spain on almost 1,200 pages, it is a history and an exposé, a polemic and a portrait. Just as the intended audience speaks eloquently as to the nature of colonial relationships—a marginal Quechua-speaking Andean addressing a diatribe on Spanish exploitation to the Spanish king—so do the very materials of its making testify to the workings of empire. By using “the fundamental tools of the first truly bureaucratic empire—paper, pen, and ink—for which, in material terms, there are absolutely no indigenous Andean equivalents,” Guaman Poma participated as a colonial subject, making use of the empire’s technology—not just its language—to critique its rule.3 We do not know for certain who received Guaman Poma’s document in the Spanish court. Yet someone must have kept it safe, for when it was cataloged in 1785 at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, it was in good condition.4 Rolena Adorno suggests that the Corónica might have been “some form of diplomatic acquisition” between Spain and Denmark or, alternately, that it was taken to Copenhagen by one of many 17th-century collectors interested in Spanish materials.5

The life of the Corónica since then is also revealing. Recognized as a treasure by scholars in many fields, it still resides in Copenhagen, but it has been made available online through scanned images and an annotated transcription.6 Adorno calls the Royal Danish Library’s preservation of the Corónica an “exemplary stewardship,” noting that the digital manuscript is so remarkable because “its resolution of detail is superior to that which direct observation of the physical manuscript allows.”7 It is surely lost on no one that the Royal Danish Library, unlike many libraries in Latin America, fortunately has the resources to prepare and present such a project. The manuscript’s mysterious arrival in Copenhagen speaks to the connections among European powers in the early modern period, but its carefully curated life since the 18th century also speaks to the enduring legacy of those colonial powers.

The story of the Maya-K’iche’ Popol Vuh speaks to these global colonial relationships as well. Written in the mid-16th century by unknown authors of K’iche’ ancestry, it was first seen by an outsider in the early 17th century. Fray Francisco Ximénez, a Dominican priest who also wrote a Maya-Spanish glossary and a history of the Kingdom of Guatemala, was given access to the document between 1701 and 1703 in his capacity as parish priest. Ximénez made a copy of the K’iche’ text, which he also translated into Spanish. Both copy and translation were archived by Ximénez’s Dominican order until the early 19th century, but then, with the closing of monasteries brought about by liberal reforms, the document passed to the University of San Carlos, Guatemala’s principal university founded in the colonial period. An Austrian physician, Carl Scherzer, spotted the document there in 1854, as did a French priest serving his mission in Guatemala, Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. Brasseur’s decision to carry the manuscript back to France with him in 1857 “epitomized” the era’s “‘laissez faire’ approach to collecting,” as scholars Wendy Kramer, George Lovell, and Christopher Lutz describe it.8 When Brasseur died, the Popol Vuh came into the possession of Alphonse Pinart, a French explorer and ethnographer, who sold it to Edward E. Ayer, a timber tycoon from Massachusetts, who eventually donated it—along with his sizable collection of similar materials—to the Newberry Library in Chicago.9

Robert Carmack posits that the original K’iche’ from which Ximénez worked is still held by the principales of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, but this is impossible to prove.10 Absent confirmation about the original manuscript, what we have is a story that in its beginning, middle, and end confirms much of what we know about colonial and modern realities. Ximénez’s access to the document points to the unique position of Catholic priests in indigenous communities—a position that we know resulted in alliances, abuses, exchanges of knowledge, and sometimes the dismaying obliteration of precious objects like the Popol Vuh. The storage of the friar’s document, first in the Dominican and then the university archives, underscores the shifting fates of the religious orders and the penetrating effects of liberal reforms. The last stage of the manuscript’s removal from Guatemala is perhaps the most interesting. It is no coincidence that the manuscript traveled abroad in the 19th century, when scholar-adventurers abounded and great collections—both private and national—were being formed. Nor does it seem trivial that the Popol Vuh’s final leap to the United States occurs in the late 19th century, when great fortunes like Ayer’s were being built and the United States was becoming a looming presence in Latin American affairs. Indeed, if we think of the late 19th century as the key moment of transition, when the influence of European imperial powers in Latin America was largely eclipsed by the United States as imperial power, then the Popol Vuh’s trajectory captures the broader colonial story perfectly.

Ordinary documents tell extraordinary stories, too. Just as the histories of great statesmen have, in the last half century, ceded the stage to histories about less famous or even marginal people—factory workers and farmers, women and Indians, midwives and witches—so too we might think of focusing on the less famous or marginal document as a way of understanding a different aspect of documentary history. The approach taken here will be to examine one such marginal and seemingly insignificant document as a way to unfold its many contexts and, at the same time, to suggest other possible pathways at each juncture. The stages in the life of this document point to parallel stages for other “insignificant” documents, other roads not taken.

The Document

Our document is a five-folio affair from 1773 in the Kingdom of Guatemala. It begins as a complaint from the town of Acala, a place just southwest of San Cristobal de las Casas in present-day Chiapas. The Indian officials of Acala wrote to the Alcalde Mayor of Ciudad Real, complaining that the demands made upon them by travelers and mail carriers on the camino real were too great. The requests for food and mules were never sufficiently compensated, they claimed. The alcalde in Ciudad Real took up the complaint, recommending an inquiry into the causes expressed by the naturales. Sent on to Guatemala, the administrator of the mail added his analysis, in which he compared two possible routes: the existing one through Acala and another new route that would avoid it. He concluded that the route through Acala was by far the shorter (by fourteen leagues) and more convenient and that the present practice should continue. Moreover, he added that to his knowledge it was the ladinos of Acala who provided travelers and mail carriers with supplies, not the naturales, and that the latter thereby had no reason to complain. The fiscal then assessed the complaint, the comment from the alcalde, and the report from the mail administrator. He determined that while it was important to protect the “privileges of this class of people,” in reference to the naturales, it nonetheless seemed that they were not truly being affected by the present situation if indeed the ladinos were the ones providing supplies. The current practice should continue, he decided, but it should be made clear that going forward, only ladinos would provide for the mail carrier, as the administrator said was already the case.11

The World in Which the Document is Made

Like any good biography, this one must begin before our document was born, giving a sense of the world into which it would be delivered. Of course, a comprehensive description of such context could fill many volumes. Instead of offering an (impossibly) exhaustive panoramic of the colonial landscape, it may be more helpful to signal the aspects of this landscape that are most relevant, stopping short of analyzing or even fully describing them.

A starting assumption is that the content and the making of the document are inseparable. This world in which the document emerges is one in which colonial subjects at the empire’s margin—naturales in a small town far from the center of Spain—can write to authorities and voice demands. They have access to paper and ink; they have knowledge of Spanish and are literate; what is more, they have access to established bureaucratic avenues and the knowledge that makes such avenues a likely place in which to air complaints.12 To know the world of this document entails understanding how the terminology of indio and natural came to be, and what each connotes. It entails understanding why the officials of the town use only the term natural to describe themselves and why a crucial distinction is drawn by Spanish officials between these indios/naturales and ladinos.

A sense of geography is essential, and not just because this document is about two possible routes (detailed by the mail administrator in careful, town-to-town segments). It is also essential for understanding the larger argument about the camino real—a concept that itself requires some unpacking, as an established institution of commercial and administrative importance—and for understanding how the people of Acala appeal to Ciudad Real rather than some other place. And without a sense of geography (to be elaborated) we cannot fully understand what it means for this document to have authors gathered from varied places: Acala, Ciudad Real, and Guatemala City.

And what does it mean that the people of Acala petition the alcalde in particular? What is the position of the alcalde in relation to the town, and why is such stock placed in the word of the mail administrator? Who is the fiscal to make a final judgment? What are the protocols of document circulation here, and what is the relative power of each of these authorial positions? What does a complaint of this kind really do in the colonial world in which it emerges? Does it have legal weight? Does it demand a response, and must that response emerge from one particular person in the empire’s bureaucracy?

These are some of the fundamentals, but the reader will have no difficulty coming up with more. For example, if we move beyond basic comprehension to decisions about whom and what we can trust, another set of contexts shifts into view. What does it mean for people like the naturales of Acala to be writing in the first place? Is it unusual or quite common? Are there costs for complaining in this way? Are there decided benefits that could make the supposed causes of such a complaint potentially spurious? How do the officials conceive of the knowledge used to make their decision? Where is it drawn from and what is the burden of proof for determining its validity?

The more deeply one investigates the document’s context, the more thoroughly it demonstrates that the content and the making of the document are intertwined. The very meaning of the document is bound up in its creation.

The Making of the Document

Colonial documents reveal a little and conceal a lot more about how they were made. One of the most essential elements concealed is how the knowledge of each portion was produced. How do the Indian authorities of Acala know that the travelers and mail carriers overburden the town? Is this from personal knowledge or is it being reported to them? In either case, how is the knowledge gathered—systematically, anecdotally? And from where do the alcalde and the mail administrator draw their knowledge of geography and routes? The mail administrator’s detailed review of the possible detour suggests intimate knowledge of the terrain—did he travel it himself?

While some documents speaks to their sources, such as the testimony given by a witness in a court case or a geographical report written by a surveyor, most do not. An understanding of knowledge structures in the colonial world becomes essential for determining how inferences are drawn, how conclusions are made, and how information is presented with official certainty. The council of Acala knew about important Spanish administrative conventions: They understood the genre of the complaint. We can speculate that local officials regularly received official documents from outside the town, and we can further speculate that, over decades, exchanges with Ciudad Real would have cultivated a store of knowledge on bureaucratic ways. But the precise manner in which this knowledge was acquired is hidden from us.

In the case of the mail administrator, who lists with exactitude the intervals between towns along the routes north, it is clear that he would not have traveled this route himself. Instead, information about the routes was gathered by mail carriers, men who were representatives of the crown but were often flexible in their accountability and loyalty. Most mail carriers, moreover, did not know the terrain themselves. They relied on Indian guides for every stage of the journey, both to lead the mules carrying the mail trunks and to navigate the complex of paths.13 The camino real could be clear and well established in some places, but in most it was shifting and negotiable, as the very debate here indicates.14 It is important to note, then, that while the mail administrator’s verdict on the routes is presented as his official information, it was in fact extracted from Indians: reported, compiled, and transformed, to be sure, but at the foundation of the administrator’s assessment lies Indian knowledge of geography and terrain. As Peter Burke has observed in his treatment of early modern knowledges, official knowledge is often unofficial knowledge with an official seal.15

The official seal manifests here in several ways. It is in the title of the administrators who participate in this document’s making: alcalde, fiscal, administrador de correos. It is in the actual seal—the papel sellado, or stamped paper—used to initiate the complaint; stamped paper, purchased from overseas, offered proof of validity and was essential for legal documents.16 It is also in the presence of the escribanos, the notaries or scribes who witness, annotate, direct, and sign throughout. This document is unusual for the ways in which it names the importance of the escribano: on the second page of the complaint, the representative for the town of Acala signs “a ruego del comun de todo mi pueblo y por falta de escribano de cabildo, Pedro Pablo de Castro” (“by plea of my entire town and because we do not have an escribano for the town council, Pedro Pablo de Castro”).17

The escribano’s presence in the document was essential in most colonial documents. Escribanos were assigned to the Spanish American audiencias, they were assigned to town councils, and in many cases Indian towns were assigned their own escribano—a crucial legal functionary who could present the town’s claims in a valid way. Public escribanos acted as notaries, not assigned to a particular administrative body but available to draw up wills, contracts, and other legal forms.18

In many ways, a colonial document without an escribano was not a document: It was something else—a draft, a scrap, an extralegal composition. Of course, such pieces of writing existed, but to participate in the official sphere of Spanish documentation, writing required the escribano’s presence. We can begin here to imagine the consequences (as discussed later) for other kinds of writings that in other times and places would qualify as “documents”: Not only were they ineligible in their legal capacity, but they were also ineligible, in many cases, for preservation. The complaint from Acala no doubt received the official response that it did because of the vital presence of the stamp, or sello, which testified, in the escribano’s absence, to the document’s legitimacy.

To bring this document into the world, the town council of Acala needed to have essentials that we too easily overlook: official paper, knowledge of document genre and bureaucratic norms, and an understanding of administrative structures. All of these vital components ensured that Acala’s complaint would be treated as a real, live document by Spanish officials.

The Augmentation of the Document Through Travel

The official response was not just to read and react but to expand. The previous discussion regarding knowledge bases has proposed a first kind of composite creation, whereby the work and knowledge of many people are presented as the production of a single author. Here, we consider a second kind of composite creation, where multiple authors are visible on the page.19 Some documents from this period are not composite in this way: the bound books of public notaries in which they kept legal documents, all written in a single hand; or the printed cédulas sent by the king to every corner of the empire. But the majority are conversations on paper, in which multiple authors query, complicate, augment, redirect, respond, and conclude.

The complaint from Acala is typical. On the back of the original complaint, the alcalde in Ciudad Real, Fernando Gómez de Andrade, signed his escribano’s order to forward the matter to the Guatemalan audiencia. The following page is Gómez’s cover letter, which we see annotated at the top by the Guatemalan audiencia: “traigase con lo que informe el Administrador de la renta [de correos], y diga el Fiscal interino” (“ask for the input of the mail administrator and see what the interim fiscal says”). The third folio, once again on stamped paper, is the mail administrator’s reply, which runs onto a fourth folio. (He appears to have written the document himself.) And at the bottom of the fourth folio, the fiscal’s office begins its deliberation. Finally, on the fifth folio, we see that the fiscal’s decision has been acknowledged by the audiencia’s escribano, Andrés Guerra Gutierrez, and the last line is from the fiscal, who releases or announces the decision.

What can we conclude from these steps? Traveling from Acala to Ciudad Real and then on to Guatemala, this document demonstrates how official paperwork was authored across time and space. The initial complaint has no date, but the alcalde first comments on January 15, 1773; the audiencia acknowledges receipt on January 30; the mail administrator reports on February 16; the fiscal reaches a decision on April 21, finally releasing the document on April 24: four months and several hundred miles. In fact, this is a fairly modest document journey. Many traveled greater distances (including overseas) and over much longer periods of time. Clearly, composite creation relied heavily on a mail system that could deliver documents efficiently and keep them safe; at every stage, documents would need to be treated as precious objects in order to ensure their survival. Or, put another way, mail carriers were as essential to making documents as were officials.

Another point clearly evidenced here is that composite document creation favors centralization: It results in cumulative documents that stop traveling once a decision is reached, and that decision is most often taken at an administrative center. The Guatemalan audiencia became the end point for every manner of wandering inquiry, debate, or report; so, too, the various audiencias across Spanish America and the seats of authority in Spain. If we think of this document’s creation in terms of an itinerary, and if we think of all such documents drawing their own itineraries in time and space, we can begin to imagine the documentary traffic patterns of the Spanish empire: sparse at the edges, dense in administrative centers. A possible surprise here, borne out by other documents, has to do with pace: The document moves most slowly when it reaches Guatemala, as the mail administrator and the fiscal take time to ponder. Taking this document as an indicator, traffic may be quicker at the sparse edges and more sluggish at the dense central nodes.

The Storage and Preservation (or Destruction) of the Document

The sluggishness at the center extends to document storage, for in most cases documents were archived by the very escribanos who had penned the pages. The correspondence on the complaint from Acala was filed by the escribano de audiencia in Guatemala, and the fact that it survived is a testament to the perceived value of documentation. Only three months after the document’s conclusion, a series of earthquakes struck Santiago de Guatemala, destroying much of the city and creating chaos for all of its inhabitants. Correspondence from later years indicates that many crucial documents remained in the city, even as much of the population moved to a new location: La Hermita, which would become Guatemala City. Debate over whether to stay or go, even among Guatemalan elites, complicated the transition of administrative offices, and it took several years for anything like the normal circulation of paperwork to resume. Documents had to be rescued, in many cases, from the ruin of the former capital.

Such disasters are not uncommon, and they are part of the “invisible” story that documents and archives can conceal.20 There is no mark upon the Acala complaint to indicate this period of turmoil, just as there is no mark upon it to signal the long, arduous efforts of the ensuing decades. Administrative offices, where they could salvage their papers, found their archives subject to intermittent neglect and reorganization well into the 19th century. The erupting wars for independence, which resulted first in a Central American federation and then in a bitter and prolonged splintering into individual nations, did not make things easier. For a time, the seat of governance shifted south to San Salvador, and attempts were made to move the archive of the former colonial capital along with it. Eventually, most of the documents returned, but we can imagine the organizational and practical difficulties of attempting to keep archival order when boundaries, authorities, and administrative centers were all in flux.21

We cannot know how many documents were lost during this period, but we can gesture to the kinds of loss that allowed documents to vanish.22 Natural disasters and human conflicts were certainly responsible in some cases. But the greatest culprit, and the easiest to overlook, is the categorical difference in officials’ minds between “documents” and “non-documents.” Drafts and doodles, loose correspondence that was not part of the legal record, preparatory materials supplanted by official versions: all of these and more were non-documents. It is clear from the escribano inventories of the colonial period that the only documents worth saving were those of legal and administrative significance.

The second greatest culprit is neglect, or a result like neglect due to inadequate resources. Vermin and water: these two are responsible for more unreadable documents than the colonialist can count. We all know too well the frustration of reaching the crucial point on the page, only to discover that the vital date or name or adjective has been eaten by silverfish. Documents from the colonial period tell us that even in the immediate years after their creation, adequate storage was sometimes hard to come by. Local officials used their homes. Comestibles and documents intermingled. Open doors meant that every manner of person could go in and out.

A third culprit, numerically less significant but nonetheless important, is theft. Beginning in the colonial period, some authorities tended to treat official archives as personal libraries from which they could borrow indefinitely. We see stern reminders from the crown that documents must be kept under lock and key and are not, under any circumstances, to be taken away for personal use. But certainly by the 19th century, when a great portion of Guatemalan archives sat in untended piles and individual archivists labored for years (miserably, in some cases) to create some semblance of order, helping oneself to a bundle or two, as Brasseur de Bourbourg, did must not have seemed too egregious.23

Not all archives in the Spanish empire went through such turmoil. Some remained in a single location, some drew materials from peripheral archives and centralized with ease, and some did not suffer the shortage of resources evident in Guatemala. Yet we know, from the existence of document treasure troves all across the United States and Europe, that borrowing and collecting and theft, not intentionally the same but all with similar results, have had a profound effect on Spanish American collections.24

The Cataloging of the Document

Our document remained in Guatemala. Perhaps it was not considered worth stealing since it did not contain images or the signatures of famous people: important enough to keep, but not important enough to steal.

In the late 19th century, archivists created a comprehensive inventory of the Guatemalan collections, laying the foundation for the organization of the Archivo General de Centroamérica—the AGCA. The structure of the archive closely mirrored the administrative structure of colonial rule: The various branches of government each produced branches of documentation, which remained distinct. This is true in other archives as well; the organization that may seem quixotic to the first-time researcher is, in fact, a direct reflection of the way that Spanish bureaucrats—usually Bourbons, for theirs was the great age of paper production—organized themselves.

The challenges faced in the 20th century were, perhaps surprisingly, no less daunting than those faced by the escribanos who salvaged their documents from the ruins of the earthquake in the 18th century and the archivists who pleaded plaintively for scissors and string in the 19th. For while the structure was in place, there was little sense of what the archive contained, and locating our document from Acala would have been near impossible—unless it happened by chance—in 1930. This changed when José Joaquín Pardo Gallardo (1905–1964), a largely self-taught archivist of Herculean energy, was assigned as director of the national archive in 1935. Pardo personally read, indexed, and cataloged the tens of thousands of documents in the colonial collection. (He was beginning to do the same with the enormous postindependence collection, but died near the start of the project.) As one tribute to Pardo recalls:

The old Casa de Moneda was partially destroyed, uncomfortable, and somber, with rotting shelves, a springy wooden second floor and a lower floor where unclassified documents were stored at the mercy of dust, damp walls, mice, cockroaches, and fire. When a screen door was slammed the light hanging from a single cord would jump and swing, and Don Joaquín would visibly shudder with the thought that a dust explosion might shatter the old building.25

Pardo published a bulletin on his ongoing work, and the result of his archival labors still stands in the AGCA today: an immense card catalog referencing colonial documents by topic, government branch, and surname. Yes, the system is idiosyncratic. Getting to know it is like getting to know Pardo’s mind; one wanders with him through the labyrinth of documents for which he so unstintingly cared. But even in recent years, with the searching mechanisms at the AGCA all updated, the process of updating has entailed photographing and then digitizing Pardo’s typewritten cards, so that they are viewable and then searchable on a computer. Pardo’s hand still guides what one can and cannot find among colonial Guatemalan documents.

The Reading of the Document by a Researcher

As with any document, there are many ways to read the complaint from Acala. Interpretations will vary with time and perspective. In recent years, historians might have read these pages to reach conclusions about colonial power. One could see in the wording a striking expression of Indian agency: a willingness to use the tools of colonialism against the colonial state. “Hemos querido representar,” the complaint states, “la miseria y calamidad de nuestro pueblo.” (“We have wanted to represent the misery and calamity of our town.”)26 A version of the word “represent” appears three times in the long first sentence. Surely we are witnessing a rare instance of Indian representation. One could, on the other hand, see the heavy hand of the fiscal in deciding that Indian contributions are negligible and Indian complaints can bear being ignored. Surely the administrators are naive in believing that the power imbalance between ladinos and Indians is such that Indians are spared the task of providing supplies. Surely what we see in the fiscal’s decision is a prioritizing of the administration and its mail service, not a prioritization of the real or imagined misery of Acala’s Indians.

Another approach might see this document, paired with others, as a source about the physical environment and colonial geography. The mail administrator describes the possible alternate route as “muy fragoso, y en tiempo de invierno casi intransitable” (“very overgrown, and in the winter almost impassable”), and he notes the shortage of canoes and the absence of bridges for the Río Burrero, the Río Negro, and the Río de Costa Rica. Such observations give a vivid sense of the terrain and even the state of vegetation. One might attempt to map the rivers and roads of this period, retracing the steps of the intrepid mail carrier who traversed this region on foot, on horseback, and by canoe.

My first approach was not too far removed from this one. The document struck me as a valuable piece of the puzzle that is the Guatemalan mail system. I was attempting to understand its inner workings. How did documents travel across long distances? Who carried them? Was their travel fast or slow? Informal or systematized? The document from Acala gave me a sense of the mail carrier’s world—the way he could or could not expect supplies in certain locations, the way he negotiated a changing route, the way his interaction with towns could be contentious. Other documents suggested that mail carriers had more difficult relationships with towns that were primarily Indian, and that Indian towns sometimes sought to protect or even hide their land holdings from the passage of the mail carrier and the camino real.

This first interpretive pathway that I followed led to a surprising detour, however: questions about how the document came to be. I wondered not just about how the document traveled but how it was made. With the accumulated context of many other documents made in similar ways, a different interpretation began to emerge. As suggested previously in the discussion of composite documents, these pages are about more than Indians and routes and mail carriers; they also about bureaucracy and knowledge and colonial administration. The mail administrator, Simón de Larrazabal, is central to these pages—his portion is the lengthiest and his testimony weighs the most. What does he tell? He gives us information about routes and weather, landscape and travel practices. He does not cite his sources. He does not tell us in the document where the knowledge comes from. In other words, the content does not tell us how it came to be.

Only by learning how this document and others were made can we learn how the administrator’s knowledge was made. What at first seemed to be Larrazabal’s own knowledge was revealed—by focusing on how information was moved, on paper, to central places—to be Indian knowledge. Larrazabal had little personal experience of the region but, thanks to dozens of Indian guides, an impressive bird’s-eye view. The wisdom of so many experts was amassed, through the mail carriers, to create a formidable store of knowledge about Guatemalan terrain. This contextualized understanding of how the document was created gives us, then, not only a sense of what the administrator knew but how he knew it: It allows not just a snapshot of administrative function but a tentative conclusion about colonial epistemology.

Signatura A3, Legajo 137, Expediente 2774: A Life Not Yet Concluded

This, then, is the conclusion: The invisible backstory of the document determines what we do and do not find, what we do and do not see, what we can and cannot interpret. If documents are taken to speak without context, their content can too easily become distorted by the missing backstory. What we read on a single page, such as in the complaint from Acala, is deeply shaped by the possibilities for writing and authoring. It is shaped by basic realities: who did and did not have access to stamped paper. It is shaped by power, in the form of knowledge and access to bureaucratic norms. It is shaped by roads and weather and a nameless mail carrier’s stamina. It is shaped by the care or neglect of an escribano. And it is shaped by the modes of thinking of archivists throughout the centuries, who decided what would be preserved and how the preserved documents would be identified.

This is not just about recognizing all the documents we do not see; it is, more deeply, about realizing that what we read and interpret is shaped by colonial (and modern) knowledge practices. It is also about realizing that all archives today are not equal. The Archivo General de Indias in Seville is a pleasant place to work, with safety and resources on its side, and the historian of Central America might be forgiven for wanting to work there, rather than in Guatemala City. Indeed, we all know that there are archives in Spanish America that are so difficult and so uncomfortable to use that only the hardiest archival explorers wish to visit them. The histories we write are undeniably influenced by document histories and archival realities. We might do well to wonder, as we pore through the latest find: How much of what we think we know is a reflection of what was saved and where?

Further Reading

Bayly, Christopher Alan. Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Blouin, Francis X., and William G. Rosenberg. Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives. Repr. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Burke, Peter. A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2000.Find this resource:

Burns, Kathryn. Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Burton, Antoinette M. Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Clanchy, M. T. From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307. John Wiley, 2012.Find this resource:

Farge, Arlette. The Allure of the Archives. Translated by Thomas Scott-Railton. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Head, R. “Knowing Like a State: The Transformation of Political Knowledge in Swiss Archives, 1450–1770.” Journal of Modern History 75.4 (2003): 745–782.Find this resource:

Ketelaar, E. “Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives.” Archival Science 1.2 (2001): 131–141.Find this resource:

Kramer, Wendy, W. George Lovell, and Christopher H. Lutz. “Pillage in the Archives: The Whereabouts of Guatemalan Documentary Treasures.” Latin American Research Review 48.3 (2013): 153–167.Find this resource:

Riles, Annelise. Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Stoler, A. L. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science 2.1 (2002): 87–109.Find this resource:


(1.) This approach is informed by, but distinct from, the effort to write object biographies in archaeology. The biographical approach taken by archaeologists aims to “understand the way objects become invested with meaning through the social interactions they are caught up in,” as Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall write in their discussion of the cultural biographies of objects prepared in the 1980s and 1990s. In contrast, the approach taken here considers the way the object is invested with meaning as a secondary objective, placing the emphasis instead on understanding the object’s cultural, social, economic, and political context through its life stages. Both emphasize the object as an element with greater complexity and individuality (“agency,” to use the word common in archaeology), but the approach taken here sees the object biography as an opening into colonial life, rather than as a way of understanding more deeply the object’s meaning. Less emphasis is placed on the material aspects of the document—paper, ink, thread to bind, etc. I follow more closely the suggestion of Annelise Riles, who looks at documents as “artifacts” of knowledge practices. Annelise Riles, Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006). For representative works in archaeology, see Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall, “The Cultural Biography of Objects,” World Archaeology 31.2 (1999): 169–178.

(2.) Martín Fernández de Navarrete, Colección de los viajes y descubrimientos que hicieron por mar los españoles desde fines del siglo XV: Con varios documentos inéditos concernientes á la historia de la marina castellana y de los establecimientos españoles en Indias (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1825–1837); Martín Fernández de Navarrete, Colección de diarios y relaciones para la historia de los viajes y descubrimientos …, ed. Instituto Histórico de Marina and Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas [Spain] (Madrid: Instituto Histórico de Marina, 1943); Christopher Columbus, The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492–1493 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

(3.) Valerie Fraser, “The Artistry of Guaman Poma,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 29–30 (April 1996): 269.

(4.) Authoritative translations and criticism of recent years are by Rolena Adorno, who was also involved in the online production of the document. Rolena Adorno and Ivan Boserup, New Studies of the Autograph Manuscript of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s Nueva Corónica Y Buen Gobierno (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2003); Rolena Adorno, Guaman Poma: Writing and Resistance in Colonial Peru (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010); Rolena Adorno, Guaman Poma and His Illustrated Chronicle from Colonial Peru: From a Century of Scholarship to a New Era of Reading = Guaman Poma y su crónica ilustrada del Perú colonial : Un siglo de investigaciones hacia una nueva era de lectura/Rolena Adorno. (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2001).

(5.) Rolena Adorno, Guaman Poma and His Illustrated Chronicle from Colonial Peru, 17–18.

(7.) Adorno, Guaman Poma and His Illustrated Chronicle from Colonial Peru, 13.

(8.) Wendy Kramer, W. George Lovell, and Christopher H. Lutz, “Pillage in the Archives: The Whereabouts of Guatemalan Documentary Treasures,” Latin American Research Review 48.3 (2013): 153–167; 160.

(9.) For the history of the manuscript, see Robert M. Carmack, Quichean Civilization: The Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic, and Archaeological Sources (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973); Jack Himelblau, “The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala: Text, Copyist, and Time Frame of Transcription,” Hispania 72.1 (1989): 97–122; Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, 2013); Allen Christenson, trans., Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012); Kramer, Lovell, and Lutz, “Pillage in the Archives.”

(10.) Carmack, Quichean Civilization, 25.

(11.) Archivo General de Centroamérica: Signatura A3, Legajo 137, Expediente 2774.

(12.) The physical materials and the language learning are important elements here that I put aside with regret, since each is its own sizable area of study.

(13.) Sylvia Sellers-García, Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

(14.) Bruce A Castleman, Building the King’s Highway: Labor, Society, and Family on Mexico’s Caminos Reales, 1757–1804 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005).

(15.) Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2000).

(16.) María Luisa Martínez de Salinas, La Implantación Del Impuesto Del Papel Sellado En Indias (Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1986).

(17.) Archivo General de Centroamérica: Signatura A3, Legajo 137, Expediente 2774.

(18.) Kathryn Burns and Jorge Luján Muñoz offer a wealth of information, and the following guides give a sense of the escribanos’ responsibilities in the 18th century. Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Colegio de Escribanos de México., Estatutos Del Real Colegio de Escribanos de México, Aprobados Por Su Magestad En Real Cédula de 19 de Junio 1792. (México: D. Felipe de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1793); Jorge Luján Muñoz, Los Escribanos En Las Indias Occidentales Y En Particular En El Reino de Guatemala, vol. 2 (Guatemala: Instituto Guatemalteca de Derecho Notarial, 1977); Juan Elías Ortiz de Logroño and Juan Ricardo Jiménez Gómez, Un Formulario Notarial Mexicano Del Siglo XVIII : La Instrucción de Escribanos de Juan Elías Ortiz de Logroño, vol. 1 (Querétaro, México: Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, 2005); Spain, Escribanos Y Protocolos Notariales En El Descubrimiento de América: Presentación Del Premio de Investigación Histórico-Jurídica Madrid, 29 de Octubre de 1992 ([Guadalajara]: Consejo General del Notariado, 1993).

(19.) Sellers-García, Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery.

(20.) A growing field of archival history is bringing this story to the foreground. Approaches (political, personal, and methodological) vary greatly. Consider the following as possible introductions to archival history in different regions of the early modern world: Burns, Into the Archive; F. De Vivo, “Ordering the Archive in Early Modern Venice (1400–1650),” Archival Science 10.3 (2010): 231–248; Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); R. C. Head, “Mirroring Governance: Archives, Inventories and Political Knowledge in Early Modern Switzerland and Europe,” Archival Science 7.4 (2007): 317–329; R. Head, “Knowing Like a State: The Transformation of Political Knowledge in Swiss Archives, 1450–1770,” Journal of Modern History 75.4 (2003): 745–782; R. C. Head, “Preface: Historical Research on Archives and Knowledge Cultures: An Interdisciplinary Wave,” Archival Science 10.3 (2010): 191–194.

(21.) Sellers-García, Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery; Greg Grandin and Rene Reeves, “Archives in the Guatemalan Western Highlands,” Latin American Research Review 31.1 (1996): 105–112.

(22.) For an intriguing exploration of what we can learn from destroyed archives, see Warren Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed or Lost: Lay People and Archives in the Early Middle Ages,” Early Medieval Europe 11.4 (2002): 337–366.

(23.) Sellers-García, Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire’s Periphery.

(24.) Arnold Bauer, The Search for the Codex Cardona (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2009); Kramer, Lovell, and Lutz, “Pillage in the Archives”; John Frederick Schwaller, “Tracking the Sahagún Legacy: Manuscripts and Their Travels,” Sahagún at 500: Essays on the Quincentenary Of the Birth of Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún, (Berkeley, CA: Publications of the Academy of American Franciscan History, 2003): 265–274.

(25.) Walter A. Payne, “Jose Joaquin Pardo Gallardo (1905–1964),” Hispanic American Historical Review 45.3 (1965): 463–467.

(26.) Archivo General de Centroamérica: Signatura A3, Legajo 137, Expediente 2774.