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The Core Curriculum

Guamán Poma

1535 CE – 1616 CE

Guamán Poma’s illustration of the “first age” of the Indians in pre-Columbian South America. The hand-written title reads: “PRIMER GENERACION DE IN[DI]OS, VARI VIRA COCHA Runa, primer yndio deste rreyno (The first generation of Indians, Vari Vira Cocha Runa, the first Indian of this kingdom.) (Royal Library of Denmark) Guamán Poma’s illustration of the “first age” of the Indians in pre-Columbian South America. The hand-written title reads: “PRIMER GENERACION DE IN[DI]OS, VARI VIRA COCHA Runa, primer yndio deste rreyno (The first generation of Indians, Vari Vira Cocha Runa, the first Indian of this kingdom.) (Royal Library of Denmark) Don Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, a native Andean man who claimed noble Quechua ancestry, was born in the province of Lucanas, Viceroyalty of Peru. Guamán Poma’s native tongue was Quechua, but he was educated by religious men in Spanish and the Catholic faith and spent most of his life in the city of Huamanga, known today as Ayacucho. Since he was linguistically gifted and fluent in Aru as well, Guamán Poma followed the steps of his father and worked as an interpreter and assistant to a number of ecclesiastical and civil authorities, but in 1600 he lost a long and difficult trial for the possession of land in Huamanga and was banished from the city as a result. Afterwards, he spent more than a decade composing the work for which he is known today, El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno [First New Chronicle and Good Government], a 1200-page letter addressed to the Spanish King. 

In this massive text, besides retelling the history of Peru from the time of the earliest settlers, through the rise of the Inca empire and ending with its fall to Spanish invaders, Guamán Poma also records facts about his native culture, details some of his own journeys and launches at times into a critique of Spanish colonialist practices. Generously illustrated by Guamán Poma himself (its pages include more than 500 drawings), the Nueva corónica might have in fact reached the hands of the Spanish royal family, but its many appeals to the King to reform the government of his American colonies and punish corrupt priests and officials were ignored. The manuscript is housed today in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, which it might have reached via the trade of precious books that accompanied and strengthened diplomatic or marital connections among European powers in the Early Modern period.

The Nueva corónica is a remarkable work for several reasons. One is its reliance on hand-drawn illustrations, which blend with the narrative and become an integral part of it, in the spirit of native Andean and Mesoamerican traditions; in this manner, it is a unique example of a native author mixing a European genre (that of the colonist’s “chronicle” addressed to the King) with an indigenous one (the use of drawings for the ritual reconstruction of the past), in order to produce what he conceived to be a more authentic account of the colonization of Peru. Another remarkable feature, perhaps an even more important one, is the work's explicit intention of denouncing directly to the King the excesses committed by his vassals against native populations, with the ultimate objective of protecting these people and helping them survive the colonial regime.

Guamán Poma’s Appeal Concerning the Priests is a key section of his chronicle in which, in typical style, he embraces the Spanish conquerors’ worldview in order to criticize their actions. A devout Christian himself, but also proudly Andean — in another section he bemoans the fact that miscegenation with the Spaniards was destroying his native culture— Guamán Poma’s unique perspective sheds light into the ways in which indigenous South Americans embraced a syncretic and highly original type of Catholicism as a means for deploying tools of anti-colonial resistance.

 

Written by Humberto Ballesteros, Department of Italian, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted:

Adorno, Rolena. Guamán Poma and his Illustrated Chronicle of Colonial Peru: From a Century of Scholarship to a New Era of Reading. Museum Tusculanum Press: The Royal Library of Denmark & the University of Copenhagen, 2001. 

Adorno, Rolena. Guamán Poma: Writing and Resistance in Colonial Peru. Second edition with a new introduction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

González Vargas, Carlos and Hugo Rosati Aguerre, et al. Guamán Poma, testigo del mundo andino. Santiago de Chile: LOM Ediciones, 2002.