Colonial Literature and the Mystery of Ophir

Nathan J. Gordon, a visiting instructor at BYU, discussed colonial literature and the works of Fernando Montesinos.

Young-CortesPROVO, Utah (Oct. 18,2016)— “For good or bad,” explained Nathan Gordon, “the colonization of America will always remain one of the most important events of history.”

Gordon, a visiting instructor for the department of Spanish and Portuguese at BYU, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder gave a lecture on the representations of pre-Columbian history and the New World. “Colonial literature can and should be viewed as a space of dialogue, negotiation, manipulation, and, at times, exploitation,” said Gordon.

He continued by referring to the accounts of Columbus who, as the first explorer of the colonial era to discover America, was also the first to embellish it. “[Columbus] was mainly concerned with comparing the Old World to the New World in his diaries. One of his favorite words to describe the New World was maravilla; wonder,” Gordon noted.

One of these wondrous discoveries of the New World written in his diaries were mermaids, which Columbus described as having manly faces. Gordon explained, “Some think he was trying to describe manatees and others simply think that he was trying to manipulate the stories and make them more adventurous and interesting to the readers.”

Columbus was not the only explorer to romanticize his accounts of the New World. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, an explorer who came to America with Hernan Cortes, also wrote an account of his conquests in the new world, placing himself in the role as hero and advisor to the, in Diaz’ opinion, over-glorified Cortes. From Diaz’ account, Cortes was unable to make important decisions without first consulting him.

“At a very seasoned age, some 30 years after the conquest, instead of glorifying Cortes he decides to focus on himself and demonstrate how he was even more important than Cortes,” Gordon said. He described that the most likely motive for Diaz’ representation of himself in this manner was a concern that he would lose his properties. Diaz, by establishing himself as one of the most important figures in the story, would secure his estate and an inheritance for his sons.

Gordon used these examples to show the often biased nature of colonial literature and the importance of considering the motives of the writer in understanding the manuscript. This process of discovery, explained Gordon, is important in his research of Fernando Montesinos, writer of Ophir de Espana: Memorias historiales y políticas del Piru (1644).

Ophir de Espana is a chronicle that is by far one of the most elaborate, interesting, and controversial when discussing [literary colonialism],” Gordon said. Ophir de Espana contains three books. The second, and the only volume that has been published, is a genealogical account of the Andeans and Incans, tracing their ancestry back to Ophir who was one of Noah’s grandsons. Montesinos did not claim authorship of the second part, instead declaring that he found it in an auction house in Lima.  

In the Bible, the land called Ophir was established is in an undisclosed location. Solomon and David would send sailors to Ophir to collect gold, silver and jewels. Gordon explained that Montesinos’ argument in Ophir de Espana is that Peru and Ophir are one and the same and that the kings of Spain, like David and Solomon before them, had the blessing of God to find Ophir and partake of its bounty.

Gordon described the condition under which Montesinos wrote this manuscript. It was not at the beginning of the colonial era, and the idea of Peru as Ophir was not new. Instead, Montesinos was attempting to make an argument that Spain’s divine right to act in God’s name allowed the country to use any and all resources from the New World. “Ophir is a smokescreen for a much larger argument, one that aims to point out that the mining industry should be controlled by Spain and that the wealth of the New World should do nothing short of benefit and sustain Spain’s economy,” Gordon said.

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Spanish and Portuguese Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

image: Portrait of Young Cortes, 16th century, located at the Museo de America, Madrid.