A MetaFilter post alerted me to the existence of an amazing document written in the early 17th century by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a native speaker of Quechua who had learned Spanish and served as an interpreter; he came to regret his collaboration with the invaders and began trying to support Andean traditions and culture, and as a part of this effort he wrote an immense letter in Quechua-based Spanish, the Primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), to King Philip II of Spain, who as far as we know never read it. It turned up at the Royal Library of Copenhagen in 1908 (nobody knows how it got there) and was slowly recognized as the unique source that it is. This introduction by Rolena Adorno, one of the scholars investigating it today, says:

With the discovery of the Nueva coronica, a whole new perspective on Andean culture came into being. Here was a document that offered an indigenous Andean perspective on conquest and colonization and, more importantly, a knowledge of Andean and Inca society that most European chroniclers, and even some famous Peruvian-born writers like El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, could not duplicate. As John V. Murra observed nearly twenty years ago, the Nueva coronica y buen gobierno is a “source of basic information about Andean institutions available nowhere else.”

The Royal Library has made the entire document available online in facsimile and annotated translation; so far it’s only in Spanish, but you can get a few selections in English here (with a brief introduction by David Frye, who explains that “Guaman Poma” represents Quechua Waman Puma, “Hawk Puma”), and there are many English articles in the Royal Library site’s resources page. The document is placed in a cross-cultural perspective by Mary Louise Pratt in her article Arts of the Contact Zone, which says:

Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle is an instance of what I have proposed to call an autoethnographic text, by which I mean a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them… Autoethnographic representation often involves concrete collaborations between people, as between literate ex-slaves and abolitionist intellectuals, or between Guaman Poma and the Inca elders who were his informants. Often, as in Guaman Poma, it involves more than one language. In recent decades autoethnography, critique, and resistance have reconnected with writing in a contemporary creation of the contact zone, the testimonio
To grasp the import of Guaman Poma’s project, one needs to keep in mind that the Incas had no system of writing. Their huge empire is said to be the only known instance of a full-blown bureaucratic state society built and administered without writing. Guaman Poma constructs his text by appropriating and adapting pieces of the representational repertoire of the invaders. He does not simply imitate or reproduce it; he selects and adapts it along Andean lines to express (bilingually, mind you) Andean interests and aspirations…
In sum, Guaman Poma’s text is truly a product of the contact zone. If one thinks of cultures, or literatures, as discrete, coherently structured, monolingual edifices, Guaman Poma’s text, and indeed any autoethnographic work appears anomalous or chaotic—as it apparently did to the European scholars Pietschmann spoke to in 1912. If one does not think of cultures this way, then Guaman Poma’s text is simply heterogeneous, as the Andean region was itself and remains today. Such a text is heterogeneous on the reception end as well as the production end: it will read very differently to people in different positions in the contact zone. Because it deploys European and Andean systems of meaning making, the letter necessarily means differently to bilingual Spanish-Quechua speakers and to monolingual speakers in either language; the drawings mean differently to monocultural readers, Spanish or Andean, and to bicultural readers responding to the Andean symbolic structures embodied in European genres.
In the Andes in the early 1600s there existed a literate public with considerable intercultural competence and degrees of bilingualism. Unfortunately, such a community did not exist in the Spanish court with which Guaman Poma was trying to make contact. It is interesting to note that in the same year Guaman Poma sent off his letter, a text by another Peruvian was adopted in official circles in Spain as the canonical Christian mediation between the Spanish conquest and Inca history. It was another huge encyclopedic work, titled the Royal Commentaries of the Incas, written, tellingly, by a mestizo, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Like the mestizo half brother who taught Guaman Poma to read and write, Inca Garcilaso was the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish official, and had lived in Spain since he was seventeen. Though he too spoke Quechua, his book is written in eloquent, standard Spanish, without illustrations. While Guaman Poma’s life’s work sat somewhere unread, the Royal Commentaries was edited and reedited in Spain and the New World, a mediation that coded the Andean past and present in ways thought unthreatening to colonial hierarchy. The textual hierarchy persists; the Royal Commentaries today remains a staple item on Ph.D. reading lists in Spanish, while the New Chronicle and Good Government, despite the ready availability of several fine editions, is not. However, though Guaman Poma’s text did not reach its destination, the transcultural currents of expression it exemplifies continued to evolve in the Andes, as they still do, less in writing than in storytelling, ritual, song, dance-drama, painting and sculpture, dress, textile art, forms of governance, religious belief, and many other vernacular art forms. All express the effects of long-term contact and intractable, unequal conflict.

You can see a dialogue in Quechua in this drawing (“Cayllata acullicuy, pana” [‘Chew this coca, sister’] / “Apomoy, tura.” [‘Hand it to me, brother’] and a cross-linguistic encounter here: “Cay curitacho micunqui?” [‘Do you eat this gold?’] / “Este oro comemos.” [‘We eat this gold’]. The margins and interstices of official history are where all the interesting stuff is.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for pointing this one out.

  2. In 1552,Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, a dominican priest born in Sevilla, wrote “Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias de Bartolomé de Las Casas”, pdf. format downlable from
    About Las Casas is remarkable that in his effort to stop illtreatment on american natives, he proposed importing african slaves to american colonies….(seems to be that africans were sons of a lesser god than americans )
    In fact, Guaman’s book was written to Phillip III, (1598-1621) son of Phillip II(1556-1598) and Ana de Austria. Of course no attention was paid on his effort.

  3. verstegan says

    Thanks for your nice comments on my MeFi post, languagehat, and happy third birthday!

  4. The margins and interstices of official history are where all the interesting stuff is.
    Amen to that!

  5. I’d heard of this before – pretty much any popular account of the Incas will have one or two of his illustrations – but it’s great to see the whole thing online.

  6. Folquerto says

    when I first got interested in praecolumbian cultures it was usually impossible to get to the originals. Even University libraries could not help. The world has changed in this regard. By spreading messages like this around you have become a must to read. Thanks, Languagehat and Jordan MacVay!

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