'Saving the Indians' souls' in colonial Peru

By Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar
June 22, 2011

Back on 27 and 28 May 2011 Stirling University held the first research workshop on Andean Studies in the UK, attended by senior and postgraduate colleagues in order to share and discuss their most recent research in progress.

Andean Studies is dedicated to understanding the indigenous peoples and their cultures of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia (and parts of Colombia, Argentina and Chile), studying their archaeology, history and languages as well as their life in the modern nation states.

Three contributions to the workshop were dedicated to rather practical consequences the conversion to Christianity of the indigenous people had after the Spanish conquest in 1532.

In the colonial era 'saving the Indians' souls' was the declared cause for the Christian missionaries' conversion efforts, as it was believed that the Andean deities were under the influence of the Devil or even his own work.

In order to put the salvation into practice, the missionaries created dictionaries and grammars for the major indigenous languages and started to translate the Christian doctrine into them. They tried to find adequate ways to transmit their concepts, for example into Quechua, the language of the Incas.

Their strategies developed and changed over time. For instance, at first they equated the Spanish word alma, soul, with indigenous terms. As the Andean people had their own similar concepts, the clerics seemed to have recognised some time later that these direct translations might confuse their parishioners rather than enlighten them. Therefore they chose the Latin and Spanish word anima to translate the Spanish alma; so anima became a Quechua word!

In order to make clear what this meant, the Jesuit missionary-linguist Diego González Holguín gave examples which embedded this word in the native language, using body and cleaning imagery, for example, to wash the soul. But some of the translations were open to different interpretations, at least from the indigenous people's understanding.

The same author, for instance, used Hampini, o, hampipayani animacta huchanmanta sacramentocunahuan literally to translate 'to cure the soul' or 'to cure the soul insistently from its sins with the sacraments'. Not only did the Quechua word for sin, hucha, not refer to exactly the same idea as the Christian concept, but hampi- means to cure as well as to poison. Ample opportunity to mis- or re-interpret the Christian message.

These early colonial efforts show how the linguist-missionaries laid the foundation for a fusion (or confusion?) of the two belief systems, Andean and Christian faith. I am currently working on these early missionary translation strategies.

Nowadays the Spanish word for soul, alma, is used for the dead, who are commemorated especially on All Souls' Day. Before the conquest by the Europeans, in many regions the dead were buried in tower-like buildings or in caves.

In her PhD thesis, Laurie Martiarena (Norwich) studies these sites and their usage. Church documentation will help her complement archaeological evidence. It shows, for example, that in colonial times indigenous people dug up their dead from the churchyard where they were buried by order of the Christian priests, and reburied them in their own stone-graves and caves because not only could they breathe there, but they were also in the sacred landscape which was so intimately associated with life and ancestors (who had great influence on people's lives), with the present and the past.

Part of the desire of the Spanish to impose the 'right' religion and 'save the souls' of the indigenous parishioners was - despite many negative effects this had - accompanied by the genuine wish to help (which, of course, can also be seen as disguising the colonial effort of centralisation and control).

Therefore the Spaniards established 'hospitals for Indians'. The ethnohistorian Gabriela Ramos (Cambridge) has looked into the concept and functioning of these hospitals. Not only were they places where the body could be treated, but it was also important to offer the sick the opportunity to confess and maybe still convert, especially if they were going to die. Thus in this sphere the Church was in control as well, at least in the cities.

However, some information indicates that the Andean people were reluctant to attend a hospital, not least because of the lack of food and abundance of lice. In rural areas the administration was flexible: often there were no hospitals at all, but the funds were at least partly used to care for the sick in their communities, and so they could be attended by their own traditional healers.

These studies in progress show the great influence and power the Spanish mission had over the native population's lives and souls. At the same time they also document the missionaries? daily struggle to impose European ways of life onto the other cultures as well as the fact that the indigenous people were not only victims, but also agents in re-shaping their living conditions and their cultural identities.


© Sabine Dedenbach-Salazar is Senior Lecturer in Latin American and Amerindian Studies at the University of Stirling. More on her work, background and publications history is summarised here.

By the same author: 'Interpreting Andean religion post-colonially' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14315

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