How can we read colonial correspondence for insights into indigenous political and diplomatic strategies? This lecture focuses on the dynamics between colonial fort commanders in Brazil and the members of a powerful indigenous group, the Guaikurú of the Paraguay River basin. A mobile, equestrian society that occupied the borderlands between Spanish and Portuguese territories, the Guaikurú had a long history of raiding colonial settlements and attacking transport canoes. In 1791, however, two bands of Guaikurú decided to make a more lasting peace with the Portuguese. Over the following two decades, thousands of autonomous Guaikurú came to live seasonally in the vicinity of Coimbra Fort on the Upper Paraguay River. Their regular interactions and intrigues with the Portuguese commanders at Coimbra generated a huge documentary record that survives to this day in regional archives. Fort commanders found that they could not maintain in their correspondence the tone of willful optimism about alliance-making that characterized the writings of more distant officials. Instead, they grappled with the daily consequences of their policy of showing outward respect for—and even paying tribute to—Guaikurú status and prestige. The resulting documents tell us more than we might expect about indigenous efforts to maintain autonomy and the upper hand in exchange relations.
Heather Roller is an Associate Professor of Latin American History at Colgate University. She received her PhD (2010) in History from Stanford University. Her research centers on how cross-cultural interactions and relationships shaped both indigenous and colonial societies in the lowlands of South America. She is the author of Amazonian Routes: Indigenous Mobility and Colonial Communities in Northern Brazil (Stanford University Press, 2014). Her current book project focuses on autonomous indigenous groups in northern and western Brazil and their contacts with Luso-Brazilians over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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