The Spanish Inquisition in Peru as an Instrument of Modernity

The Spanish Inquisition in Peru as an Instrument of Modernity

Monday, October 30, 2006

The New York Academy of Sciences

Presented By

Presented by the Anthropology Section


Speakers: Irene Silverblatt, Duke University
Discussants: Aisha Khan and Antonio Lauria, New York University

Trying to understand how "civilized" people could have embraced fascism, i.e. a form of government that would have lead to the world-wide dominance of a master race, Hannah Arendt searched for a precedent in modern, Western history. She feared that intertwined race-thinking and bureaucratic rule could unleash "extraordinary power and destruction," made all the more terrible because it was bathed in the aura of "rationality" and civilization. She located the origins of this ideology in nineteenth century colonialism – with its combination of bureaucratic rule, ideologies of racial superiority, and appeals to rationality. I argue instead that this mix of race-thinking, bureaucracy and rationality that Arendt found so dangerous emerged not in the nineteenth century, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Spain was at the forefront of global expansion. I further contend that the Spanish Inquisition, long viewed as the icon of pre-modern fanaticism was, on the contrary, an early embodiment of modernity.

Acting under the jurisdiction of the Crown (and not the Church), The Spanish Inquisition not only prosecuted heresies (perceived threats to the empire's well-being), but also determined if Spanish subjects harbored “stained blood” – with its connotations of weak and treacherous character. Focusing on the Peruvian Office of the Spanish Inquisition, I explore how these notions of “blood purity” became intermeshed with colonial categories of dominion and institutionalized in practices of bureaucratic rule. The paper thus explores the beginnings of modern forms of Western governance and its “subterranean stream” – the dance of bureaucracy and race that Hannah Arendt found so dangerous and destructive. .