Caliban & The Witch: Chapter Five ("Colonization and Christianization")
The sixth and final essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
This is the sixth and final in a series of essays written for an open book club on Silvia Federici’s profound book, Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.
I’m making this first book club series free for everyone. If you would like to support my work and get essays that I make available for paid-subscribers only, consider becoming a monthly or yearly supporter:
A note on spirits:
In 2014, there was a rather unusual article in the New York Times which sparked my entire interest in the relationship between animist beliefs and resistance. That article, entitled “Workers of the World, Faint!” detailed strange occurrences in Cambodian textile factories:
In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers: One after the other, hundreds of women have fallen to the floor of their factories in a dizzy spell called duol sonlap in the Khmer language. The swooning has been attributed, variously, to heat, anemia, overwork, underventilation, chemical fumes and food poisoning. But according to one group of medical anthropologists and psychologists who have studied the phenomenon, two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta. (archived source)
The article continues its description of the events occurring within those factories, as well as referencing a similar spate of possessions in Malaysia several decades before. From a different article discussing the same situation:
Starting in the 1970s, Malaysia made a consented effort to industrialize and liberalize its trade policies. Japanese, European and other foreign-owned factories were built in newly designated Free Trade Zones, and there was a vast migration of young, unmarried Malay women from rural farming villages to factories. They were considered the best source of cheap labor, and promotional brochures for investors boasted of the delicate fingers and manual dexterity of the “Oriental girl.”
Working conditions were strict and unions were not tolerated. But shortly after the factories started opening, a wave of spirit possessions took hold of young female workers in the factories. The women would shake, scream or faint en masse, often shutting down production lines entirely for days on end. The attacks also affected industrial settings in neighboring Singapore, such as cuttlefish and battery factories. In 1978, an American factory in Malaysia had to be shut down for three days due to an epidemic of possessions that lasted until a local healer was hired to slaughter a goat at the factory, according to anthropologist Aihwa Ong, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. (source)
Local spirits being involved in resistance to capitalism and industrial exploiation is hardly a new or exclusively Asian phenomenon, as we’ll see in this last chapter of Caliban & The Witch. Upon the first reading of the book years ago, I somehow missed the attention gave to the matter of the huacas in Andean resistance. Noticing this focus in subsequent readings greatly changed my understanding, as I think it might, for you.
Colonization and Christianization
“This was the time of mass baptisms, when much zeal was deployed in convincing the “Indians” to change their names and abandon their gods and sexual customs, especially polygamy and homosexuality. [B]are-breasted women were forced to cover themselves, men in loincloths had to put on trousers . But at this time, the struggle against the devil consisted mainly of bonfires of local "idols," even though many political and religious leaders from central Mexico were put on trial and burned at the stake by the Franciscan father Juan de Zumarraga, in the years between 1536 (when the Inquisition was introduced in South America) and 1543.”
In this final chapter of Caliban & The Witch, Silvia Federici extends her focus out from the transition to capitalism in Europe to the colonization and subjugation process in the Americas.
There are two significant reasons for this apparent shift. First of all, core to the thesis of her work is that what happened to peasants and to women in Europe was not some mere historical anomaly that ended once Europeans got “enlightened.” Secondly, against the tendency of dominant historical frameworks to see Europe and its colonies as separate spheres which did not significantly influence each other, Federici foregrounds arguments showing that mechanisms of subjugation in both places co-created each other.
To understand why this is important, consider how the narrative of colonization is usually presented, even by “de-colonial” or “anti-colonial” histories. Typically, it asserts Europeans had long ago thrown off animist beliefs or other “primitive” ways of being and relating to each other, themselves, and the world. The people of this “disenchanted” continent then sailed across oceans, bringing with them their reason and rationality, and either subjugated or enlightened the people they met in those places.
While they may seem opposed to each other, both the pro-Western and also the anti-Western narratives nevertheless agree that Europeans had by then fully divorced themselves from any of these earlier kinds of relations. The problem, however, is that the witch hunts and colonization were deeply connected and also happening at roughly the same time.
Federici points to a:
“continuity between the subjugation of the populations of the New World and that of people in Europe, women in particular, in the transition to capitalism. In both cases we have the forcible removal of entire communities from their land, large-scale impoverishment, the launching of "Christianizing” campaigns destroying people’s autonomy and communal relations. We also have a constant cross-fertilization whereby forms of repression that had been developed in the Old World were transported to the New and then re-imported into Europe.”
While some might argue that the process actually looked different in each place, and took on apparently different forms, Federici notes that this was because:
“an international division of labor had taken shape that divided the new global proletariat by means of different class relations and systems of discipline, marking the beginning of often conflicting histories within the working class. But the similarities in the treatments to which the populations of Europe and the Americas were subjected are sufficient to demonstrate the existence of one single logic governing the development of capitalism and the structural character of the atrocities perpetrated in this process. An outstanding example is the extension of the witch-hunt to the American colonies.”
In other words, though specific instances were obviously different, the process of colonization in the Americas (and elsewhere) was a continuation of what was done to the lower class (especially women) in Europe.
Such a framework undermines the exceptionalist narrative which figures heavily in modern social justice identitarian politics. In their ahistorical view, it was the white race against all the other races, and there was something “exceptional” about Europeans that made them subjugate others (for instance, as Ibram X. Kendi put it, “Europeans are simply a different breed of human.”)
One of the consequences of understanding this as continuation is the potential of grounds for solidarity. That is, if it’s the same process, then those who were earlier victims of it and those who suffered later have a lot more in common with each other than either group does with the capitalists who initiated, engineered, and profited from their suffering. Especially, Federici notes, more recent and successful resistance gives us direction on how we might, too, better resist and even recover what was lost.
“Due primarily to the struggle of women, the connection of the American Indians with the land, the local religions and nature survived beyond the persecution providing, for more than five hundred years, a source of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist resistance. This is extremely important for us, at a time when a renewed assault is being made on the resources and mode of existence of indigenous populations across the planet; for we need to rethink how the conquistadors strove to subdue those whom they colonized, and what enabled the latter to subvert this plan and, against the destruction of their social and physical universe, create a new historical reality.”
To pagan or animist aligned readers, Federici’s descriptions of what resistance looked like in the Americas will be particularly inspiring. Especially in her discussions of the Taki Onqoy movement, which was a pan-Andean resistance movement which focused on uniting the huacas against the colonizers.
“In Peru, as well, the first large-scale attack on diabolism occurred in the 1560s, coinciding with the rise of the Taki Onqoy movement, a native millenarian movement that preached against collaboration with the Europeans and for a pan-Andean alliance of the local gods (huacas) putting an end to colonization. Attributing the defeat suffered and the rising mortality to the abandonment of the local gods, the Takionqos encouraged people to reject the Christian religion, and the names, food, clothing received from the Spaniards. They also urged them to refuse the tribute payments and labor drafts the Spaniards imposed on them, and to "stop wearing shirts, hats, sandals or any other clothes from Spain”. If this was done — they promised — the revived huacas would turn the world around and destroy the Spaniards by sending sickness and floods to their cities, the ocean rising to erase any memory of their existence”
“The huacas were mountains, springs, stones, and animals embodying the spirits of the ancestor. As such, they were collectively cared for, fed, and worshipped for everyone recognized them as the main link with the land, and with the agricultural practices central to economic reproduction. Women talked to them, as they apparently still do, in some regions of South America, to ensure a healthy crop. Destroying them or forbidding their worship was to attack the community, its historical roots, people’s relation to the land, and their intensely spiritual relation to nature. This was understood by the Spaniards who, in the 1550s, embarked in a systematic destruction of anything resembling an object of worship.”
In their attacks on the native gods, the colonizers continued a process older than capitalism itself. The Teutonic and Frankish kings, at the behest of bishops, missionaries, and popes, cut down sacred oak trees across what is now Germany and France to sever the people’s connections to their gods, just as what was ordered by the Hebrew god himself:
“…utterly destroy all the places where the nations which you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. And you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and burn their wooden images with fire; you shall cut down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names from that place…”
— Deuteronomy 12: 2-4
However, quoting from historians Claude Baudez and Sydney Picasso, Federici reminds us that this war on the sacred places and local gods was specifically revived in the Americas for economic reasons, not just religious:
“Idols were destroyed, temples burned, and those who celebrated native rites and practiced sacrifices were punished by death; festivities such as banquets, songs, and dances, as well as artistic and intellectual activities (painting, sculpture, observation of stars, hieroglyphic writing) suspected of being inspired by the devil — were forbidden and those who took part in them mercilessly hunted down” (Baudez and Picasso 1992:21).
This process went hand in hand with the reform demanded by the Spanish Crown that increased the exploitation of indigenous labor to ensure a better flow of bullion into its coffers.”
Another part of this process will sound immediately familiar now that you are familiar with the Enclosures:
“Further, a resettlement program (reducciones) was introduced removing much of the rural population into designated villages, so as to place it under a more direct control. The destruction of the huacas and the persecution of the ancestor religion associated with them was instrumental to both, since the reducciones gained strength from the demonization of the local worshipping sites.”
And again, something else familiar. Despite these resettlement programs and the physical destruction of sacred sites, people kept worshiping the old gods and kept resisting the colonizers. Thus, the Spanish turned to the most effective program of all, refined on the burning stakes in public squares all across European cities:
“It was soon clear, however, that, under the cover of Christianization, people continued to worship their gods, in the same way as they continued to return to their milpas (fields) after being removed from their homes. Thus, instead of diminishing, the attack on the local gods intensified with time, climaxing between 1619 and 1660 when the destruction of the idols was accompanied by true witch-hunts, this time targeting women in particular.”
“‘The idolatry campaigns were exemplary rituals, didactic theatre pieces directed to the audience as much as to the participants, much like a public hanging in medieval Europe’
Their objective was to intimidate the population, to create a "space of death” where potential rebels would be so paralyzed with fear that they would accept anything rather than having to face the same ordeal of those publicly beaten and humiliated. In this, the Spaniards were in part successful. Faced with torture, anonymous “denunciations and public humiliations, many alliances and friendships broke down; people’s faith in the effectiveness of their gods weakened, and worship turned into a secret individual practice rather than a collective one, as it had been in pre-conquest America.”
In other words, the Spanish had brought the witch hunts to the Americas, and it worked:
“While in the 1550s people could openly acknowledge theirs and their community’s attachment to the traditional religion, by the 1650s the crimes of which they were accused revolved around "witchcraft," a practice now presuming a secretive behavior, and they increasingly resembled the accusations made against witches in Europe. ”
As in Europe, the primary target of the witch hunts were women. And also as in Europe, women were the primary force of resistance.
…women became the main enemies of colonial rule, refusing to go to Mass, to baptize their children or to cooperate in any way with the colonial authorities and priests. In the Andes, some committed suicide and killed their male children, presumably to prevent them from going to the mines and also out of disgust, apparently, for the mistreatment inflicted upon them by their male relatives). Others organized their communities and, in front of the defection of many local chiefs who were co-opted by the colonial structure, became priests, leaders, and guardians of the huacas, taking on functions which they had never previously exercised. This explains why women were the backbone of the Taki Onqoy movement. In Peru, they also held confessions to prepare people for when they would meet with the catholic priests, advising them as to what it should be safe to tell them and what they should not reveal. And while before the Conquest women had been in charge exclusively of the ceremonies dedicated to female deities, afterwards, they became assistants or principal officiants in cults dedicated to the male-ancestors-huacas — something that before the Conquest had been forbidden. They also fought the colonial power by withdrawing to the higher planes (punas) where they could practice the old religion.”
“By persecuting women as witches, then, the Spaniards targeted both the practitioners of the old religion and the instigators of anti-colonial revolt, while attempting to redefine "the spheres of activity in which indigenous women could participate.” As Silverblatt points out, the concept of witchcraft was alien to Andean society. In Peru, as well as in every pre-industrial society, many women were "specialists in medical knowledge," being familiar with the properties of herbs and plants, and they were also diviners.
Each time I’ve read this chapter, I’ve always felt it was too short, like it ends too abruptly. The implications of what she’s shown throughout the book seem to scream out for more explanation, more words, more books. Especially in the matters of magical beliefs, of land relations, and especially of the spirits in resistance, countless questions linger.
But those books, I think, are probably for the rest of us to write…
Please feel free to comment on this essay, as these are written with an eye towards participation. Your questions, insights, and comments will help enrich the understanding of others reading the book, too!
I confess I haven't read this book yet, though your essays are inspiring me to bump it up my list. Explorations of animism and resistance are integral parts of my own work around ecological trauma and reverence, as I support others in awakening to the more than human forces who partner with us in our efforts to protect our earth. I love the examples you've pulled from the text here.
There's so much to say about the targeting of women specifically, as well. This reminds me of teachings by Joseph M. Marshall III: In one of his books, I can't remember which, he describes how the men of his tribe were the first to lose their purpose with the arrival of colonization. Whereas the women's traditional roles remained necessary, the men had been warriors and hunters - two roles they were severed from through new regulations and over-hunting. According to Marshall, this loss of purpose crushed the spirits of men, and women were left to hold the communities together. Perhaps this is one more of many reasons women were targeted, along the spiritual connections they kept alive.
I was just reading an article yesterday about the history of “hysteria”. One of the interesting things mentioned was that psychosomatic effects were more common symptoms of stress of mental illness in the past and in modern societies which are just becoming industrialized. So people who were less industrialized were far more likely to exhibit convulsions, fainting, paralysis, or involuntary movement (“hysteria”) while those in modern Western societies seem to handle the same stresses through depression and anxiety. I wonder as well whether there is a key here to the way in which women were known for psychosomatic “hysteria” much later in history than men. As a part of the population viewed as more a part of nature, did women come to an industrial mindset later in history? Or it this phenomenon simply the result of the extraordinary stresses placed on women of that time period?