The central role of the alphabetical writing system in the colonization of America | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

The central role of the alphabetical writing system in the colonization of America The topic was discussed by French historian Serge Gruzinski in a lecture delivered at the FAPESP 60 Years School in Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts (image: Entrance of Hernán Cortés into Mexico, 1519; Kurz & Allison/Wikimedia Commons)

The central role of the alphabetical writing system in the colonization of America

September 07, 2022

By Elton Alisson in Itatiba (Brazil)  |  Agência FAPESP – Besides military power and religion, European colonizers used another potent instrument, albeit far more subtle, to conquer America in the sixteenth century: the alphabetical writing system.

More than 500 years on, domination by means of this strategy of imposition still has profound implications for education in the colonized countries and shares certain features with the ongoing digital revolution, such as the exclusion of social groups from new forms of education.

These views were expressed by French historian Serge Gruzinski, a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) and Director of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, in a presentation to the FAPESP 60 Years School on Humanities, Social Sciences and Arts

The event took place in Itatiba, São Paulo state, on August 21-24, with an audience of 53 early-career researchers invited to attend lectures and interact with renowned experts in their fields.

“The conquest of America wasn’t just a military and religious undertaking. The alphabetical writing system supplied the colonizers with a decisive and essential weapon,” said Gruzinski, who studies mestizo imagery, Mexico’s entry into modernity and, in recent years, Brazil and the Portuguese empire.

In the case of Mexico, he argued, alphabetical writing supported Spanish colonization even before formal occupation, during the exploratory expeditions to discover and conquer new territories. During the conquest, every step by the colonizers and their official decrees were written.

After the conquest, he noted, the Spanish administration produced written documents with information on the founding of towns, appointment of judges, and creation of the first colonial city of the modern age, New Spain, founded in the sixteenth century.

“Alphabetical writing was essential to create and maintain links between Spain and the New World. The metropole constantly needed fresh information, which was conveyed in written form to the conquered territories. Without writing, it would have been impossible to establish this new form of colonial power,” he said.

The crucial step for the Spanish colonizers in this process of domination through writing, however, was the establishment of a systematic policy of teaching the Indigenous elite to read and write, spearheaded by Catholic friars of the Franciscan order as soon as they arrived in Mexico.

“In 1530, the missionaries began teaching the children of Mexico’s Indigenous elite to read and write Latin. Boarding schools were set up in different parts of the country where the ‘Indians’ received a Christian education,” Gruzinski said.

Literacy through religion led to cooperation with the Spanish on the part of upper-caste natives. “The colonial authorities couldn’t control the land without the support and help of the ‘Indians’. Alphabetical writing was essential to this strategy,” he explained.

The new Indigenous elite that emerged in Mexico in the 1540s was noteworthy for its intellectual achievements, having appropriated the skills of reading and writing in the language of the conquistadors. Printed books written by Indigenous people in collaboration with Franciscans began circulating in the period. “They collaborated not only in the field of religion but also in other fields, such as philosophy,” Gruzinski said.

In the seventeenth century, this elite ceased to be Indigenous and became fully Hispanicized. Its descendants have recently succeeded in retrieving some of the writings of the period, mainly in the form of historical accounts and descriptions of their landholdings, which have been used as legal documents to demand reparations. “These descendants have appropriated the writings of their ancestors to create property deeds and ways of protecting their memory,” he said.

Social science-climate change nexus

Elisa Reis, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences (IFCS-UFRJ), spoke on the third day of the event about how social sciences can go beyond subjects intrinsic to the field, such as changes in the world of work, inclusion and international migration, to contribute to an advance in knowledge of subjects intrinsic to natural sciences, such as the climate crisis and global biodiversity losses.

According to Reis, for example, studies of public perception can give researchers a better understanding of the factors that lead part of society to ignore the risks posed by these environmental problems despite all the scientific evidence of their existence. “If people don’t perceive the gravity of the climate crisis, it won’t be possible to deal with the dangers it represents. As for the loss of biodiversity, many researchers have shown that what’s missing in our effort to address the problem is persuading ordinary people of its importance,” she said. 

“Social science can help us understand public perception,” said Reis, who for decades has studied such subjects as nation-states, citizenship, elites, social inequality and public policy.

She recently changed the focus of her research owing to the realization that understanding public perception is increasingly important to efforts to combat not only the climate crisis and biodiversity loss but also such problems as science denialism. “I’m currently conducting studies of public trust, more specifically about how people perceive institutions and each other, and relating this to inequality, which is my main research interest,” she said.

Her findings to date include the significance of the interaction between trust and inequality. “The causal arrow of trust begins with inequality,” she said.

Multiple celebrations

Opening the event, FAPESP President Marco Antonio Zago noted its unique timing. The hundredth anniversary of Modern Art Week (Semana de Arte Moderna), the two-hundredth anniversary of Brazil’s independence and FAPESP’s sixtieth anniversary are all being celebrated this year.

“These are all events of great academic interest, and rightly so, because their impact and their role in our history must be properly evaluated in light of what’s happening now,” he said.

Zago highlighted the importance of communication between the researchers who attended the event and colleagues in other fields, such as natural sciences, mathematics, engineering and health sciences.

“This is an attitude that’s becoming increasingly necessary in our world. We can’t allow young people to persist in the tradition of seeing natural science, mathematics and other sciences as separate worlds,” he said.

Luiz Eugênio Mello, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, spoke of the “satisfaction of holding an event for young scientists who are at a stage of their education and training in which they research certain matters in great depth yet are still able to maintain a broad scope of investigation in their research interests”.


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