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Feather-Work, Affects, and Colonial Violence in Sixteenth-Century Mexico

‘Feathers are held in the global imagination as synonymous with Indians’,[1] as researchers have noticed, yet this research project tests such wide-spread assumptions by examining the cultural role of feathers in general and feather-work in particular across the early modern globe. This blog entry aims to sketch the role of feather-work for early colonial Mexico, to be more precise, from the moment of the Spaniards’ arrival. In particular, I wish to address the colonial dimensions of the emotional appeal that feather-work was able to inspire amongst sixteenth-century observers.

When Hernán Cortés and his men set foot in Mexico, first in Mayan and then in Aztec areas, the Spanish conquistadores encountered societies which held feathers in high esteem. A variety of indigenous societies, as researchers have rightly emphasized, considered birds intermediaries between this world and the world above. Just like a number of other materials, feathers have been understood as animated substances containing divine power. Given this notion and appreciation of feathers, such materials functioned as ‘efficacious, active agents essential for the maintenance of the social order and the bestowal of divine blessings’.[2] Birds featured prominently in Aztec rituals and offerings, and wearing certain avian species’ feathers was similarly a high privilege. Thus, Aztec society had established ‘a developed vocabulary of feathers’, as Inga Clendinnen has rightly pointed out, that indicated military status and social honour.[3]

The association of feathers with divinity, warfare, and status, also made manufactured feathers prominent elements of Aztec tribute payments. In this context, researchers have referred to the so-called Codex Mendoza, a manuscript held in the Bodleian Library Oxford and commissioned by the first viceroy of colonial Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, around 1541.[4] The manuscript lists annual payments of around 400 towns to the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II. Feathered headgear, shields, and dress rate amongst the most prominently recorded tribute payments (fig. 1), surely also due to the high esteem in which feather-working was held: craftspeople, so-called amantecas, had specialized in the processing of feathers. Their activities were so esteemed that special festivities celebrated these artisans’ craft. Residing in a separate quarter of the Aztec capital, Tenōchtitlan, the amantecas’ intricate knowledge and techniques of feather-working dazzled both sixteenth-century Spaniards and modern-day researchers (fig. 2).[5] The striking iridescence of New World feathers, a property widely associated with spiritual experience in European visual aesthetics,[6] also prompted Spaniards to use exactly such materials for the production of devotional feather mosaics. Such artistic products have recently attracted the attention of scholars. Alessandra Russo has most convincingly argued that such feather mosaics were part of broader dynamics of cultural exchange that were driven by people’s constant attempts to re-translate the materials, techniques, concepts, and experiences of such objects.[7]

Fig. 1: List of Aztec tribute payments such as feather-work. Codex Mendoza by Antonio de Mendoza, ca. 1541, Bodleian Library Oxford. © wikimedia commons.

Fig. 2: Instructions for the production of feather-work. Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún, ca. 1545–1590, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana Florence. © wikimedia commons.

Exactly because of feather-works’ significance for visual aesthetics, it is important to question the colonial and political consequences of such forms of appreciation of material culture. This query leads back to the above-mentioned importance of feather-work in Aztec tribute payments. Researchers have long emphasized that the Spanish Empire’s early colonial administration was eager to copy, incorporate, and adapt indigenous administrative practices. King Philip II, for instance, instructed his Peruvian officials to collect information on formerly established indigenous tribute systems in 1559. He states that it is ‘necessary to appraise and declare justly the tributes, rents, and other fees that the Indians have to pay, so that this can be done with greater justice and a more sound basis.’[8] The repartimiento system in Mexican territories furthermore relied on ‘the pre-Hispanic coatequitl (the summons of labor crews from subject communities).’[9] The question is therefore whether newly arrived Spaniards also started to collect feather-work as tribute payments. The so-called Codex Kingsborough, a mid-sixteenth-century manuscript now in the holdings of the British Museum London, is a fascinating yet rarely studied source to answer this question.[10] Commissioned by indigenous inhabitants of Tepetlaoztoc, a Central Mexican Nahua settlement, the manuscript served to document the injustice of the Spanish encomienda system. ‘Under this system, groups of Indians were assigned to Spanish encomenderos who were required to protect and convert their charges; in return, the Indians would provide labour and tribute (tribute being payable in goods as well as in cash).’[11] In the case of Tepetlaoztoc, its inhabitants wished to document the extreme abuses, incredible cruelties, and immeasurable exploitation of the local encomenderos (fig. 3). The written and pictorial documentation served concrete juridical goals, accusing the Spanish encomenderos of collecting unjustly high tributes. Besides 140 bars of pure gold, the inhabitants of Tepetlaoztoc also lamented the payments of plumaria, intricately crafted feather shields with fine decorations, vivid colours, and splendid plumage (fig. 4). Further mantas de pluma, vibrantly coloured and beautifully ornamented feather blankets, were collected in large numbers (fig. 5). These records are striking as they prompt us to reconsider the contexts which defined the ownership of such fine objects, valued both by Nahuas and Spaniards for these artefacts’ emotional resonances and cultural values. We are aware of the hundreds of objects that Cortés sent across the Atlantic. Such artefacts, including also finely wrapped feather-work sorted by colour, were praised as material treasures of the New World which Spanish conquistadores had often received as gifts from indigenous populations.[12] Spaniards were absolutely amazed by the intricacy and beauty of indigenous feather-work as well as the feathers of New World birds that were, in the words of Diego de Landa, so ‘fine to look at’.[13] Such amazement, however, produced a desire for New World materials that reached far beyond precious metals. The Spaniards’ wish to possess intricately crafted and highly esteemed indigenous feather-work, as the case of Tepetlaoztoc illustrates, provoked extreme violence in colonial settings. In this sense, a study of the significance of feather-work in early colonial Mexico makes us aware of the political, colonial, and violent consequences of the affective spheres and emotional appeal that indigenous feather-work was able to evoke in sixteenth-century Spaniards’ sentiments. This shows how emotional objects were capable of shaping colonial realities.

Fig. 3: Colonial cruelties depicted in the Codex Kingsborough. Memorial de los Indios de Tepetlaoztoc, ca. 1550, British Museum London. © British Museum.

Fig. 4: Feather-work tribute payments by the Nahua inhabitants of Tepetlaoztoc. Codex Kingsborough/ Memorial de los Indios de Tepetlaoztoc, ca. 1550, British Museum London. © British Museum.

Fig. 5: Feather-work tribute payments by the Nahua inhabitants of Tepetlaoztoc. Codex Kingsborough/ Memorial de los Indios de Tepetlaoztoc, ca. 1550, British Museum London. © British Museum.

[1] Ellen Perlstein, ed., Conservation of Featherwork from Central and South America (London, 2017), 1.

[2] Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds., Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas (Los Angeles, 2017), 6.

[3] Inga Clendinnen, ‘Cot of Courage in Aztec Society’, Past & Present 107 (1985): 44–89, here 67.

[4] Bodleian Library Oxford, MS. Arch. Selden. A. 1.

[5] Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana Florence, Mediceo Palatino 219, fol. 364v-375v; Alessandra Russo, Gerhard Wolf, and Diana Fane, eds., Imags Take Flight: Feather Art in Mexico and Europe, 1400–1700 (Munich, 2015); Fabien Ferrer-Joly, ed., Plumes: visions de l’Amérique précolombienne (Paris and Auch, 2016).

[6] Stefan Hanß, ‘New World Feathers and the Matter of Early Modern Ingenuity: Digital Microscopes, Period Hands, and Period Eyes’, in Ingenuity in the Making: Materials and Technique in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Alexander Marr, Richard Oosterhoff and José Ramón Marcaida (Pittsburgh, 2018).

[7] Alessandra Russo, The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500–1600 (Austin, 2014).

[8] Francisco de Zabálburu and José Sancho Rayon, eds., Nueva colección de documentos inéditos para la historia de España y de sus indias, vol. 6 (Madrid, 1896), 28–31, transl. by Jon Cowans, ed., Early Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 88.

[9] Vera S. Candiani, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City (Stanford, 2014), 10.

[10] British Museum London, Am2006,Drg.13964.

[11] Alan Knight, Mexico: The Colonial Era (Cambridge, 2002), 12, 14ff.

[12] Alessandra Russo, ‘Cortés’s Objects and the Idea of New Spain: Inventories as Spatial Narratives’, Journal of the History of Collections 23 (2011): 229–252.

[13] Diego de Landa, Yucatan before and after the Conquest, transl. by William Gates (New York, 1978), 33, 107f.

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