The Entangled History of Cacical Eligibility in the Sixteenth-Century Andes: Intermarriage, Conversion, and Authority within Subject Communities under Iberian Christian Rule

Miguel Cabrera, "De chino cambujo e india, loba" (1763), oil on canvas. Museum of the Americas. (Public domain, wikimedia commons)


Max Deardorff


In the last third of the sixteenth century, legal authorities in the Hapsburg Crown’s Andean colonies faced a problem created by the process of empire. Fundamental to the new systems of rule being created after conquest was the Crown’s policy of acknowledging the priority of local “use and custom” in adjudicating legal disputes occurring between its Indian subjects.  Yet the question of succession amongst caciques turned out to pose some serious problems.


One of the thorniest among them involved complications arising from local customs that passed authority down along matrilineal lines.  Given the Iberian Christian tradition that acknowledged politico-religious status as being transmitted along a paternal line, this created space for a potential contradiction. Such was particularly the case if a cacique were born to a Spanish Christian man and an indigenous noblewoman, and subsequently raised as a Christian in his father’s household. Having inherited his position in indigenous leadership along the maternal line, he would according to law thus be simultaneously a Spanish Christian and an Indian. 


In late medieval Iberian precedent, simultaneous dual identities were difficult to conceptualize. Since secular law in medieval Iberia had mandated either banishment or execution for Christians who converted to Islam or Judaism, it was culturally challenging to accept that someone raised among Christians might later appear as a representative of another subject community filled with infidels, while himself remaining a Christian. New legal doctrines were being developed to accommodate such potentialities, but the process of their elaboration was often pained. The doubts and incertitudes that arose can be very instructive. 


This historiographical article will utilize the scenario of cacical eligibility as a gateway through which to explore the most recent work in the fields of social, political, and legal history that analyze the status of religio-ethnic subject communities under Iberian Christian rule. By examining recent advances in the study of medieval Spain alongside those in colonial Latin America, this project seeks to understand how pacts of convivencia grew out of certain historical contexts, how pre-existing frameworks for coexistence were amended or molded to accommodate new peoples and new variables, and what political circumstances could lead to their eventual collapse. One result of reading these historiographies together will be to highlight how context changed the central axes of cooperation within society and altered the permitted forms of difference, while leading to the emergence of new (social) categories that would redefine the rules for “living together” in an expanding empire.