Gender & Sexuality in Early America

English341, Spring 1998

Professor Laura Arnold


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The Male Body: Sin, Effeminacy, and Power



Theodor de Bry: Balboa's Mastiffs Attack the Panamanians (1594) & America Pars Quarta (1594)

LEFT DRAWING: "In the third decade of his De orbe novo, published in 1516, the Italian Peter Martyr d'Anghiera tells how, in his trek across Panama, Balboa found the brother of the cacique of Quaraca and some of his men dressed as women and practicing sodomy (Nefanda...Venere). The conquistador quickly threw some forty of these transvestites (though apparently not their active partners!) to the dogs, the first record of Spanish punishment of sodomy on the American continent. According to Peter Martyr, it all happened to the applause of the native subjects, 'for the contagion was confined to the courtiers and had not spread to the people.' Sounding like the post-Justinian Christina he was, Peter has the people blaming their lords' sodomy for the famine and sickness, lightening, thunder and inundations they suffered. With this record, the berdache as a domestic institution entered the Hispanic-American historical record" (Trexler 82). NOTE: for a definition of "berdache" see the "Terms" in the reader.

RIGHT DRAWING: According to Rachel Doggett, this drawing shows the "Indians taking revenge on the Spanish thirst for gold by pouring molten gold into the Spaniards' mouths. Although the Indians in the background appear as cannibals and the punishment they inflict seems savage, the engraving is essentially critical of the Spanish and sympathetic to native rebellion" (Doggett 68). What details in the drawing might lead Doggett argue this and do you agree?


1. Most analyses of the work of gender in the discourse of discovery tend to focus upon the "gendering of the New World as feminine, and the sexualizing of its exploration, conquest, and settlement" (Montrose 178). It is worth considering, however, how such discourse also necessitates a masculinizing of Europe(ans) and insisting upon desire as heterosexual. For example, at least half of the work done by the portrait of Vespucci encountering American on the front of your reader is about presenting Vespucci as a powerful, dominating male who wants to--and will--possess the feminized American continents. I am interested in the readings for today in discussing the various disruptions in this discourse created by male deviance and attacks on the male body. To what extent was deviant male behavior used as an excuse for abusing American Indians? Consider the following incident: "In 1519, the year the Spaniards settled on the North American mainland, the council of the new town of Veracruz wrote to Charles V about the natives the Spaniards had encountered. The council urged the Catholic monarchs to obtain permission from the pope to punish 'evil and rebellious' natives as enemies of the holy faith:

Such punishment [might] serve as a further occasion of warning and dread to those who still rebel, and thus dissuade them from such great evils as those which they work in the service of the devil. For in addition to...children and men and women [being] killed and offered in sacrifice, we have learned and have been informed that they are doubtless all sodomites and engage in that abominable sin (Trexler 1).

How does gender and sexual deviance on the part of American Indian men disrupt or challenge not only European notions of virtue and purity, but also notions of male dominance and the narrative of colonization? As you read Cabeza de Vaca's Relation, I would like you to consider what de Vaca considers appropriate male behavior. What is his mission in the new world? What is his relationship to American Indians? What problems do berdaches (American Indian transvestites) pose to this mission? Williams' article "The Abominable Sin" should help provide you with a context for the interactions and behaviors de Vaca describes.


2. A second issue raise in both the quote above and de las Casas' Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indes, is the extremely violent treatment of American Indians by Europeans. As Richard Trexler points out in his book Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas, the butchering of corpses, and most particularly castration, was a common practice in many societies during periods of warfare (Trexler 17). Yet, there is still something rather shocking about the extreme violence done upon both American Indian bodies and that of the conquistadors in both the art and literature from this period. The Theodore de Bry illustrations given above were both made to accompany texts comparable to Bartolomé de las Casas'Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indes, itself a litany of the horrors wreaked upon the body during the early period of Spanish colonization. While de las Casas' text was designed to halt such perversions, it is not always clear in the illustrations how the audience is expected to respond. For example in the first drawing above, how are we supposed to read the figures of the Spaniards? Are we supposed to sympathize with their lack of concern for the anguish occurring at their feet? Or are we supposed to sympathize with the sodomites they are executing? How are we supposed to respond to the body in pain? As theorist Elaine Scary argues it is difficult to express physical pain textually, and perhaps even more difficult to respond to it: she suggests

When one hears about another person's physical pain, the events happening within the interior of that person's body may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth...Physical pain happens, of course, not several miles below our feet or many miles above our heads but within the bodies of persons who inhabit the worlds through which we each day make our way, and who may at any moment be separated from us by only a space of several inches. The very temptation to invoke analogies to remote cosmologies (and there is along tradition of such analogies) is itself a sign of the pain's triumph, for it achieves it aversiveness in part by bringing about, even within the radius of several feet, this absolute split between one's sense of one's own reality and the reality of the other persons (Scarry 3-4).

How do the Spaniards seem to be using pain to establish their masculinity? (This is an issue to consider both for the de las Casas and Cabeza de Vaca readings--you might want to consider the way Cabeza de Vaca describes his own sufferings.) To what extent does pain split the reality between the conquistadors, the Indians, and us?


3. The article I have asked you to read for Monday by Walter Williams argues that Spanish persecutions of Indian "homosexuality" and gender deviance was due in large part to an inferiority complex on the part of the Spaniards and an attempt to control reproduction in Europe. While I find parts of this argument compelling (and much of the background he provides useful), I wanted to use this handout to raise a couple of other possibilities. Besides considering the extent to which masculinity and masculine privilege is at stake, I would like you to consider the theory article by Adrienne Rich "Compulsory Heterosexuality." Although Rich is interested in the erasure of lesbian existence from feminist literature and society in general, I am interested in having you think about to what extent her theory applies to the erasure of male homosexuality in Renaissance Europe. To what extent is the ideology of colonization one which "demands heterosexuality" on the part of all peoples--male or female? What cultural work does American Indian homosexuality do in the tracts on colonization? (You might want to do a close reading of the de Bry painting Balboa's Mastiffs Attack the Panamanians.) What are the benefits and the limitations of Rich's argument when applied to male homosexuality?



Doggeett, Rachel. New World of Wonders. Seattle: U. of Washington P., 1992.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. NY: Oxford UP, 1985.

Trexler, Richard. Sex and Conquest. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.