“I will kneel to him”: Caliban’s Gods

The body of folk wisdom that encircles the history of European colonization of the Americas is both deeply flawed and widely pervasive. It’s widely enough believed that a professor I took a required class for my Latin American Studies minor with this semester, skimming over the early colonial period so that we could advance towards more modern history, repeated at face value the same stories we have heard over and over: that Aztecs believed that the Spanish were returning gods, that the Aztecs believed that Spaniards on horses were centaurs, that the Spanish were able to conquer indigenous empires simply by virtue of imported technology, and so on. I was lucky enough to have taken a class on early Latin American history before this semester and had to have been exposed to more up to date scholarship on the topic, but it bothered me that these classic truisms were being reaffirmed in a scholarly setting. This may be why I was drawn to the scene in The Tempest where Caliban, coming upon the drunk Stephano and Trinculo, believes that they are gods and swears his loyalty to them in overthrowing Prospero. In many ways, this interaction reproduces the same fallacy that began to be propagated about the Spanish/Aztec (by extension, European/Native American) conflict in the decades prior to Shakespeare’s completion of the play.Camilla Townsend’s “Burying the White Gods,originally published in the American Historical Review in 2003, was one of the main scholarly resources I was given in covering this topic originally, and I’ll draw upon it here. The Spanish declared victory over the Aztec in 1521, 40 years before Shakespeare’s birth and 90 years before he wrote The TempestThe Royal Shakespeare Company suggests  that Shakespeare was inspired by the intellectual and literary climate created by texts giving English accounts of the New World such as the story of the shipwreck of Sir George Somers and Sylvester Jourdain’s A Discovery of the Bermudas. These deal mainly with shipwrecks, but the RSC also asserts that Shakespeare was influenced by the Virginia Company’s A True Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia, a report by the company which detailed settlers’ affairs (including those with the Powhatan people, referred to as “our implacable enemies), and by Michel de Montaigne’s Of Cannibals, which deals mainly with the intellectual implications of European/Native American interactions. It’s hard to imagine that in this early stage of European colonialism, Shakespeare would not also have been influenced by the tales of the Spanish conquests of the Aztec and the Inca which had been published in the preceding decades. 
Townsend writes that one of the first claims that native peoples mistook the Spaniards for gods was published in 1552, by Francisco López de Gómara, who had never been to the New World: “Many [Indians] came to gape at the strange men, now so famous, and at their attire, arms and horses, and they said, ‘These men are gods!'” 

Caliban might as well say the same thing: “That’s a brave god and bears celestial liquor,” he says after being given a taste of Stephano’s wine. “Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?” Caliban asks Stephano, who confirms that he has come “out o’ the moon.” “Available evidence,” Townsend writes, “indicates that the Aztecs responded to their situation with clear-sighted analysis of the technological differential, rather than by prostrating themselves before the ‘white gods.'” Why has the story persisted, then, that the opposite occurred? Townsend suggests that it was initially established because the “relatively powerful conquistadors and their cultural heirs [preferred] to dwell on the Indians’ adulation for them, rather than on their pain, rage, or attempted military defense.” Initially, this worship is lacking in the play: Caliban has no adulation for Prospero, and Ariel’s praise for the magician reads to me as an ingratiating front over his underlying annoyance with Prospero’s failure to free him. Stephano acts as a vehicle for a display of the colonized person’s love for the colonizer, which Shakespeare plays for laughs using Stephano’s wine as the catalyst for Caliban’s love. I think that it would be a stretch to read The Tempest as being written as a template for the social dynamics of colonialism, but it seems fair to say that it may have influenced thought on the practice. The idea of the colonized deifying their colonizers has sticking power — the story of native Hawaiians mistaking Captain Cook for the god Lono comes to mind — and it might reasonably be argued that Shakespeare did more to solidify this concept in literature than López de Gómara did.

As an addendum, I want to bring up another point in this revisited conquest literature that I saw as possibly connected to Caliban, one raised by Matthew Restall in his 2003 book Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, which he calls the “Myth of the White Conquistador.” Restall puts forth the assertion that instead of Spanish victory being due to their overwhelming military superiority, the Spanish actually succeeded militarily because of their indigenous allies, who typically outnumbered them hundreds-to-one. We might see Ariel as representative of this reality: though Prospero’s plans all come to fruition, none of them can be successful without Ariel’s magic. Whenever the Spanish came up against native, state-level societies, Restall argues, their native allies were the crux of their victories; subjugated indigenous groups would have viewed themselves not as serving the Spanish but would have understood themselves to be using Spaniards as a political tool. In one sense, Caliban’s betrayal of Prospero for Stephano (“’Ban, ‘Ban, Ca-Caliban, Has a new master: get a new man. Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom!) because he thinks it will free him is quite like the betrayal of the Aztecs by their vassals who saw the Spanish as the tool of their liberation. This reading, though, is complicated for me by the fact that Prospero is not native to the island, and has already enslaved Caliban, who was born there. It is doubly complicated by the additional fact that Caliban’s native-ness itself is questionable: he was born on the island, but his mother was from North Africa, and Sycorax herself enslaved Ariel, who might be said to be the island’s only truly native inhabitant. This cycle of many external arrivals and enslavements is hard to reckon with in the framework of Townsend and Restall’s research, and I’ll try to address it in a separate post.


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