Idea of a New General History of North America: An Account of Colonial Native Mexico

Idea of a New General History of North America: An Account of Colonial Native Mexico


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A Spaniard originally from Italy, the polymath Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci (1702–1753), known as Boturini, traveled to New Spain in 1736. Becoming fascinated by the Mesoamerican cultures of the New World, he collected and copied native writings—and learned Nahuatl, the language in which most of these documents were written. Boturini’s incomparable collection—confiscated, neglected, and dispersed after the Spanish crown condemned his intellectual pursuits—became the basis of his Idea of a New General History of North America. The volume, completed in 1746 and written almost entirely from memory, is presented here in English for the first time, along with the Catálogo, Boturini’s annotated enumeration of the works he had gathered in New Spain.

Stafford Poole’s lucid and nuanced translation of the Idea and Catálogo allows Anglophone readers to fully appreciate Boturini’s unique accomplishment and his unparalleled and sympathetic knowledge of the native peoples of eighteenth-century Mexico. Poole’s introduction puts Boturini’s feat of memory and scholarship into historical context: Boturini was documenting the knowledge and skills of native Americans whom most Europeans were doing their utmost to denigrate. Through extensive, thoughtful annotations, Poole clarifies Boturini’s references to Greco-Roman mythology, authors from classical antiquity, humanist works, ecclesiastical and legal sources, and terms in Nahuatl, Spanish, Latin, and Italian. In his notes to the Catálogo, he points readers to transcriptions and translations of the original materials in Boturini’s archive that exist today.

Invaluable for the new light they shed on Mesoamerican language, knowledge, culture, and religious practices, the Idea of a New General History of North America and the Catálogo also offer a rare perspective on the intellectual practices and prejudices of the Bourbon era—and on one of the most curious and singular minds of the time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806148335
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Susan Schroeder is France Vinton Scholes Professor of Colonial Latin American History Emerita at Tulane University and coeditor of Indian Women of Early Mexico and Chimalpahin’s Conquest: A Nahua Historian’s Rewriting of Francisco López de Gómara’s “La Conquista de México.

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Idea of a New General History of North America

An Account of Colonial Native Mexico

By Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci, Stafford Poole


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5246-2


The Excellence of the History of New Spain

§. I

Many are the writers who have kept their learned pens busy in giving to posterity the history of New Spain. Their diligent efforts traverse the literary world [and] deserve the highest praise. Since they have not therefore closed the door on those who come later to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of the same material, and even to attempt to advance it, searching out the truth that is always clear to everyone (according to Seneca, Letter 33 to Lucilius, Patet omnibus veritas, nondum est occupata: multum ex illa etiam futuris relictum est), my hope was centered on finding it, and it favored the sacrifice of my efforts, it was made known to me, exemplified in so great an abundance of materials that other historians did not find, and with so much excellence of sublime things, that I dare to say that not only can this history compete with the most celebrated in the world but also excel them.

1 First, because it is the most abundant of all [the histories]that have been discovered up to the present, because it has four ways of entrusting its notable matters to the public memory. The first, in figures, symbols, characters, and hieroglyphics, which encompass in them selves a vast amount of learning, as will be seen later. Second, in knots of various colors, which in the language of the Peruvians are called quipu, and in that of our Indians nepohualtzitzin. The third, in songs with exquisite figures of speech and lofty concepts. The fourth and last, after the Spanish conquest, in manuscripts in both languages, Indian and Castilian, some on native paper, others on European paper, by means of which one comes to know the specifics of civil life.

2 Second, because they are embellished with a chronology so precise that in its skill it surpasses that of the Egyptians and Chaldeans, since it explains its years with four characters, Tecpatl, Calli, Tochtli, Acatl, which mean Flint, House, Rabbit, and Reed, mysteries of the four elements and of much astronomic learning, weaving them into triadecatrridas and with four of them forming fifty-two years, which is the Indian solar cycle, in which is shown a perpetual and unfailing system, which is the most genuine property of true science. Their year is lunisolar, and in former times did not differ from that of the Egyptians, until the mathematicians, noting that about six hours were left over each year, met together in the city of Huehuetlapullan and aligned the year with the vernal equinox, some years before the Incarnation of Christ, Our Lord. On the basis of the said four characters and the triadecateridas, the Indians of New Spain divided the world into four periods. The first was from the creation until the universal flood, and they called it Atonatiuh, which means Sun from the water, that is, the first course of the sun that destroyed the waters. The second, from the flood to the destruction of the giants, former inhabitants of the interior of New Spain, they called Tlachitonatiuh, the sun extinguished by the earth; as they say, the second course of the sun, ending with earthquakes. The third, from the destruction of the giants until the great hurricane that in America leveled all the trees, homes, and strongest buildings, they called Ecatonatiuh, the sun, the third course of the sun, destroyed by the air. The fourth, from the hurricane to the end of the world, they gave the name of Tletonatiuh, that is, the final course of the sun that will end with fire. For this reason the Indians, who now found themselves at the end of this fourth period, believing that at the end of each cycle of fifty-two years the destruction of the world by fire was near, made great sacrifices to their gods, asking that they not put an end to the world and grant them another, longer-lasting cycle. The months of the year were eighteen, from twenty days each month, based on a lofty system of neomenias lunares, and thus their years were like ours, three hundred and sixty-five days, of which three hundred and sixty covered the months and five remained separate, as if useless, unlucky, and unfortunate, regarding the astronomical observations, not the chronological calculation, and for this reason they called them nenontemi. The days of the year were also shown with twenty symbols in the form of a wheel and tables. The first thirteen represent a triadecaterida, and another seven follow in order, with a perpetual plan of most exquisite design, having seen and considered that most of the Indian systems are based on the numbers 4, 18, and 20 of a quantity alicuota and 7, 9, and 13 of alicuanta. The astronomers had their signs and planets, very different from ours, and they predicted which would be auspicious and inauspicious; those that ruled by day, and the nine that accompanied them, or as they would say, lords of the night. They would use four calendars which our European historians did not distinguish. The first was Natural, by which agriculture was regulated. The second, Chronological, and it served history. The third, Ritual, and the priests studied it for the order of the movable and fixed feasts of their gods. The fourth, Astronomical, whose calculations the mathematicians studied in order to act in accord with the course of the sun and the situation of the planets. The first two I have explained, and the rest will be explained in due course, which there is much to discuss.

3 To such a well-ordered chronology corresponds their geography, and it is a wonderful thing to see the kingdoms, provinces, cities, and lands of each people, with mountains, water, and everything necessary for sustenance drawn on the pictorial documents of the Indians. It is known that Teuhtili, governor of the North Coast, ordered the unforeseen arrival of the Spaniards painted on a lienzo, their ships, arms, peoples and dress, the way in which they formed squadrons, bringing it all to his monarch Moteuczoma Xocoyotl, as if he were seeing it personally. No less outstanding was that map of the roads that the Indian kings gave to the victorious don Fernando Cortés for the very arduous expedition that he carried out in penetrating the various provinces of Guatemala.

4 Even more outstanding is the truth and simplicity with which the ancient historians, both in pictures and in songs, mentioned things worth remembering. Whether they won or lost battles, they depicted the event with the greatest precision, and the experts in language composed some songs of rejoicing or lamentation, celebrating or weeping, to the sound of their musical instruments, teponaztli or tlapahuehuetl, the most detailed circumstances of their good or bad fortune. The love of truth had such power over them that the lower lip of a liar was cut off in order that he might be known in the republic, and the cheat paid for his crime with his life. And for this reason the aforementioned songs do not fail to bring with them such sublime figures of speech and ongoing allegories, which present much to understand to be able to arrive at their true meaning.

5 There is no pagan nation that relates primitive matters as precisely as the Indian one. It gives us an account of the creation of the world, the flood, the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel, the other periods and ages of the world, the long wanderings of their peoples in Asia, with specific years in their characters; and in that of Seven Rabbits it calls to mind the great eclipse that occurred at the death of Christ, Our Lord, and the first Christian Indians who at that time understood perfectly their chronology and studied ours with total curiosity, left us notice of how, from the creation of the world until the blessed birth of Christ, 5,199 years had passed, which is the same opinion or computation of the LXX.

6 Of this precious history I have an extraordinary amount of material in my archive of Mexico, where a great accumulation of ancient pictorial documents on paper made of metl, palm, worm, and European paper; on cotton cloth, and on cured animal skins; a large number of manuscripts of Indian and European papers in two languages, Toltec and Castilian, is contained, totaling twenty volumes between large and medium, with an equal number of fragments. One of these skins I brought with me to present to Your Majesty, and the English took it from me, with other papers of great importance, clothing, and valuables, on the ship named La Concordia, on which I was made prisoner. Nor can sufficient consideration be given to the immense work and expense that the said archive cost me, after the heavy task of eight continuous years that the discovery of so many different documents kept me occupied, through widespread journeys, and at a cost of endless inconveniences.

Procedure in Writing

This History

§. II

1 In accordance with the idea of the famous division of time that the Egyptians taught, I have divided the History of the Indies into three ages. The first, that of the gods; the second, that of the heroes; the third, that of men, to come down through successive stages until the time when our Indians were established in their human governments and spread their empires, kingdoms, and rule in America, and finally, conquered by Spanish arms, abandoned their former idolatry, embraced the Catholic faith, in which they live with constancy under Your Majesty's just and temperate rule. As a result I determined to deal with the matters of the said three times, Divine, Heroic, and Human, which is the same as the very learned Varro explains as a different three ages: Dark, Mythical, and Historic.

First Age

§. III

1 Divine Providence, architect of the world and author of nations, seeing that multitudes of Noah's descendants, having forgotten the true religion of their ancestors, wandered after the confusion of tongues, spread out, lost, and scattered through the wilderness of the earth; and wishing to take them from that brutal wandering and restore them to the delights of civil life, determined at different times that some of them, frightened and trembling because of thunder and lightning from heaven, others, admiring its greatness and its most beautiful body, observing in it so many varied but regular movements which (as the Royal Prophet said, make known the glory of their creator), they mistook the first causes for the second ones, to which they mistakenly attributed divinity and worship, not daring in the presence of such a luminous portent to worship the shameless Venus and they settled down, seeking out caves as their first dwelling, in which by reason of the innate and superior force of the male sex, they seized certain women as their own, raising up certain famous sons who would then be the seed of other families, peoples, and nations.

2 And even with the passage of time, our Indians who were descended from them, invented different kinds of gods composed of beings superior to human powers. As a result, at the same time there arose among them idolatry and divination. With the same idea the Latins derived the word divinitas a divinando, which is to ascertain, through some external signs, the future, known only to the gods, and they thought that it would be a silent speech of the same divinity.

3 But they believed in this first age that all things necessary and useful for the support of human life were truly deities, and for this reason they depicted them with divine mental hieroglyphics, which are imaginary divine genera, which human understanding taught them, through that natural propensity to take delight in what is uniform. And what they could not do with the abstraction of forms by means of universals, they did with portraits and likenesses, which I will be explaining with a natural, clear, and evident interpretation, unknown until the present day, and even closed off to the Indians' understanding, avoiding nonetheless the error of those who exalt the meaning of the hieroglyphs to the highest peak of the sciences, as did the Greeks who celebrated Orpheus as their founder, rich in wisdom acquired by having been, as they say, a disciple of Atlante, and the latter [a disciple] of Trimegistus and Zoroaster, to whom are attributed works based on metaphysics. None of them would have flourished except in popular wisdom, in the same way as our Indians flourished in matters pertaining to religion, marriage, and the education of children, the woman entering into the religion of her husband and the children keeping that of their parents, and finally, burying their corpses, considering it true wisdom of humankind. For this reason it was nicely said, Humanitas ab humando, and from this pious act and from the site where the graves were located arose the origin of property rights and of the division of the fields, as well as the validity of noble lineages, drawing up genealogies by means of the graves.

4 And in order that the first events should not be forgotten through carelessness, the Indians composed and recounted to the people the ancient history with some divine legends, which I will separate from the rest of other times, calling them up at their appropriate place and explaining them in their authors' own sense. They were theologian poets, and under the guise of various deities they sought to write the history of religious matters and the customs of their times.

5 The aforesaid legends were based on the same congruence of common needs; through which understanding these first pagans invented, with images of frightening religious figures, first some gods and then others, almost like a natural generation of them. Nonetheless, the similar Theogonia has served from the beginning and brief epochs to be able with clarity to coordinate the interpretation of the events of this obscure time.

6 We see in Greek history that it preserved for us what there is of value in antiquity, that their ancestors counted twelve principal deities; but, as I understand it, confused and interspersed between the two times: the dark and the mythical. The Indians, on the other hand, distinguish their own and special [deities] in this first age numbering thirteen, corresponding to the triadecatéridas, with which they tied together both the characters of the years and the symbols of the days, and neomenias lunares, and they are as follows.


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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Foreword, by Susan Schroeder,
Some Principles of Translation,
Select Glossary of Spanish Terms Translated in This Book,
Idea of a New General History of North America Based on Copious Material of Figures, Symbols, Characters, and Hieroglyphics, Songs, and Manuscripts of Indian Authors, Recently Discovered,
Dedication to the King,
Evaluation of the Most Reverend Father, Master Pedro Fresneda,
License of the Ordinary,
Declaration of Doctor Don Joseph Borrull,
Permission of the Royal Council of the Indies,
Approbation of the Most Reverend Father Fray Juan de la Concepción,
Permission of the Royal Council of Castile,
Official Price,
Invocation of the Muses,
Sonetto and Epigramma,
Index of the Sections,
Preliminary Disclaimer,
Prologue for the Reader,
1. The Excellence of the History of New Spain,
2. Procedure in Writing This History,
3. First Age,
4. Second Age,
5. Divine Heroic Symbols of the Planets,
6. Divine Heroic Symbols of the Days of the Year,
7. The Days Are the Following,
8. Divine Heroic Symbols of the Months,
9. Symbols of the Indian Months, according to Father Fray Martín de León,
10. Symbols of the Indian Months, according to Gemelli Careri,
11. Divine Heroic Nocturnal Symbols of the Year,
12. Other Examples of Transformations as Means of Reward and Punishment,
13. Heroic Military Symbols,
14. Heroic Political Symbols,
15. Of the Knots and Songs, Both Historical and Poetic,
16. Origin of the Indians of New Spain,
17. On the Passage and Crossing that the Indians of New Spain Took to Arrive There,
18. Giants,
Division of the Kingdoms of New Spain,
19. The Olmec and Xicalanco Indians,
20. The Toltec Indians,
21. Third Age,
22. The Chichimeca Indians,
23. The Tepanec Indians,
24. The Mexican Indians,
25. The Teochichimeca Indians,
26. Conquest by the Spaniards,
27. Observations on What Has Been Said,
28. The Usefulness That This Work Can Produce,
Catalog of the Historic Indian Museum of the Knight Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci, Lord of la Torre and Hono,
Preliminary Statement,
Index of the Sections,
Toltec History,
Chichimeca History,
Tepanec History,
Mexican History,
Tlatelolco History,
Various Histories,
History of Michoacan,
Matlaltzinca History,
History of Huejotzinco,
History of Tlaxcala,
Various Other Historical Sources,
Pictorial Documents of Tribute,
Manuscripts of Tribute,
Rare Books,
Other Various Learned Manuscripts,
Christian Doctrine in Figures and Ciphers,
Printed Books in the Nahuatl Language,
Indian Calendars,
History of the Conquest,
Ecclesiastical History,
History of Guadalupe,

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