Peru in the 16th and 17th centuries was not just a colonial society that featured the hybridisation of Spanish and Amerindian (notably Inca) civilisation. According to Irene Silverblatt, in her provocative and fascinatingly detailed Modern Inquisitions , it also exhibited early signs of what today we call fascism. Silverblatt takes her cue from Hannah Arendt's work on totalitarianism in modern Western history and searches for its origins in 16th and 17th-century Lima. At the time, this was a thriving cosmopolitan city, filled with different nations, "races" and religions, as well as riven by excesses of wealth and poverty.
Like Arendt, Silverblatt prefers to talk of "race thinking" rather than racism with its 19th-century connotations. Colonial Latin America, with its caste society of Spanish, Indian and black peoples - each with its own rights, privileges and obligations - would seem fertile soil in which to seek understanding of how "civilised" people came to embrace fascist agendas. The aim is explicit - to explore time depth in the union of race thinking and bureaucracy - and so to document the colonial origins of the modern world and its capacity to rationalise violence.
At the heart of her investigation is the politico-religious-bureaucratic institution of the Holy Inquisition. This exemplifies the fusion of bureaucracy and race - "state magic" - that was created by, and served, the larger political system. This system itself acknowledged, advocated and institutionalised race thinking as a way of configuring power and organising life. One consequence was that race became part of the body politic.
The author draws on extensive research in Peruvian and Spanish archives, examining the Inquisition's records and especially those describing the campaigns against native idolatry. From their base at the Inquisition's headquarters in Lima, the inquisitor-bureaucrats also journeyed throughout Peru in search of ancestral Andean practices, claiming that the natives' "stained blood" caused deficiencies in their nature. Together with blacks and those of Jewish descent, they were executed as heretics - politically configured enemies of the state. The Inquisition's Lima tribunal exuded omnipotence, an all-seeing body that could reach into the past to judge the present, and so shape the future in what seemed likely to become a Spanish-ruled world.
From the theoretical framework that Silverblatt constructs bleed out intriguing insights into the hybrid nature of a society in the throes of creation from the vestiges of pre-Columbian predecessors, transforming definitions of "Indian" and "Inca", colonial Spanish powerbroking, and informed and distorted by such events as the trials concerned with the "Great Jewish Conspiracy". All stations of life could be caught in the Inquisition's net, such as international businessman Manuel Bautista Perez, who was accused of the heresy of being a covert Jew. Despite his wealth, connections and influence, and professing his Christianity and parading a queue of influential character witnesses (including Jesuit priests), he was found guilty and executed.
The Inquisition's bureaucratic structure gave rise to bitter internal disgreements about the value of torture, confessions and, for example, what constituted clear-cut evidence of apostasy. The case of Mar!a Pizarro illustrates one such bureaucratic nicety. She was a beata - a charismatic visionary - who spoke for angels and saints. Ascertaining whether these voices were holy or diabolic was argued even after her death, and the case eventually collapsed.
Equally bizarre, and a curious twist on modern-day debates on Muslim attire, was the 1624 decree relating to the tapadas (veiled ladies). Peru's Viceroy banned the wearing of veils in Lima's streets because they obscured the wearer's social standing and so undermined the political, gender and racial hierarchies at the heart of colonial order. That some of these tapadas were the clients of witches, who mixed traditional lore with Christian symbolism for spells, bewitchments and prognostications, only added to the threat in the eyes of the authorities.
This is a penetrating analysis, building through incremental case studies into a powerful and convincing argument. It throws much light on many elements of Peru's colonial experience - but more startling and valuable are the ways in which its wealth of detail is brilliantly reconfigured to strip bare the crudest parts of our most recent history.
Nicholas J. Saunders is in the department of anthropology, University College London.
Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World
Author - Irene Silverblatt
Publisher - Duke University Press
Pages - 320
Price - £65.00 and £16.95
ISBN - 0 8223 3406 and 3417 8