Language and Imperial Projects: Communication in Early Modern European Empires

Written by Adeline Cheung

‘God had no love for people such as them.’

A mistranslation from ‘God is no respecter of persons’ (Acts 10:34) during a sermon in colonial Boston. 

Cultural and linguistic differences defined interactions between European colonists and indigenous peoples in the early modern period. While ‘communication’ implies equality, the establishment and maintenance of colonial power more frequently entailed acts of destruction and subjugation in ‘economic, political, spiritual and cultural’ dimensions. How did communication contribute to these processes, and in what ways did it hinder and contest colonial rule? This article will first assess how important the act of interpretation was in the establishment of colonial influence. The longevity of colonial power was owed to the displacement of indigenous cultures and the implementation of European hegemony in its place. Communication thus took on a symbolic role, as language moulded cultures and identities. Furthermore, in the absence of communication, there was coercion: this resulted in cruelty and violence, on which empires sustained themselves.   

Upon their arrival in the Americas, the Spanish conquistadors had no knowledge of the terrain, nor of indigenous cultures and languages. The arriving Europeans therefore needed interpreters to gain this knowledge. Local interpreters educated early settlers on geography and food sources; beyond this, they also allowed colonists insight into indigenous communities. Communication in this sense was made up of local intelligence, enabling the subsequent establishment of colonial rule. La Malinche, Hernán Cortés’s interpreter, was characterised as a traitor in oral traditions. Dubbed as ‘la lengua’, the tongue, she facilitated exchanges between indigenous tribes and between Europeans and indigenous peoples, but she was most strikingly remembered for exposing the Cholulan plot against the Spaniards. Her sexual relationship with Cortés has been repeatedly highlighted in writings, which reinforces symbols of conquest and domination. Despite being heavily dramatised, it is evident that communication, with individuals at the forefront, was crucial in the process of the establishment of colonial rule.  

Resisting colonial influence, however, equally relied on the communication efforts of individuals. Anna Brickhouse points to overlooked cases such as Melchorejo and Julianillo, whose translational efforts were obstructive, and cases of failed settlement, including the killing of Spanish settlers on La Navidad after the guise of a ‘welcoming beckoning’ from the ‘king’ of the island. All of these were acts of contestation. Brickhouse is acute in pointing out the prioritisation of ‘successful translation’–acts of communication that furthered the colonial project–in historical writing. She thus argues for emphasis to be placed on indigenous agency, and to neither victimise nor antagonise. Furthermore, as opposed to the ontological treatment of loyalty, Lauri Karttunnen interprets the example of La Malinche as merely an individual ‘carving out survival’, with ‘no country to betray, no ethnic group to sell.’ 

Communication was important to the Church and to the secular state, who urged the structural bridging of cultural and linguistic differences. This systematic approach was reflected in the ‘título de la lengua’, which was bestowed upon priests in recognition of their interpretative skills. Missionaries learnt native languages such as Nahuatl and Otomi to aid in conversion: in the Archdiocese of Mexico and the Diocese of Puebla, 65 percent of secular priests knew at least one native language by 1575. With the overlap of state and Church, royal decrees favoured those who spoke Native languages in the appointment of clerical roles. In the English colonies, interpreters’ statuses were also elevated–they were brought under the employment of the English crown, gained political influence, and were rewarded economically. Thus, these structures allowed Europeans to extract indigenous information and spread Christianity, as well as enabled the ‘construction of a feasible colonial enterprise’. 

To maintain colonial power is to move beyond political and economic conquest and into the cultural and spiritual realms. Fritz Fanon argued that to become a master of a language is to ‘assume [its] culture’. This idea is prevalent in colonisation and can first be examined through European treatment of indigenous languages. Cláudio Costa Pinheiro puts forth the idea of the ‘conquest of epistemological territories’. With the Age of Discovery came a European fascination with categorising cultures and bringing them under a European framework. The popularity of translational dictionaries and encyclopaedias could be seen as part of this process, where indigenous words and experiences became subordinate to European ones. James Lockhart’s examination of the Nahuatl language elucidates this concept. He refers to a ‘Double Mistaken Identity’, where the cultural systems of the Europeans and Nahuas seem similar until one inspects the language, which reveals fundamentally different concepts. Therefore, translational practices remove cultural nuances only articulated through language. Pinheiro goes further to assert that they represent an ‘imposition of meaning on a global scale’. The vocabulary used by European colonists reflected this: despite the diversity that existed in the Americas, the term ‘Indian’ was applied indiscriminately. Through this, European empires subjugated all indigenous people under a homogenous identity and singular position in the global hierarchy. 

Additionally, communication attempts were often motivated by missionary activity. Considering that religion was central to both European and indigenous cultures, missionaries’ translational efforts had long-lasting implications for the maintenance of colonial power. While bringing indigenous languages under a European framework, they also aimed to locate the new languages within ‘the framework of divine commerce’. As Latin and Castilian were perceived to be superior in religious purity, key concepts of the Bible, such as ‘Dios’ or ‘Virgin’, would sometimes remain untranslated. Furthermore, missionaries in the Philippines opted for Spanish phonetics in place of Tagalog script when translating religious texts because they considered Tagalog ‘incomplete and unintelligible’. Therefore, alongside religious conversion, there was an alteration of local languages in terms of script and religious lexicon, all of which gave the colonial culture primacy.  

In the process of religious conversion–which can be seen as the permeation of colonial influence– communication was accompanied, and oftentimes replaced, by coercion. Domingo de Santo Tomás, Felipe Guaman Poma, and Bartolomé de las Casas illustrate the understanding of language and culture spurring the contestation of colonial power. Simultaneously, they provide insight into the physical and spiritual violence waged in the absence of genuine communication. Santo Tomás, a Spanish friar, advocated for conversion based on persuasion and reasoning. His argument was rooted in language: ‘How easy and sweet is the pronunciation of Quechua… it conforms to Latin and Spanish… [and] is civilised and abundant’. He appealed to the king that Christianity could function within indigenous frameworks. Guaman Poma, of Quechua descent, was even more faithful to indigenous culture, creating a narrative in which Andean religion and Christianity coexisted and placing the Incarnation in the fourth Andean age. However, these efforts did not overcome violence in establishing and maintaining colonial control, as seen in Las Casas’s documentation of ‘war, death and bondage’, despite itself being an act of protest. Evangelisation accompanied colonial control: reducciones, the resettlement of communities, enabled implementation of structures such as taxation, while removal from ancestral huacas (holy sites/objects) or their destruction caused great spiritual upheaval. 

For Europe, the colonisation of the Americas was a source of wealth and excitement. Yet ‘mundo al revés’, the world upside-down, was a more apt description of the indigenous experience of colonial rule. Imbalanced communication was present throughout the establishment and maintenance of colonial rule. The assertion of European hegemony and the erosion of indigenous cultures was realised with force, but crucially also with language. Indeed, the mistranslation of ‘God is no respecter of persons’ inadvertently seems to have held some truth.  


Primary sources:

De las Casas, Bartolomé. La Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, ed. Andrés Moreno Mengíbar, Sevilla: Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, 1991.  

De Santo Tomás, Domingo. Grammática o arte de la lengua general de los indios de los Reynos del Perú. Valladolid, 1560. Quoted in Maccormack, Sabine. ‘“The Heart Has Its Reasons”: Predicaments of Missionary Christianity in Early Colonial Peru”, in Hispanic American Historical Review 65, no. 3 (1985): 443-466.  

Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe. El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno, ed. John V. Murra and Rolena Adorno, trans. Jorge L. Urioste. Mexico City, 1980. Quoted in Maccormack, Sabine. ‘“The Heart Has Its Reasons”: Predicaments of Missionary Christianity in Early Colonial Peru”, in Hispanic American Historical Review 65, no. 3 (1985): 443-466. 

Secondary sources:

Brickhouse, Anna. The Unsettlement of America: Translation, Interpretation, and the Story of Don Luis de Velasco, 1560-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 

Cohn, Bernard. Colonialism and Its forms of Knowledge. The British India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Quoted in Pinheiro, Cláudio Costa. “Words of Conquest: Portuguese Colonial Experiences and the Conquest of Epistemological Territories”, Indian Historical Review 36, no. 53 (2009): 37-53. 

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. London: Penguin Classics, 2021. 

Kawashima, Yasuhide. “Forest Diplomats: The Role of Interpreters in Indian-White Relations on the Early American Frontier”. American Indian Quarterly 13, no. 1 (1989): 1-14. 

Lockhart, James. “Sightings: Initial Nahua reactions to Spanish culture”. Implicit understandings : observing, reporting, and reflecting on the encounters between Europeans and other peoples in the early modern era, ed. Stuart B. Schwartz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.  

Maccormack, Sabine. ‘“The Heart Has Its Reasons”: Predicaments of Missionary Christianity in Early Colonial Peru”, in Hispanic American Historical Review 65, no. 3 (1985): 443-466.  

Pinheiro, Cláudio Costa. “Words of Conquest: Portuguese Colonial Experiences and the Conquest of Epistemological Territories”. Indian Historical Review 36, no. 53 (2009): 37-53. 

Rafael, Vincente L. Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 

Schwaller, John F. “The Expansion of Nahuatl as a Lingua Franca among priests in Sixteenth- Century Mexico”. Ethnohistory 59, no.4 (2012): 675-690. 

Valdeón, R.A. “Doña Marina/La Malinche: A historiographical approach to the interpreter/traitor”. Target 25, no. 2 (2013): 157-179.  

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