New World Sodom: Biblical Tales of Conquest and Acculturation.

Author:Hawkins, Philip Colin


"I saw a devilish thing" recalled Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: I saw a man married to another man." One was typical and less noteworthy, but the other was "covered like [the] women" and performed "the work of women." In the anthropological idiom, these biological men, who assumed the dress, manners, and social roles of women, were berdaches. In the Spanish vernacular, they were sodomitas. This was not a casual word choice. By evoking the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, conquistadors hoped to justify their paths of destruction in the Americas, which they fashioned in their texts as a New World Sodom. By the time that native voices entered the records, acculturation was well underway, and given the high stakes of sodomy accusations, natives had little interest in or ability to articulate a pre-contact worldview. On the contrary, they symbolically sacrificed the berdache before the newcomers. The following will outline the mythical invention and destruction of New World Sodom at the hands of Spaniards and natives.


The following admittedly trespasses on a previously trekked landscape. The premier scholar on the sixteenth-century berdache, the late Richard C. Trexler, argued that Native American warriors gendered their enemies as feminine in ways that surpassed mere rhetoric: they captured men from the battlefield, turned them into women, and raped them. This militaristic tradition bled into the domestic sphere and inspired the homegrown berdache phenomenon, in which coercion, rape, and child abuse were defining features. According to Trexler, "Based on the absence of evidence alone, we would have to characterize the existence of berdaches as a degraded one."

Although evidence-driven, Trexler often treated European representations as ethnographic reality. According to Will Roscoe, Trexler's positions "depend upon a literal reading of the texts of European conquerors and missionaries." Roscoe suggested: "A more careful approach would begin by asking why this information was collected and written down, and what discourse (and rules of discourse) was it apart of." In the face of such criticism, Trexler replied: "one marvels at the naivete of the notion that the Spaniards referred to the berdache so often merely because 'the conquerors were collecting evidence to justify their conquest.'" To think otherwise, claimed Trexler, is to be "unfamiliar with the primary sources," and "there is no alternative to the use of these European records." Without entirely dismissing the theory of social construction, the following seriously questions the ability and will of anyone in the sixteenth century to articulate a pre-Hispanic social reality.


Michel Foucault argued that Europeans exhibited a "nearly universal reticence" to discuss sodomy. To Foucault, the scientific and legalistic discourses of sodomy and sexuality were interesting, not scriptural interpretations. True, Europeans were reluctant to speak of sodomy, but only among their own people. In theory, sodomy was a foreign and contagious custom carried by the exotic, proverbial other. Unsurprisingly, sixteenth-century Iberians convicted a significant number of Italian immigrants, Muslims, and Jews for sodomy while rarely acknowledging homegrown practices.

At the heart of this paper is the notion of New World Sodom: a sixteenth-century Iberian representational strategy of conquest that likened the natives of the New World to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah through such literary tools as intertextuality, allusion, imitation, and parody. Thus, in order to understand sixteenth-century representations of the berdache tradition, one must understand the biblical tradition that informed those representations. According to Genesis 18-19 (New American Bible), the Lord said: "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave" that the Lord sent two angels to investigate if the rumors were true. If there were less than ten decent people, then the Lord would destroy the two cities. While staying at Lot's house, every man in Sodom ("to the last man") gathered outside demanding: "Where are the men who came to your house tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have intimacies with them." Lot refused, and the Sodomites decided to seize the angels. As they broke down the door, the angels blinded the intruders while Lot and his family escaped. The angelic reconnaissance confirmed the outcry: Sodom and Gomorrah were unredeemable. The wicked cities even infected some of Lot's in-laws, who refused to join the escapees. After their departure, the Lord "rained down sulfurous fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah." The following morning, Abraham examined the scene and saw a dense smoke over the land rising like fumes "from a furnace."

Christians often molded their reports of New World sodomy to resemble the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah where the Lord's messengers could not even find ten descent people. When Spaniards declared that "they are all sodomites," "sodomites more than any other race," who "take great pride in it," the message was clear. In the words of Juan Gines de Sepulveda, "due to the sin of nefarious intercourse fell from heaven fire and brimstone and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah." Therefore, Europeans should fulfill the role of the Lord, because "it is not only lawful to subject them to our dominion ... but they can be punished with even more severe war." Of course, proponents of conquest believed that destruction was in the natives' best interests. According to Francisco Lopez de Gomara, "the Indians benefit from the Conquest" because "there is no longer sodomy, [the] hateful sin."


New World Sodom was not monolithic, but we should be hesitant to interpret the differences as regional variations. Quite often different representational strategies, including the expediencies of conquest, cultural assumptions, and rules of discourse, shaped what appears to be regional variation. Of the rules, there was only one: Spaniards were not allies with sodomites, or at least they were reluctant to admit it. Since New World Sodom existed beyond the pale of Spanish colonization, conquistadors could report the most fantastic tales of debauchery with relative ease. As such, the following puts little stock into finer distinctions between sixteenth-century history (historia) writing and story (historia) telling.

Europeans constructed New World Sodom not long after reaching the Islands of the Caribbean. In 1495, Michele de Cuneo, the first documented rapist in the New World, reported that both the good "Indians" and the alleged man-eating Caribs were "largely sodomites," and both practiced that vice as if they were unaware of its sinfulness. Yet, in the Christian mind, there were clear distinctions. According to Cuneo: "We have judged" that the spiteful Caribs "may also have...

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