Killing Locusts in Colonial Guatemala

Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:40 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon A (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Martha Few , University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
This paper examines state-directed locust extermination campaigns in seventeenth and eighteenth century Audiencia of Guatemala, a geographic area that roughly comprises what is today Central America and that was the site of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations that included the Maya. Drawing on accounts written by political officials, Indian elites, farmers, priests, and European travelers, the author argues that the material and ideological culture of colonialism was decisively shaped by the locust, and by campaigns against the locust.  The first section analyzes the role of locusts in the lived experiences of Guatemalans in the colonial period as informed by European and Mesoamerican exposure to the insect. The second section examines colonial-era locust killing technologies, viewed through Christian evangelical strategies used to kill and repel locusts, in conjunction with local, community-organized locust killing campaigns. Section three considers the rise of increasingly uniform state-directed campaigns of extermination over the course of the long eighteenth century and the emergence of a new kind of professional exterminator—Spanish men, usually political office holders in agriculturally productive areas, seen as having a particular experience and skill at killing locusts. The goal of these new state-directed, regional campaigns led by specialists was to exterminate locusts and clear them from Guatemala to ensure the continued success of European colonization there, especially the colony’s model of economic development, and to ensure the survival of colonial peoples, especially tributary Indians, the mainstay of the colonial labor force.
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