C O M M E N T A R Y B Y W A L T E R D . M I G N O L O
José de Acosta’s Historia natural y moral de las Indias:
Occidentalism, the Modern/Colonial World,
and the Colonial Di√erence
José de Acosta has a distinctive place in sixteenth-century intellectual history,
a century that produced a wealth of written works in Spain as well as in the
Indias Occidentales, the name that was used by Acosta and his contempo-
raries. ‘‘Latin America’’ was not in sight in the early years of the emerging
Atlantic commercial circuit and at the inception of the modern/colonial
world system imaginary. In fact, Latin America could have only been con-
ceived in the second phase of modernity, when the concept of ‘‘latinidad’’
became necessary to assert a southern, Catholic, and Latin identity in contra-
distinction to a northern, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon one. This perspective
was not available to Acosta, for whom the horizon of a triumphant Spanish
Empire and the possibility of a global expansion of Christianity were at stake.
He could have not anticipated that the idea of ‘‘natural and moral history’’
would undergo such a significant transformation between the first (domi-
nance of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires) and second phase of moder-
nity, which chiefly developed after the Industrial Revolution.
In this essay I would like to invite the reader (and I am particularly think-
ing of curious and inquisitive undergraduates) to think of Acosta’s Historia
beyond the canonical textual interpretation or the standard histories of
sixteenth-century Spain and colonial Latin America. I am interested in un-
derstanding Acosta’s contribution to the imaginary of the modern/colonial
world as well as in understanding the turn of events when, ideologically,
his reading of the ‘‘natural’’ and the ‘‘moral’’ began to be displaced by the
philosophies emerging with new imperial powers (England, France, and
There are a few notions that I need to clear up before proceeding with my
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