Contemporary Political Theory

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 437–458 | Cite as

A problem from hell: Natural history, empire, and the devil in the New World

  • Mauro J. CaraccioliEmail author


Histories of the conquest of America have long highlighted the role of wonder, possession, and desire in Spanish conceptions of the New World. Yet missing in these accounts is the role that studying nature played in shaping Spain’s imperial ethos. In the sixteenth century, Spanish missionaries revived the practice of natural history to trace the origins of New World nature. In their pursuit of the cultural meanings of natural landscapes, however, Spanish natural historians naturalized their own fears of the demonic. In this article, I argue that naturalist inquiry served as an empirical and spiritual laboratory to develop a contentious narrative of political domination. I focus specifically on the writings of the missionary ethnographer, Bernardino de Sahagún, who compiled the first bilingual account of the peoples of the Aztec empire and used his immersion in Nahua culture to promote indigenous conversion to the Christian faith. Sahagún’s narrative techniques were aimed at the New World’s cultural regeneration, particularly through the study of nature. Yet his intellectual transformation during this journey bears surprising ideological paradoxes. Sahagún’s legacies therefore offer political theorists today a medium to rethink key historiographical assumptions about the anthropolitics of nature and the broader geopolitics of early modern political thought.


natural history narrative New World demonology anthropolitics 



I wish to thank the editors of Contemporary Political Theory, especially Lisa Disch and two anonymous reviewers, for their extremely helpful feedback, patience, and encouragement. Previous versions of this article benefited from presentations at the annual meetings of the International Studies Association, the Western Political Science Association, the ISA-Northeast Interpretive Methods and Methodologies Workshop, and Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Special thanks are owed to Ida Altman, Dan O'Neill, Dan Green, Michael Nordquist, Brent Steele, Jon Carlson, Ella Street, Jack Amoureux, and François Debrix, for reading the manuscript and talking with me through its various layers, as well as urging me to sharpen its implications.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science & ASPECT, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityBlacksburgUSA

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