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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Indigenous tribes

Colour lithograph depicting figures dancing at an Arawak settlement.Maquarri dance of the Arawaks at Koraia.Though the Aztec and Inca empires controlled large areas of Latin America, the vastness of the southern part of the American continent - and the fact that the Aztecs ran at least some of their empire through local rulers - ensured that cultural diversity remained a feature of pre-Columbian southern America.

Post-conquest, the Spanish and Portuguese, like similar imperial conquerors throughout history, could not feasibly assimilate every tribe of Amazonian hunter gatherers or remote Patagonian hill tribes into their new world order.

The colour plates in this work, WH Brett's The Indian tribes of Guiana (London, 1868), document indigenous tribes' settlements, dances and gatherings, as well as the varied geographical environments they inhabited. Brett, a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts and rector of Trinity Parish, Essequibo, introduces these 'aborigines' of inland Guyana as having 'no political importance' and states that 'among those feeble tribes are found remnants of races who were formidable opponents to the discoverers of the new world.'

This matter-of fact-assessment overlooks the pernicious reasons - such as the introduction of diseases like smallpox by the Europeans - why such tribes fell from power, and why 'since the appearance of Europeans in their land, the Indian races have continually diminished in number'.

Brett describes the region and the rituals of various tribes in much detail. The chromolithograph shown here illustrates a dance taking place at an Arawak settlement. The Arawak people were also found on the nearby islands of the Caribbean.

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