“Conquistadors and Indians ‘Fail’ at Gift Exchange: An Analysis of Nikolaus Federmann’s Indianische Historia (Haguenau, 1557).” MLN, 132 (2017): 272-290.

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Federmann, Indianische Historia, Venezuela, Colonial Latin America, Travel Narratives, Gift Exchange


In his diary, eventually published as the Journal of the First Voyage of America, Christopher Columbus describes the gift exchange between his party and the first Indians he encountered, on October 13, 1492, on Guanahaní island (in the Bahamas). Columbus wrote: "They give everything they have for whatever we give them, even pieces of broken bowls and glass cups they will barter for" (33; "Mas todo lo que tiene[n] lo dan por qualquiera cosa que les den, de fasta los pedaços de las escudillas y de las taças de vidro rotas rescatavan […]; 32)." He describes the natives' eagerness to barter "balls of cotton thread and parrots and spears" (31; "ovillos de algodón filado y papagayos y azagayas"; 30) stating that "they gave anything in exchange for whatever was given to them" (33; "y todo davan por qualquiera cosa que se lo diese"; 32). Columbus's diary went on to gain canonical status, and many subsequent New World conquest narratives repeated the motif of the "valuable gift traded for one worth little." Most scholars today argue that these exchanges, which typically followed first contact, favored the European invaders. For example, Elvira Vilches examines Columbus's representation of bartering in the Indies and finds that he [End Page 272] used exchange to gain slaves for the Spanish royals. When Columbus took some of them to the Old World by force, they were brought as "profane tokens of holy grace and wealth" (Columbus's Gift 202).

Nikolaus Federmann also engaged in forced exchange with the nations he wished to conquer. He was a German conqueror who came to the Province of Venezuela in 1529 as an employee of the Welser Company, the famous Augsburg bankers' business enterprise. They governed the Venezuelan Province from 1528 to 1556, and Federmann was their agent. His adventurous travel narrative, Indianische Historia ("Indian History"), remains one of the few contemporaneous accounts of the sixteenth-century German conquest and colonization of the province. Sigmund Bund in Haguenau published it in 1557 with the subtitle Ein schöne kurtzweilige Historia Nikolaus Federmanns des Jüngern von Ulm erster raise so er von Hispania un[d] Andolosia ausz in Indias des Occeanischen Mörs gethan hat und was ihm allda begegnet bis auff sein widerkunfft inn Hispaniam auffs kurtzest beschriben, gantz lustig zu lesen, A Nice, Amusing Account from Nikolaus Federmann Junior from Ulm's First Voyage from Spain and Andalusia to the Indies of the Ocean Sea, which Describes Briefly All that He Has Done and Encountered until His Return to Spain, Very Amusing to Read. The text's focus on the indigenous populations that Federmann encountered on the Terra Firme (as that northern part of South America was called), which scholarship has ignored in favor of better-known indigenous civilizations such as the Aztecs and the Incas, holds much ethnohistorical value and is worthy of examination. Moreover, like Columbus's letters and diaries, the Indianische Historia reveals significant information about gifting as a strategy of war, and not just peace.

There has been scant attention paid to this episode of German colonization in the Americas, and this article attempts to fill this void. Federmann's descriptions of his encounters with indigenous nations and his failed gift exchanges with these groups will drive my analysis. I argue that Federmann's account reveals the failure of reciprocity and mutual exchange between the conquistador's men and the Amerindian nations they encountered. By exerting violence and demanding obedience through the gift exchange, Federmann became an experienced strategist in his conquest tours through the Terra Firme. Seen in this light, his linguistic manipulations and thwarted attempts at diplomacy through gift-giving constitute astute psychological maneuvers important to understanding the conquest of the Americas.