Knowledge has become a central problematic in recent work on cross-cultural encounters and the processes of empire building. In an array of contexts—from Spanish America to colonial South Africa, from Ireland to occupied Egypt, the American West to British India—anthropologists and historians have highlighted the ways in which “colonial knowledge” facilitated trade, the extraction of rent and taxes, conversion, and outright conquest. This scholarship has demonstrated how these new forms of understanding produced on imperial frontiers facilitated the actual extension of sovereignty and the consolidation of colonial authority: for Tzvetan Todorov, Bernard Cohn, and Nicholas Dirks alike, colonialism was a “conquest of knowledge.” Scholarship on empire building in the Americas has placed special emphasis on the place of literacy in the dynamics of conquest. Walter Mignolo in particular has argued that European understandings of the power of literacy encouraged Spaniards in the New World to discount the value of indigenous graphic systems and disparage Mesoamerican languages as untruthful, unreliable, and products of the Devil. For Mignolo, the dark side of the new knowledge orders born out of the Renaissance was a new interweaving of literacy, knowledge, and colonization in a new cultural order he dubs “coloniality.” In the North American literature, too, literacy has been seen as a crucial element in imperial intrusion and conquest. James Axtell, for example, has argued “The conquest of America was in part a victory of paper and print over memory and voice. The victors wrote their way to the New World and inscribed themselves on its maps.”
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