War assemblages

by craigepplin

Subway reading:

Just at this moment we caught sight of our horsemen. But the great host of Indians was so crazed by their attack that they did not at once see them approaching behind their backs. As the plain was bare and the horsemen were good riders, and some of the horses were very swift and nimble, they came quickly upon them and speared them as they chose. As soon as we saw the horsemen we fell on the enemy so vigorously that, caught between the horsemen and ourselves, they soon turned tail. The Indians thought at that time that the horse and the rider were one creature, for they had never seen a horse before. (76)

That’s from The Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. The book is full of battle scenes, obviously, but what stands out here is that section I’ve bolded: Díaz’s speculation on the Native Americans’ reasoning. Previous to the conquest, there were no horses in Mexico, and so seeing one of them outfitted with an armed rider must have been a terrifying sight. That said, is there any reason to suppose that the natives thought them one creature? If there is, Díaz does not offer it up. What we might understand here, then, is that Díaz himself understands, rightly in my opinion, that when a rider mounts a horse he does indeed become something else. The two of them initiate a complex becoming. The individual properties of each of them change when they become a horse-rider assemblage. In this way, Díaz was, after a fashion, a theorist of the nonhuman world.

Cortés, however, was not. Just a few pages later, we read this fragment:

Cortés, who was very shrewd in all matters, said with a laugh to those of us who happened to be standing with him: “Do you know, gentlemen, I believe it is the horses that the Indians are most frightened of. They probably think that it is just they and the cannon that they have been fighting […].” (78)

He then stages an elaborate scene to prove his point, and it turns out that he is right: the Indians are indeed afraid of the horses. He was more clever strategist than Díaz, doubtless, but he was less insightful about the real relationships between species. A horse without a rider might be terrifying, but it is a different beast from the human-horse assemblage. By imputing the Native Americans with the belief in the assemblage, Díaz actually gives them more credit than does Cortés, for in his telling they understand the nature of the composite beings they were fighting against.