This is an important work on the once-remote Napo River Basin in Ecuador’s Amazonian lowlands, or oriente. A diversity of aboriginal groups initially inhabited the region, but depopulation and social dislocations during the colonial period resulted in a somewhat more homogeneous pattern now known as “Lowland Quichua” culture. Many Ecuadorians and foreign visitors have characterized these natives in unflattering terms. The stereotype is one of a conquered and demoralized people much given to slothfulness, drunkenness, and debauchery.
Blanca Muratorio’s goal is to reveal the social and economic history of the upper Napo by alternating chapters of formal analysis with others based on the personal recollections of Alonso Andi, a Quichua elder or rucuyaya (“grandfather ”). She is very clear on her archival sources, as well as on the methods of eliciting and recording the life-history material.
The thesis of the book is that the Lowland Quichua have resisted assimilation and maintained a vital native identity despite centuries of manipulation and exploitation by plantation owners, government officials, and missionaries. Muratorio effectively interprets this success in terms of the extractive nature of the regional economy, which required an extensive, rather than intensive, mode of production (whether in gold, rubber, or other forest products). Hence, the dispersed and mobile native labor force was able to maintain some freedom of action in the face of white domination. Documents such as workers’ contracts, store accounts, and letters forcefully illuminate the imposed system of debt peonage, which whites justified as a means for bringing civilization to a remote region and a savage people.
In contrast, the testimony of Rucuyaya Alonso reveals a vibrant and complex native reality. Resistance to white domination ranged from open confrontation to sabotage, flight, and deliciously subtle expressions of irony and humor that parodied white behavior. Importantly, the natives’ view of themselves as a distinct people within a traditional homeland was never broken, and continues to influence the dynamics of ethnic relations as the region now experiences more intensive development due to oil exploitation, road construction, and colonization.
This book is a significant contribution to the history of South America’s lesser-known frontiers. The author’s position favors the Indians, but this is justified given the reality of the events she describes. The writing is of high quality, but some readers may experience difficulty with the many Quichua terms that dot the text (a glossary is provided). Excellent maps, drawings, and photographs add to the book’s value.