In many corners of academe, “globalization” is a buzzword, a fairly recent phenomenon for study and debate. Historians, however, can observe globalization at work five centuries ago.
Jeremy Mumford, joining the faculty as a lecturer in history, is interested in 16th-century colonial Latin America, indigenous America, and the Americas as a whole. He is particularly interested in the 16th century because civilizations that evolved separately began making contact with each other during a short span. “It’s sort of an extraordinary time, a kind of first globalization,” Mumford said. “It was also brutal, marked by invasions, conquests, and enslavement.”
What is most interesting to Mumford is the way some civilizations transitioned, becoming part of the colonial bureaucracy. Like other empires that fell in Africa and Asia, the Incas preserved their culture under colonialism. Instead of being replaced by colonists, a large number of lords and officials in Inca society became the middle managers of Spanish government, incorporating segments of Spanish culture into the Incan way of life. Visitors can see the effects of those decisions when they visit modern-day Peru or Ecuador.
Mumford developed an interest in Latin American history by chance. After a stint in the legal field as a paralegal and later as an assistant news editor at a television station, Mumford was writing an article about Ecuadorians in New York when something sparked inside him. While writing, he remembered how much he enjoyed researching the history of civilizations during his undergraduate years at Yale. The spark was so strong that he quit his job and headed to Ecuador carrying only a backpack.
“I fell in love with that part of the world, where the history of the region is present everywhere in modern life. Some of the beautiful stone buildings, built in the 1500s, still stand today in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, next to 21st-century buildings,” he said. His fascination with the culture grew after reading Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s book Comentarios Reales de los Incas while backpacking in Ecuador. Written during the early 1600s, the book painted a unique picture of Peru’s history because the writer was part of two different cultures. Garcilaso was the son of a Spanish soldier, yet he also came from a noble Inca family.
Mumford’s interests led him to Columbia University (M.A. in North American history, 1997) and later again to Yale University (Ph.D. in Latin American history, 2005).
He has since taught as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and the University of Mississippi. He has also written a book titled Vertical Empire: The ‘General Resettlement of Indians’ in the Colonial Andes, which revises a historical consensus and shows how Andeans preserved their communities after the Spanish conquest.
Mumford is currently at work on another book that compares royal incest and close-kin marriage among the Incas, the Spanish Habsburgs, and the Peruvian colonial elite. “The Incas, before the Spanish conquest, traditionally married brother to sister. For them, the royal family was sacred and they thought the queen of the kingdom should be the sister of the king,” Mumford said. Meanwhile, Spanish kings and queens married cousins, uncles and nieces. Although both civilizations differed in their beliefs, they shared cultural notions about royal marriages. “Different rules applied to royal families, they were allowed to break the rules. In a sense, they were forced to.”
That arrangement was ingrained in both civilizations to such a degree that when a few Incas asked for permission to continue the tradition of marrying brothers and sisters, the Catholic Church and Spanish government, in an unprecedented move, allowed them to do so.
Mumford hopes to pass along his fascination with this period of history to his students. He will be teaching several courses on these topics including a first-year seminar on the age of revolutions in the Atlantic world.
“Some of the most interesting people I have met in my life graduated from Brown,” Mumford said. “They’re eclectic, interested in so many things, and creative; they’re a fun group to teach.”
As a historian who fell in love with the architecture of Ecuador, which ignited a permanent interest in Latin American history, Mumford loves Brown’s unusual attention to the historic houses that make up much of its campus.
“I’ve never been at a university where so many professors have their offices in Victorian houses. I love that. It’s beautiful.”