Commanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen
While I find that the author here makes a compelling case about both the fragility and the power of the Commanche Empire and its important role in the colonial history of New Spain as well as in providing part of the context in explaining America’s easy victory in the Mexican-American War, I think that there is one thing that this book could have used to help moderate the author’s claims for the uniqueness of the Commanche in setting up a powerful indigenous American empire on the Spanish imperial hinterlands, and that is context. It would appear, at least to this reader, that the Commanche were not entirely unique in having built a genuine empire that was willing and able through the adoption of mobile nomadic horse-riding culture to oppose the Spanish and to build a large and powerful empire. At least one other such example exists in the Mapuche of South America, and it would be worthwhile for someone to conduct a comparison of the Comanche and Mapuche empires to see what similarities can be found as to the way that a warlike culture that was quick to adopt the horse could manage to preserve its power at the margins of Spanish empire and create their own empires but ultimately fail to successor states in the mid-to-late 19th century which had greater demographic and military and economic capabilities.
This book is more than 350 pages long and divided into eight generally chronological chapters which discuss the origins, rise, and fall of the Commanche Empire over the span of more than three centuries. After acknowledgements the author begins with an introduction that posits the Commanches served as an example of reversed colonialism where their skills at raiding and trading allowed them to “colonize” New Mexico and Texas for long stretches of time in the 1600’s to 1800’s. The author discusses the Spanish conquest of the Southwest and the frustrating interactions that the Spanish had with the Commanches there going back as far back as the 1500’s (1). After that the author discusses the new order where the people of New Mexico served as a poor periphery of two empires, namely the Spanish as well as the Commanche (2), and how the Commanche managed to embrace a large variety of peoples through trade, rule, and raiding as part of their own imperial order (3). After that the author discusses the Commanche power as the empire of the plains (4) and looks at the Greater Commancharia that developed with the independence of Mexico (5) as the Commanche expanded into Texas thanks to their friendliness with American trade. After that the author stops to look at the complexities and even paradoxes within Commanche culture and self-image (6) before discussing the hunger that resulted from the collapse of the bison thanks to American hunting efforts (7) and the collapse of the Commanche Empire thanks to American hostility (8). The book ends with a conclusion on the shape of power as well as a list of abbreviations, notes, bibliography, and index.
Admittedly, the Comanche are not an obvious name on the list of world empires, but the author has done a convincing job, even with the imperfections of the historical source material, in demonstrating how it was that the Comanche were able to build a genuine if not lasting empire on the Southern plains that combined slave trading, hunting, informal trade empires in New Mexico, as well as hegemonic claims over a large territory ranging from Texas to the Rockies. The author manages to effectively point out as well how it was that the Commanche behaved in ways that would have appeared to be rational to their imperialistic competitors including Spain, France, the United States, and Mexico as well as their traders and settlers, to say nothing of other tribes. Likewise, the author manages to give (perhaps unintentional) reminder that the use of direct foreign investment/aid as a way of promoting dependency and gaining leverage does not always work, a lesson for contemporary Americans when it comes to paying lots of money to corrupt regimes who end up not supporting our policies after having taken a lot of our money. When an author manages to give a compelling history of an obscure empire and manages to make that discussion relevant to contemporary imperial behavior by the United States and other states, that is an achievement worth celebrating indeed.