Category Archives: Mexico

The Wilsonian Reset with Mexico, 1913

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 77-87:

In March 1913, when he became the twenty-eighth president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson gave every indication of a more cordial relationship with Latin America. He despised the imperialism of his age. He had criticized the interventionist policies of his Republican predecessors and looked upon the regular naval patrols of the Central American and Mexican coasts, which Taft and Knox had stepped up, as manifestations of gunboat diplomacy. Privately confessing the limitations of his knowledge of foreign affairs (though he was the best-informed president on that subject since John Quincy Adams), he was sufficiently alert to America’s role in the Caribbean since the Spanish-American War to issue a polite condemnation of dollar diplomacy. His secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, was even more fervently outspoken against the machinations of private American capital in the tropics. The outgoing team of Taft and Knox, anticipating a reversal of their Caribbean policies, feared that Wilson’s rhetoric might touch off revolutionary explosions throughout the area.

Manifestly, a new era in inter-American relations had arrived. But Wilson turned out to be the greatest interventionist of all in the internal affairs of the Latin American republics. His Mexican policy alone would earn him the badge of infamy among hemispheric critics of the United States.

The new American president already had a reputation for stem views and a personality that brooked little criticism, especially if the critic failed to grasp the truth as it was revealed to him. Much has been made of Wilson’s puritanical bent of mind and its impact on his Mexican policy. He certainly believed Huerta to be an “immoral” man, and his refusal to grant Huerta’s government the diplomatic recognition so earnestly championed by the ambassador (and the British minister to Mexico) rested in part on his own conviction that Huerta was a murderer. But Wilson’s assessment of the Mexican situation in spring 1913 went much deeper than his revulsion toward Huerta. He intended to influence the course of Mexican history, to educate the Mexican people, who, he believed, deserved a better society and certainly a more decent leader than the hawk-nosed general now claiming that distinction.

The policy that evolved would be called “watchful waiting,” political pressure reinforced by the military presence of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico and along the long Texas-Mexico border. An American Naval force had been patrolling the Mexican coast since the fall of Diaz two years before, and the General Board of the Navy was continually updating its basic Mexican war plan, which had been drafted several years before Diaz’s overthrow and called for the occupation of Veracruz and several other ports. Across the broad Gulf, at Guantanamo, a marine brigade readied for an invasion of Mexico. Army planners also figured prominently in preparations for conflict with Mexico; indeed, the Army War College advanced an ambitious proposal that anticipated not only the landing of forces at Veracruz but an assault against the capital (as Winfield Scott had done in 1847 during the Mexican War) and the occupation of large areas in northern Mexico.

A week after the inauguration, Secretary of State Bryan, reflecting the sentiments expressed by Wilson in a major address, declared that the United States would not recognize a government that did not rule with the consent of the governed. The administration would in fact extend recognition to new regimes in Peru and China that failed to meet that test, but it was readily apparent that the principle applied to Mexico. Wilson could not manipulate the Peruvian and Chinese situations; manifestly, he believed he could influence what happened next door in Mexico.

Distrusting the American ambassador but unable to replace him because such a move would imply recognition for Huerta’s government, Wilson sent a ["]journalist["; not unlike today's ilk—J], William Bayard Hale, as special emissary to Mexico, the first of almost a dozen executive agents the president sent there. Hale was to report on conditions and, specifically, to check out the persistent reports about the role of Ambassador Wilson in the tragic ten days of February. Hale arrived to find an embassy halfheartedly pressing Wilson’s conditions for recognition: new elections and Huerta’s pledge that he would not be a candidate. If these were met, Wilson offered to mediate between Huerta and his numerous enemies. Hale’s report on the Mexican situation also included an indictment of Henry Lane Wilson‘s role in Madero‘s ouster and death. The ambassador was ordered home for consultation and, back in Washington, dismissed from the diplomatic service, convinced to the end that the origins of America’s troubles in Mexico lay in the refusal to recognize Herta.

But in the fall of 1913 Wilson had informed the secretary of the British ambassador to the United States: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

Wilson was not going to commit the first act, however; Huerta would have to do something so despicable, so outrageous, and something that would be such an affront to the laws of nations and proper international behavior that American retaliation would be manifestly justifiable…. Yet, surprisingly, the incident that would precipitate American action occurred not by Huerta’s hand or even by Wilson’s but by an unthinking Huertista officer in Tampico and a zealous rear admiral in the American navy.

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Filed under democracy, Mexico, military, nationalism, U.S.

The Mexican Republic’s First Century

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 77-79:

The Mexican republic that Wilson so desperately sought to reform commemorated in September 1910 the centenary of the grito de Dolores, the ringing of church bells in the village of Guadalupe signaling the revolution against Spanish rule. In the nineteenth century, the republic had been governed by savants and opportunists; by statesmen with visions of a peaceful society, where politics would be infused with reason; and by despots who ruled in the tradition of central authority inherited from the Spanish monarchy. American observers considered Mexico an arrogant nation misruled by such unscrupulous leaders as the “crimson jester,” Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, until the republic lost almost half of its territory in war with the United States. After that, many Americans, notably rising Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, thought of their neighbor as a ravaged society, wasted by internecine civil war or preyed upon by European interlopers. The one figure of nineteenth-century Mexico who conveyed a statesmanlike image was Benito Juarez, who in the 1850s fought the power of the church and military and in 1867 overthrew Maximilian’s monarchy. Yet Juarez, for all his dedication to political ideals Americans cherished, remained essentially an inscrutable Zapotec Indian with suspicion of anything foreign and harbored deep distrust of the rambunctious republic to the north.

Juarez, at least, made Mexico the example of a republic that threw off its European trappings. One of his lieutenants in the antimonarchial struggle, Porfirio Diaz, who became president in 1876, presented to the world a stable, prosperous republic. He began by convincing a skeptical American government that the border between the two countries must be secured against marauders, so that the American army would not have to cross the Rio Grande to chase cattle thieves, Indians, or bandits. Resisting American pressures to send patrols into the wastelands of northern Mexico, Diaz started policing it with rurales, who kept the peace and earned Diaz American plaudits.

In the 1880s, as he centralized his authority, Diaz opened the country to speculators, engineers, and promoters of all stripes. Mexico would be modernized with foreign technology and talent. The republic joined the list of “civilized” nations on the gold standard. Its foreign trade jumped markedly; its exports diversified. And its economic ties to the United States multiplied: In 1872, when Juarez died, Americans purchased 36 percent of Mexican exports; by 1890, 75 percent. American capital and technology poured into mining, railroading, and oil exploration. The American presence was fittingly symbolized in 1881 when the New York legislature incorporated the Mexican Southern Railroad and named Ulysses S. Grant as its first president.

And Diaz patronizingly protected the foreigner, removing legal obstacles to foreign concerns and assuring a ready supply of unskilled labor for their use. Privilege went to foreigners to such degrees that it was commonly observed that Mexico was the parent of aliens and the stepparent of Mexicans. By 1910, fully 75 percent of the mines and 50 percent of the oil fields belonged to Americans.

After 1900, as his power became more entrenched, Diaz grew increasingly apprehensive about the large American presence in Mexico. His Central American gestures on behalf of Zelaya were in part aimed at offsetting American influence, and he provided concessions to British oil interests as a way of countering the enormous amount of American capital invested in Mexican petroleum.

But it was not American capital that brought Diaz down eight months after the 1910 celebration. As he aged, he became mellower; his associates, uncertain about the succession, began maneuvering furiously behind the scenes. They became even more frantic after Diaz declared in 1908 in a famous interview with an American journalist, James Creelman, that he had guided Mexico into the twentieth century and the nation was now ready for democracy. His retirement would coincide with the centennial in 1910. In the aftermath of the interview with Creelman there was a flurry of political activity. New parties appeared, and angry voices, silenced by Diaz for thirty years, spoke harshly against the political system the dictator had created.

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Filed under economics, Mexico, nationalism, U.S.

Wordcatcher Tales: xoc, anagogy

From: Breaking the Maya Code, rev. ed., by Michael D. Coe (Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 141 (third edition now available on Kindle):

Here were three glyphs … that the leading anti-phoneticist of his day [Eric Thompson] was reading in the Yucatec Maya tongue. That begins to sound subversive! Even further, back in 1944 he had shown that the pair of fish fins, or at times a pair of fishes, which flanked the Month-patron head in the great glyph which always introduces an Initial Series date on a Classic monument, is a rebus sign: the fish is a shark, xoc in Maya (Tom Jones has recently proved that xoc is the origin of the English word “shark”). And xoc also means “to count” in Maya.

These decipherments were all major advances, but Thompson failed to follow them up. Why? The answer is that Thompson was a captive of that same mindset that had led in the first century before Christ to the absurd interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Diodorus Siculus, to the equally absurd fourth-century AD Neoplatonist nonsense of Horapollon, and to the sixteenth-century fantasies of Athanasius Kircher. Eric had ignored the lesson of Champollion.

In a chapter entitled “Glances Backward and a Look Ahead,” Thompson sums up his views on Maya hieroglyphic writing. “The glyphs are anagogical,” he says. Now Webster defines anagogy as the “interpretation of a word, passage, or text (as of Scripture or poetry) that finds beyond the literal, allegorical, and moral senses a fourth and ultimate spiritual and mystical sense.”

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Spanish Colonial Language Policies

From Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale U. Press, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1598-1612:

Already the process of linguistic change was under way in New Spain, as Indians who moved into the cities picked up a working knowledge of Castilian, while Castilian words were simultaneously being incorporated into the Nahuatl vocabulary on a massive scale. Large numbers of the Indian vassals of the Spanish crown, however, either resisted the imposition of Castilian or remained to all intents and purposes outside its orbit, while many friars were inclined to ignore the crown’s decree. At the same time, creoles with indigenous nurses learnt in childhood the language of the conquered, and in the Yucatan peninsula, which had a high degree of linguistic unity before the conquest, the Maya language, rather than Castilian, became the lingua franca in the post-conquest era. The crown, for its part, was driven in particular by religious considerations to recognize realities. In 1578 Philip II decreed that no religious should be appointed to Indian benefices without some knowledge of the language, and two years later he set up chairs of indigenous languages in the universities of Lima and Mexico City, on the grounds that ‘knowledge of the general language of the Indians is essential for the explanation and teaching of Christian doctrine.’

The English, on finding themselves confronted by the linguistic barrier between themselves and the Indians, at first reacted much like the Spaniards. Indians showed little inclination to learn the language of the intruders, and initially it was the settlers who found themselves having to learn an alien tongue, both to communicate and to convert. Indians in areas of English settlement had less inducement than those in the more urbanized world of Spanish America to learn the language of the Europeans, although by degrees they found it convenient to have some of their number who could communicate in the language of the intruders. As the balance of forces tilted in favour of the settlers, however, so the pressures on the Indians to acquire some knowledge of English increased, until the colonists were securing promises from neighbouring tribes to learn the language as a requirement for submission to their rule. Here there was no question, as there was in Spanish America, of a policy of actively promoting, at least among a section of the colonial community, the learning of indigenous languages – a policy which had the concomitant, if unintended, effect of encouraging not only the survival but also the expansion of the major languages, especially Nahuatl, Maya and Quechua. The powerful impulse to Christianize that worked in favour of the toleration of linguistic diversity in Spain’s American possessions simply did not exist in British America.

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Evaluating Both Style and Substance in One’s Sources

From the Introduction to History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas, by Philip Ainsworth Means. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. VII, 1917. (The Kindle edition is available for free on Amazon!)

Though Villagutierre’s Spanish style is far superior to that of such writers as Fernando Montesinos and Antonio de la Calancha, it is, nevertheless, atrocious. Although he wrote about 1700, Villagutierre’s style is excessively archaic; his grammatical construction can hardly be called construction at all, so formless and ambiguous is it. Villagutierre never hesitates to write several long sentences without a single main verb between them, nor does he often refrain from going on and on for a page or so without using a period. In the use of capitals he is most whimsical; usually he has them when they are called for, but he has many that are out of place as well.

The style of Cogolludo, on the other hand, is very good, and that, be it noted, despite the fact that Cogolludo wrote prior to 1688. One remarks with considerable surprise that in several cases Villagutierre and Cogolludo use almost the same words. For example, in speaking of the visit which Cortes made to the island of Tayasal, Cogolludo says: “… y aun que la ida de Cortes se tuvo por ossadia, y demasiada confianza…” Villagutierre, in the same connection says: “… que lo tenian a grandissima temeridad, y ossadia, y por demasiada confianza ….” This is an interesting point, and perhaps it is significant that Cogolludo’s book was published in 1688, whereas Villagutierre was not brought out until 1701. It is to be noted that Cogolludo, the earlier writer, uses only two epithets, and that Villagutierre, the later writer, uses the same two, plus a new one of his own. I know of two other cases where equally close and significant similarity exists between the two. It is possible, then that Villagutierre copied (not to say plagiarized) the work of Cogolludo without giving credit for it. But the important point for us in this matter does not concern the personal integrity of Villagutierre. Rather does the importance of the matter lie in this: if Villagutierre was acquainted with the history of Yucatan by Cogolludo to such a degree that he frequently borrowed whole phrases from it, he must have had a very good reason for diverging widely now and again from the version of events given by Cogolludo. Such a reason could only be supplied by the fact that Villagutierre possessed information which he regarded as superior to and more official than that of Cogolludo. Therefore, since in several instances (as in the account of the events leading up to the visit of Cortes to Tayasal) Villagutierre occasionally departs from the footsteps of Cogolludo, we may safely assume that he was at once more critical and better informed than the latter, whom, however, he valued enough to be willing to draw from his work much of his information and even some of his phraseology.

One rarely reads such introductions in scholarly books these days. This book is one of several I began reading to prepare for our winter vacation in the Yucatan, where my historian brother has retired and now works on Maya language projects.

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“New Spain’s Century of Depression”

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4988-5028:

The imperialism of Philip II’s reign had been based on a Spanish-Atlantic economy, in that it was financed out of the resources of America and of a Castile which itself received regular injections of silver from the silver-mines of the New World. During the last decade of the sixteenth century American silver was still reaching Spain in very large quantities, and the port of Seville had an undeniable air of prosperity; but the comforting appearances masked the beginning of a radical change in the structure of the entire Spanish-Atlantic system.

This change was, in part, a direct result of Spain’s war with the Protestant powers of the north. In the first two decades after the outbreak of the Netherlands revolt, the Dutch had continued to trade with the Iberian peninsula. Spain was dependent on northern and eastern Europe for its supplies of grain, timber, and naval stores, a large proportion of which were transported in Dutch vessels. Irked by Spain’s continuing dependence on the Dutch, and anxious to strike a blow at the Dutch economy, Philip II placed an embargo on Dutch ships in Spanish and Portuguese ports in 1585, and again in 1595. The Dutch appreciated as well as Philip II that any interference with their peninsular trade threatened them with disaster. They needed Spanish silver and colonial produce, just as they also needed the salt of Setúbal for their herring industry. Faced with embargoes on their peninsular trade, they therefore reacted in the only possible way, by going direct to the producing areas for the goods they needed – to the Caribbean and Spanish America. From 1594 they were making regular voyages to the Caribbean; in 1599 they seized the salt island of Araya. This intrusion of the Dutch into the Caribbean disrupted the pearl fisheries of Santa Margarita and dislocated the system of maritime communications between Spain’s colonial possessions. For the first time, Spain found itself heavily on the defensive in the western hemisphere, its overseas monopoly threatened by increasingly audacious Dutch and English attacks.

The presence of northern interlopers in the American seas was a serious danger to the Spanish commercial system; but potentially even more serious was the simultaneous transformation in the character of the American economy. During the 1590s the boom conditions of the preceding decades came to an end. The principal reason for the change of economic climate is to be found in a demographic catastrophe. While the white and the mixed population of the New World had continued to grow, the Indian population of Mexico, scourged by terrible epidemics in 1545–6 and again in 1576–9, had shrunk from some 11,000,000 at the time of the conquest in 1519 to little more than 2,000,000 by the end of the century; and it is probable that a similar fate overtook the native population of Peru. The labour force on which the settlers depended was therefore dramatically reduced. In the absence of any significant technological advance, a contracting labour force meant a contracting economy. The great building projects were abruptly halted; it became increasingly difficult to find labour for the mines, especially as the negroes imported to replace the Indians proved to be vulnerable to the same diseases as those which had wiped out the native population; and the problem of feeding the cities could only be met by a drastic agrarian reorganization, which entailed the creation of vast latifundios where Indian labour could be more effectively exploited than in the dwindling Indian villages.

The century that followed the great Indian epidemic of 1576–9 has been called ‘New Spain’s century of depression’ – a century of economic contraction, during the course of which the New World closed in on itself. During this century it had less to offer Europe: less silver, as it became increasingly expensive to work the mines, and fewer opportunities for the emigrants – the 800 or more men and women who were still arriving in the 1590s in each flota from Seville. At the same time, it also came to require less of Europe – or at least of Spain. European luxury products found themselves competing with the products of the Far East carried to America in the Manila galleon. But much more serious from the point of view of Spain was the establishment in its American possessions of an economy dangerously similar to its own. Mexico had developed a coarse cloth industry, and Peru was now producing grain, wine, and oil. These were exactly the products which had bulked so large in the cargoes from Seville during the preceding decades. In fact, the staple Spanish exports to America were ceasing to be indispensable to the settlers, and in 1597 Spanish merchants found it impossible to dispose of all their goods: the American market, the source of Andalusia’s prosperity, was for the first time overstocked.

From the 1590s, therefore, the economies of Spain and of its American possessions began to move apart, while Dutch and English interlopers were squeezing themselves into a widening gap. It was true that Seville still retained its official monopoly of New World trade, and that Sevillan commerce with America reached an all-time record in 1608, to be followed by a further twelve years in which trade figures, while fluctuating, remained at a high level. But, as an index to national prosperity, the figures are deprived of much of their significance by the fact that the cargoes were increasingly of foreign provenance. The goods which Spain produced were not wanted by America; and the goods that America wanted were not produced by Spain.

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Spanish Conquest Never Complete

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 1770-1817:

Looking at Spanish America in its entirety, the Conquest as a series of armed expeditions and military actions against Native Americans never ended. Florida’s Seminoles were still fighting Spaniards when the colony was taken over by the United States (to whom they have never formally surrendered either). The Araucanians of Chile—who fought for decades and eventually killed the black conquistador Juan Valiente—resisted conquest into the nineteenth century, when they continued to fight the Chilean republic in the name of the monarchy they had previously defied. The Charrúa of Uruguay were not finally subdued until the new nation’s president organized their massacre in the 1830s. Argentines also faced—and eventually slaughtered with machine guns—unconquered native peoples in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Guatusos-Malekus of Central America were enslaved and slaughtered in the late nineteenth century. Yaqui resistance in northern Mexico also lasted into the modern period, while at Mexico’s southern end, the Maya of Yucatan pushed the colonial frontier back in 1847 to its sixteenth-century limits, and a string of Maya polities persisted there into the early twentieth century.

The third aspect of the myth of completion is that of the pax colonial, the peace among natives and between them and the Spanish colonists that supposedly came in the Conquest’s wake. The flip side to this—the corresponding dimension of incompleteness—is the fact that Spanish America was rife with native revolts against colonial rule. As one prominent historian has observed, “then and now the colonial era has typically been thought of as a peaceful time,” despite “apparent endemic violence.”

There is a pair of possible reasons for this. One is the localized nature of colonial revolts, which made them relatively easy to put down and therefore appeared to colonial and modern observers insignificant compared to the kinds of wars that swept Europe during the same centuries and would ravage much of modern Latin America. The other relates more closely to the myth of completion. Despite periodic Spanish hysteria over real or imagined revolts by natives and enslaved Africans, Spaniards believed that their empire was God’s way of civilizing natives and Africans in the Americas. Colonial rule was thus seen as peaceful and benevolent, an interpretation that relied upon the Conquest’s being complete. Ironically, although the native perception was almost the opposite—that the Spanish presence was a protracted invasion that required a mixed response of accommodation and resistance—it also contributed to the illusion that the pax colonial was real. The willingness on the part of native leaders to compromise, to find a middle course between overt confrontation and complete capitulation, helped give the impression of a colonial peace.

The fifth dimension of the Conquest’s incompleteness was the degree to which native peoples maintained a degree of autonomy within the Spanish empire. This was in part an autonomy permitted and sanctioned by Spanish officials, and it was nurtured by native leaders through illegal means and legal negotiations. As a general rule, Spaniards did not seek to rule natives directly and take over their lands. Rather they hoped to preserve native communities as self-governing sources of labor and producers of agricultural products. This practice had precedent in Islamic-Iberian custom, as it developed in the eighth-century Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula and during the subsequent centuries of the reconquista. But it was also a practical response to Spanish-American realities. The new settlers were not farmers, but artisans and professionals dependent upon the work and food provided by native peoples who greatly outnumbered them.

This colonial system worked best where organized, sedentary agricultural communities already existed—that is, well-fed city-states—and it was in such areas, primarily in Mesoamerica and the Andes, that Spaniards concentrated their conquest and colonization efforts. Although it is unlikely that any native community escaped the ravages of epidemic diseases brought across the Atlantic, native regions unevenly experienced direct conquest violence. For centuries after the arrival of Spaniards, the majority of natives subject to colonial rule continued to live in their own communities, speak their own languages, work their own fields, and be judged and ruled by their own elders. These elders wrote their own languages alphabetically (or, in the Andes, learned to write Spanish) and engaged the colonial legal system in defense of community interests skillfully and often successfully. The native town, or municipal community, continued to be called the altepetl by the Nahuas of central Mexico, the ñuu by the Mixtecs, the cah by the Yucatec Mayas, and the ayllu by Quechua-speaking Andeans.

Only very gradually did community autonomy erode under demographic and political pressures from non-native populations. From the native perspective, therefore, the Conquest was not a dramatic singular event, symbolized by any one incident or moment, as it was for Spaniards. Rather, the Spanish invasion and colonial rule were part of a larger, protracted process of negotiation and accommodation. From such a perspective, as long as the altepetl and ayllu still existed, the Conquest could never be complete.

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Germs and Steel, Not Guns, Aided Early Conquistadors

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3181-3207:

Guns, too, were of limited use. Cannons were few in number in the Americas, and without roads or navigable rivers, their transportation was a major challenge. Much of the Americas where Spaniards fought was tropical or subtropical, and in the humidity the powder became too wet to fire. Firearms, in the form of harquebuses, whose unwieldy barrels required the support of tripods, were likewise not plentiful and required dry powder. Vargas Machuca advocated Spaniards using harquebuses in the Americas, but his detailed exposition on how to avoid damaging the gun, getting it wet, or discharging it prematurely or by accident would surely have caused any conquistador to think twice about carrying such a weapon. The more reliable and faster-loading musket was not invented until decades after Cortés and Pizarro invaded the American mainland. Nor had Europeans yet developed volley-fire techniques, in which soldiers formed banks of rows in order to provide continuous fire, although there were seldom enough firearms in a Conquest company to have made good use of such a technique. Those Spaniards who did have firearms were lucky to get a single shot off before reversing the weapon to use as a club or dropping it to concentrate on sword wielding.

The one weapon, then, whose efficacy is indubitable was the steel sword. It alone was worth more than a horse, a gun, and a mastiff put together. Because a steel sword was longer and less brittle than the obsidian weapons of Mesoamerican warriors, and longer and sharper than Andean clubbing weapons or copper-tipped axes, a Spaniard could fight for hours and receive light flesh wounds and bruises while killing many natives. Spanish swords were just the right length for reaching an enemy who lacked a similar weapon. Pizarro preferred to fight on foot so he could better manipulate his sword. Descriptions of battles in which Spanish swordplay caused terrible slaughter among native forces pepper the Conquest accounts of Cieza de León, Cortés, Díaz, Gómara, Jerez, Oviedo y Baños, Zárate, and others. Military historian John Guilmartin deftly summarizes the point: “While Spanish success in combat cannot be attributed to a single factor, it is clear that the other elements of Spanish superiority took effect within a tactical matrix established by the effectiveness of Spanish hand-held slashing and piercing weapons.”

This trilogy of factors—disease, native disunity, and Spanish steel—goes most of the way toward explaining the Conquest’s outcome. Remove just one and the likelihood of the failure of expeditions under Cortés, Pizarro, and others would have been very high. As Clendinnen has observed of the Spanish-Mexica war, both Spaniards and natives were aware that the Conquest was “a close-run thing,” a point that applies broadly across the Conquest. The failed expeditions outnumbered successful ones, and cautionary tales can be found by looking at the fate of Spanish expeditions such as Montejo’s early attempts to conquer Yucatan, the early campaigns into Oaxaca’s northern sierra, or the Pizarro-Orellana journey into Amazonia. Spaniards would have suffered steady mortality from fatal wounds, starvation, disease, and so on, with survivors limping back to Spain or to colonial enclaves scattered along the coasts and islands. Time and again, this outcome was averted because Spanish steel weapons permitted them to hold out long enough for native allies to save them, while the next wave of epidemic disease disrupted native defenses.

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New Land Conquest Licensing

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Locs. 616-619, 2031-2033, 2201-2227:

The first aspect of Conquest procedure was the use of legalistic measures to lend a veneer of validity to an expedition. Such measures typically included the reading out of a legal document, such as a conquest license or the so-called Requirement—the request for submission that was rather absurdly to be read to native communities or armies before hostilities took place. Also included was the declaration of a formal territorial claim….

The document, known as the Requerimiento (Requirement) informed natives of a sort of chain of command from God to pope to king to conquistadors, with the latter merely putting into effect the divinely sanctioned donation of all American lands and peoples by the pope to the Spanish monarch. Native leaders were asked, therefore, to recognize papal and royal authority (that is, to surrender without resistance)…

Requirement is usually viewed as a paragon of miscommunication or, in Las Casas’s words, communicational “absurdity.” Equally absurd were the circumstances under which the text was delivered. According to intellectual historian Lewis Hanke: “It was read to trees and empty huts. . . . Captains muttered its theological phrases into their beards on the edge of sleeping Indian settlements, or even a league away before starting the formal attack. . . . Ship captains would sometimes have the document read from the deck as they approached an island.” In addition to Las Casas, other sixteenth-century Spaniards denounced the delivery of the Requirement in terms ranging from the wry to the scathing. For example, Charles V’s official court historian, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, described how the text was delivered during the early decades of the Caribbean conquest, when natives were still routinely enslaved: “After [the captured Indians] had been put in chains, someone read the Requirement without knowing their language and without any interpreters, and without either the reader or the Indians understanding the language they had no opportunity to reply, being immediately carried away prisoners, the Spaniards not failing to use the stick on those who did not go fast enough.” Here the wielding of the “stick” suggests that even if the content of the Requirement could not be communicated, the violent context of its delivery communicated its broader message of menace and hostility.

In another study, Seed persuasively showed how the message of the Requirement was rooted in Iberian Islamic tradition, specifically in the summons to acknowledge the superiority of Islam or be attacked. Part of the Requirement’s apparent absurdity is that it seems to demand that natives will not be forced to convert, provided that they convert. Like its Islamic antecedent, it leaves matters of conversion for later, demanding only a formal recognition of the religious and political superiority of the invader. This acknowledgment in the Islamic world was expressed in the form of a head tax, essentially the same manifestation of conquest as the tribute first claimed by Queen Isabella in 1501 and levied on every individual Native American in the Spanish empire for over three centuries. The Requirement’s assertion that acceptance of papal and royal authority would bring protection and privilege seems absurd in the context of conquest violence and colonial exploitation, but the concern of Spanish officials for native population levels (expressed in numerous colonial laws) was genuine, albeit based on economic interests. From the crown to local Spanish community leaders, the empire depended upon native tribute, whether paid in cash, goods, or labor. The Requirement’s offer of privilege seems risible because the document also appears to promise destruction. In fact, Spanish colonial rule confirmed and relied upon the integrity of native communities, for it was there that tribute was generated and collected.

Seen in this light, the Requirement becomes less absurd. In fact, in the context of open and blatant conquistador hostilities, it becomes irrelevant. More than that, it becomes an invader’s ritual less potentially confusing to the invaded precisely because it cannot be understood. As “babble” it can more easily be ignored and the nature of the Spanish threat be more clearly contemplated.

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Filed under Caribbean, language, Latin America, Mexico, migration, religion, slavery, Spain

Wordcatcher Tales: biombo, subaru

Biombo – The Spanish term biombo ‘folding screen’ comes from Japanese byōbu (屏風 ‘wallwind’ or ‘screenwind’) for the same item. I first learned the term in the caption to Fig. 9 in the book I’ve been reading, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. The figure shows an oil-painted canvas biombo depicting “The Encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma” as imagined by the artist Juan Correa c. 1683. It goes on to describe biombo as “a popular Mexican artform introduced by the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City in 1614″! This left me skeptical because Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) is far better known for its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) than for international outreach.

But in fact Tokugawa Japan did engage in a bit of outreach before the 1630s. In 1613, Date Masamune, first lord of Sendai, had Japan’s first galleon built in Ishinomaki (one of the cities hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami). Later christened the San Juan Bautista and laden with ceremonial gifts, it set sail for Acapulco in New Spain with Japan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, also spelled Faxecura Rocuyemon in Spanish sources), who spent time in Mexico City in 1614 and again on his return trip in 1618. About 60 of his Japanese compatriots who remained in Mexico until his return were baptized there as Christians. Hasekura himself waited until he got to Spain before being baptized as Francisco Felipe Faxicura.

Subaru – I was shocked a few months ago to realize that I had never bothered to wonder what the name Subaru means in Japanese. The logo on Subaru cars should perhaps have given me a hint, but I only found out about the Japanese meaning from a linguist friend who was researching whether the position of the Pleiades marks a seasonal cycle in any languages I was familiar with in Papua New Guinea.

In Numbami, the two words used to translate English ‘year’ are damana, which also means ‘Pleiades’, and yala, which comes from German Jahr. According to Streicher’s (1982) Jabêm–English Dictionary entry for dam(o): “The Pleiades are the main constellation seen in Jabêm during the dry season (October to March), and governing their activities in their gardens, i.e. the felling of trees to clear the ground for new gardens; the burning and planting of fields is done according to the position of the Pleiades.”

In Japanese, ‘Pleiades’ is usually rendered into プレアデス星団 Pureiadesu seidan (= ‘star group’), but the older native Japanese name for the cluster is Subaru, and the Chinese character for it is 昴, pronounced BOU in Sino-Japanese. I’m not aware that the Pleiades play any role at all in Japan’s highly conventionalized seasonal cycles, but the constellation may be a convenient symbol of the five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries that merged to create the Subaru car company.


Filed under art, Japan, language, Mexico, migration, Philippines, scholarship, science, Spain