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.
Filed under Caribbean, disease, economics, England, industry, labor, Latin America, Mexico, migration, Netherlands, Spain
From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4015-4044:
In the Netherlands, in France, the forces of international Protestantism were on the march. That it was an international conspiracy, Philip had no doubt, for each passing year showed more conclusively that the Dutch rebels were not alone. Behind them were the Huguenots, and the Breton seamen who were now waging war on Spanish shipping in the gulf of Gascony, and who were to cut Spain’s maritime communications with Flanders in the winter of 1568–9. Behind them, too, were English privateers like Sir John Hawkins, whose raid into the Spanish Caribbean in 1568 brought Spain and England a step nearer to open war.
Already by 1568 it was clear that the struggle was spreading – spreading in particular to the sea, where the Protestants were at their strongest and where Spain was still weak. The war between Spain and international Protestantism was essentially a naval war, fought in the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel, and even, increasingly, in the hitherto exclusive preserve of the Spanish Atlantic. Spain’s American possessions could no longer be regarded as safe. But for that matter it was questionable whether any part of the King’s dominions was now immune from attack. Indeed, Spain itself was threatened, both by pirate attacks on its coasts, and by armed incursions across its frontier with France.
The acute sensitivity of Philip to the dangers from heresy is suggested by his behaviour in the Principality of Catalonia. The Principality was undoubtedly one of the weaker sections of the Spanish bastions, both because of its exposed position on the French frontier, and because the extent of its privileges made it little amenable to royal control. It was well known that there were Huguenots among the bandit gangs that were constantly passing to and fro across the border, and there was every reason to suspect that heresy had found converts among that steady stream of Frenchmen which had for some years been crossing the Pyrenees into Catalonia in search of work. If heresy were to take root in Catalonia, the position would be extremely grave, since the Principality had all the makings of a second Netherlands: a strong tradition of independence, its own laws and privileges, and a hatred of Castile that was aćcentuated by linguistic and cultural differences. Consequently, as the pressure mounted against the Catalan frontier, the King’s fears grew. The viceroys were instructed to show the greatest vigilance in guarding the frontier, and in 1568 the situation appeared so alarming that severe new measures were decreed: a fresh prohibition on natives of the Crown of Aragon studying abroad; a harsher censorship in Catalonia; and a ban on all teaching by Frenchmen in Catalan schools. Then, in 1569, the Catalans refused to pay the new tax known as the excusado, which had just been authorized by Pius V. Convinced by their refusal that they were on the verge of going over to Protestantism, Philip ordered the Inquisition and the Viceroy to take action, and had the Diputats and a number of nobles arrested.
The King’s vigorous action against the Catalan authorities is an indication of his deep anxiety about the course of events. As he himself later realized, the action was unwarranted; there was no breath of heresy among the Catalan governing class. But the situation seemed sufficiently dangerous to make action essential. The Protestant peril was growing hourly, and it was growing at a moment when the danger from Islam seemed also to be mounting to a climax. For Catalonia was not the only region of Spain where revolt and heresy threatened. On Christmas night of that terrible year 1568 – the year of the danger in Catalonia, of the cutting of the sea-route through the Bay of Biscay, and of the arrest and death of Philip’s son and heir, Don Carlos, a band of Morisco outlaws lead by a certain Farax Abenfarax broke into the city of Granada, bringing with them the news that the Alpujarras had risen in revolt. Although the rebels failed to seize the city, their incursion signalized the outbreak of rebellion throughout the kingdom of Granada. Spain, which had surrounded itself with such strong defences against the advance of Protestantism, now found itself endangered from within; and the threat came not, as was expected, from the Protestants, but from its old enemies, the Moors.
From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3230-3243:
If we focus only on the century following Columbus’s voyages we see Mexica and Inca warriors as losers, West Africans as fighting slaves, and Spaniards as quite reasonably contemplating a world empire. But the age of expansion began with the rise of empires outside Europe, with the Mexica fanning out across Mesoamerica and the Inca dominating the Andes, and in West Africa with the rising of the Songhay empire from the ashes of that of Mali. In Europe, the Ottomans and the Muscovites began empire building before the Spaniards, as did the Portuguese—who beat their Iberian neighbors in the race for a sea route to East Asia. And after the sixteenth century the Spanish empire was gradually eclipsed by the trading and colonial networks of the Dutch, English, and French.
Looking at human history over thousands of years, the Spanish Conquest is a mere episode in the globalization of access to resources of food production. The plants and animals of certain Old World environments and regions have a greater potential as food, and the peoples of those regions have enjoyed advantages over others as a result. But eventually, through uneven encounters, those advantages have been introduced to the previously disadvantaged regions. In the case of Europeans introducing new foods to Native Americans, the parallel introduction of Old World diseases made the encounter especially uneven, while colonialism hindered native access to these new resources. This process is too broad and complex to be understood in terms of the alleged and simple “superiority” of one group of people over another. It is also a process that is incomplete. We are still living through the long period of uneven encounters and the gradual globalization of resources.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 1260-1283:
When the Spaniards under Cortés left the Gulf coast and headed toward central Mexico, native Cempoalan warriors and porters accompanied them, and Tlaxcalans, Huejotzincans, and others later became part of a vast support force that greatly outnumbered the Spaniards. The Huejotzincans continued to fight alongside Spaniards and provide other services as the Conquest stretched out over the 1520s and 1530s. As Huejotzingo’s rulers would inform the king in 1560, “we never abandoned or left them. And as they went to conquer Michoacan, Jalisco, and Colhuacan, and at Pánuco and Oaxaca and Tehuantepec and Guatemala, we were the only ones who went along while they conquered and made war here in New Spain until they had finished the conquest; we never abandoned them, in no way did we hold back their warmaking, though some of us were destroyed in it.”
In fact, the Huejotzincans were not the only Nahuas to fight in other regions of what became New Spain. Montejo brought hundreds of warriors from Azcapotzalco, in the Valley of Mexico, to Yucatan. One Maya account of the Spanish invasion offers a revealing commentary on their use as a vanguard force. Following a series of military encounters in the region, the Spaniards entered the important town of Calkini in 1541 to accept the nominal submission of the local Maya rulers. The description of that ritual by the rulers of Calkini remarks pointedly that the Nahuas—called Culhuas by the Maya after Culhuacan, the town that had once dominated the Valley of Mexico—arrived first. The Maya account also noted that the leader of the Culhuas had been baptized Gonzalo, that their force brought along a herd of pigs (an animal introduced by the Spaniards), and that they were the ones who gathered up the tribute goods offered to the Spaniards.
There is no hint of racial solidarity between Nahuas and Mayas in this account, nor should any be expected. Spaniards lumped different native groups together as “Indians,” but to the Mayas of Calkini, the Culhuas were as foreign as the Spaniards. They were invaders to be repulsed or accommodated, as circumstances allowed, just as if they had come alone as part of the Mexica imperial expansion into Yucatan that never happened but may have eventually occurred had the Spaniards not appeared.
Nor was there a sense of Maya ethnic solidarity in the sixteenth century. In time, Mayas from the Calkini region and other parts of Yucatan would accompany Spaniards into unconquered regions of the peninsula as porters, warriors, and auxiliaries of various kinds. Companies of archers were under permanent commission in the Maya towns of Tekax and Oxkutzcab, regularly called upon to man or assist in raids into the unconquered regions south of the colony of Yucatan. As late as the 1690s Mayas from over a dozen Yucatec towns—organized into companies under their own officers and armed with muskets, axes, machetes, and bows and arrows—fought other Mayas in support of Spanish Conquest endeavors in the Petén region that is now northern Guatemala.
From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 348-399:
Columbus had profound Portuguese connections. Although he was Genoese and the sponsor of his voyages across the Atlantic was Queen Isabella of Castile, Columbus spent much of his life from the 1470s on in Portugal. In the late 1470s he married the daughter of a Portuguese Atlantic colonist, and he repeatedly sought royal Portuguese patronage before and after first approaching the Castilian monarch….
This context is so important because it is by looking at Portugal before and during Columbus’s years there that one can see the degree to which the transplanted Genoese navigator had neither a a unique plan nor a unique vision nor a unique pattern of previous experience. Many others created and contributed to the expansion process of which Columbus became a part. Beginning 200 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, southern European shipping broke out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. The Vivaldi brothers, most notably, set off from Genoa in 1291 on what turned out to be a one-way voyage west across the Atlantic. Then, in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries a new zone of navigation was created that was bordered by the Azores in the north, the Canary Islands in the south, and the Iberian-African coasts in the east.
Finally, from the 1420s on, a further stretch of exploration and navigation into the mid- and west Atlantic was created and charted. In the 1450s and 1460s, Flores, Corvo, the Cape Verde Islands, and the islands of the Gulf of Guinea were explored. The Madeiras and Canaries were settled and turned into sugar-plantation colonies and by 1478 the former was the largest sugar producer in the Western world. Maps of the time show how important and extensive was the discovery of Atlantic space; speculation about the lands and features of the ocean was the most noteworthy feature of fifteenth-century cartography.
Although men from Italian city-states were involved from the start, and Castilians increasingly participated in the process (especially, from the late-fourteenth century on, in hostile competition for control of the Canaries), it was Portugal that dominated this expansion. Italian navigators were systematically and most effectively co-opted by the Portuguese monarchy (later joined by the Flemish), permitting the new Portuguese empire to control Atlantic settlement (except for the Canaries) and the agenda of expansion….
Columbus tried to become part of this process with growing desperation in the 1480s and 1490s. He failed for so long because he lacked the connections and persuasive ideas of other navigators. Even after he succeeded in crossing the Atlantic and returning, the extent of his success was questioned and questionable within the context of the time. The islands he had found (in the Caribbean) fell within the zone assigned to the Portuguese by the 1486 papal bull. And although in 1494 the papacy brokered a Portuguese-Castilian treaty that redefined these zones, it became increasingly apparent during the 1490s that Columbus had not found the much-sought sea route to the East Indies—but had been lying about it to Queen Isabella. Then, in 1499, Vasco da Gama returned from his successful voyage around the Cape and it became clear that the Portuguese had won the competition after all.
Columbus’s career was irreversibly damaged. His claim to have found islands off the coast of Asia, and thus the coveted sea route to that continent, rang hollow in the face of mounting evidence that these were new lands entirely. Columbus seemed to be lying for the sake of his contractual rewards. Perceiving the extent of his failure and his duplicity, the Castilian crown dispatched an agent to the Caribbean to arrest Columbus and bring him back to Spain in chains. Although he was later permitted to cross the Atlantic, he was forbidden to revisit the Caribbean and was stripped of the titles of Admiral and Viceroy of the Indies—titles he had fought to be included in his original contract and arguably the chief goal of his career. Meanwhile, those titles were conferred by the Portuguese crown upon da Gama.
The fact that it was Columbus’s voyages, not da Gama’s, that would lead to the changing of world history was not to the Genoese’s credit. His discoveries were an accidental geographical byproduct of Portuguese expansion two centuries old, of Portuguese-Castilian competition for Atlantic control a century old, and of Portuguese-Castilian competition for a sea route to India older than Columbus himself. Furthermore, had Columbus not reached the Americas, any one of numerous other navigators would have done so within a decade. Most obviously, the Portuguese Pedro Álvares Cabral explored the Brazilian coast in 1500, likewise arriving there in an attempt to reach Asia (by rounding the Cape).
From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 511-524:
Cortés emerged in the sixteenth century as the most recognizable of God’s agents for several reasons. One was the impressive nature of the Mexica empire and the subsequent importance of central Mexico to the Spanish empire. Another was the rapid publication and wide circulation (despite royal attempts at censorship) of Cortés’s letters to the king, which argued unambiguously that God had directed the Conquest of Mexico as a favor to the Spanish monarchy. The blessed status of Cortés himself was heavily implied; in one letter he uses the Spanish term medio (medium or agent), to describe his providential role. A third was the supportive spin placed on Cortés and the Conquest by the Franciscans.
Friars of the Order of St. Francis were the first Spanish priests into the Mesoamerican regions that would become the colonies of New Spain. In competition with the Dominicans, to a lesser extent other orders, and later the secular clergy (priests who were not members of an order), the Franciscans remained central to the activities of the church throughout colonial Spanish America. In central Mexico, Yucatan, and other parts of New Spain, sixteenth-century Franciscans were the driving force behind efforts to convert native peoples and build a colonial church. The roles that natives themselves played in that process, and the writings generated as a result by both friars and natives, gave rise to an extraordinary body of literature that was foundational to the academic discipline of ethnography.
The Franciscans saw Cortés’s support of their entry into Mexico and their activities in the earliest colonial years as being crucial to their mission, and as a result contributed much to the formation of his legend.