Category Archives: Europe

Evacuating Qing China’s Shoreline

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 112-114:

In the 1660s, the young Qing dynasty was just twenty years past its conquest of Beijing and still only partially in control of the empire. It faced a pirate navy of more than a thousand ships and 150,000 sailors that had declared open rebellion against the Manchus and called for the restoration of the Ming dynasty. Kangxi had just come to the throne, a mere boy at the time, and he and his advisers recognized that the dynasty’s Manchu forces, which were mounted on horseback, could not possibly hope to master such a large force of pirates on water. So rather than fighting them head-on, Kangxi instead ordered the evacuation of China’s entire southeastern coast.

Nearly a thousand miles of shoreline, from Zhejiang province in the east all the way down to Canton in the south and beyond, was emptied of its inhabitants so the Ming-loyalist pirate fleet would have nowhere to find supplies or conscripts. The evacuation began in 1661 with a zone three miles wide, increasing to ten miles the following year. Lines were drawn (soldiers stretched ropes to mark them), and the population living between the boundary lines and the shore were forced at spearpoint to abandon their homes and villages and move inland, carrying whatever of their possessions they could manage. Behind them, the farms were dug up and the fishing boats and villages burned, leaving nothing for the pirates to find on land except military camps.

The evacuation in the 1660s was horrific from a humanitarian standpoint: a forced relocation of millions of people, leading their farm animals on a slow exodus, carrying the elderly on their backs, into cities and inland regions where they had no land rights and no clear way to make a living. “There was wailing everywhere,” wrote an observer at the time. “The sight was too painful to watch.” But as a military strategy it succeeded. The pirate fleet, unable to obtain supplies on the Chinese coast, abandoned mainland China and sailed across the Taiwan Strait to conquer the Dutch colony that then existed on Formosa (modern-day Taiwan). The coastal evacuation order would be enforced in most areas for more than twenty years, which was how long it took for the Qing dynasty to build a navy sufficient to cross the strait and destroy the pirates on their new base. Once the pirate armada was defeated, the dynasty incorporated Taiwan into its empire and the millions of people who had been removed from the coast were finally allowed to return home.

That victory was so decisive and complete that China’s coast would enjoy a long era of peace afterward. Through the eighteenth century, the only real security issues China’s coastal communities faced were small-scale amateur pirates—poor fishermen, typically, who sailed up the coast to make trouble in the off-season when the winds wouldn’t allow them to go to sea. They hardly merited a centralized military response. In times of need, coastal communities raised their own funds to build watchtowers and guardhouses, and hired local police forces to protect their markets against the predations of bandits—local measures that, up to the early 1800s, were fully sufficient. By the time the new pirate confederation rebelled against the government, the dynasty had not needed an oceangoing navy for more than a hundred years and the ships it had built to conquer Taiwan had long ago rotted away.

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China Envy in Late 1700s

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 9-11:

There were good reasons why the East India Company did not do anything else that might put their little foothold in China at risk. In the eyes of Europeans in the late eighteenth century, the empire of the Qing dynasty was an unequaled vision of power, order, and prosperity. It had long been, as Adam Smith described it in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, “one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world.” Smith believed China to have been at a stable climax of development for eons—at least as far back as Marco Polo’s visit in the thirteenth century—which meant that although it did not have the capacity to develop any further (an advantage he reserved largely for Europe), it nevertheless showed no signs of retreating from its pinnacle of prosperity. “Though it may perhaps stand still,” he insisted, “[China] does not seem to go backwards.”

Enlightenment champions of reason saw in China the model of a moral and well-governed state that needed no church—a secular empire, founded on rational texts and ruled by scholars. “Confucius,” wrote Voltaire with admiration in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1765, “had no interest in falsehood; he did not pretend to be a prophet; he claimed no inspiration; he taught no new religion; he used no delusions.” In reading extracts from Confucius’s works, Voltaire concluded, “I have found in them nothing but the purest morality, without the slightest tinge of charlatanism.” The state that had been founded on those works was, he believed, the oldest and most enduring in the world. “There is no house in Europe,” he observed, “the antiquity of which is so well proved as that of the Empire of China.”

China’s political unity in the later eighteenth century was dazzling not just to British economists and French philosophers but to Americans as well, once they began to emerge as a nation of their own. In 1794, a U.S. citizen of Dutch descent, who had served as interpreter for an embassy from the Netherlands to China, dedicated the published account of his voyage to George Washington, celebrating in particular “the virtues which in your Excellency afford so striking a resemblance between Asia and America.” China was for him the standard by which Western countries could be measured: Washington was virtuous because he exhibited some of the qualities of a Qing dynasty emperor. The highest hope that the writer could muster for the future of his new nation was that Washington, in his “principles and sentiments,” might procure for the United States “a duration equal to the Chinese Empire.”

These were not just Western fantasies. China in the eighteenth century was not only the most populous and politically unified empire on earth, but also the most prosperous. The standard of living in its wealthy eastern and southern cities was easily a match for the companion regions of western Europe, as was life expectancy. To measure by the consumption of luxury goods such as sugar and tea, the quality of life in eastern China in the 1700s appears to have left Europe behind. At the same time, however, due to the Qing government’s tight strictures on foreign trade and residence, China was also seen from outside as impossibly guarded and remote, “the only civilised nation in the world,” as one British writer put it, “whose jealous laws forbid the intrusion of any other people.” The immense riches of the empire were—to the eternal frustration of westerners—always just out of reach.

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Latin American Industry in World War II

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle p. 332:

The Second World War turned out to be a watershed for Latin American industrialization. The worsening international situation had exacerbated the historic rivalry between the armed forces of Brazil and Argentina. Sensing the drift to war in Europe, the military establishments in both countries wanted to develop their own armaments industries instead of relying on imports. But the manufacture of arms required the setting-up of steel and electrical industries, and so from the 1940s the armed forces of Brazil and Argentina pressed their governments to develop an industrial base. Furthermore, as the outbreak of war created strong international demand for raw materials and foodstuffs, the Latin American export-economies boomed, and as wartime conditions abroad reduced the flow of imports, especially luxury goods, Latin American countries were able to build up large surpluses in their balance of payments: this enabled national debts to be paid off and led to the accumulation of domestic capital for investment in industrial projects.

The USA played a decisive part in fostering industrial development during these years. Needing Latin American raw materials for its war effort, it offered loans, technical expertise and equipment to assist the Latin American countries in their programmes of industrialization. During the early 1940s numerous US missions went to Latin America and signed trade agreements. The major republics duly declared war on the Axis powers and supplied the Allies with minerals and commodities. The notable exception was Argentina, where sympathy for Italy and Germany within the military junta caused it to adopt an awkward neutrality, for which it forfeited the kind of technical and financial assistance from the USA that Getúlio Vargas was getting for Brazil. The lack of US aid was an important cause of the economic difficulties which General Perón had to face in the post-war years and which contributed to his downfall in 1955. Still, even though the USA helped Latin American countries to initiate industrial development, the policy of industrialization as such was the late product of the nationalism that had evolved since the turn of the century, intensifying in the 1920s and 1930s.

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Argentina’s Boom Years

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 277-278:

With Buenos Aires at its head, the new Argentina was set upon the road to stability and modernization. In the course of the 1860s and 1870s, the liberal presidents Mitre, Sarmiento and Nicolaás Avellaneda created the institutions of a centralized nation state: a professional army, an integrated judicial system, a national bank, a system of public schooling, public libraries, an academy of science and other technical institutions. The railway and telegraphic communications began to link the hitherto fractious conservative provinces to Buenos Aires and, through it, to the world outside. The 1870s were also a time of expanding frontiers and absorption of massive new territories. Victory in the Paraguayan War (1865–70) yielded territory in the north and north-west. Then, in the south, General Julio Roca led another Desert Campaign (1879–80), which exterminated or reduced the nomadic Indians of the pampas, releasing vast acres for settlement and cultivation.

From 1880, the year in which Buenos Aires was constitutionally recognized as the federal capital of the nation, Argentina embarked on an astonishing rate of growth – sustaining an annual average of at least 5 per cent until 1914 – to become one of the richest nations in the world. The territorial acquisitions of the 1870s invigorated the economy, based as it was on cattle, sheep and, increasingly, cereals. As always in Argentina, there was a pressing need for labour, and now more so than ever – labour to work the land, to fence in and convert the barren pampas into wheatfields, and to lay the railway that would link up the provinces and turn the disparate regions into an integrated, modern nation. European immigration was therefore encouraged, and workers – mostly from Italy and Spain – flooded into this vast, empty country. In 1870 the population was less than 2 million; in the next fifty years approximately 3.5 million immigrants would come to Argentina.

The capital investment and technical expertise required for such a massive economic transformation were beyond the resources of a country that had been continually drained by military upheavals and whose economy had been based on rudimentary cattle-raising. Such resources were provided overwhelmingly by the British, who became the major customers for Argentine wheat and meat, the latter now available for export to Europe thanks to faster steamships and the introduction of frigoríficos (meat-chilling plants). A bilateral pattern of trade emerged: Argentina imported manufactured goods from Britain in exchange for her exports of foodstuffs for the British industrial working classes. However, British business also established a commanding position in the internal structure of the Argentine economy: British companies owned the railways, the telegraph, the new meat-processing plants and many of the banks and merchant houses operating in Buenos Aires; this made Argentina potentially vulnerable to external economic pressures, though it was not perceived to be a problem by any political force in the country at the time. A significant Anglo-Argentine community came into being, its upper echelons setting the social tone for the new plutocratic estanciero élite.

There were other structural imbalances. The opening up of the new territories after the ‘Conquest of the Desert’ did not lead to the emergence of a rural middle class of medium-sized farmers, as had occurred in the Midwest of the USA and as Argentine social reformers had advocated. The sheer volume of land was too great for the number of available purchasers; over-supply kept prices low until the end of the century and this cheap new land was snapped up by established landowners and merchants, who were able to expand their existing holdings. Impoverished European immigrants, on the other hand, could not initially afford substantial holdings; they started off as tenant farmers or sharecroppers in the hope of eventually purchasing their plots and extending their property, as in fact many of them did. Yet the pull of world demand for Argentine foodstuffs was such that agrarian export development encouraged ever greater concentration of resources, so that the pattern of distribution of new land in the end came to resemble the classic latifundia, the huge estates characteristic of the Hispanic seigneurial regimes established in America since the sixteenth century.

The immigrants filled jobs in industry and public works, and worked as seasonal labourers in the countryside, returning to live in the cities out of season. Wages in the country were generally good – good enough to attract the golondrinas, the ‘swallows’ who arrived from Italy and Spain for the harvest and then returned home. But most immigrants stayed and settled in the cities, especially Buenos Aires, where they suffered the vicissitudes of inflation and recession. Towards the end of the century, the market became over-supplied with labour and wages began to fall, exacerbating social tensions. Argentina’s transformation in the last quarter of the century thus resulted in a strangely skewed economic structure: the rural economy was in the hands of a relatively small creole élite of estancieros, the cities were inhabited by a large and growing proletariat, many of foreign extraction, while the booming export-economy was dominated by British financial and commercial interests.

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Brazil’s Path to Independence

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 229-230:

Brazil’s passage to independence, however, was not without its risks of political catastrophe. Though the attachment to monarchy was very strong, there had emerged here and there a considerable feeling for republicanism, as attested by the Inconfidência mineira of 1788–9 and intermittent republican revolts since. In the event of a sufficiently grave crisis of royal authority, these republican sympathies could have cohered to challenge the Catholic monarchy of Portugal. Such a possibility arose in 1820, when events in the Peninsula again placed the Crown in difficulties. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 Portugal had been ruled by a Regency Council in the absence of the king, but in late 1820 a series of revolts by liberals led to the establishment of a government committed to a constitutional monarchy. A Cortes was called in Lisbon to draw up a constitution modelled on the 1812 constitution of Cadiz, and the king was summoned to Portugal by the liberal government.

In Brazil there was extensive sympathy for the liberal revolution and John VI came to accept the principle of a constitutional monarchy, but he was torn as to whether or not he should return to Lisbon, fearing that he might lose Brazil if he did, or else Portugal if he did not. Finally, he decided to go back, but he left behind his son Dom Pedro as prince regent in Brazil. Thus the Portuguese monarchy put out an offshoot in its most important overseas colony in an attempt to span the political rift that was opening up between Brazil and the mother country.

That rift was to widen into an unbridgeable gulf once it became evident to the Brazilian delegates at the Lisbon Cortes that the peninsular liberals were determined to return Brazil to its colonial status prior to 1808. The liberal government proposed to cancel the political equality of Brazil with Portugal and the freedom of trade which the king had decreed for Brazil when he had first arrived in Rio. This the Brazilians would not countenance and, when the Lisbon government recalled the prince regent in October 1821, the Brazilians urged him to ignore the order. Perversely, Lisbon was pushing the mostly reluctant Brazilians towards some kind of separation, but it was still unclear what form this separation would take and how it might come about. At this juncture, in the final months of 1821, a political crisis arose which could have led to one of a number of outcomes – even to a republic, for which there was considerable support among radical liberals.

It was Dom Pedro’s chief minister, José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, a conservative monarchist who had spent over thirty years in the service of the Crown in Portugal, who steered Brazil towards independence. On 9 January Dom Pedro had declared that he would stay in Brazil, thereby asserting his autonomy from Lisbon. After his appointment a week later, José Bonifácio edged the country along an independent path, allowing indirect elections for a constituent assembly and disregarding orders from Lisbon. The final break with Portugal came when the Lisbon government tried once again to assert its authority over Brazil by recalling the prince regent. On 7 September 1822, on the banks of the River Ipiranga near São Paulo, Dom Pedro finally rejected Portugal and proclaimed the independence of Brazil.

After his famous Grito de Ipiranga the prince regent was crowned emperor and the former colony became a constitutional monarchy in its own right. Portuguese troops in various captaincies in the north and north-east put up violent resistance to independence, but by 1824 the whole territory had been won for Dom Pedro’s regime. In the following year Portugal, under pressure from Britain, recognized the independent state of Brazil; Britain also extended recognition, in return for a promise from Brazil to abolish the slave-trade and a commercial treaty which accorded imports from Britain a preferential tariff.

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Elite Unity of Portugal and Brazil

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 208-209:

It was generally recognized in Portugal that Brazil was the engine of the imperial economy. Though Portugal might have reversed her trade deficit with Britain, it was only because she was herself in chronic deficit with her largest colony. The imbalance, however, did not lead to political frustration in Brazil. The Portuguese had been conspicuously successful in creating a unitary sense of empire in which the colonial élites could strongly identify with the mother country. In contrast to Spanish America, there was no great resentment against peninsular Portuguese: there existed little by way of a separate Brazilian culture for the élite; the involvement of sugar planters in the export-economy made for a common interest with Portuguese merchants, slave-traders and royal officials; finally, the massive presence of Africans and mulattos reinforced the identification of white Brazilians with their European cousins (family ties were, indeed, close).

The political value of this unitary sense of empire was well understood by Portuguese statesmen. Pombal, for instance, was careful not to alienate the Brazilian élites by his reforms. Posts in the bureaucracy and in the newly founded militias were open to Brazilians; local oligarchies were allowed to invest in the monopoly companies; the introduction of new crops into hitherto unsettled areas and the general expansion and liberalization of trade were designed to favour American as much as European Portuguese. Even the expulsion of the Jesuits, who had always opposed the white settlers’ Indian slaving and occupation of native lands, met with Brazilian approval – the large, well-managed estates of the Jesuits, as well as the Indian labour released by the destruction of the missions, provided excellent economic opportunities for wealthy merchants and planters. Brazil was considered to be fully a part of Portugal, even though it happened to be situated on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; so much so, that the possibility of transferring the imperial court to Brazil in a time of peril had been mooted in Lisbon as early as the middle of the seventeenth century.

The American and French revolutions were to plunge all of Europe, Portugal included, into ideological and military turmoil.

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From Habsburg to Bourbon Spain

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 195-197:

The state of Spain was embodied in the weak and imbecilic Charles II, the last of the Habsburg line and a monarch incapable of male issue. Upon his death in 1700 there followed a war among the European powers to decide the Spanish succession. Philip of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV of France, eventually acceded to the throne of Spain, but his right to it was recognized by his enemies at the price of important concessions set out in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Flanders and the Italian dominions were lost to Austria and Savoy; Great Britain kept Gibraltar and Minorca, and was allowed the exclusive right to supply African slaves to the Spanish Indies, and to an annual shipload of merchandise for trade with the American colonies; Portugal retained her smuggling centre of Colônia do Sacramento on the east bank of the River Plate. These concessions to Britain and Portugal underscored Spain’s imperial debility, since they infringed, at least for a time, the monopoly of trade with the Indies, which she had done so much to defend. Spain’s sovereignty was now reduced to the Peninsula and her realms in America and the Philippines.

This curtailment of power, though humiliating, at least unburdened Spain of dynastic possessions in Italy and the Low Countries which had drained her over the past two centuries. The Treaty of Utrecht, in fact, forced Spain to relinquish the Habsburg concept of empire, based as it had been on an essentially medieval vision of a supranational constellation of kingdoms under a single sovereign pledged to the defence of Catholic integrity in Europe. The new dynasty of French Bourbons would rule Spain as a European nation state among others, and her still very substantial dominions overseas would be regarded as resources to be exploited economically so as to strengthen her position in the theatre of European power politics. Over the course of the new century, therefore, the Bourbons were to recast the aims and methods of Spanish imperial government.

The spirit of reform significantly altered the ideological basis of the Catholic monarchy, which the Habsburgs, having taken it over from Ferdinand and Isabella, had developed as the guiding principle of their imperial statecraft. The peculiarly Spanish symbiosis of Crown and Church, which endowed the Catholic monarchy with its monopoly of legitimacy, gave way under successive Bourbon kings to a more stringent absolutism of French regalist inspiration. According to this new doctrine of the divine right of kings, the monarch was invested with the authority to rule by God Himself; his power, therefore, was not limited in principle by religious and ethical sanctions upheld by the Church, and much less so by the more ancient, medieval sense of contract with or obligation to his subjects which was still latent in Spain and which had always been much closer to the surface among the conquistadors and their successors in the Indies.

The new regalism permitted the monarch to do what the Habsburgs had been restrained from doing by the force of religious counsel: it allowed the Crown to frame policies on pragmatic grounds of national self-interest. Impracticable chimeras upon which Catholic Spain had spent so much blood and treasure – the defence of orthodoxy against Dutch rebels and English schismatics, the crusade against the Turk, the protection of Indian rights in the New World – no longer needed to be pursued beyond reasonable limits, for the light of reason had to be allowed to filter through the blinds that kept Spain in her neo-medieval ‘darkness’. And yet, those blinds could not be removed altogether; the Catholic Church was too well entrenched in the state and society and, in any case, the Bourbons realized the value of the Church as both a pillar of the social order and a unifying factor in a far-flung empire.

The ideology of the Bourbon reformers has been aptly called the Catholic Enlightenment, for it was a cautious attempt to adjust to the scientific and rationalist spirit of the eighteenth century without disturbing the fundamentals of the Catholic faith.

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Evolution of Slavery in Brazil

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 172-173:

In practice, the royal legislation concerning the enslavement of Indians was ignored virtually in its entirety by the Portuguese in Brazil. The hunting of Indian slaves was to continue throughout the colonial period. However, the nature of slave-holding in Brazil underwent a slow but eventually decisive change after about the middle of the sixteenth century. Indians along the coast were becoming scarce: as hostilities between settlers and natives grew fiercer, tribes withdrew into the hinterland; at the same time diseases started to thin their ranks. The available labour force was drastically depleted, intensifying the competition between missionaries and planters for Indian manpower.

An obvious solution lay in the importation of African slaves to work on the Brazilian plantations. The Portuguese had been operating a slave-trade along the African coast for nearly a century, and they were splendid mariners, so there was therefore no impediment to extending the trade to the New World. Even though African slaves were more expensive than Indian, there were two distinct advantages to the owners: the Africans had the same immunities to viral infections as the Europeans, and they were reputed to be better suited to the kind of hard labour required on the plantations. The demand for labour in the burgeoning sugar industry of Brazil was to lead to an enormous expansion of the African slave-trade (and demand would grow a few decades later in the 1580s when planters in the islands and coastal areas of the Spanish Indies began to seek a replacement for vanishing Indian manpower).

How many slaves were imported into Brazil is not reliably known, and what figures there are remain in dispute, but it is clear that the numbers were very high. By the end of the sixteenth century there may well have been between 13,000 and 15,000 black slaves in Brazil, constituting some 70 per cent of the labour force on the plantations. The white population of Brazil in around 1585 has been estimated at 29,000. During the first half of the seventeenth century about 4,000 slaves a year were imported into Brazil; from about 1650 to 1680 this figure rose to about 8,000, after which it began to tail off. In the eighteenth century the volume of imports began to increase once more when the gold-mining industry pushed up overall demand – Bahia alone received some 5,000 to 8,000 slaves a year. In the north-east as a whole slaves made up about half the population – over two-thirds in the sugar-growing areas. So many were imported partly because the mortality rate of the black slave population was so high and because its rate of procreation fell consistently below the level of replacement – an index of the tremendous demoralization and physical strain that afflicted the slaves. Philip Curtin estimates that in the course of the seventeenth century Brazil took a 41.8 per cent share of the total number of slaves transported to America.

The arrival of Africans in such huge numbers was to add a new demographic dimension to the Portuguese colonies in the New World. Since such a great part of the population was non-white, race mixture soon produced, as in the Spanish Indies, very many people of intermediate ethnicity – mulattos or pardos (white-black), mamelucos or caboclos (white-Indian) and cafusos (Indian-black). Brazil would become an extremely colour-conscious society, and racial features were an important element in social ranking and cultural identification. The inescapable reality was that the sugar economy, as created in the middle of the sixteenth century, made slavery a founding fact of Brazilian society.

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Status Seekers in Spanish Colonies

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 135-136:

By the very nature of its foundation, Spanish American society was seigneurial and status-ridden, yet it lacked the means effectively to institutionalize differences in social status. The creole élites had to fall back on less well-defined symbols of status – landed wealth, racial purity and reputation. The standing conferred by landownership can be appreciated by the fact that merchants and mine-owners, once they became sufficiently wealthy, would invariably purchase a hacienda in order to acquire social prestige. This applied also to officials in Crown service. Yet, as we have seen, haciendas were not financially secure enterprises, and so whatever nobility a landed estate conferred could be lost through financial ruin.

A white skin was an indispensable qualification for nobility, for any taint of Indian or African blood would just as surely diminish a creole’s status as suspicion of Jewish ancestry compromised the nobility of a peninsular Spaniard’s lineage. Medieval Spanish concepts of ‘purity of blood’ were thus transferred to the Indies, but given new meaning in a markedly different racial environment: whiteness distinguished those who belonged to the race of the conquerors from the conquered or the enslaved. Hence the obsessive interest shown by American Spaniards in classifying and ranking the various permutations of race (see below). But even racial purity was an unreliable guide to social eminence, for by the late seventeenth century miscegenation had become so widespread that very few families of hacendados were totally free of mixed blood. Since whiteness was no longer a sufficient criterion of superiority, it had to be supplemented, or the lack of it compensated for, by other symbols of social quality – the most powerful of which was the pedigree or reputation of a family.

The surest source of reputation was mando, the power to command subordinates and bestow favours on clients: it was the closest a socially eminent creole could come to the condition of the European aristocrat who had rights of jurisdiction over vassals. Mando was necessarily more diffuse and could be exercised in different spheres. Thus, the higher clergy, the great mine-owners and the very wealthy transatlantic merchants possessed mando and could belong to the upper class. The hacienda, in a sense, was an accessory of mando, not its source; it was the theatre in which a man of authority, whatever the origins of his wealth, could represent to others the extent of this authority in the number of his dependants, clients, retainers, servants and workers. Because it lacked the true stamp of royal approval, nobility in the Indies was highly gestural and charismatic – a matter of striking the right attitudes through lavish acts of generosity, disinterested hospitality, conspicuous consumption or displays of gallantry and honour. Thus the ‘non-economic’ behaviour of the creole upper class – taking out a large mortgage for no other purpose than to endow a chapel, say – was no arbitrary indulgence, but a social performance whose object was to advertise social rank.

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Reshaping Catholicism in Spanish Colonies

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 101-102:

In summary, the Christianization of the American Indians was highly uneven. Difficult though it is to gauge the depth and quality of religious experience, the overall result of the heroic endeavours of these quite small bands of Spanish missionaries was a syncretism of Catholicism and Indian beliefs for large numbers of natives: beneath the externals of Catholic practice there often persisted an attachment to pagan rites and beliefs. Nevertheless, the balance between paganism and Christianity varied widely from one region to the next, and even between individuals no doubt. Sometimes pagan survivals might endure as little more than popular superstitions or dabblings in magic and sorcery, much as they did in remote parts of rural Spain or Ireland. In the Andes, on the other hand, the residue of pagan beliefs was far more evident and, in many secluded regions of America, pagan cultures survived virtually intact.

Still, there is no doubt that Catholic rites and devotions were observed in the vast majority of Indian settlements throughout the principal areas of Spanish rule. What is more, the sacramental character of Catholic belief, the cult of the Virgin and of the saints, the ritual of the Catholic liturgy, the opulence and splendour of religious architecture, art and music, undoubtedly appealed to the Indians and served to transmute pagan religious feeling into new Christian forms. A remarkable example of this is the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe among the Indians of Mexico. The church that commemorates the appearance of the Virgin to the Indian peasant Juan Diego in 1531 stands on the site of an Aztec shrine to the goddess Tonantzin, Mother of the Earth. Similarly, the practice of penitential self-flagellation among some Andean peoples may derive from kindred acts of expiation in their ancient religions.

The missionaries themselves evidently had reservations about the effectiveness of their campaign of evangelization. In Mexico, there were early attempts to train a native clergy, but these were abandoned by the 1560s, and, thereafter, Indians were deemed unfit for the priesthood. Despite some efforts by the authorities in Rome in the early seventeenth century to encourage the recruitment of Indians, the clergy of the Indies remained white until well into the eighteenth century. Mestizos were also excluded from holy orders, ostensibly because of their illegitimacy – though there was clearly an element of racial prejudice, for the situation did not improve even after a papal dispensation for illegitimate mestizos was granted in 1576.

The result was that the Church remained a Hispanic and colonial institution and, for all their dedication to the Indians and their defence of native rights against the settlers, the missionary orders never relinquished a tutelary and paternalistic attitude towards the native peoples.

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