Category Archives: Spain

European Islets, Indigenous Sea, 1600s

From Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (The Lamar Series in Western History; Yale U. Press, 2019), Kindle pp. 46-47:

Seventeenth-century North America was a vast Indigenous ocean speckled with tiny European islands. The Spanish, English, and French newcomers claimed vast chunks of the continent through the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius (no one’s land), but such claims mattered little on the ground where the Indians controlled the balance of power. Through shrewd diplomacy, warfare, and sheer force of numbers, the Indians held the line. In 1700 French settlement remained tethered to the St. Lawrence and a small foothold on the mouth of the Mississippi, and the Spanish possessions amounted to two isolated clusters of missions in New Mexico and in Florida. English settlers were more numerous and assertive, but they too huddled on the margins, expanding up and down the coastal lowlands rather than inland. Conquistador fantasies stayed alive, but they were becoming increasingly detached from reality.

Yet, wherever they planted themselves, the colonists were a force to be reckoned with. Their fringe outposts were pockets of dense military-technological power that could shape developments far beyond their borders. The Europeans fought, dispossessed, and enslaved nearby Indians, whose ability to resist was severely compromised by disease epidemics. The more distant Indians in the interior required more subtle measures, for the colonists could not simply rely on pathogens to obliterate them. Numerous and fiercely independent, the interior Indians could be neither killed nor commanded; they needed to be cajoled and co-opted. The key instrument for achieving this was a frontier post. Europeans thought of trading posts and missions—military forts would come later—as means to claim and control faraway lands. Indeed, an inland post brought the frontier into existence and demarcated it by announcing that the lands around and behind it belonged to the people who had built it. Posts made empires.

Such ideas were laughable to the Indians, who thought that land belonged to those who lived on it and whose ancestors lay in it. They almost invariably welcomed trading posts and missions on their lands because they were concrete expressions of the newcomers’ largesse—both material and spiritual—and of their willingness to share their power. A trading post was particularly desired because it signaled a commitment to a particular people and its needs. This is why the Indians competed so fiercely to secure them. A single post could dramatically change their fortunes by opening access to the new technologies that had irrevocably changed the parameters of the possible. Reliable access to guns, powder, and iron was a promise of safety, prosperity, and otherworldly power, while lacking them spelled hurt, retreat, and shame.

At the turn of the century Sioux knew both sides of the equation. Since the 1650s they had seen how French trading posts proliferated in the western Great Lakes among their enemies, rendering them horribly vulnerable. An alliance with Sauteurs [Ojibwe] in the late 1670s punctured the imagined wall that cast them as outsiders. They had their own post from 1685 onward and, at last, a secure access to firearms. Guns gave military teeth to their overwhelming demographic strength, making them the epicenter of interior politics. French officials saw them as the last best hope to contain the Iroquois and save New France, and they worked hard to integrate them into their alliance system. For decades Sioux had grappled on the margins of the bustling Indian-European world of trade and alliance that had emerged in the east; now that world began to converge around them, bestowing them with substance and power. They now had options and, it seemed, time to weigh them.

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America’s Flatboat Era

From Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure, by Rinker Buck (Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2022), Kindle pp. 28-29:

Historic periods rarely begin at a single, defined moment, and the flatboat era’s antecedents dated back more than forty years. The reason, mostly, was war, and the American passion for cleansing desirable new lands of their indigenous peoples. During the French and Indian War and the Revolution, and then again during Mad Anthony Wayne’s Ohio campaign against the Shawnee and the Miami during the Northwest Indian War in the 1790s, agents dispatched by British and then American army quartermasters had sailed southwest on the Ohio and the Mississippi in flotillas of flat-bottomed barges or keelboats, to trade Monongahela flour and whiskey for imported gunpowder, muskets, and bayonets in New Orleans. The bustling munitions trade between the Americans and the Spanish authorities in Natchez and New Orleans during the Revolution set the tone for the next one hundred years, when wartime needs accelerated transportation improvements on the rivers. During the Revolution, Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana and Cuba, was openly pro-American and even led successful expeditions against British forts at Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola. His sponsorship of arms smuggling along the Mississippi is still regarded as a decisive contribution to the American cause, and after independence Gálvez was awarded honorary American citizenship.

The success of the arms supply routes along the Mississippi midwifed the new commercial era, opening the Ohio and Mississippi corridor to a fresh, ambitious cast of players. By the late 1790s, French trading firms, mostly backed by investors from Philadelphia, had taken over the old military routes and established a reliable network of shipping agents along the Monongahela, the Great Falls at Louisville, and at Natchez and New Orleans. During the same period, according to one historian’s estimate, more than nine hundred “settler” flatboats bearing pioneers for the Kentucky frontier cast off every year from western Pennsylvania. These rakish boats, measuring fifty or sixty feet long, were particularly colorful, loaded bow to stern with everything a family, or several families, needed to carve a homestead out of the Kentucky forests. A fenced area in the stern carried horses, cattle, pigs, and goats, and the settlers’ boats were often called “arks,” after the fabled vessel of Noah in the Book of Genesis. A log cabin for the family to sleep in was built mid-vessel, and planting seed and flintlock powder were stowed in watertight barrels on the deck. Pioneers with less money to spend simply threw up a crude canvas tent on the deck and roped their milk cow and horses to the sides. Children romped in play spaces between the tents. After 1788, when the federal government issued the first land warrants in the West for Revolutionary War veterans, more than five thousand veterans from Virginia alone, including Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, headed over the mountains with their families on these floating farms, plying the Indiana and Kentucky banks of the Ohio and its tributaries in search of likely homesites to clear.

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Different Markets for Cod

From Cod, by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 1998), pp. 104-105:

From the Middle Ages to the present, the most demanding cod market has always been the Mediterranean. These countries experienced a huge population growth in the nineteenth century: Spain’s population almost doubled, and Portugal’s more than doubled. Many ports grew into large urban centers, including Bilbao, Porto, Lisbon, Genoa, and Naples. Barcelona in 1900 had a population of almost one million people—most of them passionate bacalao consumers.

But North Americans did not succeed in this market. Though Newfoundland, Labrador, and Nova Scotia remained almost entirely dependent on fishing, there was little quality and they largely sold to Boston or the Caribbean. The one North American exception was the Gaspé, where a quality Gaspé cure was sold to the Mediterranean. Some 900 years after the Basques won the competitive edge over the Scandinavians by salting rather than just air-drying fish, the Scandinavians became competitive by perfecting salting. Norway and Denmark, which controlled Iceland and the Faroe Islands, moved aggressively into the top-quality Mediterranean markets and have remained.

Even today, with goods and people moving more freely than ever before, most salt cod eaters are attached to the traditional cure of their region. Modern Montreal is a city of both Caribbean and Mediterranean immigrants. At the Jean Talon market in the north of the city, stores feature badly split, small dried salt cods from Nova Scotia and huge, well-prepared salt cod from the Gaspé. The Caribbeans consistently buy the Nova Scotian, while the Gaspé is sold to Portuguese and Italians.

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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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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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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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American Elites vs. Masses under Spanish Rule

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 85-87:

In the course of the Spanish Conquest and the decades immediately following it, the imperial structures of the Aztecs and the Incas were destroyed, their royal families and imperial nobility deprived of their power. It was this native ruling aristocracy which had most reason to lament the passing of the old order, and the expressions of their nostalgia and sorrow have come down to us in writings which have all too often been taken as representative of the generality of Indians.

Once the Spaniards had got the upper hand, the Indian aristocracy faced the choice of either collaborating with their conquerors or organizing rebellions in order to recover their former power. As we have seen, the young prince Manco Inca in Peru at first chose collaboration in the hope of outmanœuvring dynastic rivals for the imperial title, but later decided to rebel against the Spaniards once he realized that the conquistadors had no intention of quitting the country. Even in later generations it was possible for aristocratic collaborators to change their minds and attempt to rebel against Spanish power. This type of resistance was élitist and dynastic, having little to do with the defence of the mass of Indians. But dispossession was not, in fact, the fate of the Aztec and Inca nobles; so long as they accepted Spanish sovereignty, they were allowed to retain their aristocratic status in post-Conquest society: they were awarded lands and encomiendas by the Spanish monarch, and their children were educated in schools for nobles, such as the college at Tlatelolco in Mexico and those of Huancayo and Cuzco in Peru.

There were Indian kingdoms which actually formed alliances with the Spanish invaders against their historic enemies. In Mexico the most famous example is that of the Tlaxcalans, who attacked Tenochtitlán and helped Cortés raze the city to the ground; in Peru the support of the Huanca people was crucial to Pizarro’s defeat of the Incas. ‘Such alliances expressed the internal contradictions and discontents that plagued Aztec and Inca rule, and the failure of these empires to eradicate the independent military potential of resentful ethnic kingdoms.’ Even after the Spanish Conquest had been completed, numerous ethnic kingdoms and tribes decided to collaborate with the new masters in order to seek advantage against rivals, regain lost territory or rid themselves of domination by hated enemies. The crumbling of the pre-Hispanic empires had the effect, therefore, of devolving identity and autonomy to subjugated ethnic kingdoms, and of revitalizing the authority of ethnic chieftains. It was this class of chiefs, called pipiltin in Mexico and curacas in Peru, that dealt with the Spaniards and organized their own people to offer tribute and labour services to the Spanish encomenderos.

Within these Indian kingdoms and communities, traditional life went on much as before, and, having accepted the new masters, it made sense also to accept their religion. Even so, relations with the Spaniards were unstable in the aftermath of the Conquest. If a kingdom or tribe came to believe that its interests were no longer being served by alliance with the Spaniards, it might attempt to resist them or even rebel. In Peru during the 1560s the most radical of these rebellions was that of the millenarian movement called Taki Onqoy in the region of Huamanga, where many tribes previously loyal to the Spaniards turned against them in reaction to excessive labour demands, and called for the outright rejection of Spanish law and religion, appealing to their gods to help them expel the invaders.

Yet even though the basic structures of Indian life at the communal and tribal levels remained largely unchanged by the Conquest, none the less many villages, crops and individual lives were destroyed in the course of the wars (in Peru, it must be remembered, a bitter civil war had been raging for several years before the Spaniards arrived). There is no doubt that large numbers of Indians suffered torture and rape at the hands of the conquistadors. Labour for the encomenderos must often, though not always, have been harsh and exploitative, since many Spaniards were not interested in settling down but simply wanted to extract as much wealth as possible from the Indies before returning to Spain. The Conquest also disrupted communities; many Indians took to wandering the countryside as vagabonds or fled the Spaniards to hide in the wilderness. This kind of dislocation was particularly common in Peru, where the mitmaq system, based on ‘vertical archipelagos’ or outlying colonies, partially broke down, leaving many colonists cut off from their tribal homelands. One option for such displaced individuals was to enter the service of Spaniards as part of that class of commoner called naborías in Mexico and yanaconas in Peru – detribalized Indians who used to serve as personal retainers to the Aztec and Inca aristocracies and whom the Spaniards also employed.

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Origins of Portugal’s Empire

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 70-72:

Portugal’s experience of the Reconquest and her Iberian cultural heritage made her share many characteristics with her neighbour Castile, their cognate histories frequently crossing and overlapping with each other. As in the case of Castile, the centuries of fighting against the Muslims produced a society in which religion had a crusading quality and was closely associated with the national identity. The system of land tenure was similar to Castile’s: in the fertile, well-populated north, there were a large number of smallholders and tenant farmers; in the south the latifundium and a seigneurial regime predominated.

The Portuguese were not particularly given to seafaring. Though fishing was significant, most of the population were actually peasants who worked the land. Still, Portuguese society was motivated by aristocratic and military values, and, with its reconquest concluded some two centuries before Castile’s, Portugal’s quest for glory and riches was carried abroad to North Africa and into the Atlantic, where the spirit of adventure of a small minority was to lead to remarkable feats of maritime exploration and empire-building. Exploits overseas, however, went hand in hand with commerce, stimulated by the presence of considerable numbers of Genoese merchants and mariners who had settled along the coast, and especially in Lisbon, which was by far the most populous city.

The Portuguese monarchy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was constantly under threat from ambitious nobles, from a powerful Church, and, not least, from dynastic quarrels in which the hand of Castile was invariably suspected, and with good reason. Relations with Spain would remain ambivalent: the larger neighbour exerted a very powerful influence on culture as well as politics, but there would always exist forces of repulsion, and Portuguese foreign policy was chiefly concerned with maintaining national independence from Castile. Portugal’s long association with England – starting as a trading relationship in the twelfth century and periodically formalized by a series of treaties – stemmed from the need for a strong ally to counterbalance the perennial threat of incorporation by Spain.

A turning-point came in 1385 at the battle of Aljubarrota, when a new king, John of Aviz, nominated by the Portuguese Cortes and aided by English allies, won a victory against Castile and the Portuguese nobles. The long reign of John I (1385–1433) saw the development of a powerful monarchy capable of creating a stable nation state largely free from baronial challenges and galvanized by a renewal of the crusading spirit, though this was now directed towards Africa: the imperial phase of Portuguese history began with the taking of Ceuta in 1415. A few years later, John’s son, Prince Henry the Navigator, established a school of navigation at Sagres on the Algarve and became the patron of the voyages of exploration that would continue long after his death in 1460 and would eventually open Africa, India and the East to the Europeans.

The death of John I was followed by an interlude of aristocratic revolt and dynastic civil wars, the latter overlapping with the wars of succession which put Isabella on the Castilian throne. In Portugal, John II (1481–95) finally imposed order and proceeded, by a combination of murders and executions, to break the power of the nobility and confiscate much of its wealth. It was John II who finally created in Portugal an absolutist nation state resembling the Catholic monarchy of Spain, with the Church playing a crucial role in giving a monopoly of legitimacy to the unifying authority of the Crown.

For eighty years after John’s death, Portugal’s Catholic monarchy supervised the building of one of the most far-flung empires ever to have been created by Europeans: in 1487 the Cape of Good Hope was rounded by Bartholomew Dias; by 1498 Vasco da Gama had reached India; the year 1500 saw another Portuguese expedition discover a land that would eventually become Brazil; in the course of the sixteenth century the Portuguese established bases and factories in Ceylon, Malacca and the Spice Islands of the Indonesian archipelago; by the 1570s they had won a monopoly of the lucrative trade between China and Japan from a base established at Macao on the Chinese mainland in 1557.

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Similarities of Native American and Iberian Empires

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 75-76:

What occurred in the sixteenth century was not so much the discovery of a New World as the meeting of two branches of humanity which had previously been unknown to each other. For the Indians of America, who had lived a completely isolated existence, the encounter with aliens was inherently traumatic. The European invasions brought much that was radically new in the realm of ideas and values, in agricultural methods, including new crops and animals, in technology, with the introduction of the wheel, iron, guns, ships, tools, and in the economy, where the use of money, profit-making and trade were far more developed than in Indian societies. All these innovations would change and also disrupt the Indian world.

Even so, in the imperial areas of Middle America and the Andes the break with tradition was not total. In the first place, Indians and Iberians had comparable ideas of political sovereignty: the Catholic monarchs of the Iberian kingdoms derived their legitimacy and absolute authority from a divine source, as did the rulers of the Aztecs and the Incas. In both the European and the Amerindian imperial states the religious establishment was closely involved in the business of government; a priestly caste or a Church hierarchy buttressed the state and received numerous privileges, land and tribute from the people. Both kinds of society were seigneurial: Indian nobles, like their Iberian counterparts, owned large estates worked by tribute-paying peasants; they also headed large households composed of extended families or kinship groups, as well as numerous dependants and servants. Relations within these households and between noble clans replicated the reciprocal relationship between the monarch and his people, based as it was on patriarchy and patronage – a man of power would bestow favours in return for the loyalty of his clients and subordinates. Aristocrats valued honour and glory derived from military exploits, for in America as in Iberia there was long experience of conquering and subjugating alien kingdoms. Indeed, James Lockhart and Stuart Schwartz have remarked on the extent to which the expectations of indigenous Americans ‘matched those of the Iberians, whose conquest lore also included notions of tribute imposition, change of religion and allegiance, and manipulation of local rulers, together with at least provisional local autonomy.’

These two worlds – Renaissance Europe and Indian America – met and clashed in the sixteenth century. The consequences of that encounter were manifold and extremely diverse, and, for reasons not wholly attributable to the Iberians, they were destructive for large numbers of Indians. Nevertheless, it has become clear that there existed sufficient political and social similarities between the two worlds, at least in Middle America and in the central Andes, for there to have occurred a fairly rapid process of restructuring and hybridization after the conquest had been completed.

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