Category Archives: Spain

Castaway Healers Without Borders, 1530s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 189-192:

As they traveled, the castaways continued to burnish their reputation as healers. Cabeza de Vaca in particular became more confident in his skills. He became bolder in his interventions; he was no longer content merely to pray and blow. The medical procedures he employed may go some way toward explaining his success. Not far from the Rio Nadadores, he treated a man who had been struck by an arrow below the shoulder. “I touched him and felt the point of the arrow, and I saw that it had passed through the cartilage,” Cabeza de Vaca writes with the precision of a surgeon, “and with a knife that I had, I opened his chest to that place. And I saw that the point had passed through and was very difficult to remove. I again cut deeper, and I inserted the knife point, and with great difficulty, at last I pulled it out. It was very long. And with a deer bone, plying my trade as a physician, I gave him two stitches, and after that he bled a great deal and with scraps of hide I stopped the bleeding.” After the surgery, the patient claimed that he no longer felt pain. The arrowhead was passed around throughout the land, and everyone was amazed by the miraculous cure that Cabeza de Vaca had bestowed. The travelers’ authority over the peoples of central Coahuila became great indeed.

They never traveled alone. Since crossing into northern Tamaulipas, they, and their string of indigenous hosts, had worked out a system that was part processional, part doctor’s visit, and part plunder. It must have been a marvel to behold. When the strangers arrived in each new Indian community, it set an elaborate series of rituals in motion. The natives would offer shelter, food, and gifts to the four men in exchange for access to their healing powers. Festivities would follow, sometimes for days. Then, reluctant to see the medicine men go, the Indian hosts would insist on traveling with them to the next settlement.

The four survivors had set ideas about where they wanted to go: first due south toward Pánuco, and then due west toward the metal-working peoples. They could not, however, simply dictate their route. Their Indian sponsors had their own notions and constantly tried to steer the drifters toward their friends and away from their enemies. The route actually taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions was often the result of complicated negotiations, and occasionally of deception. A native group by the Sierra de Pamoranes, for instance, tried to dissuade the four men from going inland by falsely claiming that there was neither food nor people in the direction the healers wished to travel. In that case the wanderers paid little attention and pursued their inland course. Yet in general they were not immune to such subtle manipulation, as they depended entirely upon their indigenous followers for information and knowledge about the terrain and geography of the region.

Each time the explorers approached the next indigenous settlement on their journey, a curious exchange would ensue. Those who had accompanied the medicine men would pillage the new hosts, entering their huts and plundering whatever possessions or food they could carry back to their own encampment. In return, they left the medicine men. A certain sense of reciprocity undergirded the entire transaction, yet the details were unsettling for the explorers. They were initially taken aback by this custom when they first witnessed it in northern Tamaulipas. They were distressed by how badly the new hosts were treated and feared that the widespread sacking would lead to serious altercations. Yet their fears turned out to be unfounded as the plundered Indians offered reassurance. “On seeing our sadness,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “[they] consoled us by saying that we should not be grieved by that because they were so content to have seen us that they considered that their possessions had been well employed, and that farther ahead they would be compensated by others who were very rich.” And indeed, a few days later the erstwhile victims would plunder the villagers that followed, “and the ones always sacked the others, and thus those who lost, like those who gained, were very content.”

Precise instructions about how to deal with the healers were also passed down from group to group. The hosts were told to lead the foreigners onward, always treating them “with great respect and being careful not to anger us in anything,” Cabeza de Vaca writes, “and to give us everything they had, and to take us where there were many people, and that wherever we arrived to steal and loot what the others had because such was the custom.” Soon the “new custom” became so entrenched and so well known that native villages on the way began to take precautions like hiding their most valuable possessions in advance of the procession’s arrival. Reverence and intimidation were closely intertwined. An approaching band bent on plunder could easily cower villagers into surrendering their possessions and venerating the four outsiders.

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Spaniards Discover Hurricanes

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 65-68:

Unbeknownst to the expeditioners, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, billowing clouds and localized thunderstorms began to clash and combine with each other, and this mass of clouds, rain, and wind started to rotate around a low-pressure center due to the earth’s spinning motion. In the course of two or three weeks the wind must have picked up steadily, until the system developed into a tropical storm and finally a hurricane. And it drifted toward Cuba.

The great majority of the Florida expeditioners had never experienced such a towering, rotating giant, shuffling erratically from place to place and smothering everything in its path. Because hurricanes require tropical heat and high humidity to form, they do not occur anywhere in the Mediterranean or the northeastern Atlantic. Columbus was the first to report one during his second voyage. European residents of Española and Cuba had some encounters with them in the early decades, adopting the Taíno word for them, hurakan, meaning “big wind.”

Cabeza de Vaca could not hide his astonishment:

At this time the sea and the storm began to swell so much that there was no less tempest in the town than at sea, because all the houses and churches blew down, and it was necessary for us to band together in groups of seven or eight men, our arms locked with one another, in order to save ourselves from being carried away by the wind. We were as fearful of being killed by walking under the trees as among the houses, since the storm was so great that even the trees, like the houses, fell. In this great storm and continual danger we walked all night without finding an area or place where we could be safe for even half an hour.

The following day, on Monday, Cabeza de Vaca and about thirty survivors of the expedition who had remained in Trinidad went to the shore to find out what had happened to the ships. There were only a few traces of them at the anchorage: some buoys but nothing more. Search parties moving along the coast found a rowboat atop a tree close to 1 mile away. At a distance of more than 25 miles, they recovered two bodies so bludgeoned that they were impossible to identify. They also found a cape and some blanket rags. All in all, that day the Florida expedition lost two ships, twenty horses, and sixty men to the strange ways of the New World. The God-fearing survivors could only interpret this violent storm as a divine warning, an unmistakable omen.

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Crossing the Atlantic in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 59-61:

The Florida expedition left the Spanish coast on June 17, 1527. The novelty of sea travel, the anticipation of life in another continent, and a natural curiosity for the vessels and their occupants would have made the eight- to ten-day journey to the Canary Islands bearable. Fleets headed for the New World normally stopped briefly at Gran Canaria or La Palma to restock with water, wood, live animals, and some other provisions.

An entire month of open-ocean sailing across the Atlantic began when the ships departed the Canaries. By now the passengers would have had a very good idea of the level of endurance needed for the journey. The most aggravating factor was overcrowding. By our modern standards, sixteenth-century ships were appallingly small, measuring around 20 yards in length by 5 yards across by 2.7 yards of depth. All told, there were between 1,615 and 2,153 square feet of habitable space—roughly the surface area of a good-sized apartment. Within the confines of this space, some 100 to 120 human beings commingled day and night for weeks, using the most rudimentary latrines, and with no privacy at all except in the rarest of cases. On average, each person on board had a suffocating 1.8 square yards to himself. The luggage made the limited space more unbearable still. Travelers brought a variety of chests, boxes, and personal effects that inevitably ended up scattered all over the deck, cluttering every nook and cranny. Fights sometimes erupted when someone moved a chest just a few inches, unavoidably encroaching on a neighbor’s area. Voyagers were also forced to share their precious space with numerous animals, some deliberately transported and others uninvited. Chicken coops abounded, and pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and horses were also included in these voyages. From a distance, the decks of some of these vessels must have looked like veritable floating farms. The uninvited guests were surely the worst, however—rats, fleas, and lice roamed freely through the ships and mingled with everyone on board, recognizing no distinctions of social rank.

Overcrowding affected every single facet of life. Food and drink, for instance, were made available in a centralized, regimented fashion to all but the privileged few. Ordinary travelers could expect three square meals consisting mostly of water, wine, and hardtack (unleavened bread), with occasional meat and soup dishes. Unfortunately, the large number of mouths to feed put a premium on expediency rather than quality or flavor. Passengers found many reasons to complain. They noted the murkiness and smelliness of water; wine, even the cheap and watered-down kind, was always far more popular. The hardtack was dependably dry, blackened, rancid, and often bitten by rats and covered with cobwebs. Neither did the passengers have much praise for the salty, leathery, half-cooked meats that only increased the pangs of thirst. Polite eating manners were out of the question. Two, four, or more individuals shared big platters that were placed on the floor since there were no tables. Everyone took food liberally with his or her hands and passed around knives as necessary (conditions were not necessarily much better on land, as spoons and forks were just becoming widely used in Europe, amid some skepticism. Objecting to the use of forks, one German preacher remarked that God “would not have given us fingers had he wanted us to use this instrument.”).

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Spanish Women Pioneers in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 52-55:

ALONGSIDE THESE THREE caballeros [including Cabeza de Vaca], a microcosm of Spanish society was to travel to Florida. The expedition must have included a full complement of letrados, physicians, merchants, artisans, sailors, all the way down to lowly peasants seeking a fresh start. Five Franciscan brothers were to introduce the Indians to the mysteries of the Catholic faith.

The Florida expedition included women as well. Women were a fixture of early voyages of discovery and settlement. According to one estimate, they comprised around 10 percent of all licenses issued to departing passengers from Seville during much of the sixteenth century. In certain years they accounted for as much as 20 percent and even close to 30 percent of all European migrants to the New World. The majority of these pioneering women were married to members of the expeditions, but unmarried women traveled too, including the daughters of families, female servants, and prostitutes.

The lure of the Americas was all too evident for those women interested in marriage. In Spain there was an overabundance of women due to male migration and early death from war. According to the ambassador of the Republic of Venice, in the 1520s Seville appeared to be “very nearly under the control of women,” many of whom earned their living in manly occupations like peonage, masonry, and roofing. The situation was the exact opposite in the Indies, where European women were notoriously scarce and greatly appreciated by affluent but lonesome conquistadors.

Not surprisingly, most women traveled to parts of the New World already settled by Europeans; they were far less likely to risk voyages of exploration and conquest headed for unknown lands. Some expedition captains refused to take females altogether. But Narváez was not among them. The first European women in Mexico had traveled with Narváez in the imposing armada that was to confront Cortés. In the Florida expedition there were ten women, all of whom were married and traveling with their husbands.

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Seville as Port City in the 1520s

From A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, 2007), Kindle pp. 39-41:

IN SIXTEENTH-CENTURY SPAIN, ALL NEW WORLD explorations originated in Seville, that marvel of a city-port on the Guadalquivir River. As Spain’s only port licensed to do business with the American colonies, Seville became a protagonist in the history of discovery, the starting and end point of all transatlantic voyages. As one contemporary so aptly put it, “Seville is the common homeland, the endless globe, the mother of orphans, and the cloak of sinners, where everything is a necessity and no one has it.” In the 1520s many sevillanos could still recall the stir caused by Columbus’s triumphant entrance in the spring of 1493. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea had paraded around town followed by ten natives and a few resilient parrots that he had brought from the newly discovered lands. The people of Seville had more recent memories of that cantankerous Portuguese commander, Ferdinand Magellan, who had departed in 1519 with five good ships. Three years later a lone vessel with tattered sails and twenty-one famished survivors pulled up into harbor after having circumnavigated the entire globe.

But far from being a backdrop or a silent witness, Seville was a beehive of activity, its workforce specializing in the procurement, outfitting, and manning of fleets bound for the New World, activities that drew men and women from all over Europe and North Africa. The main action centered on a stretch of beach that joined the left bank of the river to the city. Measuring 800 yards long and 350 yards wide, this area, commonly referred to as El Arenal (the Sandy Beach), functioned much like a surgeon’s operating table. On any given day, one could see dozens of ships crowding each other, all floating perpendicularly to the waterline to make the most of the work space. Many of these vessels were surrounded by swarms of carpenters, caulkers, riggers, stevedores, boatmen, pilots, accountants, royal officials, aspiring passengers, and the many other characters that populated this vibrant maritime community. Since the average lifespan of sixteenth-century ships that plied the transatlantic routes was a mere four years, repair crews were ubiquitous. Caulkers skillfully laid ships on one side by shifting the ballast and taking advantage of low tides to expose parts of the hull. They had a few frantic hours to scrub the bottom and add tarred oakum between the planks before the tide turned again. Loading a vessel required less skill but far more stamina. There were no piers or wharves at El Arenal, so the entire cargo—fifty, seventy, 120, or more tons—had to be taken by smaller boats and lifted up with ropes onto the deck, or carried on the backs of stevedores who staggered from shore to the ships over narrow planks.

It took about ten minutes to walk from El Arenal to the city center, where the imperial and ecclesiastical powers resided and expedition leaders wrestled with the overwhelming logistics of raising armadas. Human rivers flowed between the rowdy port scene and the august downtown through two main streets. The principal thoroughfare, a cobblestone street flanked by high stucco walls and wrought-iron grilles, began in the heart of El Arenal and ended at the steps of the Cathedral of Seville. Shipmasters recruited crew members and volunteers from these steps, and in the cool shade of the surrounding archways. Fittingly, the street was named La Calle de la Mar (“The Street of the Sea”), as it was here that crews bid their last farewells and caught their last glimpses of the city before boarding the ships.

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Mexico Before Its Revolution

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 21-23:

By the end of Díaz’s reign, Mexico had a population of fifteen million. The majority were mestizo—individuals of mixed blood—but one-third were of pure Indian stock. Chihuahua and Sonora, two of the northern states that lay along the U.S. border, were home to the Tarahumara and the Yaquis. The Cora, Huichol, and Tarascans lived along the Pacific coast and in the hills and valleys west of Mexico City. The Mazahua, Nahuatl, and Otomí had settled in the central highlands. The Gulf state of Veracruz was home to the Huastec and Totonac. The Zapotecs, Mixes, Zoque, Huave, and Mixtec, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Chontal, and Tzotzil lived in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And in the Yucatán peninsula, remnants of the ancient Maya had survived.

In 1521, Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlán, the great center of the Aztec civilization and the site of what was to become Mexico City. For the next three centuries, Mexico lived under Spain’s rule, which could be harsh, benign, or indifferent, depending upon the financial needs of the mother country and the temperament of the monarch who happened to be in power at the time. When Mexico finally gained its independence, in 1821, political chaos, internal revolts, and repeated clashes with foreign powers ensued. Texas was lost in 1836 to English-speaking colonizers who had been encouraged by Spain to settle the far reaches of its empire. A decade later, following a war with the United States, Mexico lost another huge chunk of territory to its hungry neighbor—millions of acres that one day would become New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Exhausted and humiliated, struggling under a huge debt load, Mexico found itself in 1863 once again under the yoke of a European power. This time it was France and Napoleon III, who installed Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The monarchy survived less than five years, defeated by an army led by Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian. Afterward, Maximilian was executed, Carlota went insane, the republic was restored, and Juárez was elected president. Juárez died of a heart attack in 1872, after winning a new term in office, and was succeeded by Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada. Four years later, Porfirio Díaz toppled Lerdo from power and began a thirty-year authoritarian regime known as the Porfiriato.

In order to bring Mexico into the twentieth century, Díaz had opened the doors of his country to foreign investors and through them came the Guggenheims, Hearsts, and Rockefellers, Standard Oil and Phelps Dodge, and hundreds of other, smaller land speculators, wildcatters, miners, ranchers, and farmers. The Americans built railroads and sank mine shafts, the Spaniards opened small retail shops, and the French established factories and banks. Vast cattle ranches emerged along the northern tier of states, and huge farms devoted to single crops such as sugar, cacao, coffee, and rubber were carved from the tropical lowlands. For his efforts, Díaz garnered admiration from industrialists, politicians, and even great literary figures, such as Leo Tolstoy.

His popularity was greatest in Mexico City, where wealthy foreigners and daughters and wives of native hacendados lived in walled compounds fragrant with roses, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. The melancholy cries of tamale women and scissors grinders dropped like birdsong into the somnolent quiet of late afternoons, and in the distant recesses of the lovely old homes, legions of cooks and nannies and cleaning girls worked soundlessly, faceless and nameless to the lady of the house. With its colonial languor and lingering Victorian mannerisms, Mexico City seemed like a metropolis enclosed in a shining glass bubble, drifting in its own time. Wearing Paris gowns, London-made tuxedos, or hand-sewn lace, the wealthy shuttled to luncheons and teas and dinner parties in horse-drawn carriages and chauffeur-driven cars. They went horseback riding in Chapultepec Park, organized group outings to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, and in the evenings flocked to the opera.

Pouring through their salon windows was a golden sunlight that made everything seem like a dream. So dreaming, the wealthy foreigners and their Mexican friends failed to see the horrors in their midst: the women crouching behind the waiting carriages picking undigested corn kernels from horse manure; the press gangs who snatched husbands and sons and young girls off the street, the men destined for the army and the women for gunpowder factories; the tubercular Indians who clogged the charity wards and were fodder for medical experiments; the political victims of the firing squads, who spun on their heels in the liquid light, the bullets turning them round and round until they collapsed in front of adobe walls stained dark with old blood.

The modernization and prosperity that Díaz had presided over caused grave dislocation among the country’s peasants, factory workers, and even Mexico’s elite ruling class. By the time the Mexican Revolution erupted, foreigners controlled most of the country’s vast natural resources, its railroads and businesses.

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Old Oregon No Man’s Land

From The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire, by Stephen Bown (Doubleday Canada, 2020), Kindle pp. 280-281:

The European colonial settlement of eastern North America had progressed quickly in the last decade of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia had mushroomed after the revolution, and farmland expanded to feed the influx of people and increasingly encroached on the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples. The British, anxious to maintain against the United States a legal claim to the Columbia River, the artery of the fur trade west of the Great Divide, proposed extending the 49th parallel west to the Columbia and then following the Columbia as the border to the sea. To the American negotiators who had their eye on the large, deep harbours of Puget Sound (the only viable harbours for large ships north of San Francisco) this was not ideal. But in 1818, weary from years of inconclusive conflict during the War of 1812, neither the British nor the Americans were willing to grapple over who would lay claim to the land on the far side of the Continental Divide. So they agreed to jointly “occupy” the region, deferring more complicated, and politically charged, questions to the future. (The terms of the Convention of 1818 were reaffirmed indefinitely in 1827, with the provision that either country could cancel the agreement with one year’s notice.)

In February 1819, the United States and Spain signed the Adams–Onis Treaty. In addition to selling the territory of Florida for $5 million, Spain also agreed to the northern boundary of California being set at the 42nd parallel and ceded any rights to the territory north of that to the United States. Russia, in two separate treaties—with the United States in 1824 and with Britain in 1825—bowed out of Old Oregon (but retained the right to trade in the region), agreeing to a southern boundary for Alaska roughly similar to the Canadian-American border today.

Old Oregon, now defined as the territory west of the Rocky Mountains, north of Spanish California and south of Russian Alaska, became a political no man’s land, jointly claimed on paper by Britain and the United States, and open to settlement and commercial development from either nation, although neither had any tangible presence there and they had neglected to inform the local inhabitants of their decision. Of course, the only commercial development was the fur trade, and the traders were more likely to follow the customs of their Indigenous hosts and customers than those of Londoners, Montrealers or New Yorkers. The vast territory remained unchanged for decades, until the 1830s, when the first wagon trains began rolling west along the Oregon Trail.

The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company faced other challenges east of the Rockies that proved to be more of a threat—their own internecine quarrels.

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Glaswegian Goodwill Tour in Tangier

From The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Penguin, 2015), Kindle pp. 62-64:

Tangier in 1956 was an extraordinary place, my first taste of Africa and the world of Islam. Morocco had been, until very recently, a French colony, but Tangier was under tripartite administration between the British (the post office), the French (police and law courts), and the Spanish (general administration).

There was a vigorous independence movement called Istiqlal, which rioted elsewhere, but the Tangerines are known for their civility and tolerance, so Tangier was spared the rioting, at least while we were there.

My parents played the tourist out of the El Minzah Hotel, but I could not, like them, retire to bed at ten p.m., so I would steal back out and explore the bars and dives of the port quarter. It was here I met the Marine Commandos.

There was a British warship moored in the outer harbor on what is called a “flying the flag” mission. The idea was to spread pro-British goodwill along the African coast. It was in a dockside bar that I came across a group of Marines who were having terrible trouble making themselves plain to the bar staff, who spoke only Moorish Arabic and Spanish.

I tried to help and was promptly press-ganged as unit interpreter by the senior sergeant. They were all from Glasgow, from, I believe, Gallowgate, or the Gorbals: about five feet tall and just as wide. The problem was not between English and Spanish. That was easy. It was between English and Glaswegian. I could not understand a word they said. Eventually a corporal was discovered whom I could decipher and the three-language enigma was solved. We moved from bar to bar as they spent their shore leave and accrued pay on pints of beer and triple-scotch chasers.

Another problem, and quite a big one on a goodwill mission, was that they tended to leave each bar looking as if a bomb had gone off. I solved this by suggesting a gratuity for the staff. Contrary to rumor, Glaswegians are not stingy. When I explained the Tangerines were dirt poor, the Marines chipped in generously. But I explained to the bar staff that the extra money was the house-repair budget. Smiles all around.

Each morning, I was decanted from a taxi outside the El Minzah at about five, just in time for a short nap before joining my parents for breakfast at eight. On the third day, the Royal Navy warship weighed anchor and cruised off, taking the commandos to continue their friendship-building mission somewhere else.

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Estrongo Nachama, Cantor for Berlin

From Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall, and the Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Iain MacGregor (Scribner, 2019), Kindle pp. 168-173:

Nachama had been born the son of a grain merchant in the northern Greek city of Salonika. His family’s Jewish ancestry was Sephardic—which meant they had fled from Spain toward the end of the fifteenth century as the diaspora then settled throughout the Mediterranean and in the Ottoman Empire. Nachama’s family line was academic and religious, with many of his ancestors important rabbinic and Talmudic scholars. After attending Jewish elementary school and a French gymnasium, and discovering what an extraordinary baritone voice he possessed, Estrongo Nachama joined the family business and became the cantor of the synagogue in Salonika.

By the beginning of 1941, Greece had repelled one invasion by Italy, but could do nothing to prevent the later German assault in April, which went on to conquer the country, occupy Athens, and then finally capture Crete. Nachama traveled with the retreating Greek forces as his home city of Salonika fell on April 9, and as with nearly all Jewish families who suddenly had new Nazi rulers, Nachama, his parents, and two sisters would eventually be rounded up and transported to a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in the spring of 1943. All but Nachama were gassed, and he would spend the next two years of living hell surviving on his wits, charm, and his extraordinary singing voice.

Prisoner 116155, as was tattooed on Nachama’s wrist, entertained the camp guards, inspired and revived his fellow prisoners with his unique and powerful baritone, his popular rendition of “ ’O Sole Mio” gaining him the nickname “the singer of Auschwitz.” As the Soviets advanced through Poland, the Jews at Auschwitz, including Nachama, were moved to camps in the west, such as Sachsenhausen. Heavy labor work and his irrepressible optimism seemingly gave him the mental and physical strength to survive the infamous “Death March” of prisoners of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In May 1945, with the war in Europe over, he was freed by nearby Red Army units from his captors, in a small Brandenburg town called Nauen. From there, he was drawn toward nearby Berlin, originally with the intent of catching a train back to Greece. But the march from Sachsenhausen had weakened him to the point he was stricken with typhoid, and only nursed back to health by a Christian Berlin family whom he befriended. At this point, by 1947, just as the Allies were slowly sliding into a Cold War, Nachama decided to put his roots down in the city. He had come to know the Jewish community of Berlin, whose leaders had learned of the young man’s extraordinary singing voice and offered him the position as the community’s cantor. He would soon meet his future wife, Lily, who had survived the Holocaust in hiding.

By the time of the Berlin Airlift in 1948, Nachama’s voice was being heard celebrating Sabbath over the RIAS airwaves in the American sector, with his fame soon spreading as the program was taken up by other German radio stations. Before long, it became known even among non-Jewish Berliners, as he became a regular part of US garrison life, administering worship to Jewish soldiers. Despite the ongoing tensions between the Soviets and East Germans on one side and the allied powers on the other, the Jewish cantor seemed to float between the two halves of the city pre-1961, primarily due to his Greek citizenship.

What was left of Berlin’s Jewish community was not divided as the city had now become. Though Jews worshiped in various synagogues across both East and West Berlin, there was still just one community. The workers’ uprising in East Berlin on June 17, 1953, changed all of that. With its brutal suppression by the Soviets, East Berlin became a harsher place to live, work, and worship, and subsequently there evolved an eastern and a western Jewish community. Estrongo Nachama quickly bestrode both camps, his Greek passport again enabling him to travel safely between the two, though he was primarily working for the western community.

When the Wall was erected suddenly on August 13, 1961, the family was in Italy, to holiday in Venice. They watched in horror on Italian television as the evening news brought pictures of the barriers going up, and the anguish of Berliners. Somehow, they managed to drive back to West Berlin through East Germany.

The Jewish community in East Berlin developed differently from the one in the west of the city. Those staying in the east were mainly old people, with the younger ones going over to the west. The eastern community was also smaller, as very few new members could actually get into that part of the city.

Cantor Nachama rarely performed services in East Berlin as this would have happened at the same time he would have been doing them in West Berlin. In East Berlin, he mainly administered funerals, not just for East Berlin Jews, but also for those from West Berlin who wanted to be buried back in the east, where their spouse’s or the family grave was. He also gave concerts, singing with the East Berlin Radio Choir and also the Magdeburger Dom Choir. He performed many memorial services for the victims of the Shoah, and the service was an old Berlin ritual he knew by heart. The funerals were two to three times a week, and he tried to arrange them so as to conduct two appointments in one trip, to save time. The guards never suspected him despite this level of traveling, as there were others who crossed the border more often. Professional musicians, for example, who worked in the orchestra in East Berlin, traveled every day, sometimes more than once. Surprisingly, Nachama never came on the radar of the Stasi, though he was aware that he could be observed. In his Stasi file, opened in the 1990s, it said: “Hasn’t got anything in his mind but singing.”

For his sixtieth birthday in 1978, RIAS had a half-hour program celebrating Estrongo’s life and the contribution he had made to Jewish life in the city. He was now chief cantor; he led the choir, and had even managed to have a walk-on part in the Oscar-winning musical Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York. The presenter of the RIAS program asked him why the community in West Berlin had six thousand members whereas the one in the east had only four hundred? How do you explain that there are so few and here so many? The question could have potentially caused him problems, as the authorities might have wondered, why did he need to travel to East Berlin so often then? But his reply was typical of the way he had survived the war; he brazened it out. “Well,” he said, “in East Berlin, I am only doing the funerals, in West Berlin, I am doing the prayer service.”

Cantor Estrongo Nachama died on January 13, 2000, aged eighty-one years old. He was still teaching music students the day before he died. His journey from war-torn Greece, to the concentration camps of the Nazis, to witnessing the start and the end of the Cold War, had made for a life full of optimism, compassion, religious tolerance, and love for his people. He was one of the key figures who rebuilt the Jewish community in the heart of Hitler’s Reich. “My father was pleased that by the end of 1989 the Jewish community was reunited,” remembered Andreas. “And travels to East Berlin were not restricted to Checkpoint Charlie anymore, and many routes could be taken. He enjoyed these practicalities. He certainly did not shed a tear for the old regime.” Many elderly German Jews who survived the Shoah decided to have their bones buried in Israel. But Cantor Nachama is buried in Berlin.

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The EIC Meets the Mughals, 1608

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 49-50:

On 28 August 1608, Captain William Hawkins, a bluff sea captain with the Third Voyage, anchored his ship, the Hector, off Surat, and so became the first commander of an EIC vessel to set foot on Indian soil.

India then had a population of 150 million – about a fifth of the world’s total – and was producing about a quarter of global manufacturing; indeed, in many ways it was the world’s industrial powerhouse and the world’s leader in manufactured textiles. Not for nothing are so many English words connected with weaving – chintz, calico, shawl, pyjamas, khaki, dungarees, cummerbund, taffetas – of Indian origin. It was certainly responsible for a much larger share of world trade than any comparable zone and the weight of its economic power even reached Mexico, whose textile manufacture suffered a crisis of ‘de-industrialisation’ due to Indian cloth imports. In comparison, England then had just 5 per cent of India’s population and was producing just under 3 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods. A good proportion of the profits on this found its way to the Mughal exchequer in Agra, making the Mughal Emperor, with an income of around £100 million [over £10,000 million today], by far the richest monarch in the world.

The Mughal capitals were the megacities of their day: ‘They are second to none either in Asia or in Europe,’ thought the Jesuit Fr Antonio Monserrate, ‘with regards either to size, population, or wealth. Their cities are crowded with merchants, who gather from all over Asia. There is no art or craft which is not practised there.’ Between 1586 and 1605, European silver flowed into the Mughal heartland at the astonishing rate of 18 metric tons a year, for as William Hawkins observed, ‘all nations bring coyne and carry away commodities for the same’. For their grubby contemporaries in the West, stumbling around in their codpieces, the silk-clad Mughals, dripping in jewels, were the living embodiment of wealth and power – a meaning that has remained impregnated in the word ‘mogul’ ever since.

By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had become used to easy military victories over the other peoples of the world. In the 1520s the Spanish had swept away the vast armies of the mighty Aztec Empire in a matter of months. In the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, the Dutch had recently begun to turn their cannons on the same rulers they had earlier traded with, slaughtering those islanders who rode out in canoes to greet them, burning down their cities and seizing their ports. On one island alone, Lontor, 800 inhabitants were enslaved and forcibly deported to work on new Dutch spice plantations in Java; forty-seven chiefs were tortured and executed.

But as Captain Hawkins soon realised, there was no question of any European nation attempting to do this with the Great Mughals, not least because the Mughals kept a staggering 4 million men under arms.

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