Category Archives: religion

Hirohito’s War Information Sources

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 81-82, 108:

At home in Japan, the defeat at Midway only sank in slowly, partly because of reluctance to lose face, and partly because of continued problems with communication and cooperation among the different services. “I did not hear of the Midway defeat till more than a month after it occurred,” Prime Minister Tōjō said after the war. Hirohito, by contrast, was informed immediately about the disastrous defeat, including the loss of the four aircraft carriers. With access to more unbiased information than perhaps any other person in his empire, he was the only one to receive reports from the chiefs of staff of both the Army and the Navy, whereas the services were usually careful not to volunteer information to each other. This placed Hirohito in his own private tragedy: fully aware of how desperate the situation was becoming, but unable to do much about it.

On December 12, Emperor Hirohito went to the Grand Shrine at Ise, a city west of Tokyo. It was one of the holiest places for the official Shintō religion, and a suitable venue for the ruler to consider the position of the nation that saw him not just as a leader but a god, and had already sustained terrible sacrifices in his name. Performing rites going back many generations, he was now staring down into an abyss darker than any of his ancestors ever had to contemplate. The night before, he had spoken with complete candor to his military aide-de-camp, Colonel Ogata Kenichi. The emperor had recounted the numerous battles that had consumed Japan for more than a decade, beginning in Manchuria, then in the rest of China and now all of the Pacific. “It is easy to start a war but hard to end it,” the dejected ruler had said.

The fall months, filled with interminable and increasingly hopeless fighting in the deep south far from Japan’s own shores, had seen Hirohito subtly change his mind about the war. The setback on the Kokoda Trail had come as a particular shock. “From the time our line along the Stanley Mountain Range in New Guinea was penetrated, I was anxious for peace, but we had a treaty with Germany against concluding a separate peace, and we could not violate an international commitment. This was the dilemma that tormented me,” Hirohito told close collaborators after the war. Even small victories could not lighten his mood. After the Santa Cruz battle, in which his warriors had sunk the Hornet, he had congratulated them in a statement, which, however, also carried a cautionary note: “We believe the war situation is critical. Officers and men, exert yourselves to even greater efforts.”

The start of the year 1942 had seen the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy in triumphant mode. As the months passed, it had begun to take on the form of an annus horribilis. However, as his view of the war turned bleaker, Hirohito decided to up the ante. Gamblers come in two categories. There are those who decide to cut their losses when their fortunes fail them, and then there are others who raise the stakes. The Japanese ruler belonged to the latter type. On the last day of the year he met with his senior commanders and agreed that the Guadalcanal operation must be called off. Instead, greater emphasis would be placed on New Guinea. Hirohito was hoping for, if not actively seeking, a big all-or-nothing battle with the Americans that could shock them, and their casualty-averse public, into agreeing to a negotiated end of the war. The year 1943 would put that notion to the test.

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Origins of the Santa Fe Railroad

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 83-85:

It no longer needed a visionary. It needed moneymen from the great capital centers of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

Of the three, Boston was the most railroad minded. It had been the nation’s first major hub, with any number of lines running in and out of the city. For a small city on a stub of a peninsula, Boston was surprisingly worldly. The first great Boston fortunes were made in the China trade, then amplified by investments in the textile mills of early industrialization, only to be compounded by provident marriages to the daughters of other wealthy Bostonians. The investors were referred to as the Boston Crowd because of this interbreeding. They were mostly drawn from that class of Bostonians—Brahmins was the derisive term—whose members were, in the main, Harvard-educated Episcopalians, with the occasional Unitarian thrown in, who lived for their clubs and thought of themselves as existing on a social plane only slightly down from God. They were like honeybees in a hive—industrious but interchangeable.

From this esteemed collective about the only one to emerge with a distinctive personality was Thomas Jefferson Coolidge—and he on the strength of a surprisingly frolicsome memoir he had privately printed, the copies limited to just forty-eight—who served as the Santa Fe president for a year starting in 1880. Coolidge took his middle name from the American president, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, but his lineage could be traced back to a Coolidge who settled in Watertown, just downriver from Boston proper, in 1630.

Coolidge grew up in Canton, China, where his father was a partner in a Boston trading firm that dealt tea and opium in the China Trade. After Harvard, he married the daughter of William Appleton, clipper ship owner, European trader, president of Boston’s Second National Bank, congressman, president of the Massachusetts Hospital, and one of the richest men in the city.

Coolidge served as the ambassador to France, and on any number of important national commissions, but he prized above all else his membership in The Friday Club, which, he noted, had once blackballed the eminent Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the Supreme Court Justice, for fear he would dominate the conversation. His memoir is rich in frivolity—meeting the actress Fanny Kemble at a monastery in the Alps, touring the Caribbean aboard his eighty-foot yacht, riding a donkey to the temple of Ramses in Egypt.

In recounting his life, Coolidge mentioned his yearlong presidency of the Santa Fe railroad only in passing. In October of 1878, he wrote, he took his son and namesake for an extensive tour of the West that covered almost ten thousand miles, particularly enjoying the Colorado portion aboard the Santa Fe Railroad with one William Barstow Strong. Coolidge did not mention that he was a director of the company at the time. When he returned to the West two years later, he noted that he again boarded a Santa Fe train, but this time stepped off at Topeka, where “I was elected president of the Atchison Railroad at the annual meeting.”

Six sentences later, he was done with it. “I resigned as soon as I could,” he wrote. “I think in about a year and a half.” He failed to mention that on assuming the presidency, he had purchased $700,000 worth of the company. The point being, he presided over the Santa Fe only as an investor. The moment the investment seemed unpromising, he sold it and got out.

None of the Boston Crowd served as presidents for more than a few years. But this was the way of the modern corporation as they came to define it. They were not managers, but investors, and that inclined them toward caution in a business that demanded daring.

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First Englishman in Lhasa

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 146-147:

Manning was the first Englishman ever to lay eyes on the city (and the last for the remainder of the nineteenth century). His only European predecessors were a pair of Catholic missionaries who had reached the city two hundred years earlier. From a distance, at least, it was the Shangri-La of fables. The grand Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama lived loomed high and white on a hill above the city, visible from miles off, more magnificent in appearance than he had even imagined it could be. But some of the magic was lost on approach. A ceremonial gate they passed through on the road to the city had gilt decorations that caught the sun from afar, but up close the ornaments seemed imbalanced and off-kilter to Manning, reminding him of “pastry work” or “gingerbread architecture.” The blindingly white palace itself was like a hive, swarming with monks in gorgeous robes of deep maroon, but the city below it was poor and rough. The houses were “begrimed with smut and dirt.” Wild dogs with mangy and ulcerated skin ran freely in the streets, growling and digging about for food. In spite of himself, Manning sensed a deep strangeness to the place, an unreality. “Even the mirth and laughter of the inhabitants I thought dreamy and ghostly,” he recalled. “The dreaminess no doubt was in my mind, but I never could get rid of the idea.”

On the advice of his munshi [secretary and translator], Manning pretended to be a Buddhist lama from India, one who happened to be versed in medicine. He hid the fact that he could speak or read Chinese, since it would make the presence of an interpreter suspicious. He also hid that he could speak English, so the two of them only communicated openly in Latin (in which both were fluent, it being the confluence of Manning’s Cambridge education and the munshi’s childhood training by a Roman Catholic missionary). This led to a long chain of interpretation when Manning spoke to Tibetans: someone would first have to translate from Tibetan into Chinese, then Manning’s munshi would translate the Chinese into Latin for him, and he would have to respond in Latin, back along the chain. To avoid standing out—and because he decided he liked it—he performed the kowtow before Chinese and Manchu officials whenever he was asked (a lesser version than that reserved for the emperor, touching the head to the ground three times rather than nine). In fact, he said, he found it so restful to kneel down to the ground after all the walking he had to do that he tried to kowtow as much as possible—including in front of high-ranking Tibetans (which offended his munshi, who said no Chinese would ever do that).

Manning was granted an audience with the Dalai Lama on December 17, 1811. To get to it, he had to climb up hundreds of steps carved into the side of the mountain on which the Potala Palace was built, steps that gave way in time to ladders on which he continued climbing up through the nine floors of the palace, its air rich with the smoke of incense and yak-butter lamps, to reach the high roof with its breathtaking view over the city and the broad, vast plain to the deep blue-white mountains in the distance. A monk escorted him into a smooth-floored reception hall built onto the roof, walls hung with tapestries and its ceiling held up by high, strong pillars. Sunshine streamed down through a skylight. In the middle of the hall, on a throne supported by carved lions, he found a young boy in maroon robes and a pointed saffron hood who appeared to be about seven years old (he had, in fact, just turned six). Manning knelt down before the Dalai Lama and performed the kowtow.

Manning still had his beard, but he had shaved the top of his head in preparation for the audience, so that the boy could lay hands on him. The normally impish Englishman was quieted in the lama’s presence. “His face was, I thought, poetically and effectingly beautiful,” wrote Manning. “He was of a gay and cheerful disposition; his beautiful mouth perpetually unbending into a graceful smile, which illuminated his whole countenance. Sometimes, particularly when he had looked at me, his smile almost approached to a gentle laugh.” They made polite small talk. The Dalai Lama asked about his journey. Manning asked for Tibetan Buddhist books, and asked if someone who spoke Chinese could teach him their contents, though he was gently rebuffed. It wasn’t the conversation that mattered, though, but simply the fact of being in the Dalai Lama’s presence. Unlike Macartney’s audience with Qianlong, there was no power relationship in play, no hidden challenge, no posturing. Just curiosity. And friendliness. All of Manning’s playful cynicism vanished. “I could have wept through strangeness of sensation,” he wrote afterward. “I was absorbed in reflections when I got home.”

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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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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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The Inca Vertical Archipelago

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 48-49, 50-51:

In less than a hundred years the Incas had built the most formidable empire in the Western Hemisphere. Like that of the Aztecs, their dominion was characterized essentially by the levying of tribute from scores of subject kingdoms and tribes. But the Incas went much further than the Aztecs in developing a centralized bureaucratic state at the service of a supreme ruling class. In this the physical peculiarities of the Andean region were directly influential.

The geography of the area covered by the Inca empire is marked by great contrasts of climate and terrain. Ascending from the rainless deserts of the coast to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, one passes through sharply varying ecological environments. On the coast, agriculture is possible only in the vicinity of rivers or on land under irrigation; fishing has therefore always been important. In the highlands, altitude determines the kind of crops that can be produced; for instance, maize will grow well up to 11,000 feet, while at higher levels tubers and grains can be cultivated. In the cold, windswept puna – steppe-like grasslands just below the snow-line – no agriculture is possible, though pasture is available for the llamas, vicuñas and other ruminants that provide meat and wool. Each level forms an ‘ecological tier’ yielding a particular range of produce, and yet there is not enough fertile land on any one tier to sustain a large population. Over the centuries Andean societies developed a way of overcoming this problem by sending out settlers to cultivate crops at different altitudes in order to complement the produce of their native territories. Andean societies were not therefore territorially integrated units, but took rather the form of ‘vertical archipelagos’ comprising the ancestral homeland – which provided the core of tribal identity – and outlying agrarian settlements on a number of ecological tiers specializing in various types of produce for distribution and exchange among the dispersed branches of the tribe. Geography thus produced a unique economic structure, which, in turn, determined social values and practices. Where fertile land, being scarce, needed to be so carefully husbanded, it is little wonder that its distribution had to be closely regulated by the community and that a spirit of co-operation should be so highly prized among members of the tribe. As a result, the two ruling principles of Andean tribal society were redistribution and reciprocity.

As a direct descendant of the Sun God, the supreme Inca was an absolute ruler possessed of an awesome majesty. Just as the sun sustained all living things in the natural world, so the Inca was responsible for the well-being of the social order. In return for his dispensation of justice, his subjects would offer up to him their tribute and labour services. The Inca state, in effect, drew upon elementary tribal relations of reciprocity and mutual aid, and converted them into a sophisticated system of ideological control based upon a relationship between the royal patron and his clients which was not essentially different from that which existed between a contemporary European monarch and his subjects. What many modern writers have seen as unique ‘socialist’ or ‘welfare state’ features of the Inca empire were in reality manifestations of royal patronage. Thus, for instance, the Inca would allow his peasants to graze their animals on common lands as a reward for their labour services on his personal estates. The bulk of the tribute-goods collected from the peasants would go towards provisioning the army, the bureaucracy and other branches of the imperial state, but a portion was kept back in storehouses and released in times of famine by the generosity of the Inca in order to relieve the hunger of the masses. Similarly, the Inca would redistribute some of the tribute to provide for the old and the sick. In the view of Nathan Wachtel, ‘the peasants felt therefore that they shared in the consumption of the produce they delivered as tribute’, though it may be as well to recall that this form of reciprocity rested on the ideological exploitation of peasant labour. Certainly, there was a sharp divide between the hard grind of a peasant’s life in the villages and the leisured circumstances of the Inca nobility and of the curacas (tribal lords) who had been co-opted into the imperial ruling class. These aristocrats – called orejones or ‘big ears’ by the Spaniards because of their custom of distending their ear-lobes with gold discs – possessed private estates and material wealth which they would display as a sign of their power. In addition to the finery of their costume and the delicacy of their diet, they were allowed to practise polygamy and concubinage, and to chew the narcotic coca leaf. These special liberties were strictly forbidden to commoners, for, like all aristocratic societies, the Incas were obsessed with status, and perhaps more than most, the Incas succeeded in using religion to justify social privilege.

Inca religion was very much a family affair, since the supreme Inca and his kin possessed the sacred aura of divine descent. This was another example of the Incas’ conversion of tribal customs into the tools of imperialism.

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Aztec Religious Imperialism

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 44-45:

The basis of Aztec dominion was the levying of tribute in the form of goods and labour from tribes defeated in battle. Territory was also expropriated and distributed as private estates to deserving Aztec nobles. To maintain their hegemony, the Aztecs planted colonies in conquered lands and supported these with Aztec garrisons. Tribute-collectors would bring back an abundance of goods to Tenochtitlán, not just staples such as maize or beans but also luxuries and trappings of status that the Aztec aristocracy craved – objects of jade and gold, precious stones, quetzal feathers and jaguar skins. Indeed, Aztec conquests were motivated as much by religious and cultural factors as by purely economic needs. Defeated tribes were forced to add the Aztec deities to their pantheon and to adopt the Nahuatl tongue. A major reason for waging war was the taking of prisoners to be sacrificed upon the altars of the great pyramid at Tenochtitlán. The Aztec gods stimulated belligerence by their unceasing demand for human blood, and it is possible that the purpose of the continual ‘wars of flowers’ against the neighbouring Tlaxcalans was to ensure a steady supply of sacrificial victims rather than conquest as such.

The Aztec nobility were able to live in great luxury by adapting the traditional customs and institutions of Middle American tribal culture to their own advantage. The most effective of these adaptations was in the field of myth and religion, for it was religion that underpinned the unquestionable authority of the Aztec emperor or tlatoani (‘he who speaks’), and provided the rationale for conquest and the imposition of tribute. Religion was a particularly effective tool of imperialism because much of the Aztec religion was common to other peoples of Middle America, all of whom could trace their heritage to the Toltecs, the true founders of Nahuatl civilization. Once the Aztecs had started on their imperial expansion, they took pride in styling themselves the heirs of the Toltecs, a claim which served to give their rule a sacred justification.

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