- The First Americans: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492-1867 by D.A. Brading
Cambridge, 761 pp, £55.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 521 39130 X
In the early hours of 12 October 1692, a lookout on the Pinta shouted in Latinic-Spanish to his captain and fellow seamen: Tierra! Tierra! The answering choral roar from below was, it appears, the Arabic-Spanish Albricias! That is to say, ‘Rewards!’[*] Since the last centennial commemoration of this operatic, multicultural exchange, its sonorities have profoundly changed. A hundred Years ago, tierra sounded fortissimo, and Cristoforo Colombo’s landfall in the Caribbean was generally understood as a world-historical event, which, following on the heels of Bartolomeu Diaz’s rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, opened an Age of Discovery during which the whole planet became known for the first time to a single, powerful civilisation. Read as a triumph of science and reason over what Washington Irving, in his biography of the Discoverer, called ‘the long night of monkish bigotry and false learning’, it seemed also to presage the eclipse of the Old World and the lasting ascendancy of the progressive New. Today, this providentialism, which took on cousinly forms in Protestant North and Catholic South America, is still quite audible, notably during wars and election campaigns, but albricias more and more carries the tune.
More than two hundred years after independence, and 145 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the United States is among the most racially-divided societies anywhere. Within a huge mulatto and black under-class, racked by permanent unemployment, drugs and Aids, homicide is the leading cause of death among young males. American economic hegemony, taken for granted a generation ago, is being eroded by the successes of Japan and the EEC. In the southern Americas the picture is still more melancholy. Most have been outstripped economically by Asian countries which only achieved independence from colonialism in the last half-century. Mexico City, once the ‘jewel’ of the Americas, is the most polluted city in the world. Lima, proudly described in 1630 as ‘a holy Rome in its temples, ornaments and religious cult ... a wealthy Venice for the riches it produces for Spain and prodigally distributes to all ... a Salamanca for its thriving university and colleges’, is today a bankrupt metropolis of desperate shanty-towns, ravaged by the terrorisms of the state apparatus and of the Shining Path. Argentina is flat on its back, Chile stumbling out of the Pinochet nightmare, Colombia is dominated by drug barons, and Guatemala tormented by genocidal colonels.
If Colombo did not then, in 1492, exactly open a sendero luminoso to the world’s future happiness, what significance can more surely be attached to his intrepid voyage? Of the natives he first observed in ‘Hispaniola’, as David Brading’s book records, Colombo wrote: ‘They do not have arms and are all naked and with no ability for war and are very cowardly, so that a thousand could not resist three [Castilians] and thus they are fit to be commanded and made to work and to sow and to do anything that is necessary to make towns and be brought to clothe themselves and be taught our religion.’ Accordingly, he took possession of the island in the name of Fernando and Isabel, installed a garrison, hunted for profitable commodities, and abducted some ‘Indians’ for exhibition in Seville. On a subsequent voyage he dispatched the first full cargo of slaves back to Iberia.
For these piracies there were long-standing precedents in Portuguese operations down the western coast of Africa. Colombo’s real innovation was the beginning of permanent settlements of Europeans outside Europe: first and closest in the Americas, later in more distant Southern Africa, island South-East Asia and the Antipodes. Already in the 16th century a new social type was coming into existence: the homo creolus (whose lineaments we can still clearly see in Mulroney, De Klerk, Bush and Hawke, no less than in many leaderships of Central and South America). The subsequent histories of these European-settled zones have been largely written, in a providential spirit, as the stories of these creoles; for their coming was almost everywhere catastrophic to the indigenous populations, who were decimated by new diseases, massacred, enserfed or enslaved, haciendised, proletarianised, put in reservations, socially marginalised and religiously converted.
Predator he might be, but homo creolus was necessarily profoundly affected by the remote environments in which he emerged. It is among the many merits of Brading’s magisterial study that it focuses primarily on the opinions, fantasies, self-perceptions and moral outlook of our hero in his Spanish American habitat, as these changed (or did not change) over more than three and a half centuries. (How splendid if it would inspire self-consciously comparative studies of the same species in North America, South Africa and the Antipodes!)
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
You are not logged in
[*] Columbus by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Oxford, 218 pp., £16.95, July, 0 19 215898 8). The themes of this review make it impossible to do justice to this elegant brief book, which witheringly skewers a swarm of Colombophile fantasts, both academic and ‘lay’. Particularly brilliant is Fernandez-Armesto’s setting of Colombo’s activities within the networks of Genoese merchants, bankers and seamen who, from bases in Lisbon and Seville, pushed explorations, slave-trading, plantations and settlements down the African coast, through the Madeiras and Azores, and eventually to the Caribbean and Brazil. He is also very good on the state of scientific knowledge in Colombo’s era and the millenarian mindset of the Franciscan Order with which the Discoverer had such long and intimate ties.