The First Americans: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State, 1492-1867 
by D.A. Brading.
Cambridge, 761 pp., £55, March 1991, 9780521391306
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In the early hours of 12 October 1492, 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!)

During the first two centuries, while the Habsburgs still ruled Las Españas, creole culture (in the anthropological sense) in Spanish America was fundamentally shaped by two circumstances largely absent in other creole zones. The first was its origin in an Iberian peninsula only recently fully Christianised, and ruled by monarchs who believed themselves the most devoted pillars of the Universal Church in a time of unprecedented danger. It was thus easy for early chroniclers to read as providential the temporal coincidence of Colombo’s discoveries, the fall of Muslim Granada, and the forcible expulsion of all Jews unwilling to be converted. (Yet the purpose of establishing the Spanish Inquisition in 1482 was to police the religious reliability of Jewish and Muslim conversos.) A century after the Discovery, the pious Franciscan Jeronimo de Mendiete, in his Historia Eclesiastica Indiana, could point to what he believed to be the coincidental birth years of Hernan Cortes and Martin Luther in arguing that the horrific spread of heresy in Northern Europe had been miraculously compensated for by the opening of huge new areas for the true faith’s dissemination in the New World. For some at least, the sense of religious mission was certainly enhanced by the 1496 Bull of Pope Alexander (‘Borgia’) VI, which legitimised Castilian conquests by charging the conquerors with the work of Christianising the subjected pagans. The consequence was that, unlike anywhere else in the creole world, ecclesiastics (both religious and secular clergy) played for centuries a central political and cultural role. (The Portuguese in Brazil are a partial exception, but the first substantial settlements in Brazil were established while Portugal was under Madrid’s governance – 1580-1640.)

The imposing Catholic ecclesiastical presence did not at all prevent immense cruelties being perpetrated on the indigenous populations, but it did rule out the deliberate near-exterminations of some such populations that occurred in Protestant North America and Australia, as well as the installation of ‘reservations’. It also made possible far more extensive intermarriage between settlers, creoles and indigenes, producing a substantial stratum of mestizos which has no real counterpart in Protestant creoledom (English has had to borrow the word from Spanish). Barred from marriage, and thus from having legal heirs to whom personal property could be bequeathed (though the Orders, especially the Jesuits in Mexico, became very wealthy as institutions), the clerics remained far more loyal to the Crown than did the laymen, and quite frequently interposed themselves between Europeans and ‘Indians’.

Brading makes one crucial further point about the role of the clergy in shaping creole identity over the long haul. The very first Castilian governor in Hispaniola had pioneered the quasi-feudal encomienda system, whereby conquistadors and originary settlers were granted revocable rights to the labour of specified ‘Indian’ communities – rather than inalienable, entailed rights to land. The conquistadors and their creole progeny made determined efforts to get Madrid to permit them to become landed nobility on peninsular lines: in 1554 the Peruvian encomenderos offered the young, bankrupt Felipe II four million ducats for such a deal. But clerical opposition always prevailed. Neither secure landed aristocrats nor independent homesteaders, the creoles were easily tempted into rentierism and the eternal struggle with arriving peninsulars for administrative offices. Not until the later 18th century, when the ‘enlightened’ Borbon Carlos III, strapped for cash, turned on successive sectors of the Church, did true private property in land become the norm.

The second basic factor shaping Spanish creoledom was that its most important early centres were in today’s Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. (The vice-royalties of Colombia and Argentina-Paraguay-Uruguay-Bolivia were set up only in 1739 and 1776, the captain-generalcy of Venezuela only in 1776.) Here, as nowhere else in the world of homo creolus, stood large, powerful, wealthy political systems on the base of imposing material cultures: Moctezuma’s Aztec empire in the north and Atahualpa’s Inca domains in the Andean south. While Cortes and Pizarro found it surprisingly easy to conquer and plunder these realms, the icy social Darwinism of later imperialisms was utterly remote from their Late Medieval minds. Hence some of Pizarro’s men, barely literate commoners or petty hidalgos, could imagine improving their status by marrying Christianised daughters of the Inca royalty and nobility; from these unions came mestizos who were among the early progenitors of new local patriotisms.

The presence of these civilisations posed conquistadors, clerics, creoles and mestizos, with intractable questions. What were their origin and nature? What was the meaning of their Christianisation, astonishingly rapid in Nueva España (Greater Mexico), much less so across the Andes?

Medieval Christian cosmology, seeking Edenic lineages everywhere, led many to the idea that the ‘Indians’ were descended from people who, fleeing Babel after the Tower’s destruction, had migrated eastward into the New World. Others, more Classically-inclined, read them as trekkers from Plato’s lost Atlantis; surprisingly early, mappers deduced from the fit between the Mercatorian silhouettes of West Africa and South America that they had once formed a single, traversable landmass. Either way, the ‘Indians’ were read as descendants of Adam, and, like all God’s children, endowed with souls.

But on what developed in the New World after these antique migrations, opinion remained ever afterwards divided. As might be expected, clerical views were the most influential, most seriously considered, and most divided. Brading offers a brilliant account of how, in dozens of different writers, three distinct traditions of religious thought could be combined and recombined in often unexpected ways. No more striking example is that of the great Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas, defender of the ‘Indians’ and scourge of the greed and brutality of the conquistadors.

Born in Spain, he reached ‘Hispaniola’ in 1502, at the age of 18, following the steps of his father and uncle, who had sailed with Colombo on his second voyage. He later became the first priest to be ordained in the New World. On the basis of the Augustinian tradition, with its profound suspicion of all earthly rulers, and its conviction of the inscrutability of Providence, he could conclude at the end of his life that the Almighty would punish Spain for all the crimes wrought in the New World, and that the conquistadors had been, without doubt, ‘governed and guided by the Devil’, and yet believe that all this was God’s mysterious will. At the same time, he argued from Aquinas’s thoroughly un-Augustinian dictum, ‘faith completes reason,’ that, just as in pre-Christian Antiquity, so in the pre-Columbian Americas, pagan religious beliefs reflected, however dimly, man’s innate hunger for God. Nothing else explained the ease with which the ‘Indians’ abandoned their sanguinary rites for Christianity. Las Casas even went so far as to declare that the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, which appalled even the bloodthirsty conquistadors, should be understood as men’s eagerness to offer up what is most sacred of all to the Creator. When he wrote to the Council of the Indies in 1531 that the vast decimation of the ‘Indian’ population (he concluded later that perhaps fifteen million had been exterminated) meant that so many souls ‘called by Christ at the eleventh hour of the evening’ had lost their chance of eternal salvation, he was reflecting the eschatological prophecies of the 12th-century Calabrian abbot Joachim de Fiore. (These prophecies were especially influential among the Franciscans, from whose teachings Colombo calculated that barely 155 years were left of the six millennia between the Creation and the New Jerusalem.)

Denunciations of Iberian atrocities but acceptance of the Iberian mission, hatred of ‘Indian’ idolatry and, obsessively, of ‘Indian’ addiction to sodomy and human sacrifice, but awe at certain ‘Indian’ achievements; eleventh-hour Christianisation, but still miraculous in an age of Protestant heresy: such were the contradictory, hybrid seeds out of which creole patriotism emerged. Brading offers two especially powerful examples in his discussions of Peru and Mexico.

Born in 1539, Gomez Suarez de Figueros was the son of the conquistador Garcilaso de la Vega and Isabel Chimpu Occllo, a granddaughter of the Inca ruler Yupanqui. In two texts published early in the 17th century under his father’s name – the Comentarios Reales de los Incas and Historia General de Peru – he argued that Incan civilisation had, like pagan Rome, its own grandeur and sources of wisdom derived from Divine Intelligence, but also required its ultimate fulfilment in Christ and Christianity. The horrors of the conquest were thus the necessary prelude to a new synthesis of Spaniard and Inca virtues. The appearance of the Virgin Mary to help defend the Spanish fort at Cuzco against the armies of Manco Inca was the most signal evidence of God’s purpose. Alongside and after ‘Garcilaso de la Vega’ came other writers who suggested that the Incas had been very early proselytised by St Bartholomew. His mission – alas discontinued in the centuries after his departure – explained the Inca nobility’s monotheism, the benevolence and virtue of Inca rule, and the long existence of the great Cross of Carabuco before the arrival of the Iberians.

In Nueva España, a parallel syncretism developed in the sudden, extraordinary spread of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The groundwork had been laid by the devoted labours of early Franciscans, who, admiring the quasi-Franciscan obedience and lack of greed of the conquered ‘Indians’, pronounced their land most fit ‘for hermits and contemplatives’. It was Franciscans who ensured that of the 109 titles published in Nueva España between 1524 and 1572, 69 were in Nahuatl. So deeply were the clerics involved in local culture as they baptised and taught that Bernardino de Sahagun’s Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España was originally written, by the friar and his local pupils, in this language.

Perhaps alarmed by this kind of indigenismo Felipe II in 1577 prohibited all further enquiry into native history and religion. But the syncretising impulse could not so easily be contained. In 1648 Miguel Sanchez published his Imagen de la virgen Maria, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe, milagrosamente aparecida en la ciudad de Mexico, which Brading suggests ‘opened a new epoch in the religious history of New Spain’. It had long been locally believed that on 9 December 1531, within the first decade of the conquest, the Virgin had appeared before a simple ‘Indian’ peasant called Juan Diego, promising to watch over the land as a mother over her children. Sanchez, however, now described her as ‘this ... sacred criolla’, who would make Mexico the New Jerusalem. From this book on, the cult quickly gained immense popularity among all groups in the vice-royalty’s population. And when in 1680 the creole city council of Ciudad Mexico set up a huge triumphal arch to welcome the new viceroy, it was no great surprise that it included statues of 12 pre-Spanish monarchs, each identified with a Christian virtue.

Brading is quick to note that the arch’s designer, Carlos de Sigüenza y Gongora, despised contemporary ‘Indians’ as much as he revered Tenochtitlan and its last ruler Moctezuma, and that in general the creoles and mestizos continued to exploit and abuse the indigenes. That they were unconsciously linking their attachment to the place in which they lived to a search for dignified ancestral roots was the consequence of their Christian beliefs and of their dubious status in the eyes of the metropolis and in-swarming hordes of hungry peninsulares. With some reason, the Habsburg monarchy remained suspicious of creole loyalties, and kept most of the top administrative and ecclesiastical positions in the New World in peninsular hands. In Spain itself, the belief was widespread that low social origins, ill-concealed dabs of the tarbrush, and the inspissated natural environment of the Americas ensured that creoles would be incurably frivolous, idle, arrogant and malcontent. A steady stream of what Brading calls ‘imperial’ texts composed by metropolitan bureaucrats and savants reinforced monarchical paranoia and popular Iberian prejudice.

In the meantime, Spain’s European power had been rapidly waning. By the peace of Utrecht (1713), Madrid had been reduced to a subordinate ally of Paris, and Habsburgs replaced by Bourbons. The new dynasty, especially under the long, autocratic rule of Carlos III (1759-88), made determined efforts to recoup the empire’s fortunes, and thereby unwittingly helped move the local self-identifications of homo creolus towards insurrectionary nationalisms. Many historians analysing this change emphasise the central importance of what creoles and mestizos bitterly called ‘the second conquest of the Americas’. The imperial regime encouraged massive new trans-Atlantic migrations, tightened administrative controls, increased financial exactions, and promoted Enlightenment-style education. Brading, however, puts more emphasis on Madrid’s assault on the institution which had given Habsburg rule its strongest support, and which had forged powerful imaginative links between most sectors of New World society.

This assault opened in 1767 with the expulsion of the Jesuits, of whom, in Nueva España at least, a large percentage were creoles. Never before had so large a group of highly-educated, intelligent creoles been permanently exiled from the Americas. Nothing more excited their agile pens than anguished separation from a now necessarily imagined patria. Next came a determined effort at linguistic Hispanisation. The Orders were violently attacked for not teaching the ‘Indians’ Spanish. The peninsular archbishop of Mexico announced that it was impossible to convey the mysteries of Christian faith in ‘Indian’ languages ‘without committing great dissonance and imperfection’: it was necessary to ‘abolish the use’ of these languages in all religious contexts. In 1803, the ‘modernising’ secular Bishop of Oaxaca opined in a pastoral that ‘one of the chief tricks of the Devil has always been to prevent the use of our Castilian language,’ and contemptuously reproached his flock for maintaining their ‘rough, unknown tongues’. But even these accommodations to Madrid availed very little. In 1795 clerics accused of grave offences were assigned to the jurisdiction of civil courts. In 1803, a royal decree ordered the sale of all Church property in Nueva España, with the proceeds to go to the near-empty royal treasury. No surprise, perhaps, that it was a parish priest – Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla – who initiated the insurrectionary wave that eventually ended Spain’s Mexican empire or that when revolution was proclaimed, it was baptised nuestra santa revolucion by another martyred cleric, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon.

But by then it was all too late. Brading seems to believe that creole and mestizo clerics might draw their flocks into populist uprisings under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but that anti-Iberian nationalism would be taken over by creoles who had, thanks to Carlos III, Voltaire and Adam Smith, tasted the apple of Enlightenment. Emblematic was Simon Bolivar, who spoke of Sulla and Solon, not Las Casas of Cuauhtemoc, and who laboured across half a continent without finding an ancient patria anywhere. The culture of homo creolus had been irremediably transformed. Nineteenth-century creole leaders no longer followed Mother Church, but rather the twin divinities of Liberalism and Progress. The languages of these divinities were French and English, no longer Latin, or Spanish, or Nahuatl. From their balconies they gazed down, no longer at fellow souls, but at would-be fellow citizens. So it was that at the very moment of independence a huge, near-impassable gulf opened between the new creole governing classes and the masses for whom they claimed to speak. Out of this gulf came the sanguinary despotisms and reactive insurrections that have wracked the continent until this day. The Liberator himself gloomily observed in 1826: ‘I am convinced to the very marrow of my bones that only a clever despotism can govern in America.’ A month before he died, he wrote: ‘America’ – that most creole of conceptions – ‘is ungovernable to us. He who serves the revolution ploughs the sea.’

Like all compelling interpretative works, Brading’s book has its characteristic stage-lighting. The spotlight is on Mexico and Peru, home of Aztecs, Mayas and Incas. The Spanish Caribbean, and what would become Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, and the republics of Central America, emerge only briefly from the shadows. His narrative moves downwards in a large parabolic arc from the murderous courage of Colombo and the conquistadors, through the heroic labours of Las Casas, Sahagun, and ‘Garcilaso de la Vega’, and the antique majesty of Habsburgian Catholic absolutism, towards the calculating aridities of Borbon enlightenment and, at the end, of an impending porfiriato. In his last pages, Brading appears to look briefly skyward. A Mexican revolution is just over the horizon which will ‘bridge the abyss that separated the Mexican people from the Mexican state’. Perhaps, for a time. But it was also a revolution that continued Carlos III’s work by expelling, not just Jesuits but the entire Catholic Church from the country – for a time. And its leaders glorified the pre-Spanish past in Spanish – the language of the Bishop of Oaxaca rather than the one so devotedly acquired by Sahagun.

Entranced by Brading’s parabola, the reader may be tempted to forget two important, shadowed aspects of the Spanish American story. The index to his book contains no entry for capitalism. But it was surely capitalism that played the key role in destroying the Old Order. Borbon ‘reform’ was at bottom a response to the rapidly rising world-power of capitalist Britain: creole merchants and magnates were among the main engenderers of the Spanish American independence movements; and behind Liberalism lay capitalism’s promise of prosperity, modernity, rationality and scientific advance. The printing-press and the steamship, later the aeroplane and television, brought the continent into an ever-closer intermesh with a non-Spanish, non-Catholic world with which the region felt it was doomed constantly to compare itself.

Secondly, the fall of the Church also opened the door to new imaginings – in particular, the novel, the first creole exemplar of which appeared in Mexico in the midst of the early liberation struggle. Brading’s exclusion of fiction from his treatment of the last half-century covered by his book may give his parabola too sharp a downward loop. Man cannot live by Liberalism alone. So in many parts of Spanish America, the 19th century witnessed the emergence of originary novels which attempted to conjure nations into moral-historical existence. In this sense, they were the true heirs of the ecclesiastics of whom Brading writes with such affection. Out of St Bartholomew roaming the Inca highlands, out of St Thomas the Apostle ensconced behind Quetzalcoatl, came, in due course, the no less astonishing, if far more melancholy creole imaginings of Miguel Asturias, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

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