30 December 2012

Evaluating Both Style and Substance in One's Sources

From the Introduction to History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas, by Philip Ainsworth Means. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. VII, 1917. (The Kindle edition is available for free on Amazon!)
Though Villagutierre's Spanish style is far superior to that of such writers as Fernando Montesinos and Antonio de la Calancha, it is, nevertheless, atrocious. Although he wrote about 1700, Villagutierre's style is excessively archaic; his grammatical construction can hardly be called construction at all, so formless and ambiguous is it. Villagutierre never hesitates to write several long sentences without a single main verb between them, nor does he often refrain from going on and on for a page or so without using a period. In the use of capitals he is most whimsical; usually he has them when they are called for, but he has many that are out of place as well.

The style of Cogolludo, on the other hand, is very good, and that, be it noted, despite the fact that Cogolludo wrote prior to 1688. One remarks with considerable surprise that in several cases Villagutierre and Cogolludo use almost the same words. For example, in speaking of the visit which Cortes made to the island of Tayasal, Cogolludo says: "... y aun que la ida de Cortes se tuvo por ossadia, y demasiada confianza..." Villagutierre, in the same connection says: "... que lo tenian a grandissima temeridad, y ossadia, y por demasiada confianza ...." This is an interesting point, and perhaps it is significant that Cogolludo's book was published in 1688, whereas Villagutierre was not brought out until 1701. It is to be noted that Cogolludo, the earlier writer, uses only two epithets, and that Villagutierre, the later writer, uses the same two, plus a new one of his own. I know of two other cases where equally close and significant similarity exists between the two. It is possible, then that Villagutierre copied (not to say plagiarized) the work of Cogolludo without giving credit for it. But the important point for us in this matter does not concern the personal integrity of Villagutierre. Rather does the importance of the matter lie in this: if Villagutierre was acquainted with the history of Yucatan by Cogolludo to such a degree that he frequently borrowed whole phrases from it, he must have had a very good reason for diverging widely now and again from the version of events given by Cogolludo. Such a reason could only be supplied by the fact that Villagutierre possessed information which he regarded as superior to and more official than that of Cogolludo. Therefore, since in several instances (as in the account of the events leading up to the visit of Cortes to Tayasal) Villagutierre occasionally departs from the footsteps of Cogolludo, we may safely assume that he was at once more critical and better informed than the latter, whom, however, he valued enough to be willing to draw from his work much of his information and even some of his phraseology.
One rarely reads such introductions in scholarly books these days. This book is one of several I began reading to prepare for our winter vacation in the Yucatan, where my historian brother has retired and now works on Maya language projects.

08 December 2012

Spain's Era of Desengaño: ‘Queremos comer sin trabajar’

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 5112-5153:
The great plague of 1599–1600 wiped out at a single blow much of the population increase of the sixteenth century, and opened a new era in Castilian demographic history: an era of stagnation, and perhaps of demographic decline.

The economic consequences of the plague were to be seen in the labour crisis with which the new century opened, and can be traced in the 30 per cent increase in salaries in the three years that followed it. González de Cellorigo, an official in the chancellery of Valladolid who published in 1600, under the shadow of the plague, a brilliant treatise on the problems of the Spanish economy, accurately prophesied its effects: ‘Henceforth we can only expect that everything requiring human industry and labour will be very expensive… because of the shortage of people for tillage and for all the types of manufactures that the kingdom needs.’ The acute labour shortage, and the consequent upswing of salaries, were, as González de Cellorigo appreciated, irreparable disasters for the Castilian economy, since they destroyed the possibility that the years of peace might be used to build up Castilian industry to a point at which it would again be able to compete with foreign industries in the home and overseas markets.

But the most serious long-term consequences of the plague may have been psychological rather than economic. Already, before it was struck by the plague, Castile was weary and depressed. The failures in France and the Netherlands, the sack of Cadiz by the English, and the King's request for a national donativo in 1596 as bankruptcy struck, completed the disillusionment that had begun with the defeat of the Invincible Armada. Then, to crown it all, came the plague. The unbroken succession of disasters threw Castile off balance. The ideals which had buoyed it up during the long years of struggle were shattered beyond repair. The country felt itself betrayed – betrayed perhaps by a God who had inexplicably withdrawn His favour from His chosen people. Desolate and plague-stricken, the Castile of 1600 was a country that had suddenly lost its sense of national purpose.

Castilians reacted to the moment of disillusionment in different ways. Optimism had gone, to be replaced by bitterness and cynicism, or else by the resignation of defeat. The new mood of fatalism and disillusionment naturally tended to reinforce certain latent tendencies that had already been encouraged by the unusual circumstances of the sixteenth century. During that century, events had conspired to disparage in the national estimation the more prosaic virtues of hard work and consistent effort. The mines of Potosí brought to the country untold wealth; if money was short today, it would be abundant again tomorrow when the treasure fleet reached Seville. Why plan, why save, why work? Around the corner would be the miracle – or perhaps the disaster. Prices might rise, savings be lost, the crops fail. There seemed little point in demeaning oneself with manual labour, when, as so often happened, the idle prospered and the toilers were left without reward. The events of the turn of the century could only increase this sense of insecurity and strengthen an already widespread fatalism. It was fatalism that characterized the outlook of the pícaro, and the seventeenth century was essentially the age of the pícaro, living on his wits – hungry today, well fed tomorrow, and never soiling his hands with honest work. ‘Queremos comer sin trabajar’: we want to eat without working. The words could be applied to Castilians in many walks of life, from the townsman living comfortably on his annuities to the vagabond without a blanca in his purse.

It was in this atmosphere of desengaño, of national disillusionment, that Cervantes wrote his Don Quixote, of which the first part appeared in 1605 and the second in 1614. Here, among many other parables, was the parable of a nation which had set out on its crusade only to learn that it was tilting at windmills. In the end was the desengaño, for ultimately the reality would always break in on the illusion. The events of the 1590s had suddenly brought home to more thoughtful Castilians the harsh truth about their native land – its poverty in the midst of riches, its power that had shown itself impotent. Brought face to face with the terrible paradoxes of the Castile of Philip III, a host of public-spirited figures – such men as González de Cellorigo and Sancho de Moncada – set themselves to analyse the ills of an ailing society. It is these men, known as arbitristas (projectors), who give the Castilian crisis of the turn of the century its special character. For this was not only a time of crisis, but a time also of the awareness of crisis – of a bitter realization that things had gone wrong. It was under the influence of the arbitristas that early seventeenth-century Castile surrendered itself to an orgy of national introspection, desperately attempting to discover at what point reality had been exchanged for illusion. But the arbitristas – as their name suggested – were by no means content merely to analyse. They must also find the answer. That an answer existed they had no doubt; for just as Sancho Panza had in him something of Don Quixote, so also even the most pessimistic arbitrista was still something of an optimist at heart. As a result, the Government of Philip III found itself bombarded with advice – with innumerable projects, both sensible and fantastic, for the restoration of Castile.

01 December 2012

Catalonia & Portugal vs. Castile, 1640

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 5954-97:
Seeing that his authority was gone and that law and order were everywhere collapsing, the unfortunate Count of Santa Coloma begged the town councillors of Barcelona to close the city gates against the casual labourers who always flocked into the city at the beginning of June to hire themselves out for harvesting. But the councillors were either unable or unwilling to agree; the harvesters made their usual entry; and on Corpus day, 7 June 1640, they inevitably became involved in a brawl. The brawl soon acquired the dimensions of a riot, and within a few hours the mob was hounding down the royal ministers and sacking their houses. The viceroy himself had moved to the dockyards for safety, but a group of rioters forced its way in, and Santa Coloma was caught and struck down as he attempted to escape from his pursuers along the rocky beach.

The murder of Santa Coloma left such authority as remained in Catalonia in the hands of the Diputació and of the city councillors and aristocracy of Barcelona. Although they managed to shepherd the rebels out of Barcelona itself, it was impossible to maintain control over a movement which was spreading through the Principality, wreaking vengeance on all those of whom the rebels disapproved. Stunned as he was by the viceroy's murder, Olivares still seems to have hoped that the rebellion could be checked without recourse to arms, but the new viceroy, the Catalan Duke of Cardona, died on 22 July without being able to halt the drift to anarchy. Almost at the same moment the rebels gained control of the vital port of Tortosa. The loss of Tortosa made it finally clear that troops would have to be sent into Catalonia, in spite of the obvious risk of war in a province bordering on France; and Olivares pressed ahead with the formation of an army for use against the rebels.

The Conde Duque believed that the Catalans were still too loyal to call on the French for help, but he underestimated the determination and vigour of Claris, and the hatred of his Government and of Castile which his policies had inspired in every class of Catalan society. Some time before, Claris had already made tentative overtures to the French, and Richelieu, who had shown himself well aware of the possibilities of causing trouble both in Catalonia and Portugal, declared himself ready to offer help. During the autumn of 1640 Claris and Olivares stood face to face, Claris hoping to avoid the necessity of committing the Principality to an open break with Madrid, and Olivares equally hoping to avoid the necessity of using an army against the Catalans. ‘In the midst of all our troubles,’ wrote the Conde Duque to the Cardenal Infante in October, ‘the Catalan is the worst we have ever had, and my heart admits of no consolation that we are entering an action in which, if our army kills, it kills a vassal of His Majesty, and if they kill, they kill a vassal and a soldier…. Without reason or occasion they have thrown themselves into as complete a rebellion as Holland….’

But worse was to come. The revolt of the Catalans was bound to have its repercussions in Portugal, where there was a growing determination to cut the country's links with Castile. Uneasily aware that he could never be sure of Portugal as long as the Duke of Braganza and the higher Portuguese nobility remained at home, Olivares had ingeniously thought to kill two birds with one stone by ordering the Portuguese nobility to turn out with the army that was to be sent into Catalonia. This order meant that, if Portugal was ever to break free from Castile, it must act quickly before Braganza was out of the country. Plans for a revolution were laid in the autumn of 1640, probably with the connivance of Richelieu, who is believed to have sent funds to the conspirators in Lisbon. On 1 December, while the royal army under the command of the Marquis of los Vélez was gingerly advancing into Catalonia, the Portuguese conspirators put their plan into action. The guards at the royal palace in Lisbon were overwhelmed, Miguel de Vasconcellos – Olivares's confidant and principal agent in the government of Portugal – was assassinated, and Princess Margaret was escorted to the frontier. Since there were virtually no Castilian troops in Portugal, there was nothing to prevent the rebels from taking over the country, and proclaiming the Duke of Braganza king as John IV.

The news of the Portuguese Revolution, which took a week to reach Madrid, forced Olivares and his colleagues to undertake an urgent reappraisal of their policies. Simultaneous revolts in the east and west of the Spanish peninsula threatened the Monarchy with total disaster. Peace was essential: peace with the Dutch, peace with the Catalans. But although the Conde Duque now offered favourable terms to the Catalans, and the upper classes in Catalonia seemed predisposed to accept them as the army of los Vélez moved closer and closer to Barcelona, the populace was in no mood for surrender. It rioted in Barcelona on 24 December, hunting down ‘traitors’ with a savagery surpassing that of Corpus; and Claris, faced on one side with the fury of the mob, and on the other with the advancing Castilian army, took the only course open to him. On 16 January 1641 he announced that Catalonia had become an independent republic under French protection. Then on 23 January, finding that the French were not satisfied with this, he withdrew his plans for a republican system of government, and formally declared the allegiance of Catalonia to the King of France, ‘as in the time of Charlemagne, with a contract to observe our constitutions’. The French were now prepared to give the Catalans full military support; the French agent, Duplessis Besançon, hastily organized the defence of Barcelona, and on 26 January a combined French and Catalan force met the army of los Vélez on the hill of Montjuich outside the walls of Barcelona, Los Vélez unaccountably gave the order to retreat, and the last chance of bringing the revolt of the Catalans to a speedy end was lost.

28 November 2012

"New Spain's Century of Depression"

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4988-5028:
The imperialism of Philip II's reign had been based on a Spanish-Atlantic economy, in that it was financed out of the resources of America and of a Castile which itself received regular injections of silver from the silver-mines of the New World. During the last decade of the sixteenth century American silver was still reaching Spain in very large quantities, and the port of Seville had an undeniable air of prosperity; but the comforting appearances masked the beginning of a radical change in the structure of the entire Spanish-Atlantic system.

This change was, in part, a direct result of Spain's war with the Protestant powers of the north. In the first two decades after the outbreak of the Netherlands revolt, the Dutch had continued to trade with the Iberian peninsula. Spain was dependent on northern and eastern Europe for its supplies of grain, timber, and naval stores, a large proportion of which were transported in Dutch vessels. Irked by Spain's continuing dependence on the Dutch, and anxious to strike a blow at the Dutch economy, Philip II placed an embargo on Dutch ships in Spanish and Portuguese ports in 1585, and again in 1595. The Dutch appreciated as well as Philip II that any interference with their peninsular trade threatened them with disaster. They needed Spanish silver and colonial produce, just as they also needed the salt of Setúbal for their herring industry. Faced with embargoes on their peninsular trade, they therefore reacted in the only possible way, by going direct to the producing areas for the goods they needed – to the Caribbean and Spanish America. From 1594 they were making regular voyages to the Caribbean; in 1599 they seized the salt island of Araya. This intrusion of the Dutch into the Caribbean disrupted the pearl fisheries of Santa Margarita and dislocated the system of maritime communications between Spain's colonial possessions. For the first time, Spain found itself heavily on the defensive in the western hemisphere, its overseas monopoly threatened by increasingly audacious Dutch and English attacks.

The presence of northern interlopers in the American seas was a serious danger to the Spanish commercial system; but potentially even more serious was the simultaneous transformation in the character of the American economy. During the 1590s the boom conditions of the preceding decades came to an end. The principal reason for the change of economic climate is to be found in a demographic catastrophe. While the white and the mixed population of the New World had continued to grow, the Indian population of Mexico, scourged by terrible epidemics in 1545–6 and again in 1576–9, had shrunk from some 11,000,000 at the time of the conquest in 1519 to little more than 2,000,000 by the end of the century; and it is probable that a similar fate overtook the native population of Peru. The labour force on which the settlers depended was therefore dramatically reduced. In the absence of any significant technological advance, a contracting labour force meant a contracting economy. The great building projects were abruptly halted; it became increasingly difficult to find labour for the mines, especially as the negroes imported to replace the Indians proved to be vulnerable to the same diseases as those which had wiped out the native population; and the problem of feeding the cities could only be met by a drastic agrarian reorganization, which entailed the creation of vast latifundios where Indian labour could be more effectively exploited than in the dwindling Indian villages.

The century that followed the great Indian epidemic of 1576–9 has been called ‘New Spain's century of depression’ – a century of economic contraction, during the course of which the New World closed in on itself. During this century it had less to offer Europe: less silver, as it became increasingly expensive to work the mines, and fewer opportunities for the emigrants – the 800 or more men and women who were still arriving in the 1590s in each flota from Seville. At the same time, it also came to require less of Europe – or at least of Spain. European luxury products found themselves competing with the products of the Far East carried to America in the Manila galleon. But much more serious from the point of view of Spain was the establishment in its American possessions of an economy dangerously similar to its own. Mexico had developed a coarse cloth industry, and Peru was now producing grain, wine, and oil. These were exactly the products which had bulked so large in the cargoes from Seville during the preceding decades. In fact, the staple Spanish exports to America were ceasing to be indispensable to the settlers, and in 1597 Spanish merchants found it impossible to dispose of all their goods: the American market, the source of Andalusia's prosperity, was for the first time overstocked.

From the 1590s, therefore, the economies of Spain and of its American possessions began to move apart, while Dutch and English interlopers were squeezing themselves into a widening gap. It was true that Seville still retained its official monopoly of New World trade, and that Sevillan commerce with America reached an all-time record in 1608, to be followed by a further twelve years in which trade figures, while fluctuating, remained at a high level. But, as an index to national prosperity, the figures are deprived of much of their significance by the fact that the cargoes were increasingly of foreign provenance. The goods which Spain produced were not wanted by America; and the goods that America wanted were not produced by Spain.

27 November 2012

Spanish Fears of Religious Encirclement, 1568-69

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 4015-4044:
In the Netherlands, in France, the forces of international Protestantism were on the march. That it was an international conspiracy, Philip had no doubt, for each passing year showed more conclusively that the Dutch rebels were not alone. Behind them were the Huguenots, and the Breton seamen who were now waging war on Spanish shipping in the gulf of Gascony, and who were to cut Spain's maritime communications with Flanders in the winter of 1568–9. Behind them, too, were English privateers like Sir John Hawkins, whose raid into the Spanish Caribbean in 1568 brought Spain and England a step nearer to open war.

Already by 1568 it was clear that the struggle was spreading – spreading in particular to the sea, where the Protestants were at their strongest and where Spain was still weak. The war between Spain and international Protestantism was essentially a naval war, fought in the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel, and even, increasingly, in the hitherto exclusive preserve of the Spanish Atlantic. Spain's American possessions could no longer be regarded as safe. But for that matter it was questionable whether any part of the King's dominions was now immune from attack. Indeed, Spain itself was threatened, both by pirate attacks on its coasts, and by armed incursions across its frontier with France.

The acute sensitivity of Philip to the dangers from heresy is suggested by his behaviour in the Principality of Catalonia. The Principality was undoubtedly one of the weaker sections of the Spanish bastions, both because of its exposed position on the French frontier, and because the extent of its privileges made it little amenable to royal control. It was well known that there were Huguenots among the bandit gangs that were constantly passing to and fro across the border, and there was every reason to suspect that heresy had found converts among that steady stream of Frenchmen which had for some years been crossing the Pyrenees into Catalonia in search of work. If heresy were to take root in Catalonia, the position would be extremely grave, since the Principality had all the makings of a second Netherlands: a strong tradition of independence, its own laws and privileges, and a hatred of Castile that was aćcentuated by linguistic and cultural differences. Consequently, as the pressure mounted against the Catalan frontier, the King's fears grew. The viceroys were instructed to show the greatest vigilance in guarding the frontier, and in 1568 the situation appeared so alarming that severe new measures were decreed: a fresh prohibition on natives of the Crown of Aragon studying abroad; a harsher censorship in Catalonia; and a ban on all teaching by Frenchmen in Catalan schools. Then, in 1569, the Catalans refused to pay the new tax known as the excusado, which had just been authorized by Pius V. Convinced by their refusal that they were on the verge of going over to Protestantism, Philip ordered the Inquisition and the Viceroy to take action, and had the Diputats and a number of nobles arrested.

The King's vigorous action against the Catalan authorities is an indication of his deep anxiety about the course of events. As he himself later realized, the action was unwarranted; there was no breath of heresy among the Catalan governing class. But the situation seemed sufficiently dangerous to make action essential. The Protestant peril was growing hourly, and it was growing at a moment when the danger from Islam seemed also to be mounting to a climax. For Catalonia was not the only region of Spain where revolt and heresy threatened. On Christmas night of that terrible year 1568 – the year of the danger in Catalonia, of the cutting of the sea-route through the Bay of Biscay, and of the arrest and death of Philip's son and heir, Don Carlos, a band of Morisco outlaws lead by a certain Farax Abenfarax broke into the city of Granada, bringing with them the news that the Alpujarras had risen in revolt. Although the rebels failed to seize the city, their incursion signalized the outbreak of rebellion throughout the kingdom of Granada. Spain, which had surrounded itself with such strong defences against the advance of Protestantism, now found itself endangered from within; and the threat came not, as was expected, from the Protestants, but from its old enemies, the Moors.

22 November 2012

Just Another Imperial Expansion

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3230-3243:
If we focus only on the century following Columbus’s voyages we see Mexica and Inca warriors as losers, West Africans as fighting slaves, and Spaniards as quite reasonably contemplating a world empire. But the age of expansion began with the rise of empires outside Europe, with the Mexica fanning out across Mesoamerica and the Inca dominating the Andes, and in West Africa with the rising of the Songhay empire from the ashes of that of Mali. In Europe, the Ottomans and the Muscovites began empire building before the Spaniards, as did the Portuguese—who beat their Iberian neighbors in the race for a sea route to East Asia. And after the sixteenth century the Spanish empire was gradually eclipsed by the trading and colonial networks of the Dutch, English, and French.

Looking at human history over thousands of years, the Spanish Conquest is a mere episode in the globalization of access to resources of food production. The plants and animals of certain Old World environments and regions have a greater potential as food, and the peoples of those regions have enjoyed advantages over others as a result. But eventually, through uneven encounters, those advantages have been introduced to the previously disadvantaged regions. In the case of Europeans introducing new foods to Native Americans, the parallel introduction of Old World diseases made the encounter especially uneven, while colonialism hindered native access to these new resources. This process is too broad and complex to be understood in terms of the alleged and simple “superiority” of one group of people over another. It is also a process that is incomplete. We are still living through the long period of uneven encounters and the gradual globalization of resources.

21 November 2012

Spanish Conquest Never Complete

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 1770-1817:
Looking at Spanish America in its entirety, the Conquest as a series of armed expeditions and military actions against Native Americans never ended. Florida’s Seminoles were still fighting Spaniards when the colony was taken over by the United States (to whom they have never formally surrendered either). The Araucanians of Chile—who fought for decades and eventually killed the black conquistador Juan Valiente—resisted conquest into the nineteenth century, when they continued to fight the Chilean republic in the name of the monarchy they had previously defied. The Charrúa of Uruguay were not finally subdued until the new nation’s president organized their massacre in the 1830s. Argentines also faced—and eventually slaughtered with machine guns—unconquered native peoples in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Guatusos-Malekus of Central America were enslaved and slaughtered in the late nineteenth century. Yaqui resistance in northern Mexico also lasted into the modern period, while at Mexico’s southern end, the Maya of Yucatan pushed the colonial frontier back in 1847 to its sixteenth-century limits, and a string of Maya polities persisted there into the early twentieth century.

The third aspect of the myth of completion is that of the pax colonial, the peace among natives and between them and the Spanish colonists that supposedly came in the Conquest’s wake. The flip side to this—the corresponding dimension of incompleteness—is the fact that Spanish America was rife with native revolts against colonial rule. As one prominent historian has observed, “then and now the colonial era has typically been thought of as a peaceful time,” despite “apparent endemic violence.”

There is a pair of possible reasons for this. One is the localized nature of colonial revolts, which made them relatively easy to put down and therefore appeared to colonial and modern observers insignificant compared to the kinds of wars that swept Europe during the same centuries and would ravage much of modern Latin America. The other relates more closely to the myth of completion. Despite periodic Spanish hysteria over real or imagined revolts by natives and enslaved Africans, Spaniards believed that their empire was God’s way of civilizing natives and Africans in the Americas. Colonial rule was thus seen as peaceful and benevolent, an interpretation that relied upon the Conquest’s being complete. Ironically, although the native perception was almost the opposite—that the Spanish presence was a protracted invasion that required a mixed response of accommodation and resistance—it also contributed to the illusion that the pax colonial was real. The willingness on the part of native leaders to compromise, to find a middle course between overt confrontation and complete capitulation, helped give the impression of a colonial peace.


The fifth dimension of the Conquest’s incompleteness was the degree to which native peoples maintained a degree of autonomy within the Spanish empire. This was in part an autonomy permitted and sanctioned by Spanish officials, and it was nurtured by native leaders through illegal means and legal negotiations. As a general rule, Spaniards did not seek to rule natives directly and take over their lands. Rather they hoped to preserve native communities as self-governing sources of labor and producers of agricultural products. This practice had precedent in Islamic-Iberian custom, as it developed in the eighth-century Muslim invasion of the Iberian peninsula and during the subsequent centuries of the reconquista. But it was also a practical response to Spanish-American realities. The new settlers were not farmers, but artisans and professionals dependent upon the work and food provided by native peoples who greatly outnumbered them.

This colonial system worked best where organized, sedentary agricultural communities already existed—that is, well-fed city-states—and it was in such areas, primarily in Mesoamerica and the Andes, that Spaniards concentrated their conquest and colonization efforts. Although it is unlikely that any native community escaped the ravages of epidemic diseases brought across the Atlantic, native regions unevenly experienced direct conquest violence. For centuries after the arrival of Spaniards, the majority of natives subject to colonial rule continued to live in their own communities, speak their own languages, work their own fields, and be judged and ruled by their own elders. These elders wrote their own languages alphabetically (or, in the Andes, learned to write Spanish) and engaged the colonial legal system in defense of community interests skillfully and often successfully. The native town, or municipal community, continued to be called the altepetl by the Nahuas of central Mexico, the ñuu by the Mixtecs, the cah by the Yucatec Mayas, and the ayllu by Quechua-speaking Andeans.

Only very gradually did community autonomy erode under demographic and political pressures from non-native populations. From the native perspective, therefore, the Conquest was not a dramatic singular event, symbolized by any one incident or moment, as it was for Spaniards. Rather, the Spanish invasion and colonial rule were part of a larger, protracted process of negotiation and accommodation. From such a perspective, as long as the altepetl and ayllu still existed, the Conquest could never be complete.

20 November 2012

Germs and Steel, Not Guns, Aided Early Conquistadors

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3181-3207:
Guns, too, were of limited use. Cannons were few in number in the Americas, and without roads or navigable rivers, their transportation was a major challenge. Much of the Americas where Spaniards fought was tropical or subtropical, and in the humidity the powder became too wet to fire. Firearms, in the form of harquebuses, whose unwieldy barrels required the support of tripods, were likewise not plentiful and required dry powder. Vargas Machuca advocated Spaniards using harquebuses in the Americas, but his detailed exposition on how to avoid damaging the gun, getting it wet, or discharging it prematurely or by accident would surely have caused any conquistador to think twice about carrying such a weapon. The more reliable and faster-loading musket was not invented until decades after Cortés and Pizarro invaded the American mainland. Nor had Europeans yet developed volley-fire techniques, in which soldiers formed banks of rows in order to provide continuous fire, although there were seldom enough firearms in a Conquest company to have made good use of such a technique. Those Spaniards who did have firearms were lucky to get a single shot off before reversing the weapon to use as a club or dropping it to concentrate on sword wielding.

The one weapon, then, whose efficacy is indubitable was the steel sword. It alone was worth more than a horse, a gun, and a mastiff put together. Because a steel sword was longer and less brittle than the obsidian weapons of Mesoamerican warriors, and longer and sharper than Andean clubbing weapons or copper-tipped axes, a Spaniard could fight for hours and receive light flesh wounds and bruises while killing many natives. Spanish swords were just the right length for reaching an enemy who lacked a similar weapon. Pizarro preferred to fight on foot so he could better manipulate his sword. Descriptions of battles in which Spanish swordplay caused terrible slaughter among native forces pepper the Conquest accounts of Cieza de León, Cortés, Díaz, Gómara, Jerez, Oviedo y Baños, Zárate, and others. Military historian John Guilmartin deftly summarizes the point: “While Spanish success in combat cannot be attributed to a single factor, it is clear that the other elements of Spanish superiority took effect within a tactical matrix established by the effectiveness of Spanish hand-held slashing and piercing weapons.”

This trilogy of factors—disease, native disunity, and Spanish steel—goes most of the way toward explaining the Conquest’s outcome. Remove just one and the likelihood of the failure of expeditions under Cortés, Pizarro, and others would have been very high. As Clendinnen has observed of the Spanish-Mexica war, both Spaniards and natives were aware that the Conquest was “a close-run thing,” a point that applies broadly across the Conquest. The failed expeditions outnumbered successful ones, and cautionary tales can be found by looking at the fate of Spanish expeditions such as Montejo’s early attempts to conquer Yucatan, the early campaigns into Oaxaca’s northern sierra, or the Pizarro-Orellana journey into Amazonia. Spaniards would have suffered steady mortality from fatal wounds, starvation, disease, and so on, with survivors limping back to Spain or to colonial enclaves scattered along the coasts and islands. Time and again, this outcome was averted because Spanish steel weapons permitted them to hold out long enough for native allies to save them, while the next wave of epidemic disease disrupted native defenses.

17 November 2012

New Land Conquest Licensing

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Locs. 616-619, 2031-2033, 2201-2227:
The first aspect of Conquest procedure was the use of legalistic measures to lend a veneer of validity to an expedition. Such measures typically included the reading out of a legal document, such as a conquest license or the so-called Requirement—the request for submission that was rather absurdly to be read to native communities or armies before hostilities took place. Also included was the declaration of a formal territorial claim....

The document, known as the Requerimiento (Requirement) informed natives of a sort of chain of command from God to pope to king to conquistadors, with the latter merely putting into effect the divinely sanctioned donation of all American lands and peoples by the pope to the Spanish monarch. Native leaders were asked, therefore, to recognize papal and royal authority (that is, to surrender without resistance)...

Requirement is usually viewed as a paragon of miscommunication or, in Las Casas’s words, communicational “absurdity.” Equally absurd were the circumstances under which the text was delivered. According to intellectual historian Lewis Hanke: “It was read to trees and empty huts. . . . Captains muttered its theological phrases into their beards on the edge of sleeping Indian settlements, or even a league away before starting the formal attack. . . . Ship captains would sometimes have the document read from the deck as they approached an island.” In addition to Las Casas, other sixteenth-century Spaniards denounced the delivery of the Requirement in terms ranging from the wry to the scathing. For example, Charles V’s official court historian, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, described how the text was delivered during the early decades of the Caribbean conquest, when natives were still routinely enslaved: “After [the captured Indians] had been put in chains, someone read the Requirement without knowing their language and without any interpreters, and without either the reader or the Indians understanding the language they had no opportunity to reply, being immediately carried away prisoners, the Spaniards not failing to use the stick on those who did not go fast enough.” Here the wielding of the “stick” suggests that even if the content of the Requirement could not be communicated, the violent context of its delivery communicated its broader message of menace and hostility.

In another study, Seed persuasively showed how the message of the Requirement was rooted in Iberian Islamic tradition, specifically in the summons to acknowledge the superiority of Islam or be attacked. Part of the Requirement’s apparent absurdity is that it seems to demand that natives will not be forced to convert, provided that they convert. Like its Islamic antecedent, it leaves matters of conversion for later, demanding only a formal recognition of the religious and political superiority of the invader. This acknowledgment in the Islamic world was expressed in the form of a head tax, essentially the same manifestation of conquest as the tribute first claimed by Queen Isabella in 1501 and levied on every individual Native American in the Spanish empire for over three centuries. The Requirement’s assertion that acceptance of papal and royal authority would bring protection and privilege seems absurd in the context of conquest violence and colonial exploitation, but the concern of Spanish officials for native population levels (expressed in numerous colonial laws) was genuine, albeit based on economic interests. From the crown to local Spanish community leaders, the empire depended upon native tribute, whether paid in cash, goods, or labor. The Requirement’s offer of privilege seems risible because the document also appears to promise destruction. In fact, Spanish colonial rule confirmed and relied upon the integrity of native communities, for it was there that tribute was generated and collected.

Seen in this light, the Requirement becomes less absurd. In fact, in the context of open and blatant conquistador hostilities, it becomes irrelevant. More than that, it becomes an invader’s ritual less potentially confusing to the invaded precisely because it cannot be understood. As “babble” it can more easily be ignored and the nature of the Spanish threat be more clearly contemplated.

14 November 2012

Wordcatcher Tales: biombo, subaru

Biombo – The Spanish term biombo 'folding screen' comes from Japanese byōbu (屏風 'wallwind' or 'screenwind') for the same item. I first learned the term in the caption to Fig. 9 in the book I've been reading, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. The figure shows an oil-painted canvas biombo depicting "The Encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma" as imagined by the artist Juan Correa c. 1683. It goes on to describe biombo as "a popular Mexican artform introduced by the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City in 1614"! This left me skeptical because Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) is far better known for its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) than for international outreach.

But in fact Tokugawa Japan did engage in a bit of outreach before the 1630s. In 1613, Date Masamune, first lord of Sendai, had Japan's first galleon built in Ishinomaki (one of the cities hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami). Later christened the San Juan Bautista and laden with ceremonial gifts, it set sail for Acapulco in New Spain with Japan's first ambassador to the Vatican, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, also spelled Faxecura Rocuyemon in Spanish sources), who spent time in Mexico City in 1614 and again on his return trip in 1618. About 60 of his Japanese compatriots who remained in Mexico until his return were baptized there as Christians. Hasekura himself waited until he got to Spain before being baptized as Francisco Felipe Faxicura.

Subaru – I was shocked a few months ago to realize that I had never bothered to wonder what the name Subaru means in Japanese. The logo on Subaru cars should perhaps have given me a hint, but I only found out about the Japanese meaning from a linguist friend who was researching whether the position of the Pleiades marks a seasonal cycle in any languages I was familiar with in Papua New Guinea.

In Numbami, the two words used to translate English 'year' are damana, which also means 'Pleiades', and yala, which comes from German Jahr. According to Streicher's (1982) Jabêm–English Dictionary entry for dam(o): "The Pleiades are the main constellation seen in Jabêm during the dry season (October to March), and governing their activities in their gardens, i.e. the felling of trees to clear the ground for new gardens; the burning and planting of fields is done according to the position of the Pleiades."

In Japanese, 'Pleiades' is usually rendered into プレアデス星団 Pureiadesu seidan (= 'star group'), but the older native Japanese name for the cluster is Subaru, and the Chinese character for it is 昴, pronounced BOU in Sino-Japanese. I'm not aware that the Pleiades play any role at all in Japan's highly conventionalized seasonal cycles, but the constellation may be a convenient symbol of the five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries that merged to create the Subaru car company.

12 November 2012

New World Allies of the Conquistadors

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 1260-1283:
When the Spaniards under Cortés left the Gulf coast and headed toward central Mexico, native Cempoalan warriors and porters accompanied them, and Tlaxcalans, Huejotzincans, and others later became part of a vast support force that greatly outnumbered the Spaniards. The Huejotzincans continued to fight alongside Spaniards and provide other services as the Conquest stretched out over the 1520s and 1530s. As Huejotzingo’s rulers would inform the king in 1560, “we never abandoned or left them. And as they went to conquer Michoacan, Jalisco, and Colhuacan, and at Pánuco and Oaxaca and Tehuantepec and Guatemala, we were the only ones who went along while they conquered and made war here in New Spain until they had finished the conquest; we never abandoned them, in no way did we hold back their warmaking, though some of us were destroyed in it.”

In fact, the Huejotzincans were not the only Nahuas to fight in other regions of what became New Spain. Montejo brought hundreds of warriors from Azcapotzalco, in the Valley of Mexico, to Yucatan. One Maya account of the Spanish invasion offers a revealing commentary on their use as a vanguard force. Following a series of military encounters in the region, the Spaniards entered the important town of Calkini in 1541 to accept the nominal submission of the local Maya rulers. The description of that ritual by the rulers of Calkini remarks pointedly that the Nahuas—called Culhuas by the Maya after Culhuacan, the town that had once dominated the Valley of Mexico—arrived first. The Maya account also noted that the leader of the Culhuas had been baptized Gonzalo, that their force brought along a herd of pigs (an animal introduced by the Spaniards), and that they were the ones who gathered up the tribute goods offered to the Spaniards.

There is no hint of racial solidarity between Nahuas and Mayas in this account, nor should any be expected. Spaniards lumped different native groups together as “Indians,” but to the Mayas of Calkini, the Culhuas were as foreign as the Spaniards. They were invaders to be repulsed or accommodated, as circumstances allowed, just as if they had come alone as part of the Mexica imperial expansion into Yucatan that never happened but may have eventually occurred had the Spaniards not appeared.

Nor was there a sense of Maya ethnic solidarity in the sixteenth century. In time, Mayas from the Calkini region and other parts of Yucatan would accompany Spaniards into unconquered regions of the peninsula as porters, warriors, and auxiliaries of various kinds. Companies of archers were under permanent commission in the Maya towns of Tekax and Oxkutzcab, regularly called upon to man or assist in raids into the unconquered regions south of the colony of Yucatan. As late as the 1690s Mayas from over a dozen Yucatec towns—organized into companies under their own officers and armed with muskets, axes, machetes, and bows and arrows—fought other Mayas in support of Spanish Conquest endeavors in the Petén region that is now northern Guatemala.

11 November 2012

Columbus as Portuguese Wannabe

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 348-399:
Columbus had profound Portuguese connections. Although he was Genoese and the sponsor of his voyages across the Atlantic was Queen Isabella of Castile, Columbus spent much of his life from the 1470s on in Portugal. In the late 1470s he married the daughter of a Portuguese Atlantic colonist, and he repeatedly sought royal Portuguese patronage before and after first approaching the Castilian monarch....

This context is so important because it is by looking at Portugal before and during Columbus's years there that one can see the degree to which the transplanted Genoese navigator had neither a a unique plan nor a unique vision nor a unique pattern of previous experience. Many others created and contributed to the expansion process of which Columbus became a part. Beginning 200 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, southern European shipping broke out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. The Vivaldi brothers, most notably, set off from Genoa in 1291 on what turned out to be a one-way voyage west across the Atlantic. Then, in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries a new zone of navigation was created that was bordered by the Azores in the north, the Canary Islands in the south, and the Iberian-African coasts in the east.

Finally, from the 1420s on, a further stretch of exploration and navigation into the mid- and west Atlantic was created and charted. In the 1450s and 1460s, Flores, Corvo, the Cape Verde Islands, and the islands of the Gulf of Guinea were explored. The Madeiras and Canaries were settled and turned into sugar-plantation colonies and by 1478 the former was the largest sugar producer in the Western world. Maps of the time show how important and extensive was the discovery of Atlantic space; speculation about the lands and features of the ocean was the most noteworthy feature of fifteenth-century cartography.

Although men from Italian city-states were involved from the start, and Castilians increasingly participated in the process (especially, from the late-fourteenth century on, in hostile competition for control of the Canaries), it was Portugal that dominated this expansion. Italian navigators were systematically and most effectively co-opted by the Portuguese monarchy (later joined by the Flemish), permitting the new Portuguese empire to control Atlantic settlement (except for the Canaries) and the agenda of expansion....

Columbus tried to become part of this process with growing desperation in the 1480s and 1490s. He failed for so long because he lacked the connections and persuasive ideas of other navigators. Even after he succeeded in crossing the Atlantic and returning, the extent of his success was questioned and questionable within the context of the time. The islands he had found (in the Caribbean) fell within the zone assigned to the Portuguese by the 1486 papal bull. And although in 1494 the papacy brokered a Portuguese-Castilian treaty that redefined these zones, it became increasingly apparent during the 1490s that Columbus had not found the much-sought sea route to the East Indies—but had been lying about it to Queen Isabella. Then, in 1499, Vasco da Gama returned from his successful voyage around the Cape and it became clear that the Portuguese had won the competition after all.

Columbus’s career was irreversibly damaged. His claim to have found islands off the coast of Asia, and thus the coveted sea route to that continent, rang hollow in the face of mounting evidence that these were new lands entirely. Columbus seemed to be lying for the sake of his contractual rewards. Perceiving the extent of his failure and his duplicity, the Castilian crown dispatched an agent to the Caribbean to arrest Columbus and bring him back to Spain in chains. Although he was later permitted to cross the Atlantic, he was forbidden to revisit the Caribbean and was stripped of the titles of Admiral and Viceroy of the Indies—titles he had fought to be included in his original contract and arguably the chief goal of his career. Meanwhile, those titles were conferred by the Portuguese crown upon da Gama.

The fact that it was Columbus’s voyages, not da Gama’s, that would lead to the changing of world history was not to the Genoese’s credit. His discoveries were an accidental geographical byproduct of Portuguese expansion two centuries old, of Portuguese-Castilian competition for Atlantic control a century old, and of Portuguese-Castilian competition for a sea route to India older than Columbus himself. Furthermore, had Columbus not reached the Americas, any one of numerous other navigators would have done so within a decade. Most obviously, the Portuguese Pedro Álvares Cabral explored the Brazilian coast in 1500, likewise arriving there in an attempt to reach Asia (by rounding the Cape).

10 November 2012

Franciscans the First Modern Ethnographers?

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 511-524:
Cortés emerged in the sixteenth century as the most recognizable of God’s agents for several reasons. One was the impressive nature of the Mexica empire and the subsequent importance of central Mexico to the Spanish empire. Another was the rapid publication and wide circulation (despite royal attempts at censorship) of Cortés’s letters to the king, which argued unambiguously that God had directed the Conquest of Mexico as a favor to the Spanish monarchy. The blessed status of Cortés himself was heavily implied; in one letter he uses the Spanish term medio (medium or agent), to describe his providential role. A third was the supportive spin placed on Cortés and the Conquest by the Franciscans.

Friars of the Order of St. Francis were the first Spanish priests into the Mesoamerican regions that would become the colonies of New Spain. In competition with the Dominicans, to a lesser extent other orders, and later the secular clergy (priests who were not members of an order), the Franciscans remained central to the activities of the church throughout colonial Spanish America. In central Mexico, Yucatan, and other parts of New Spain, sixteenth-century Franciscans were the driving force behind efforts to convert native peoples and build a colonial church. The roles that natives themselves played in that process, and the writings generated as a result by both friars and natives, gave rise to an extraordinary body of literature that was foundational to the academic discipline of ethnography.

The Franciscans saw Cortés’s support of their entry into Mexico and their activities in the earliest colonial years as being crucial to their mission, and as a result contributed much to the formation of his legend.

Origins of the Conquistador Genre

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 443-474:
The Mexican historian Enrique Florescano has observed that the Conquest gave rise to “a new protagonist of historical action and narration: the conquistador” and with him “a new historical discourse” that featured “a new manner of seeing and representing the past.” The historical discourse of the conquistadors may have been new in the sense of its application to the Americas, but it was actually based on a genre of document developed by Iberians before they reached the New World [during the Reconquista]. This genre was the report that conquerors sent to the crown upon completion of their activities of exploration, conquest, and settlement. Such reports had a dual purpose. One purpose was to inform the monarch of events and newly acquired lands, especially if those lands contained the two elements most sought as the basis for colonization—settled native populations, and precious metals. The other purpose was to petition for rewards in the form of offices, titles, and pensions. Hence the Spanish name for the genre, probanza de mérito (proof of merit).

The very nature and purpose of probanzas obliged those who wrote them to promote their own deeds and downplay or ignore those of others—to eliminate process and pattern in favor or individual action and achievement. Most of Conquest mythology can be found in these reports—the Spaniards as superior beings blessed by divine providence, the invisibility of Africans and native allies, the Conquest’s rapid rush to completion, and above all the Conquest as the accomplishment of bold and self-sacrificing individuals.

Probanzas are also important because so many were written. Literally thousands sit in the great imperial archives in Seville, and still more are in Madrid, Mexico City, Lima, and elsewhere.... Most such reports were brief—a page or two—wooden, formulaic in style, given scant attention by royal officials, then shelved until their rediscovery by twentieth-century historians. Many, no doubt, have never been read. But an influential minority were widely read either through publication as conquest accounts, or by being worked into colonial-period histories. For example, the famous letters by Cortés to the king, which were in effect a series of probanzas, were published shortly after reaching Spain. They so efficiently promoted the Conquest as Cortés’s achievement, and sold so well in at least five languages, that the crown banned the cartas lest the conqueror’s cult status become a political threat. The letters continued to circulate, however, and later admirers traveled like pilgrims to Cortés’s residence in Spain. The Cortés cult was further stimulated by Gómara’s hagiography of 1552—that the crown attempted to suppress too.

There was plenty of precedent to the publication of probanza-like letters and to crown intervention in their distribution or suppression. Within months of Columbus’s return to Spain from his first Atlantic crossing, a “letter” putatively written by him but actually crafted by royal officials based on a document by Columbus was published in Spanish, Italian (prose and verse versions), and Latin. It promoted the “discovery” as a Spanish achievement that cast favorable light on the Spanish monarchs and on Columbus as their agent. Significantly, it also made the letter originally written by Columbus, who as a Genoese would have been less familiar with the Iberian genres, look more like a Spanish probanza.

03 November 2012

Charles V, Holy Roman Spendthrift

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 3427-3580:
From the moment of his Imperial election Charles V found himself saddled with enormous commitments. The struggle with France in the 1520s, the offensive and defensive operations against the Turks in the 1530s, and then, in the 1540s and 1550s, the hopeless task of quelling heresy and revolt in Germany, imposed a constant strain on the Imperial finances. Always desperately short of funds, Charles would turn from one of his dominions to another in the search for more money, and would negotiate on unfavourable terms with his German and Genoese bankers for loans to carry him over the moments of acute penury, at the expense of mortgaging more and more of his present and future sources of revenue. This hand-to-mouth existence had prompted, in the very first years of the reign, gloomy prophecies about the certainty of financial shipwreck, but, in fact, it was not until 1557, when Philip II had succeeded his father, that the expected bankruptcy materialized. Until then, Charles's appeals to the generosity of his subjects and his constant recourse to loans from the bankers somehow managed to stave off the moment of disaster; but the price paid was a renunciation of any attempt to organize the Imperial finances on a rational basis and to plan a coherent economic programme for the various territories of the Empire.

The main cost of financing Charles's imperialism was borne by different territories at different times, depending on their presumed fiscal capacity and on the facility with which money could be extracted from them. The territories concerned were primarily European, for the part played by the new American possessions in financing Habsburg policies during the first half of the sixteenth century was relatively very small. Until the 1550s the Crown's revenues from America averaged only some 200,000–300,000 ducats a year, as compared with the 2,000,000 ducats a year of the later years of the reign of Philip II. This meant that the real entry of the New World into the Habsburg empire was delayed until the decade 1550–60, and that Charles V's imperialism, unlike that of his son, was essentially a European-based imperialism. Among the European territories of Charles it was the Netherlands and Italy which bore the brunt of the Imperial expenditure during the first half of the reign. But as each in turn began to be squeezed dry Charles was compelled to look elsewhere for further sources of revenue, and by 1540 he was writing to his brother Ferdinand: ‘I cannot be sustained except by my kingdoms of Spain.’ Henceforth, the financial contributions of Spain – which meant essentially Castile – assumed a constantly increasing importance in relation to those of the Low Countries.

Within Spain there were several potential sources of revenue, both secular and ecclesiastical. The financial contribution of the Spanish Church to Habsburg imperialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries still awaits an adequate study, but its importance would be difficult to overestimate. If the Lutheran princes of Europe were to gain great benefits from breaking with Rome and despoiling the Churches in their territories, the kings of Spain were to show that despoiling the Church was equally possible without going to the lengths of rupture with the Papacy, and that the long-term advantages of this method were at least as great, and probably greater. It was difficult for the Papacy to refuse new financial concessions when the, Faith was everywhere being endangered by the spread of heresy; and the Spanish Crown, by placing no restrictions on mortmain, could further the accumulation of property in the hands of the Church, where it was more readily available for taxation.


Charles V's fantastically expensive foreign policies and his dependence on credit to finance them therefore had disastrous consequences for Castile. The country's resources were mortgaged for an indefinite number of years ahead in order to meet the Emperor's expenses, a large proportion of which had been incurred outside Spain. His reliance on credit contributed sharply to the prevailing inflationary trends. Above all, the lack of provision in the Crown's financial policies - its inability to devise any coherent financial programme – meant that such resources as did exist were squandered, while the methods used to extract them might almost have been deliberately designed to stunt the economic growth of Castile. The reign of Charles V, in fact, saw three dangerous developments that were to be of incalculable importance for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. In the first place, it established the dominance of foreign bankers over the country's sources of wealth. Secondly, it determined that Castile would bear the main weight of the fiscal burden within Spain. In the third place, it ensured that within Castile the brunt of the burden was borne by those classes which were least capable of bearing it.

Language vs. ethnicity in Odessa

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 278-279:
Odessa has been mainly Ukrainian in demographic terms since the late 1970s. At the time of the 1979 census, Ukrainians were on the cusp of being an absolute majority, at 49.97 percent of the population of the Odessa region as a whole. But until very recently that fact said little about the feel of the city in cultural terms. Even after the Second World War, the city remained a confusing space to Soviet demographers and social engineers. By 1959 it was about the most linguistically mixed place in all of Ukraine. More people considered their native language to be different from the language of their self-reported ethnic group than anywhere else in the republic. Most Jews and more than half the ethnic Ukrainians in the city spoke Russian as their everyday language. Nearly a third of ethnic Moldovans spoke Ukrainian. The smaller communities of Bulgarians, Belorussians, and others got along by using Russian, Ukrainian, or another language entirely. The Soviet system was based on the faith that modernity would cause the dividing lines among peoples to fade into insignificance. But in Odessa those lines became indecipherable squiggles as the main markers of ethnicity, language, and even religion combined and overlapped in unpredictable ways....

Ukrainians—at least those who claim that ethnic label in censuses—are now an absolute majority, forming close to two-thirds of the total population. But with a sizable ethnic Russian minority and nearly complete agreement on Russian as the city's lingua franca, political factions have spent the past two decades waging a struggle over public memory on literally a monumental scale. A block away from the Odessa steps, the city administration removed a Soviet-era statue that commemorated the Potemkin mutiny. In its place went a restored statue of the city's founder, Catherine the Great, which had itself been removed by the Bolsheviks (who had substituted a huge bust of Karl Marx). Catherine's left hand now points not only toward the port but also toward the north, to Russia, which many Odessans, regardless of their ethnic provenance, still see as their cultural and spiritual home. Predictably, demonstrations—both pro and contra—accompanied the unveiling.

Elsewhere, Ukrainians were fighting a rear-guard action. Up went a statue to the poet Ivan Franko, a Ukrainian nationalist icon with tenuous connections to the city, and a memorial to Anton Holovaty, an eighteenth-century Cossack leader and, as such, a proto-Ukrainian hero. A faux-antique street sign was place at the top of Deribasovskaya, announcing that its name would become, officially at least, Derybasivs'ka—a ukrainianized version that few Odessans have ever been heard to utter. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the city government has reportedly removed 148 public monuments (104 of them to Lenin) and rechristened 179 streets with either their old Russian imperial names—usually spelled the Ukrainian way—or newly created ones.

31 October 2012

Odessa's meshchane estate

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 134-136:
From the perspective of the tsarist state, Russian society was divided into identifiable and highly regulated "estates," or sosloviya in Russian. Membership could be fluid, at least across several generations, and in many cases one's estate was never as predetermined or immutable as one's sex or eye color. But it was still a fundamental part of a Russian subject's social identity. In contrast to what Marxists would identify as "class," an individual's estate membership had little to do with his or her place in the hierarchy of economic production, much less with wealth or income. Like for the impoverished nobles in the works of Tolstoy or Chekhov, estate status was part of one's birthright, the genetic code of Russian society as a whole, not a reflection of economic power. When the state came to sort and categorize its own citizens, the labels that presented themselves in the late nineteenth century were clear: nobles, clergy, military, civil servants, and a group known as the meshchane—by far the largest estate in Odessa.

The meshchane—a word that might be translated as the petty bourgeoisie—were the large group of semi-skilled workers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and Russian subjects caught between the castes of large-scale landowners and their former serfs living in grinding poverty in the close-in suburbs. They eked out a living on the fringes of Odessa's trading economy, vulnerable to the pendulum swings of commerce and the periodic blights afflicting agriculture. Unlike the wealthiest members of society, they had little recourse when times were hard, other than to join the day laborers hanging around the docks or hoping to pick up a job as a porter at one of the city's bazaars. Unlike their peasant neighbors, they had few real connections to the countryside that might allow them to weather economic fluctuations in town. Already by the middle of the nineteenth century, Odessa was largely a city of these vulnerable meshchane. In 1858 the nobility comprised 3 percent of the city's population, merchants nearly 5 percent, foreigners (that is, people who were not Russian subjects) just over 4 percent, peasants nearly 4 percent, and the military under 7 percent. The remainder—nearly 70 percent of the city's total—were meshchane.

With a transient foreign population and a constant stream of newcomers arriving by ship and overland carriage—far moire than in the empire's twin capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow—Odessa was ripe for the kind of swindles, trickery, and palm-greasing that helped ease the economic burden of the petty bourgeoisie. When visitors complained of the hotelier who charged extra for bedding, the cobbler who charged twice to repair the same shoe, or the droshky driver who charged different rates for the same ride, it was the city's huge estate of meshchane who were the makers of the city's reputation. They could be found in virtually any profession. In 1892 over half the city's 607 prostitutes reported that they were meshchane by estate.

25 October 2012

Odessa, a "Russian Chicago"

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 109-112:
Until the 1860s, Odessa was the breadbasket for much of the Western world, feeding a hungry European and, increasingly, global market. Foreign consuls sent breathless dispatches to European capitals about fluctuations in the prices of wheat and barley. Foreign ministers contemplated the effects of diplomatic squabbles on the supply of foodstuffs. Only with the discovery of oil farther to the east, in the Russian Caucasus and the Caspian seaport of Baku, was Odessa's chief cash export exceeded by that of a rival Russian city.

Odessa's commercial success lay in its position at the intersection of flatlands and seascape, where the produce of the former could be sent to markets across the latter. But a series of fortunate accidents allowed the city to enhance this natural gift. Talented administrators such as Vorontsov argued for maintaining the freeport status, which was a considerable inducement to foreign and local entrepreneurs. Improvements in the harbor allowed larger ships to enter and lie safely at anchor. The fall-off in plague outbreaks around the Black Sea reduced much of the time that ships, goods, and passengers spent in quarantine. When the Peace of Adrianople was signed between the sultan and tsar in 1829, ending nearly a decade of diplomatic bickering, trade squabbles, and outright war, Russian secured a historic set of concessions from the Ottomans, including an end to the Ottoman practice of boarding and searching Russian merchant ships. The period of relative peace that followed—from the late 1820s to the early 1850s—provided ease of shipping through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.

The economic results were immense. Grain exports from all the Russian Black Sea ports stood at a yearly average of under two million chetverts (a unit of Russian dry measurement equal to 5.77 U.S. bushels) before 1813, but by the 1860s that figure had risen to over sixteen million chetverts. Over half those exports were coming solely from Odessa. Between the 1840s and 1850s, the annual volume of grain exports to Italian ports more than doubled, while the French were importing ten times as much Odessa grain at the end of that period as at the beginning. After the late 1840s, the easing of restrictive import laws in England the introduction of hardier wheat varieties in Russia opened new markets for Odessa's produce, well beyond the traditional Mediterranean destinations. By the middle of the century, well over a thousand ships were leaving Odessa each year. The number of British ships sailing into the Black Sea increased sevenfold between the mid-1840s and the early 1850s, with Britain accounting for a third or more of all destinations of vessels exiting the port. Wheat, barley, rye, and other grains filled the holds of long-haul sea vessels flying flags of most major European powers.

Of all these goods, the queen was wheat. Ninety percent of Russian wheat exports flowed out of the empire's Black Sea ports, and many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Odessa derived from its production and sale. Immense herds of cattle provided manure for fertilizer in the countryside and pulled the thousands of wooden carts that bore the harvested grain from field to storage centers....

Some carters would return north with cloth, wine, or other imported goods offloaded from merchant vessels in the harbor, while others chose to transform their infrastructure into capital. The dried dung could be collected and sold as fuel to poor families, and the animals could then be given up to slaughter for meat and hides. The sweet smoke of burning, grass-rich manure mingled in the air with the reek of tallow vats and the sharp odor of tanneries, the factories that produced the bricks of processed fat and bundles of unworked leather destined for Turkey, Italy, or France.

With hundreds of thousands of head of livestock coming through the city each harvest season, dust and mud were constant features of Odessan life. Choking, white-yellow clouds, stirred up by hooves and swirled about by the prevailing winds, powdered residents like talcum. Rain turned inches of accumulated limestone grime into impassable sloughs....

An open, brick-lined drainage system, about two feet deep, ran alongside the major thoroughfares, crossed by occasional footbridges and wooden planks. But the rivulets they contained—the wastewater runoff and solid offal of houses and hotels, as well as animal dung and mud from the streets—could gag even the toughest pedestrian. The blooms of acacia trees and oleander fought back with their perfume, but it usually took a change in wind direction, blowing off the plains and toward the sea, to unburden the city of its own stench.

20 October 2012

Odessa, a "Russian Cincinnati"

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 107-108:
When foreign travelers ventured across the Eurasian steppe, it was difficult to know which was worse: bouncing along rutted roads in a hired wagon careering along at breakneck speed, or stopping in a fly-blown inn where a meal was little more than moldy bread and rough wine, and one's bed a straw mat covered by a ragged blanket.

It was all the more surprising, then, when travelers came across a small slice of Germany that had been transplanted to the windy flatlands. Small wooden houses were gathered in neat rows around a plain stone church. Doorposts were painted with simple but elegant flower motifs. Blooming flowerboxes decorated the street-facing windows. A visitor was greeted with a friendly but wary "Guten tag," and if he asked for onward directions to another village or city, he should be sure to know its name in German rather than in Russian. "How agreeably was I surprised to see the advanced state of agriculture as we travelled southwards," wrote the wife of a Russian officer not long after Odessa's founding, "and to find this mighty empire, which, I own, judging from its vast extent, I supposed to be thinly peopled, covered with populous villages and waving corn [wheat]." Germans, especially members of the reclusive Mennonite Christian denomination, had been invited by Catherine the Great to set up farms across New Russia shortly after her acquisition of the territory from the Ottomans. Germans brought agricultural skills that were lacking in a frontier peopled mainly by nomads and Cossacks. In turn, they received land, exemption from military service, and ready outlets for their produce in the burgeoning Russian ports along the Black Sea.

Odessa was founded by foreigners in Russian service, and that heritage reproduced itself generation after generation. Niche industries abounded. If you were a well-to-do merchant, your barber was likely to be an Armenian, your gardener a Bulgarian, your plasterer a Pole, your carriage driver a Russian, and your nursemaid a Ukrainian. "There is nothing national about Odessa," recalled one visitor disapprovingly. Some could describe it only by analogy—as a Russian Florence, a Russian Naples, a Russian Paris, a Russian Chicago, even a Russian Cincinnati.

Odessa and D.C., Separated at Birth

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 57-59:
In the tumultuous final decades of the eighteenth century, Russia became a haven for down-and-out European nobles, bored adventurers, and impecunious philosophers, musicians, and artists seeking patrons in an empire that had only recently discovered its European vocation. Armand Sophie Septimanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, was one of them. Born in September of 1766, Richelieu was a member of the great family of French nobles and heir to a long tradition of state service. His great-uncle, Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu, had been the famous and powerful chief minister to Louis XIII....

As a veteran of courtly machinations in Versailles, Richelieu skillfully weathered the uncertain years following the death of his new patron and the brief reign of the petulant Paul. When Alexander became tsar in 1801, Richelieu was thus in a good position to seek a major role in the reformed administration. Given the growing importance of France—both as a trading partner with New Russia and as an occasional enemy of the Russian Empire—appointing someone with French connections to a position in the south made good sense. In 1803 Alexander named the thirty-seven-year-old Richelieu to the post of gradonachal'nik—city administrator—of Odessa, with responsibility for all military, commercial, and municipal affairs. He soon found himself journeying southward to take up the new assignment on a piece of territory that, as he recalled in his memoirs, probably overstating the case, was still "a desert inhabited only by hordes of Tatars and by Cossacks who, rejecting all civilization, sow terror through their brigandage and cruelties."

When he arrived, Richelieu discovered not so much a city despite the robust commerce, as an architectural drawing—all plan and relatively little substance, with streets and foundations laid out in the chalky dust of the plain. One of de Ribas's lasting contributions had been his insistence on self-conscious urban organization. Odessa is young by European, even by American, standards. A city that we now think of as typically old world was founded three years after Washington, D.C. Both cities' central districts are eighteenth-century fantasies of what a city should be: rationally laid out on a grid of symmetrical streets intersected by long, wide avenues and dotted with pocket-sized parks. The avenue provide edifying sight lines over great distances. The parks are places of relaxation and civic-mindedness, with statues and monuments that extol the virtues of duty, honor, and patriotism. It was a thrill for later visitors to Odessa—such as Mark Twain in the 1860s—to stand in the middle of a broad thoroughfare and see the empty steppe at one end and the empty sea at the other, just as visitors to Washington can connect the dots of the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and other prominent landmarks via the major avenues and open spaces.

08 October 2012

John Paul Jones in the Russian Navy

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 43-47:
His work for the newly independent United States now finished, [John Paul] Jones traveled eastward to serve as commander of a Russian squadron in engagements with the Ottoman navy. Jones had made his reputation in America through a series of successful attacks on British warships; he is today revered as the founding father of the U.S. Navy, his remains encased in a lavish shrine in Annapolis, Maryland. But Potemkin was unimpressed. "This man is unfit to lead: he's slow, lacks zeal and is perhaps even afraid of the Turks," he wrote to Catherine. "He's new at this business, has neglected his entire crew and is good for nothing: not knowing the language, he can neither give nor comprehend orders."

Jones had been a brilliantly successful captain in the Atlantic, but his skills were essentially those of a pirate: the ability to lead a small contingent of men aboard a single ship in order to confront a single adversary. His abilities as a commander in a more complex struggle—especially among the haughty, intrigue-ridden, and multilingual European officer corps into which he had place himself—were questionable. "Jones was very famous as a corsair, but I fear that at the head of a squadron he is rather out of place," wrote Charles of Nassau-Siegen, another foreign officer in Catherine's employ. Jones reacted petulantly to any perceived slight from his aristocratic brother-officers and spent much of his time in Russia arguing over rank and chain of command. "Never, probably, did any commanding officer commence service under circumstances more painful," Jones complained. "My firmness and integrity have supported me against those detestable snares laid by my enemies for my ruin."

Whatever reputation Jones managed to salvage from his Russia years was in large part owed to the good judgment, operational savvy, and decorum of one of his lieutenants, another mercenary name José de Ribas. During the war with the Ottomans, de Ribas proved far more adept than the storied American captain at securing his fortune on the Russo-Turkish frontier, as well as his place in history as Odessa's true founding father. His mixed background and improvised life were emblematic of the city he helped to establish....

De Ribas was present at one of the most important and most gruesome episodes of the Russo-Turkish conflict, an engagement in which he served alongside the disoriented and indecisive John Paul Jones. In midsummer of 1788, de Ribas was Potemkin's liaison officer with Jones at the Battle of Liman, an encounter on the Dnieper estuary before the ramparts of two fortresses, Ochakov and Kinburn. The former was held by the Ottomans, the latter by the Russians; the twin outposts faced each other across a narrow water inlet connecting the Dnieper with the Black Sea. Jones was given command of a detachment of oar-powered boats outfitted with small cannons. Their task was not to engage Ottoman warships head-on but to lure them into the shallows, where they would be stuck fast in the mud and offer easy targets to Russia's heavy guns and incendiary bombs. "Humanity recoils with indignation and horror from seeing so many wretched creatures perish in the flames," Jones wrote to de Ribas during the fighting....

Despite his role in these events, Jones ended his Russian career in ignominy. After numerous run-ins with Nassau-Siegen and other aristocratic officers, he was transferred from the southern fleet by Potemkin and returned to St. Petersburg. With the war still raging, he was drummed out of Russia altogether, accused of forcibly deflowered a twelve-year-old girl. His defense was not to disown the affair—a matter usually glossed over by American historians—but rather to deny that it was rape. He admitted in a statement to prosecutors that he had "often frolicked" with the girl for a small cash payment, but that "I can assure you with absolute certainty that I did not despoil her of her virginity." He died in penury in Paris a few years later, a broken man in a faded uniform, still pestering foreign diplomats with plans for new naval campaigns in faraway lands.

07 October 2012

Cossack Pirates on the Black Sea

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 33-34:
Pirates from north of the Black Sea frequently targeted Ottoman ships, even hitting the Ottoman heartland in Anatolia and occasionally menacing Constantinople. These raiders grew up out of the frontier society that defined the coastal borderlands of the empire—a mixture of former Polish-Lithuanian or Muscovite peasants, local Muslims, and nomadic herders, some of whom coalesced into distinct communities given the catchall label "Cossacks." Cossack groups emerged in the mid-sixteenth century as a key power at the intersection of Polish-Lithuanian and Ottoman authority, offering their services as freebooters—the word "Cossack" probably derives from kazak, a Turkic word for "free man"—to whichever sovereign could pay the highest fee. Although a substantial livelihood came from raiding and piracy, Cossacks were a true multipurpose frontier people, farming, herding, and fishing in the grassy lowlands and estuaries of the Dnieper and other rivers.

The French artillery engineer Guillaume de Beauplan, who witnessed Cossack raids in the seventeenth century, left a graphic description of the Cossacks and their waterborne lives, painting them not as the legendary cavalrymen they would eventually become, but rather as able and daring seamen, commanding small rivercraft that could be reoutfitted for voyages across the sea. As he wrote in his Description of Ukraine:
Their number now approaches some 120,000 men, all trained for war, and ready to answer in less than a week the slightest command to serve the [Polish] king. It is these people who often, [indeed] almost every year, go raiding on the Black Sea, to the great detriment of the Turks. Many times they have plundered Crimea, which belongs to Tatary, ravaged Anatolia, sacked Trebizond, and even ventured as far as the mouth of the Black Sea [Bosphorus], three leagues from Constantinople, where they have laid waste to everything with fire and sword, returning home with much booty and a number of slaves, usually young children, whom they keep for their own service or give as gifts to the lords of their homeland.
As the Cossack raids illustrated, in the seventeenth century at least, the Ottomans exercised little direct control north of the Black Sea, except during seasons of war when troops might descend on local villages to burn crops or requisition livestock.

30 September 2012

Charles the Flemish King of Spain

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2489-2536:
The new King, a gawky, unprepossessing youth with an absurdly pronounced jaw, did not make a favourable impression on his first appearance in Spain. Apart from looking like an idiot, he suffered from the unforgivable defect of knowing no Castilian. In addition, he was totally ignorant of Spanish affairs, and was surrounded by an entourage of rapacious Flemings. It was natural to contrast him un-favourably with his brother Ferdinand, who enjoyed the supreme advantage of a Castilian upbringing – a background that seemed to Charles's advisers to be so fraught with danger for the future that they shipped Ferdinand off to Flanders a few months after his brother's arrival in Spain. His departure, which (as was intended) deprived the grandees of a potential figurehead and the populace of a symbol, merely increased the discontents of a disaffected nation.

The principal complaint of the Castilians was directed against the Flemings, who were alleged to be plundering the country so fortuitously inherited by their duke....

When the Cortes were held at Valladolid in January 1518 to swear allegiance to the new King and vote him a servicio, the procuradores seized the opportunity to protest against the exploitation of Castile by foreigners; and they found some outlet for their indignation in addressing Charles only as ‘su Alteza’, reserving the title of ‘Magestad’ exclusively for his mother, Juana....

News reached Charles as he was on the road to Barcelona at the end of January 1519 of the death of his grandfather Maximilian; five months later, after long intrigues and the expenditure of vast sums of money, he was elected Emperor in his grandfather's place. Gattinara, a man whose broad imperial vision was inspired by a cosmopolitan background, an acquaintance with the political writings of Dante, and, most of all, by the humanist's longings for a respublica christiana, showed himself fully prepared for the change. Charles was no longer to be styled ‘su Alteza’, but ‘S.C.C.R. Magestad’ (Sacra, Cesárea, Católica, Real Magestad). The Duke of Burgundy, King of Castile and León, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, had now added to his imposing list of titles the most impressive of all: Emperor-elect of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charles's election as Emperor inevitably altered his relationship to his Spanish subjects. It did much to increase his prestige, opening up new and unexpected horizons, of which the Catalans – as a result of his residence among them at this moment – were probably the first to become aware. Charles himself was changing, and beginning at last to acquire a personality of his own; he seems to have established an easier relationship with his Catalan subjects than with the tightly suspicious Castilians; and Barcelona for a glorious six months revelled in its position as the capital of the Empire.

If a foreign ruler had obvious disadvantages, there might none the less be compensations, as yet barely glimpsed. It was the disadvantages, however, which most impressed the Castilians as Charles hurried back across Castile in January 1520 to embark for England and Germany. If the King of Castile were also to be Holy Roman Emperor, this was likely to lead to two serious consequences for Castile. It would involve long periods of royal absenteeism, and it would also involve a higher rate of taxation in order to finance the King's increased expenditure. Already, at the news of Charles's election, voices were raised in protest against his impending departure. The protests originated in the city of Toledo, which was to play the leading part in the troubles of the next two years, for reasons that are not yet fully clear. The city seems somehow to have exemplified, in heightened form, all the tensions and conflicts within Castile, offering an illuminating example of the constant interaction of local and national affairs.

09 September 2012

Reassessing Ferdinand and Isabella's Legacy

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2181-2234:
The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was called by Prescott ‘the most glorious epoch in the annals’ of Spain. Generations of Spaniards, contrasting their own times with those of the Catholic Kings, would look back upon them as the golden age of Castile. The conquest of Granada, the discovery of America, and the triumphant emergence of Spain on to the European political stage lent unparalleled lustre to the new State created by the Union of the Crowns, and set the seal of success on the political, religious, and economic reforms of the royal couple.

Against the conventional picture of a glorious spring-time under Ferdinand and Isabella, too soon to be turned to winter by the folly of their successors, there must, however, be set some of the less happy features of their reign. They had united two Crowns, but had not even tentatively embarked on the much more arduous task of uniting two peoples. They had destroyed the political power of the great nobility, but left its economic and social influence untouched. They had reorganized the Castilian economy, but at the price of reinforcing the system of latifundios and the predominance of grazing over tillage. They had introduced into Castile certain Aragonese economic institutions, monopolistic in spirit, while failing to bring the Castilian and Aragonese economies any closer together. They had restored order in Castile, but in the process had overthrown the fragile barriers that stood in the way of absolutism. They had reformed the Church, but set up the Inquisition. And they had expelled one of the most dynamic and resourceful sections of the community – the Jews. All this must darken a picture that is often painted excessively bright.

Yet nothing can alter the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella created Spain; that in their reign it acquired both an international existence and – under the impulse given by the creative exuberance of the Castilians and the organizing capacity of the Aragonese – the beginnings of a corporate identity. Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy an institutional form. The Castilians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new State forward; and it was this dynamism which gave the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella its distinguishing character. The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.

The Court was the natural center of Castile's cultural life; and since Spain still had no fixed capital it was a Court on the move, bringing new ideas and influences from one town to another as it travelled round the country. Since Isabella enjoyed a European reputation for her patronage of learning, she was able to attract to the Court distinguished foreign scholars like the Milanese Pietro Martire, the director of the palace school. Frequented by foreign scholars and by Spaniards who had returned from studying in Italy, the Court thus became an outpost of the new humanism, which was now beginning to establish itself in Spain.

One of the devotees of the new learning was Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522), who returned home from Italy in 1473 – the year in which printing was introduced into Spain. Nebrija, who held the post of historiographer royal, was a grammarian and lexicographer, and an editor of classical texts in the best humanist tradition. But his interests, like those of many humanists, extended also to the vernacular, and he published in 1492 a Castilian grammar – the first grammar to be compiled of a modern European language. ‘What is it for?’ asked Isabella when it was presented to her. ‘Your Majesty,’ replied the Bishop of Avila on Nebrija's behalf, ‘language is the perfect instrument of empire.’

The Bishop's reply was prophetic. One of the secrets of Castilian domination of the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth century was to be found in the triumph of its language and culture over that of other parts of the peninsula and empire. The cultural and linguistic success of the Castilians was no doubt facilitated by the decline of Catalan culture in the sixteenth century, as it was also facilitated by the advantageous position of Castilian as the language of Court and bureaucracy. But, in the last analysis, Castile's cultural predominance derived from the innate vitality of its literature and language at the end of the fifteenth century. The language of the greatest work produced in the Castile of the Catholic Kings, the Celestina of the converso Fernando de Rojas, is at once vigorous, flexible, and authoritative: a language that was indeed ‘the perfect instrument of empire’.