Wednesday, August 8, 2012

La historia

For years I have been trying to wrap my head around the legacy of the Spanish Empire. I studied it in college courses, I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic, the first Spanish colony, and I've been further trying to understand it since I've been here.

Context context context.
 In order to understand history correctly, so that we can understand the context in which it places us, we should try to place ourselves in the time and mindset and context of those who lived in the period we are studying. When we speak of places, people, historical battles, or ways of doing things in times past, we must specifically indicate why these things matter to us. If they don't tell us something about the present, we can relegate them to a less important shelf of history, and let those interested investigate them at their leisure.
There are so many names, or names of places, and especially names of obsolete objects or processes that are repeated in historical accounts without any explanation of what they are or why we might care at all about them. When we read about obscure locations, how is it ever acceptable to not include a map? A historically accurate map which does not confuse us with future boundaries or cities (unless they are labeled as such). There is so much popular history that is not well explained... it may well lead me to become a high school history teacher myself. History about the Spanish Empire tends to be even worse, which I think may have to do with the Spanish emphasis on formalism.

Anyhow, I am going to do my best to explain my understanding of Paraguayan history, to make it relatively concise but to explain as much as possible with as few unexplained references to unknown concepts as possible. Let us begin.

Cristoforo Colombo, a Genoese, sailed for the kings of Spain in 1492 to try and find the (East) Indies by sailing west. He had an idea that the Earth was quite a bit smaller than generally agreed upon at the time, that Eurasia was larger than it actually is, and that Japan was further to the East than it is. He ended up discovering the continents of North and South America. The Americas had already been discovered by Asian hunter-gatherers 20,000 years ago, but they didn't tell anybody in the Old World about it, so it had to be discovered all over again.
The Spanish very quickly went about colonizing the newly discovered lands. Spain was a medieval kingdom which was at the top of its game. It had just emerged finally victorious in a 700 year struggle for the Iberian Peninsula against the Moors, an Islamic people from North Africa. The two main "Spanish" kingdoms, Aragón (which was a sea empire in the Western Mediterranean) and Castile (which was a land empire in the middle of the peninsula) had also just united. The result was a large empire, successful in war but without any current opponent, which had naval capacity and expertise and a large population base.

This empire still existed in a fundamentally medieval setting. Though cannons were common, small firearms were rare, expensive, and of dubious utility. Ships were now larger and more advanced than they had been in previous times, but were still primitive, dangerous, and tiny compared to sailing ships of the coming centuries. The Catholic Church was central in politics and daily life. Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus and Machiavelli were still living; Galelio, Luther, and Cervantes were not yet born. Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for more than a thousand years, had only fallen forty years before. The intellectual flowering of the renaissance had begun in Northern Italy, but was still developing, and in any case hadn’t been around very long. The "Enlightenment" of the 18th century lay far in the future.

This is important, first because the medieval culture and systems of the Spanish Empire were carried by the conquerors to the American colonies. The priority of the church, the bizarre and suffocating economic regulation, and the feudal encomienda system were all to shape the new colonies and the nations they would become. Second, we must understand the empire in this way so as to differentiate it from the later British colonies and the United States which would arise from them. Our natural inclination is to imagine the Spanish colonies as a sort of Hispanic version of the British North American colonies because it is with the latter that we are familiar. However, it is a false cognate, so to speak. These two colonial systems were settled in completely different cultural contexts as a result both of the different eras in which they were established and the national cultures they arose from.

Briefly, the Spanish set up the New World equivalent of feudal manors. They subjugated natives to make them serfs while the conquerors made themselves into new lords. They sent their serfs into the mines and the plantations to extract the wealth of the new lands to finance the Kingdom’s long and costly wars in Europe. The church was active and involved in all of this, while also energetically seeking to convert the new serfs. Though Anglo American colonists treated the natives no better than their Spanish predecessors, preferring to forcibly relocate or exterminate them rather than enslave, they did not, especially in the northern colonies, try to turn themselves into feudal lords. It was not (I'm generalizing here, okay?!) the extracted wealth of the colonies that enriched Great Britain, but the intercontinental commerce which grew up between the colonies and the home state.

When the Conquistadores arrived on the shores of the Americas, and promptly went about subjugating and destroying every indigenous society or people they encountered, we need to understand them in this context. As much as anything, the Spanish explorers and Conquistadores and missionaries need to be understood as incredibly hard-core dudes. The speed at which they overthrew the large and powerful Aztec empire, crossed Panama, and overthrew the even larger, more powerful and much more inconveniently located Incan empire with essentially medieval technology and embarrassingly small armies is mind boggling.
We could think of these small forces of Conquistadores as analogous to a crack team of CIA agents. Tom Clancy stuff. Who were able to use technology, wiliness, military skill, political manipulation, and finally brute force to bring down these massive but vulnerable empires.
And it probably also is worth remebering that like the Spanish empire, the Aztec and Inca empires were both built by conquest and composed of subjugated peoples.

The missionaries were also hard-core dudes. They left behind the modest comforts of 16th century civilized life traveled into lands unknown to themselves or their compatriots, learned new languages and convinced thousands of natives to convert to an alien religion. We feel pretty gnarly when we go back packing for three days. These guys went for months, in unknown jungles with the most only basic belongings.


Colombo's expeditions initially arrived in the Caribbean. On his second voyage he landed on Hispañola and established Santo Domingo 1498. Santo Domingo would be a major colonial port city and provided support and supplies to the Conquistadores in their expeditions to what they would discover to be the mainland. Gold was found on Hispañola, but just enough to get the Spaniards excited. By poking their way around the region for riches they found their way to Mexico, which they had overthrown by 1521. They also landed on the coast of Panama and established an outpost there in 1510. Nine years later they had crossed the isthmus and began exploring the Pacific Coast of South America. They once again used their excellent nose for treasure to sniff out the Incan empire, which they had overthrown by 1532. Lima was established in 1535, making a line of Spanish settlements and captured cities that ran from Peru, along the spine of the Andes through Ecuador and Colombia to Panama. The idea that Lima was founded 70 years before Jamestown boggles my mind.

South America is defined geographically by three features: The Andes mountain range, the Amazon River and rainforest, and the "Rio de la Plata". The Rio de la Plata is not actually any one river, but includes all the rivers which flow into the inlet between modern Argentina and Uruguay.

The Amazon, though navigable, was inhospitable and unattractive to Europeans, especially in the first stages of colonization. It served as a huge barrier between the northern and southern parts of the continent. The Rivers of La Plata were mostly navigable, and proved to be important for transportation, communication, and commerce, but were largely neglected by the Spanish until the last years of the Empire. The Spanish were focused rather upon the Andes and New Spain (Mexico) and the silver and gold that could be got there.

The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, and stretch from the Eastern coast of Venezuela (further East than Puerto Rico) through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, all the way down to the Tierra del Fuego at the southern terminus of the continent. They are very tall and rugged, are seismically and volcanically active, and rise up almost directly from the Pacific coast along most of their range. At equatorial and tropical latitudes the climate in these high mountains is quite agreeable, and for this reason they formed the heartland of the Incan and later Spanish South American empires. They are often called the backbone of South America. This is doubly appropriate: the chain of Spanish settlements was connected by roads built upon the old Inca roads and which ran through the Andes, from Caracas to Bogotá, to Quito, to Lima, to La Paz, to Potosí, to Salta, to Mendoza, and then to Santiago, forming something of a spinal cord within the vertebrae of the mountains.

this is the best map of the Spanish colonies I have found

Asunción was founded just two years after Lima. Spanish explorers coming down the Atlantic coast had attempted to establish a foothold near what would later be Buenos Aires, but were driven off by violent natives. Rather than packing up and going home, they went up the Paraguay river, and established Asunción in 1537. Asunción is the oldest surviving Spanish settlement South of Bolivia, which is to say it is older than any city in Chile, Argentina, or Uruguay. If we´re counting, it is also older than any Brazilian settlement South of Sao Paolo.

And here lies the question in the mind of anyone who visits Asunción, knowing a little bit of the history. "Is this it?" I have spent some time in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador, and have marveled at the cathedrals and other majestic remains of the old imperial cities, built with blood and sweat and gold and stone. To have visited Cuenca, Ecuador, amid the truly awe-inspiring Andes, where there are not one, but two enormous and beautiful cathedrals, crumbling yet impressive government buildings, all built around two charming streams, with steps going every which way and markets and everything build out of or carved from the rock, in a city that is not even a national capital; AND THEN to explore Asunción, "madre de ciudades", is indeed a disappointment. So what happened? How could the city the founded Santa Cruz in Bolivia, Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and Santa Fe in Argentina, not to mention nearly every town and chipa stop in Paraguay, remain so unremarkable?

No comments:

Post a Comment