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Sorry, not sorry

27 March 2019

This year being the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Conquest, I have been rethinking what to write (assuming I ever get written) about Hernan Cortés and, about the Conquest in general.  There isn’t much I need to change about my Cortés:  a  brilliant, but ethically challenged gambler in an ethically challenged era.  In our time, he’d have been a hedge fund manager of some renown.  In his time, had he not stumbled upon a much wider sphere of action, he’d have been just another of those appalling monsters who fill the pages of any Renaissance history.  About the Conquest itself… I tend to think the “clash of civilizations” was inevitable, but question the prevailing “pink legend” assumption that it was better Spain was the European invader, rather than someone worse:  the English, French, Dutch.. or, in Dame Rebecca West’s peculiar musings (Survivors in Mexico, Yale University Press, 2003) , the Muslims.

Emanuel Leutze “Storming of the teocalli by Corez and his troops” (1848) detail.

Within the “pink legend” (as opposed to the Black Legend… making Spain the worst of the worst of all possible imperialists), there are a few constant threads.  Foremost is that the Spanish “civilized” the native people, or at least made them relatively good Christians.  Secondly, that Spain introduced “better” technology (like firearms?) to a “backwards” people.  And, third, that the indigenous people weren’t comodifying their resources in any efficient manner (Dame Rebecca goes on at some length to argue that the indigenous people really didn’t “need” their gold and silver, which had much more value in the European financial system).  And, the kicker:  Spain wasn’t so much setting out to kill the indigenous people and replace them with their own (as the English did), as it was to make them Spaniards.  Second class Spaniards perhaps, but Spaniards nonetheless (meaning… Christians with certain European technology, and an economy based on gold and silver).  And, if mistakes were made, well… that was then, this is now.

I tend to agree with that last statement.. partially.  Of course, no one anywhere knew the causation of infectuous diseases, nor about herd immunity.  To “blame” smallpox on  Cortés (or, in the pink legend, a Moorish soldier:  Spain might fess up to this one “accidental” atrocity, but sidesteps responsibility saying… it wasn’t a “true” Spaniard that done the deed, but a dirty Moor… and compounding what was an accidental wrong with the intentional one of racist stereotyping).  And Spain was, objectively, less genocidal overall than the English, Dutch, French and other European imperialists.  Which is not to say that they weren’t genocidal maniacs or that the Conquest was not an ethically dubious proposition from the start, nor that in “Christianizing” the indigenous people, there weren’t any number of mortal sins committed in the name of the Church.

All of which brings me to the flurry of media articles, memes, political spin, and denial surrounding Andres Manuel López Obradór’s rather simple request to both the King of Spain and the Pope that Spain and the Vatican owed the indigenous peoples of the Americas an apology for the wrongs done against them.

Stephen Burgen David Agren, in The Guardian summarize the Spanish response… rather, non-response.

A diplomatic row has broken out between Mexico and Spain after the Mexican president wrote to King Felipe VI demanding he apologise for crimes committed against Mexico’s indigenous people during the conquest 500 years ago.

In a video filmed at the ruins of the indigenous city of Comalcalco, in southern Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on Spain and the Vatican to recognise the rights violations committed during the conquest, led by Hernán Cortés. The video was posted on the president’s social media accounts.

“There were massacres and oppression. The so-called conquest was waged with the sword and the cross. They built their churches on top of the [indigenous] temples,” he said. “The time has come to reconcile. But let us ask forgiveness first.”


Detail of mural by Jose Clemente Orozco, detail of mural in the Palacio de Gobernacion, Guadalajara. Photo by: Wonderlane/Flickr.


“The Spanish government profoundly regrets the publication of the Mexican president’s letter to his majesty the king on 1 March and completely reject its content,” a government statement read.

“The arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations. Our closely related peoples have always known how to view our shared history without anger and from a shared perspective, as free peoples with a common heritage and an extraordinary future.”

The Catholic Church, for its part, or at least the Mexican heirarchy, is so far taking the position that they already have apologized… as Rodrigo Vera reports in Proceso (my translation):

In a document entitled “The Church has already asked for forgiveness”, the Mexican Bishop’s Council notes that in the Dominican Republic, Pope John Paul II apologized for “the enormous suffering inflicted on the inhabitants of this continent during the time of conquest and colonization. ”

John Paul II then added that only through forgiveness “can a more just and fraternal society be built”.

The Bishop’s response also points out that in 1992 the Latin American bishops requested “forgiveness” from “our indigenous and African-American brothers” for the “sin, injustice and violence” that the Church committed during the colonization of America.

The communication goes on to state that Pope Benedict XVI again asked for forgiveness, noting that “it is not possible to forget the sufferings and injustices inflicted by the colonizers on the indigenous populations, often trampled on their fundamental human rights.”


And Pope Francis, in a speech delivered in Bolivia, also asked for forgiveness for “the many and serious sins” that the Church committed “against the original peoples of America in the name of God.”

A few researchers, in a rather half-hearted attempt to claim, as the Church has, that it already apologized, point to the December 29, 1836 “Treaty of Friendship between Mexico and [Queen Isabella II of] Spain” which promises the two nations will “Forget forever the past differences and dissensions, for which unfortunately have been interrupted for so long relations of friendship and good harmony between the two peoples.” Not exactly an apology, and nothing to do with the Conquest or the 300 years of colonial rule (and everything to do with Spanish military operations against independent Mexico, and the Mexican Republic’s expulsion of Spanish citizens, and establishing diplomatic relations between the Republic and the former European imperial power).

Although there has been no call for reparations, or anything other than a limited apology to specifically affected ethnic communities, AMLO’s request has been a major controversy, for only one reason.  AMLO is the one asking.

That Hugo Chavez once made a similar request to “prove” that AMLO is a left wing “danger to Mexico” … if you ignore that similar requests have come from Justin Trudeau in Canada, and then California Goveror and former Jesuit seminarian Jerry Brown.  Or that states (and the Catholic Church) have issued apologies for their past misdeeds on numerous occasions, and generally such actions are viewed as positive for all parties involved.  And they cost nothing other than a blow to national self-esteem.

Which should make the objections to the requests by the Mexican right seem ridiculous.  Which they are … that is, the Mexican right is ridiculous.  Of course, there are the “fifis”… the Hola readers and “pure” Spaniards (not that such a critter exists, even in Spain), the rather silly and inconsequential monarchists (a few who visited this site last weekend) and — of real political weight — the reactionary right, the “Yunque” (the wealthy neo-Francoists, more Catholic than the Pope… especially this Pope) and the political opportunists:  racists all.

Rodolfo Soriano Nuñez summarized the Mexican opposition to the call for apologies better than anyone.  My translation:

Is it so difficult to recognize that what happened in America between 1492 and the nineteenth century was not by mutual agreement, but was the result of previously unknown forms of violence in America, as well as the de-humanization of the native populations of that continent ? Seriously?

Is it so difficult to admit that Mexica, Maya, Aymara, Inca, Purépecha, Algonquian, Mohican, Carib, Taino peoples, and many others were decimated by war, disease, and exploitation of the encomienda?

Is it so difficult to understand that the Africans who came here did not come on pleasure trips, of their own volition, to “know the world”?

Many desire to hold on to the Pink Legend: “Let’s thank God that it was the Spaniards and not the British or the Portuguese.” Well, they can say there are numerous indigenous Mexicans and Peruvians. They can’t say that about Caribs and Tainos …

In the Caribbean there is no way to distinguish the Spanish devastation from the English, the French, the Dutch or the Portuguese. Let’s stop with pink legends now and accept that what happened here was not an idyll, nor a meeting of equals.

It was a brutal subjection to foreign powers that swept away population, cultures, knowledge and deprived people of their natural resources. And yes, the Mexicas were particularly violent. They deserved the distrust of Tlaxcaltecas and other groups that helped the Spaniards …

… but that was not the case of Mayans, Purépechas, Mixtecs and Zapotecs. They did not oppress other peoples like the Mexicas. Their mistake was their skin color, lack of gunpowder, beasts of burden and not believing in what Europeans believed.

Lopez Obrador super-changed the issue, exposing the Yunques and wannabe Yunques, who do not hesitate for a moment to display their nineteenth-century Conservatism and their allegiance to the King of Spain.

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