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Columbus: “race” and “raza”

10 October 2022

Colonial societies did diverge from their mother countries — but in a more complex and radical manner than imagined within the narrow field of vision once traditional to colonial history. The biggest difference was the unprecedented mixing of radically divergent poeples — Africans, Europeans, and Indians [… and Asians] — under circumstances stressful for all. The colonial intermingling of peoples — and of microbes, plants, and animals from different continents — was unparalled in speed and volume in global history. Everyone had to adapt to a dramatic new world wroght by those codmbinations. In their adaptions to, and borrowings from, one another, they created truly exceptional societies (which is not to say that they were either better or worse than European societies, just new and different).

Alan Taylor, American Colonies (Penguin, 2002)

Of course, Colombus did not “discover” the Americans. Obviously there had been Europeans had crossing the Atlantic … the Viking settlement in Newfoundland, being the best known… and evidence, or rather defended proposals, that African and various Asian sailors had made trips to the “New World” before 1492. And, by inference, there is no reason to assume Americans had not made trips to Eurasia or Africa at some point.

But, none of these earlier contacts had the impact that Colombus’ voyages did. Even if we accept the theories that African or Asian cultures “influenced” one or another American society (which seem to imply just a variation on the theme that American native culture required the “old world” to create their own pyramids, mathematics, governance, etc.), none really had the impact of Colombus… what’s been dubbed the “Colombian exchange”, that mixing of microbes, plants, animals, and peoples that Taylor mentions. The world changed, for better or worse, and we are its heirs.

Previous interchanges, if they happened, were small scale, at most affecting a small community, if they had any impact beyond some trade (and maybe slaughter) in local communities. But, Colombus came just as his own world had also changed, and the change he set us, would change the entire planet.

Aragon’s power was waning at the time. Formerly holding territories as far east as Athens, the Ottomans had pushed them back to southern Italy and the western Mediterrean. Being, as they were, the gateway to western Europe for the Asian and African trade, and having been cut off to access to the “Silk Road” and sea routes through what was now Ottoman controlled territory, and by the Venetians and Genose, Aragon was desperate for a new route to Asia. Allied with Castille though the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, but having cut their ties to Africa with the Moors driven out of Granada by January of 1492, searching for a new sea route to Asia was a necessity. Portugal was already establishing posts along the African coast, and the possiblity of a route to the west was an intiguing option.

“Spain”… or rather Castille and Aragon… had a few small outposts on the African Mediterrean, and had one western outpost, the Canaries. The other European nations had not yet gotten into the offshore expanionist game, the closest being the English in Ireland. Which, as Taylor would posit, made all the difference. The English looked to REPLACE the Irish with their own peoples, pauperzing, enslaving, or outright massacering the natives, whereas, with the native Canarian peoples — following the initial slaughter and enslavements — having been isolated from the rest of the world for milenia, died en masse. Something seen by the rulers as a disaster, never intending to colonize the islands with their own peoples, but rather… as with the Moors and Jews of Iberia… to remake them (whether they liked it or not) in their own Christian image.

A fool, a monster, or…?

Columbus himself, about whom we know very little (and much of it based on the say-so of American writer, Washington Irving, whose 1828 biography of Columbus, largely defined the myth of the brave Italian explorer, that until relatively recently was accepted as “gospel truth) but his recent reputation is that of a monstrous, greedy, psycopath best forgetten… or a figure to be deplored for having (all on his own?) ruined an equally mythical earthly paradise though his own bumbling and incompetence.

“Knowing Better” in his 2017 video (In Defense of Columbus: An Exaggerated Evil “debunking” some of the more common counter-myths, and in his 2020 Acknowledging the Past | Columbus in Context gives a fairly accessable overview of Columbus as a historical figure. What we blame him for is being a late medieval figure, imposing the political and economic system he knew… serfdom for the “natives” ruled by the conquerors. And, for being a few hundred years early in understanding infectious diseases or even the existence of microbes.

And… being in the pay of the Spanish crown…

As mentioned before, there were logical reasons “Spain” was sponsored Columbus’ voyages. ·Although he died still believing he had reached Asia, it was evident, even by 1510 that wherever the Spanish were, there was more and more land to be absorbed. And, at a time when nation-states were still in their infancy, the prevailing concept of a nation… a “race” … being that of a single people, with a common ideology (in their day, religion) under a single ruler.

One can’t say the Spanish experience (hoping to turn what remained of the native Canarians into standard issue Spanish peasants) or that of the English (kill all the Irish you can, and replace them with English peasants) would in any way be acceptable today, or where they do, call up unpleasant reminders of the one united as “Ein reich, Ein volk, Ein Fûhrer!”

The Cosmic Race

What we commemorate on 12 October is less the date that a European skipper happened to land in the Caribbean in 1492, than something on the calendar we can point to and say, with some certainty, that THIS was the beginning of who we are today. It’s not a celebration, but an acknowledgement that the change happened. But how the change happened, and what the effects were and are is something that requires more than just a day to remember (with disgust, regret, or pride) a single person.

One of the many charges against Columbus is that he took slaves… something Europeans had been doing to Africans (or, more specifically, Moors) in Iberia for centuries, while Moors took European slaves. But with the massive deaths from disease and over-work of the native population (as in the Canaries), “importing” sub-Saharan Africans was seen (alas, by Las Casas) as a reasonable alternative to bolster the work force. And this is what got me thinking about this.

I’d recently had an exchange with a Canadian woman working in her country’s immigration resettlement office, who claimed to have a degree in Latin American history, who adamantly claimed slaves in Spain… based on their “race”… were always enslaved, and enslaved for life, whereas those in English colonial and post-colonial society were emancipated. Considering that with the exception of Cuba, slavery ended in all the Spanish colonial and post-colonial possessions long before it disappeared in the English ones, I couldn’t take her too seriously, although it did remind me of Taylor’s book (quoted at the beginning) about the different paths different colonial powers took following Columbus, and blamed on Colombus for imposing on the Americas.

While true that Isabella and later Spanish rules (and even that rascally Pope Alexander VI… an Argonese no less) condemned indigenous slavery (at least for those who accepted the tenants of the “one true faith”) and Paul III’s “Sublemis Deus” (1537) held that even “pagans” had a right to their freedom,.. all widely ignored despite occasional moves by both the state and the Inquisition to prevent taking indignous people as slaves, African slavery was another matter.

However, and it doesn’t make it right, but the Spanish were not the ones capturing and “importing” the slaves. First the Portugese, and later the English had the exclusive rights to capture and sell human beings in Spanish colonies. And, in Spanish (as well as later French) colonial systems, the Catholic Church accepted that slaves — being human — had “free will”, and as such, could — and did — choose their own partners, who likely as not were free persons (for the simple reason that male slaves outnumbered female slaves) whose children were not slaves. And, especially in Mexico, where free labor was much more available, slave-holding was not particularly profitable, and except in export industries (mining and a few cash crops like tobacco), it was more efficient and cost-effictive to depend on rotas of “encomienda” workers, or “reparimientos” (forced labor by indigenous communities as a form of taxation).

Not to say that slavery, or forced labor was “better” or even less harsh in Spanish, as opposed to English, colonial possessions, only that slave and free were not always exclusive categories. People being people, the “color line” of the English blurred over the generations, moreso when Asian and poor Spaniard workers were added in.

Unlike the English who … especially after discovering the delights of the 18th century’s version of cocaine (i.e. sugar) found a rationale for importing slaves on a massive scale into the Caribbean (after disposing of the inconvenient native peoples) which would only be semi-emancipated about the same time as the new Latin American nations were abolishing the practice (and, it might be noted slavery continued in British Honduras, today’s Belize, into the 1850s, and the United States until 1865).

Even with emancipation though, racial segregation persisted. While endless discussions have focused on Spain’s “casta” system, it needs to be noted this only came about in the 1740s, under the influence of the “enlightment” Borbon dynasty… at a time when the Europeans were obsessed with classifying the natural world. My sense has always been that the “Casta paintings” of the era were souveneirs purchased by wealthy Spaniards to send back to friends or relations at home to show the “exotica” of the Americas. For one thing, nearly all surviving examples are from Spanish collections, and oil paintings were not something likely to be purchased by middle or working class people. Nor, does it appear, the “criollos” (allegedly of “pure” European descent, though through payment of a fee, or out of pure ignorance by those doing the classifications… generally the parish priest … who was, or wasn’t any particular casta was a matter of conjecture) were unlikely to see anything “exotic” or strange about mixed-“race” families.

Partly due to differences in religous ideology (the Catholic “free will” of the French, Spanish and Portuguese and the Calvinist “predestination” more associated with the English and Dutch), partly to economic necessity, and partially out of naive attempts to classify humanity like sub-species of birds or lichens, racial heirachies became normalized in the Americas. Although, here in Mexico, the “founding fathers” like Morelos would call for the abolition of the “casta” system in favor of classifying all people in Mexico as simple Mexicans (or, for him, “Americans”) and in the 20th century, José Vasconcellos, in his “Raza Cosmica” propsed considering the people’s of the Americas as a mix of all, and its own “race”… those heirachies exist and cause incalulable harm.

At least in the English-speaking world, where “race” is a discrete category, racism is more obvious when it appears. In Mexico, as in other parts of Latin America, not so much. The 60 years of “offical” castas never went away, and its obvious that a güero holds a higher position than a moreno oscuro in the workplace (and, too ofen, with family affections) while those on the peripheries of the raza cosmica… the indigenous, east Asian, and Afro-Mexicans… are even more excluded. It’s not something easily overcome, and something Mexico and Latin America has yet to come to grips with although the most recent Presidential grito received a resounding return on his call for “Death to Racism”.

And that… Muere al racismo! … would go a long way to correcting the errors and accidents that made the Americas and the world what it became as a result of what happened on the 12th of October in 1492.

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