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Passionate History

The Early Spanish Main

by Carl Ortwin Sauer
University of California, 306 pp., $7.50

Geography is a science of space; history is an art of time. If a good geographer happens to be a good historian, he’d better thank nature for the bounty. It happens now and then. Normally, however, it does not. We need not wonder then if this book turns out to be the work of a good geographer who is a bad historian. Professor Sauer, is at his best in the passages of his book in which he moves within the square for which his mind was evidently born: geography, ecology, economy, biology. Within this area of knowledge, he has put together a number of acute, concrete, pertinent observations which will remain as a solid contribution to the geography and therefore to the history of that part of the new world which received the first impact of the discovery.

This first impact is his subject, possibly a unique subject in the history of man, the originally and the novelty of which remain to this day, so to speak, engraved in that medal-phrase: New World. What nature is this? What society? Who are these people, neither Christian nor Moor? How are we to deal with them? What standards, principles, precedents, are there to go by? Negroes can be turned into slaves—everybody does it—but can one turn these new people into slaves? And if we must keep to principles and precedents, shall we be able to do so, to preserve our self-control and discipline here in the wilderness, away from Pope and Emperor? Wealth for the body or conversion for the soul? Fiends, monsters, slaves, or brothers? A free-for-all or a State-controlled Christian society transplanted from Spain? Gold, land, food, or souls? More conquests further afield? Who is to command? Who is to obey? All these questions, problems, queries of thought, action, rushed at once and mixed up in turmoil on the astounded Spaniards to whom Columbus had suddenly revealed a New World which, for him, however, remained the other end of the old. And the sudden meeting of the two worlds, like the confluence of two mighty rivers, raised such stormy currents that it threatened to drown the wit of the newcomers as well as the very existence of the natives.

IN THUS CHOOSING the first generation of the discovery and conquest for his subject, Professor Sauer revealed an instinct for the most dramatic aspect of history. Yet this instinct seems to have foresaken him as soon as he set to work. The causes of his failure seem to be two-fold: His narrative sense is weak and he exhibits a certain shyness towards what the French describe as idées générales—a shyness the Anglo-Saxons glory in as “empiricism.” He cannot tell a story plainly and clearly, and is apt to produce his characters out of his inkpot as suddenly as in a Punch and Judy show. “Who is this fellow?”—the reader asks. “Never heard of him.” Unperturbed, the author goes on, leaving the reader all the trouble of finding the answers. Characters not only appear, but disappear and reappear again without explanation, which makes the narrative the more confusing. Whole paragraphs are written in this hasty, unorganized way. I shall content myself with one example, the last sentence of which is typical of the careless style of our historian (in contrast with his careful style as a geographer in many passages which one reads with profit and delight):

Francisco de Bobadilla was named Governor and Judge “of all the islands and mainland of the Indies” on May 21, 1499. On the same date a Royal Provision was directed to Columbus, addressing him only as Admiral, to his brothers, and to other persons having in their power the forts, houses, ships, arms, and so forth belonging to the Crown, ordering all to be turned over to Bobadilla at once. On this date the Crown thus resumed freedom of action overseas. Columbus and the men in Española, however, were not informed of the new order until Bobadilla arrived in Santo Domingo in August, 1500. The new governor was sent to remove Columbus; it was only the precipitateness and severity of his action that displeased the Sovereigns [p. 105].

Those who know Bobadilla and his career as governor at once realize what Professor Sauer means by the last sentence of this paragraph. But what will the ordinary reader make of it?

This source of confusion merges with the lack of perspective and general ideas. Roldán’s rebellion, for instance, bursts upon us before we know anything about him or his motives. There is no distant view: The situation as a whole, the meeting of the two worlds, the suddenness of the huge event, the distance from authority, the abyss between the stand of the King and Queen, honest but theoretical, and that of the explorers and settlers, coarser but having to deal with life as it is, climate, labor, and safety problems, is never described, or even adumbrated. For lack of this mastering vision, we are left with a loose set of events, a huge lunatic asylum.

THERE IS NO DOUBT that Professor Sauer is a passionate historian, and this is as it should be. Impartiality between evil and good is unthinkable; and the period covered by this work was too abundant in evil for even the coldest of historians to remain unmoved. One welcomes the author’s indignation and likes him the more for it. One would, however, be happier if one could praise the quality of his indignation as unreservedly as its quantity. I am conscious of treading here on a delicate path, and feel bound, as a Spaniard, to crave patience and indulgence from my American readers and in particular from Professor Sauer himself. I closed the book with the impression that the author is more eager to condemn the Spaniards than to defend the Indians. In this, as in many other ways, he may well have been over-influenced by Las Casas.*

Why, by the way, in such a book, on such a period, under such an influence, is there not a word on Las Casas himself as a source? He is one of the most controversial critics of the Spanish Discovery and Conquest, having recently been portrayed as a paranoiac by Menéndez Pidal, defended by Giménez Fernández and by Bataillon, and reinterpreted in a remarkable book by Américo Castro, who sees as a key to the militant bishop’s actions the peculiar psychology developed at that time by many Spanish Jews. The manner in which Professor Sauer makes use of him is not the least disquieting feature of the book. He sets down Las Casas’s extravagant figures, concedes that the fiery propagandist may exaggerate, but leaves the figure there, an indelible impression of size.

I have noted so many examples of downright bias, albeit unconscious, that were I to discuss them all, I should find myself writing another book. The author is coldly indifferent to even the worst disasters that afflicted Spaniards, such as the massacre of the garrison left behind by Columbus after his first voyage, or the appalling sufferings of Nicuesa. Having given his due praise to one of the finest conquistadors, Balboa, he goes out of his way to quote Oviedo to show that there was a good deal of cruelty in one of Balboa’s expeditions; but when it comes to Esquivel, Oviedo is left unquoted. Dixit Sauer: “Esquivel later took Jamaica and destroyed it.” Wrote Oviedo: “…who performed his task as a good gentleman and conquered and pacified it [Jamaica] and put it under the obedience of the royal Crown of Castille, both by force of arms when advisable and mildly and without arms by his good industry, avoiding the spilling of human blood” (Book XVIII, chapter I).

HERE IS AN ENGLISH WITNESS, R. C. Dallas, author of The History of the Maroons, dedicated to The Honourable William Dawes Quarrell, of His Majesty’s Privy Council of the Island of Jamaica, London, 1803:

In the month of November 1509, he [Diego Colón] detached thither seventy men under the command of Juan de Esquivel, a gallant soldier and an honourable man. Among other demonstrations of Esquivel’s clement temper and generous disposition…[he goes on to relate an anecdote on Hojeda, then he proceeds]. Under the sway of a chief thus humane and placable, it may be presumed, that the natives of Jamaica scarcely felt the yoke of foreign subjection. Accordingly, we are informed, by a Spanish historian of credit that “the affairs of Jamaica went on prosperously, because Juan de Esquivel having brought the natives to submission without any effusion of blood, they laboured in planting cotton and raising other commodities which yielded great profit.” It is to be regretted that such a leader survived but a few years [pp. xix-xx].

Then again, after relating a high-handed and harsh action by Hojeda and Columbus against some Indians accused of thieving, our historian writes: “Thieving was no part of island ways, Columbus having testified earlier to their lack of covetousness.” Is this a historian’s attitude? Does a general remark by Columbus cover all the men of the islands at all times and in all cases? Can it be given as proof that thieving was no part of the ways of the islanders? This strange assertion can be read on page 84. On page 85 we find Columbus writing instructions to Margarite:

…Take good care of the Indians, that there be no evil or hurt done to them nor shall they be taken against their will…Since it happened that on the road I built to Cibao a certain Indian stole something, if it should be found that any of them do steal, they also shall have their noses and ears cut off as a punishment.

This was the same Columbus who had testified earlier to the Indians’ lack of covetousness.

Professor Sauer lets his narrative give the impression for ninety pages that slavery went on as a thriving trade without ever mentioning the determined opposition of Queen Isabel to such a betrayal of her views. He is throughout skeptical and supercilious about the Crown’s motives, in spite of the fact that they were held consistently by Ferdinand and Isabel, Charles V. and Philip II. Among many instances, here is one. He quotes the royal instructions to Diego Colón (1511):

Care should be taken that the Jamaicans “may increase and multiply, and not diminish, as has been the case in Española.” “The main end for which we order the conquest of these parts,” it continued, was their conversion to the Faith. These pious hopes were not put into practice, nor is there reason to think that they were honest intentions.

THIS ANTI-SPANISH BIAS is writ large on everything concerning gold. The reader might think that the search for gold was an exclusively Spanish mania. The lure of discovery, gold or no gold, which was the most powerful motive behind the Spanish Conquest, is simply ignored. And yet, all the evidence for this view is present in his book. On page 211 he notes how Española was drained of her men by “the lure of gold” owing to the discovery of Mexico and Peru. On page 214 he quotes Bernal Díaz: ” ‘Three years having passed on Tierra Firme and in Cuba and having done little worth mentioning’ they made a compact with Hernández de Córdoba, a wealthy vecino of Sancti Spiritus, principal center of gold mining, ‘to go on our venture to seek and discover new lands in which to engage our persons’.” Why should Hernández de Córdoba, who went as their captain, be drawn by the lure of gold? He wanted “to do things worth mentioning.” But the author passes on, unable to see the point.

Balboa, however, supplies another clue that remains unnoticed. “If he were given the required men he offered to procure riches enough ‘to conquer a large part of the world’.” Our historian remains blind to all this. Either he has not endeavored to enter into the minds of the human beings he is writing about or has failed in his endeavor. Thus a whole world remains alien to him. He is insensitive to the moving scene of the discovery of the Southern Sea by Balboa; and to the splendor of Columbus’s Jamaica letter, which he dismisses in a few dry lines. It is this lack of the higher vision that explains his inability to understand Columbus, who was far more complex than he makes him out to be and much larger than this historian’s field of vision. His censorious, distant attitude remains unmoved by the slightest pity towards those men whom an accident of destiny exposed to the temptations of absolute power far away on the fringes of civilized society. Not until page 203 does one come across this thought: “As in our early American West white men were not brought to account for what they did to red men.” And even then the mood dies out as soon as born. Not until nearly the end of the volume do causes other than sheer Spanish devilry (such as disease) turn up to explain how a handful of Spaniards could wipe out millions of Indians whom they recognized as the very basis of their own subsistence. Not once do we see plainly stated that Indian women preferred white men, and that the half-caste became a “Spaniard.” Not once does he seem to realize that though these men far from the center behaved no better than those of other nations in other centuries closer to our time, the Spanish State and its elite stood fast for standards of behavior higher than any defined or applied by any other nation until the very present day.

And so late in the day! Are we not as human beings old enough to realize that we all belong to mankind, and that though those of us who once went out and trod upon other peoples shall have to lower our eyes before the Lord, no nation on earth or man thereof is worthy of sitting as judge, nay, as a prosecutor, to condemn any other nation.

  1. *

    True, he defends Spanish sailors, rejecting the story that they were frightened of navigating with their backs to the continent they had left. The story, backed as it is by Duro and Navarrete, cannot be rejected off-hand, and it is most likely to be true with regard to the crew of the Santa María.

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