Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus; drawing by David Levine

The search for the origins of modern racism—the word but not the reality is a twentieth-century invention—has a way of leading back sooner or later to the sixteenth century. Understandably so, since this was the first great age of European overseas empire, and imperialism and racism have come to seem inextricably conjoined. Where better, then, to look than to Spain and Portugal, as the pioneer colonial powers of the modern world? Professor Charles Boxer, in his brief but invigorating volume on The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion, remarks that “attitudes and convictions formed as the Iberian mariners, missionaries, merchants, and men-at-arms spread around the globe lasted for centuries, and are still with us in varying degrees.” The twentieth-century Westerner who examines the words and works of those Iberian pioneers glimpses, as in a murky mirror, the forms and lineaments of a too familiar world.

It is the realization of this that inspired Ronald Sanders’s personal odyssey back across the Atlantic to the fifteenth-century Mediterranean. His Lost Tribes and Promised Lands is a highly ambitious book, as its subtitle, “The Origins of American Racism,” immediately makes clear. Here is nothing less than an attempt to trace the development of racial attitudes in the New World of America from the age of Columbus to that of Captain John Smith. This demands an extensive knowledge of the colonial records and activities of the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the English and the French, and Mr. Sanders has a first-hand acquaintance with a range of printed sources that would put most professional historians (except Professor Boxer, who has read everything) to shame. It is also obvious that what he calls his “homework” has given him great enjoyment, much of which immediately communicates itself to his reader. If his book is often disconcerting and sometimes exasperating, it is also richly textured and consistently alive. But Mr. Sanders never quite seems to have decided whether he wants to tell a story or to argue a case.

Much of his book is in fact taken up with descriptions of episodes in the early history of Europe’s overseas expansion which have come to be regarded as standard fare: the search for Prester John; the story of Columbus; Las Casas’s defense of the Indians; the story of the black slave Estevanico (but was he really black?) and the search for the seven cities of Cibola; the tragic history of the Roanoke colony; John Smith and Pocahontas. These stories are graphically told and provide the material for an often perceptive commentary, but they contribute to the impression of a discursive and essentially episodic book, an impression which is further reinforced by the inclusion of two brief literary “interludes” on the Celestina and Shakespeare. The resulting sense of diffuseness in the book’s form is compounded by the rather tenuous character of its central argument.

Throughout his episodes Mr. Sanders is concerned to illuminate the relations of the European with the Negro and the Indian. But, as he himself says, the main protagonist of his book is neither Negro nor Indian but Jew. It is this concern with the theme of the Jewish presence in the early history of the relationship between Europe and America—even if the theme disappears for long stretches of the story—that does more than anything else to distinguish what would otherwise be little more than another retelling of an oft-told tale.

Mr. Sanders’s thesis is likely to be more familiar to readers with an interest in Iberian civilization than to students of American racism. Searching for the roots of racial consciousness, he has come face to face with the birth of intolerance in medieval Spain. Following in the steps of the late Américo Castro, he sees the rich and fruitful interaction of Jews; Moors, and Christians in the first centuries after the Moorish invasion of the peninsula being gradually eroded by the advance of Christian bigotry. As the Christian movement of reconquest pursued its southward march, so a new intransigence replaced the former willingness to live and let live. The terrible anti-Jewish riots that swept Castile and Aragon in 1391 formally inaugurated the new phase of militant Christianization, which reached its logical culmination in the epic year of Spanish history, 1492—the year not only of the discovery of America but also of the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews.

Under the pressure of the militant and messianic Christianity of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Spanish Jewish community was itself divided, some—the conversos—adopting with greater or lesser sincerity the dominant religion, others clinging to the faith of their fathers and going into exile. In this divided society of old Christians, Christian converts, pseudo Christians, and Jews, a terrible litmus test of acceptability was devised, borrowed from the Jews themselves—that of limpieza de sangre, or purity of blood. In the sixteenth century the doors to office, honor, and promotion were closed one by one to all except those old Christians capable of proving that they had no taint of Jewish ancestry. So it was that the conversos, carrying a fatal contamination in their blood, were reduced to being marginal men and women in the militantly Catholic Iberian world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Marginal men, however, can still exercise a pervasive influence on the society that rejects them, and there is much to be said about the influence of the conversos in the Golden Age of Spain.


The elaboration of this interpretation of the history of Spain was the life-work of Américo Castro, who, says Mr. Sanders, “sensitized” him in the direction of looking for a New Christian (converso) identity in Spanish historical figures. Castro, who died in 1972, was a dominant figure in twentieth-century Hispanic studies, and has been especially influential in the United States, where he spent the later part of his teaching and scholarly career. He was a man of great insights and intuitions, who permanently enriched an impoverished Spanish historiography by his insistence on the unjustly neglected significance of the Moorish and Jewish presence in the formation of modern Spain.1 For both Castro and his more fervent followers, however, the insights acquired on occasions an obsessional quality, distinguished by its determination to find the answer to all the problems of Spanish history and civilization by reference to a Spanish character uniquely formed by the interaction of Christian, Moor, and Jew. For those who believe in multicausal rather than monocausal explanations of the past, the attempt to interpret the achievements and failings of Spanish society of the Golden Age by reference to its attitudes to the conversos and their attitudes to it is bound to give the impression that the dogma is distorting the infinite variety of life.

Mr. Sanders, although often proceeding tentatively and with due qualifications, has approached the discovery and colonization of America by the Castro route—that is, by way of the conversos and the Jews. He begins with the Catalan atlas of around 1375 by the Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques, and reacts favorably to the hypothesis of Salvador de Madariaga of the New Christian origins of Christopher Columbus. In looking at the background of Columbus and those who supported him at the court of the Catholic Kings he speculates that America may have begun its history as “a promised land of Spanish heresy.” The New World thus takes its place in a messianic interpretation of human history, a prophetic interpretation drawing on the apocryphal writings, and especially the second book of Esdras with its reference to the fate of the Lost Tribes of Israel. “No doubt as a result of their own marginality,” writes Mr. Sanders, “New Christians were drawn to the apocryphal writings,” and he discusses the gradual elaboration of the theory that the Lost Tribes had found their home in America—a theory which was given wide diffusion in the mid-seventeenth century by the Portuguese Jewish scholar Manasseh ben Israel. Alongside this theme he also pursues the theme of persecution and tolerance in the New World, finding New Christians to be leading figures in the pro-Indian party, the party of humanity.

Mr. Sanders does not claim to be attempting a closely documented analysis of all the available material. Rather, he wants to “penetrate beneath the surfaces of data upon which so many learned works settle, and to achieve an understanding that I will dare to call poetic.” There is no doubt that the intuitions drawn from his own personal experience give him a particularly sympathetic insight into the attitudes and modes of expression of some of his chosen heroes, like Columbus and Las Casas and that tragic victim of the Mexican inquisition, Luis de Carvajal. But there are drawbacks to this intuitive approach. It is conceivable that Columbus was of Jewish origin, and fairly probable that Las Casas was. But there is a tendency which Mr. Sanders and other students of individual conversos find it hard to resist—a tendency to move on from the individual to a presumed collected converso mentality, which is best defined as the mentality of a marginal man struggling against the vicissitudes of life in a hostile social and culural environment.

We hear in this book of “the New Christian religion of geographical discovery,” of a “geographical messianism” that seems to be essentially Judaic in character. In the voice of Las Casas speaking out on behalf of the oppressed Indian, we are invited to hear the “voice of the New Christian, speaking out against the various ways in which his ancestors had been yoked unreasonably into the fold.” In the ethnographic passion of the great Sahagún, meticulously recording the culture and the history of a vanishing civilization, we are told that one can “discern the personality of the New Christian.” Gradually a composite picture is formed of the sixteenth-century New Christian as a liberal, rational being, deeply sympathetic to the fate of the other oppressed groups in his society; a figure separated by harsh circumstance from his ancestral faith, but pinning his hopes to a messianic future in a new-found land.


If there seem to be many twentieth-century overtones in this vision, this does not necessarily mean that it is false. But it is one-sided, both in what it assumes and in what it excludes. As far as exclusion is concerned it overlooks or underestimates what can equally well be explained without specific reference to a direct New Christian contribution. Millenarianism had strong devotees in certain sections of Renaissance society, especially within the religious orders. There was a yearning for spiritual reform and renewal which, as it grew disillusioned with the prospects in the old world of Europe, turned in high expectation to America as a world where the primitive Christianity of the first apostles could best be restored. The unexplained presence of peoples in this New World who appeared to be ignorant of the gospel message raised profound theological questions which perplexed Christian Europe for two centuries. Every kind of answer was put forward to the mysterious problem of the origins of these peoples, including the thesis—first apparently argued in print by non-Spaniards, but certainly discussed before then by Spanish missionaries in America—of the Hebrew origins of the Indian.

The Lost Tribes theory, therefore, while no doubt attractive to some New Christians (although not, as Mr. Sanders rightly says, to Las Casas, who rejected it), does not necessarily require New Christian origins, or depend on New Christians for its propagation. Equally, the growth of a pro-Indianist group among the friars, and the determination of some of them to study the character of the societies they were attempting to convert, reflects the dilemmas of a missionary movement anxious to protect its charges simultaneously from merciless physical exploitation by their conquerors and from spiritual backsliding toward false gods whose continuing attraction for them was still barely understood. There were certainly New Christians among these friars, but the scanty evidence at present available makes it a risky game to postulate a distinctive approach.

As for assumptions, it is the assumption of a kind of identi-kit New Christian which is most liable to mislead. Conversos came in all shapes and sizes, and the hypothesis which would seek to explain them in terms of “marginality” has always seemed to me to be sadly constricting. Some of these “marginal” men were, and remained, at the very center of Spanish society—a society in which limpieza laws were more effective in some periods, and in some areas of life, than in others, and in which they were far from finding universal acceptance, even in Old Christian circles. Those laws were undoubtedly a source of deep personal anguish, and their existence raised the haunting possibility of sudden exposure and social disgrace. But the range of possible responses of these “tainted” men and women to the attitudes and values of the society in which they led their lives was so wide as to deprive categorization of its intended usefulness. Not all Christians were, or felt themselves, excluded; nor was the exclusion solely the outcome of Jewish ancestry.

Mr. Sanders does not go very deeply into any of this, but his New Christians in the New World all tend to be men of a type. A great book is waiting to be written about the role of Jews and conversos in Iberian overseas expansion, but it is a book which will have to include, alongside such men as Las Casas or Carvajal, a motley array of less sympathetic characters: the Aragonese converso officials in the administration of Ferdinand the Catholic, who systematically pillaged the Spanish Caribbean in the first flush of its discovery and settlement; Pedrarias Dávila, the atrocious conquistador of Panama; the Portuguese converso merchants who ran the slave trade between Africa and the Indies. In spite of prohibitions on emigration, large numbers of conversos did indeed succeed in crossing to America, where they stood a better chance than in Spain of burying their past. In this sense America was the land, not so much of Spanish heresy, as Mr. Sanders describes it, for this suggests that in every converso there was an orthodox Jew struggling to get out, but of opportunity for quiet assimilation.

Unfortunately the slate can never be wiped entirely clean. Colonial societies have a way of perpetuating the ideals and institutions of the mother country. If Spain exported its conversos, it also exported its Inquisition and its pernicious notion of purity of blood. This notion of a tainted people is, as Mr. Sanders remarks, an essential characteristic of modern racism, and he rightly gives it prominence in his unfolding story. It is not easy, however, as he himself clearly appreciates, to know how much weight to give it in the formulation of Iberian attitudes to Indians and blacks. His judgment is that “Spaniards were never as bothered by the physical manifestations of race differences as northern Europeans have tended to be; it was doctrinal divergence, and the possibility of the taint of heresy being carried in the bloodstream, that primarily worked to arouse racism in them.” Africans and Indians in fact evoked different responses, the Africans getting the worst of the deal, in part because of the associations of blackness for the European mentality and in part because of the relationship already established between Negroes and chattel slavery before America was discovered.

The American Indians, as a hitherto unknown people, created a new set of problems, which it would take time to resolve. The Indians had to be taught the rudiments of Christian doctrine and a Christian way of life, but this required that they also be incorporated into an intensely hierarchical ordering of society. The Spanish sense of hierarchy at once facilitated intermarriage at the highest levels—for was not Montezuma’s daughter as authentically noble as any Spanish hidalgo?—and allowed for the placing of the mass of the indigenous population at the bottom of the scale. Aristotelian doctrines of natural inferiority helped to justify a system of domination which was primarily based on a profound conviction of the superiority of the Christian faith.

The practical effects of this conviction of superiority are fascinatingly explored by Professor Boxer in his study of the church militant. His short book consists of four lectures he originally delivered at The Johns Hopkins University. Brevity, however, does not prevent a remarkable but characteristic display of erudition, as Professor Boxer spans the world from China to Peru. Although their themes are closely related, the contrast in manner between Mr. Sanders and Professor Boxer could hardly be more complete. Professor Boxer will have none of the intuition and “poetic” understanding of Mr. Sanders. His is a brisk, no-nonsense, down-to-earth approach, and if he does not know the answer to something—as, for instance, why adherents of the Mahayana School in Japan proved more responsive to the gospel message than the Buddhists of the Hinayana School in Burma, Siam, Laos, and Cambodia—he frankly tells us so. His reluctance to speculate can at times be as exasperating in its own way as Mr. Sanders’s resort to intuition. When the reader is told that “if we compare the situation in Portuguese Asia with that in Spanish America during the first half of the sixteenth century, we find that the Portuguese missionaries were much slower in seriously studying the beliefs and the cultures of those whom they were trying to convert than their Spanish colleagues in New Spain and Peru,” he will not unreasonably wonder why. But Professor Boxer will not stay for the question, let alone the answer, and marches briskly on.

Yet the material which Professor Boxer has collected and has presented with such clarity makes this a book whose importance is out of relation to its size. What he is attempting after a lifetime of investigation in Europe’s overseas expansion is to draw up a balance sheet of the record of Iberian missionary activity. The comparative perspectives are fascinating—if anyone wants to know the reasons for the remarkable success of Christian evangelization in Vietnam as compared with Cambodia, this is the place to turn. Professor Boxer tends to approach such questions from the standpoint of the givers rather than of the receivers, being primarily concerned with organization of the missionary church and the degree to which it achieved its objectives. But a startlingly clear picture emerges of the extent to which its failures were the outcome of its own shortcomings and built-in prejudices.

It is a pity that Professor Boxer does not have the space to examine the background and education of his missionaries, since this could have helped to elucidate several points which at present remain unclear. But what does become devastatingly apparent in his dispassionate account is the degree to which the missionaries’ sense of superiority militated against their chances of success. “The church,” he writes, “might with one voice proclaim the brother-hood of all believers; but it might also implicitly or explicitly sanction a colorbar and slavery.” The acid test of the church’s approach to the non-European convert was its willingness to let him take orders in the church that he had joined. As traced by Professor Boxer, the record of the church’s approach to the question of an indigenous clergy is a dispiriting one. The Portuguese in Goa and West Africa did better than the Spaniards in America, but even in Goa the relatively numerous indigenous clergy were kept in a subordinate position by the European-born ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Brothers, then, remained strangers. Degrees of hierarchy, degrees of purity, degrees of faith, degrees of civilization, degrees of color were all contributions of that profoundly degree-conscious European society of the sixteenth century to human history. But—in partial mitigation—so too was that passionate cry of Las Casas, whether or not it came from the depths of a New Christian past: “All the peoples of mankind are one.”

This Issue

June 1, 1978