Leesfragment: Our America

27 november 2015 , door Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
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Begin maart verschijnt Our America van Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. Wij publiceren voor.
'Europeans have been in continuous occupation at San Agustín since Spaniards fought Frenchmen for it in 1567. Santa Fe and El Paso were in Spanish hands from 1598 — a decade before the colonization of Jamestown began — though Santa Fe was briefly evacuated during a seventeenth-century Indian revolt. The correct answer to the question about the location of the first permanent European colony in what is now US territory is, however, Puerto Rico, founded over a hundred years before Jamestown.'

Overlooking the significance of America’s Hispanic past, the United States is typically perceived as an offshoot of Britain, with its history unfolding east to west, beginning with the first settlers in Jamestown. In an absorbing narrative, Felipe Fernández-Armesto begins with the explorers and conquistadors who planted Spain’s first colonies in Puerto Rico, Florida and the Southwest in the sixteenth century.

Missionaries and rancheros carry Spain’s expansive impulse into the late eighteenth century, settling in California, mapping the American interior to the Rockies and charting the Pacific coast. The nineteenth-century triumph of Anglo-America in the West is followed by the twentieth-century Hispanic resurgence, spreading from the West to cities including Chicago, Miami and Boston. Today’s plural America is the product of its past.


Chapter One

The Fountain of Youth

The first Europeans to settle in what is now the territory of the United States of America were three pigs and some goats. The year was 1505. The place was Puerto Rico.
When I was teaching at Tufts University, in Massachusetts, not far from the legendary Plymouth Rock where, according to a long-standing misconception, US history is commonly supposed to have “begun,” a vacancy occurred for a professor of history in the colonial period of what is now the United States. The best postdoctoral specialists in the period applied. We had the cream of the country to choose from. I asked all the candidates the same ques- tion. It was rather a sneaky question, but not unfair in the circumstances: “Where, in what is now US territory, was the first enduring European colony, still occupied today, established?” Surely it was reasonable for a prospective or actual professor of the colonial period of the United States to know the answer. None of the young people who passed hopefully before our panel committed the folly of pointing in the direction of Plymouth Rock. “Jamestown, Virginia,” was the unthinking answer of most candidates, reflecting the assumption that English colonists forged what became the United States, and built it from east to west. Others, more aware of the possibility of a trap, said, “It must be somewhere in Florida, or maybe the Southwest,” and nominated San Agustín, Florida, or Santa Fe, New Mexico. These answers, though not strictly correct, were sensible. Europeans have been in continuous occupation at San Agustín since Spaniards fought Frenchmen for it in 1567. Santa Fe and El Paso were in Spanish hands from 1598 — a decade before the colonization of Jamestown began — though Santa Fe was briefly evacuated during a seventeenth-century Indian revolt. The correct answer to the question about the location of the first permanent European colony in what is now US territory is, however, Puerto Rico, founded over a hundred years before Jamestown.
Yet nobody thinks of Puerto Rico as the place where US history began, partly because the island did not become US territory until 1902, when the republic had been in existence for fully a century and a quarter, if one counts from the Declaration of Independence, and the country already had a character and constitution to which Puerto Ricans had made no contribution. Obviously these are valid scruples. They account for why, in one of Stephen Sondheim’s versions of his lyrics for West Side Story, he wrote that “nobody” in the United States knows that Puerto Rico is “in America.”
But in part, Americans — including Puerto Ricans, sometime s— ignore or deliberately exclude Puerto Rico because of prejudice: prejudice that the United States is a country made by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, constructed by anglophone colonists, where The concepts of liberty and law are defined by traditions that originated in England; where the English language is the basis of whatever cultural unity can be contrived among all the ethnicities that make up the population; and where you become “American” — or, more accurately, where you qualify to be a citizen of the United States — by subscribing to a canonical version of the history of the country that begins among English colonists on the east coast of the continent.
None of those prejudices is unquestionable. All are founded on shaky historical assumptions. No country has an unchanging essence. No community has an unchanging identity. What it means to be English or Chinese or Spanish or Indonesian or American changes all the time. There was never a time when most Americans, or most people in what is now the United States, were white English Protestants. The making of the country has been a collective effort — sometimes collaborative, sometimes conflictive — of all the ethnic and religious minorities who inhabit it. Native American “Indians” have been contributing for longer than Anglos. By the end of the colonial period, in much of the rural south, blacks counted for more in terms of numbers and perhaps effort than white English people. Over 40 percent of the population of Georgia and the Carolinas were black when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Without the input of other communities of European origin, the United States today would be unrecognizable. Without the migrants who have joined from Asia, especially in recent times, the future character and dynamic of the history of the United States would be very different and, probably, less successful in conventional terms-in terms, that is, of wealth and power — than it would otherwise be. I can imagine a US history textbook of the not-too-far-distant future beginning not with the arrival of Puritans in Massachusetts, or with English adventurers in Jamestown, or even with French and Spanish contenders in Florida, or conquistadores at El Paso or in New Mexico, but with three pigs and some goats in Puerto Rico. What might such a rewriting of the country’s past look like?

Columbus called the island San Juan Bautista, in honor of the patron saint of the heir to the Spanish throne at the time. “Boriquen” was the nearest he could get to the way the natives said the name of the place where he landed in November 1493. The assonance with the Spanish word for rich, rico, turned out to be fortuitous: the island had gold. So San Juan de Puerto Rico was a suitable designation and, eventually, after the relocation of the main city on Puerto Rico Bay in 1521, Puerto Rico became the island’s enduring name.
Columbus was searching for what he could recognize as civilization — somewhere he could engage in sophisticated, potentially profitable trade and, if possible, find evidence of the supposed proximity of the rich, advanced lands of east Asia, such as China or India — some proof that he had delivered on his promise to his backers to open a new route to the Indies. It was disappointing to him to find that the buildings were all of straw and wood, but comforting to be able to assert that they were cunningly and solidly constructed. They were also empty, even the tall beach house that Columbus supposed belonged to the local ruler as a sort of pleasure resort, although it was presumably, at least in part, a watchtower. The fleet’s physician guessed why the natives fled at the Spaniards’ approach. They lived in fear of cannibal raiders from neighboring communities or nearby islands. The encounter between native and newcomer began in misunderstanding and suspicion. Each suspected the other of cannibalism. As far as the prospects for colonization in Puerto Rico were concerned, the natives’ behavior seemed auspicious. Their timidity was a short-term source of annoyance, as it meant that at first the Spaniards could not get at them. In the long term, however, it suggested that they would be easily cowed, bloodlessly conquered, handily domesticated, and profitably exploited.
Other Spaniards did not share the discoverer’s distress at the apparent inaccessibility of China. On the contrary, the failure of Columbus to deliver on the terms of his contracts with his financial backers and with the monarchs who legitimized his enterprise meant the lapse of his rights to the exclusive exploitation of his discoveries. From 1498 the routes he had pioneered were flung open to interlopers. Puerto Rico, an easily conquerable island with plenty of native gold, was ideally equipped to excite cupidity in Spain. The environment, though tropical and unfamiliar to Spaniards, had congenial aspects, demonstrated by the profusion of fruit trees—“like those of Valencia,” Columbus said in a transparently promotional choice of language. One of the opportunists who sailed in Columbus’s wake was his former partner, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, who obtained a patent from the king and queen as governor-designate of the island, with the right to conquer it. His ambitions bedeviled and delayed settlement, because Columbus’s heirs disputed his claims. On August 8, 1505, however, he took the first step toward founding a colony. He released those pioneering pigs and goats. It was the usual procedure for preparing new islands for settlement. The plan was that the animals’ progeny would multiply and provide food for the colonists who would arrive in a year or two. But the lawsuits began and the colonists did not come.
After nearly three years of haggling, with the rivals’ claims still unresolved, a way forward emerged. Juan Ponce de León, a Castilian gentleman of obscure origins, had made a favorable impression as governor of the town and province of Higüey in Hispaniola, the first island Spaniards subjugated and settled in the New World. The governor of Hispaniola chose him to make a preliminary incursion into San Juan, with temporary authority to gather gold and find a site for a colony. The expedition sailed on July 21, 1508, with forty-two men, including a ship’s crew only eight strong: not enough manpower to hold a whole island in subjection or establish a settlement, though the ship’s carpenter would be able, if the opportunity arose, to supervise the building of a stockade on land. Juan Ponce’s search for a habitable site was unsuccessful, but he did gather significant samples of gold—according to his accounts, more than 800 pesos (in modern terms, of a little over 450 grams, or about a pound each). Flushed with gold and optimism, he went to Hispaniola in 1509 to bid for a contract with the crown to rule the island himself.
Three circumstances delayed the resumption of his efforts. First, the Columbus family still had an outstanding claim, though that of Vicente Yáñez de Pinzón had lapsed. Second, the pigs and goats had failed to deliver their potential: there were insufficient food sources— at least, insufficient for Spanish tastes and appetites — on the island. Finally, during Juan Ponce’s spell in charge of the island, the crown would not authorize the exploitation of indigenous labor. The last problem was a frequent source of grief to conquistadores and investors in many parts of early America. Without pliable labor, no colony could succeed. But the Spanish monarchs regarded the natives of the New World as their subjects, whom it was their duty to protect, and potential converts, whom they had to encourage in Christianity and treat with charity. Colonial entrepreneurs had to find a way around the monarchs’ scruples — ignoring them in some cases or, in others, supplementing or supplanting native labor with imported slaves.
Apart from importing labor, two strategies were available. First, indios could be classed as subject to enslavement, either as captives in morally justifiable warfare—waged,for instance, in defense against aggression or to recover usurped property — or as infringers of natural law by virtue of cannibalism, human sacrifice, supposed sexual perversions, or rebellion “against their natural lords.” Alternatively, by means of a legal device known as encomienda, which the crown authorized in Hispaniola in 1503, the more or less informal arrangements by which natives contracted to serve Spaniards could, in effect, be imposed by gubernatorial decree. Most governors did not wait for royal authorization to divide native labor services among their followers. In Juan Ponce’s case, however, compliance with royal policy was essential: he needed royal patronage to secure his rights against competitors. Juan Ponce returned to his island without formal rights as governor, but with a governor’s effective authority for the time being to distribute land and exploit mining rights. His freedom to exploit the natives remained highly circumscribed. He could buy provisions from them, for fair recompense, only if they had a ready surplus and “not against their will.” He doubted whether he would be able to honor his obligation to protect the natives from depredations: there were Spaniards on Hispaniola keen to enslave them, and natives on other islands anxious to eat them. To protect his wards, Juan Ponce tried to have canoes on neighboring islands destroyed, but the governor of Hispaniola refused to cooperate in so radical a measure. The terms on which Juan Ponce was authorized for mining, moreover, were hardly generous. After the deduction of the usual royal tax of one- fifth of all proceeds,he had to split the remaining profit fifty-fifty with the crown. This left insufficient funds, he claimed, to cover the costs of employing men and dogs, providing their rations of salted pork and fish, wheaten bread, oil, and vinegar, almost all of which had to be imported.
Still, to a remarkable extent, Juan Ponce’s colony overcame the disadvantages that afflicted it. He found, at first, that the natives, or some of them at least, were remarkably cooperative. This is one of the unremarked paradoxes of Spanish conquest in the New World. In many places, it was not really conquest at all, but a negotiated process in which native communities, for reasons of their own, admitted Spaniards to privileged and sometimes ruling positions. To understand why and how such a surprising turn of events was possible, we have to make a brief excursion into what one might call the anthropology of conquest.


Copyright © 2014 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Uitgeverij W.W. Norton

MINDBOOKSATH : athenaeum