Wednesday, April 24, 2013
The first time I saw Dot it was at a house I think in Newport
her parents’ place I think her dad was a QC or such I may be
wrong but I desired her she was so fresh and pretty so fiercely
bright and dashing and fearless I could try to liken her to
something or other here but won’t out of respect to her art
I went back home to Adelaide and some time later a friend told
me Dot was a lesbian and I thought well there you go but I saw
her sometimes at readings all of us try-hard kids snakeoiling
stuff we thought people simply had to hear but knew in our
bones they wouldn’t those few who did come were like a stamp
collecting club gone very wrong a shagpile cadre of arcane want
habited with loss but at least they listened and what more
could we idiot poets ask even if nearly all of them were other
poets “and their mothers God bless them” now the Young Turks
wannabe ancient Greeks but Dot would make it and make it big
sell books made into movies theorified at unis namedropped on TV
and later I saw her treading the circuit she saved a whole
reading once following a highfalutin blowhard from Melbourne
with ten tight minutes of menace I never read her detective
stuff till one annus horribilis I had to teach uni kids nearly
all uninterested in Dot but fascinated by Paris Hilton and her
dog and the thingy she carried it around in but Dot made it and
made it big we all have to make a quid can’t argue with that
and she did make a quid and we pretty well all were proud of her
she was one of us who’d read to the beer belchers in the ash and
butt bar-rooms and the school halls where you could hear the
rain gurgle down the drainpipe outside between the stanzas she
was one of us but she sold books to punters lots it could be
done poetry lives! the last time I saw her was on one of those
festival panels “poetry is a wilfully stubborn art form: only
the best will do” I can’t remember what she said only that she
endorsed that wilful stubbornness with zestful zeal in all its
only the best will do-ness though I do remember the look in her
eye which might have pierced lead and her dolphin earrings worn
perhaps in solidarity with the tie-dyed-in-the-wool hippies of
the region or its many dolphins when she died I missed her as
a colleague a friend if seen only once in a soft blue moon for a
small bright moment in all our hours with the other good folk
who give us things to ponder and morse into verse but yet are
much too soon forgot for want of the spice of a dash of Dot
- Larry Buttrose
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
The Conquistadors returning home to Spain took back astounding tales of even more colossal wealth which was ripe for the taking. Glittering horizons beckoned the next wave of Spaniards embarking in Seville for the New World, among them a pig farmer from Trujillo named Francisco Pizarro, who would one day emulate the feats of Cortes by overthrowing the Inca Empire in Peru.
The Inca Empire was the most expansive and best integrated pre-Columbian society in the New World, with an estimated
6 million inhabitants in a realm stretching from modern Ecuador and Peru down into Chile and the western sectors of Bolivia and Argentina. Incas were highly skilled engineers and architects. They constructed massive mortar-less stone walls, and built and maintained a vast system of roads and bridges, some of them in harsh conditions in the high passes of the Andes Mountains. Their agriculture involved large-scale terracing to boost production, and they had a well-organized administrative bureaucracy.
They also had a large army, but it proved of little use against Pizarro after he managed, like Cortes with Moctezuma a decade before, to capture the Inca emperor Atahualpa and demand that his people fill a large room to the brim with gold. When the Incas complied and the ransom was paid, Pizarro had him murdered anyway.
‘...Atahualpa was strangled after a judicial murder trial, the penalty of burning alive being commuted because, while the faggots were being piled round his stake, he allowed himself to be baptised.’ 18 Many other such “conversions” were carried out in the same peremptory manner, under duress.
Demoralised by the loss of their leader and subjected to continuing intrigues, betrayals and setbacks, the Incas went from soldiers to slaves in the mines of the Spanish. The swineherd of Trujillo had wielded the sword of God, and a new vein of gold and silver in hitherto unimaginable quantities was opened for Spain.
Soon after the victory, the imagination of Francisco’s younger half-brother Gonzalo was fired with a new mission. In Quito, in the mountains of Peru, Gonzalo heard rumours of a hidden land of gold to the east, and ‘these tales now crystallised around a beautiful and haunting legend - El Dorado: the Golden Man.’19
Emboldened by the triumphs he had shared already, the young and vigourous Gonzalo Pizarro felt he was just the man to find El Dorado, and used his own newly acquired wealth and that of his compatriots to draw together a powerful expedition of nearly 300 men on horseback armed with cannons, arquebuses and crossbows, accompanied by a complement of Catholic priests, and some 4000 indigenous guides, porters and labourers, and lead it off into the mysterious and uncharted interior of the South American continent.
‘His goal was threefold. First he hoped to find La Canela, the Land of Cinnamon, which was believed to lie beyond the Andes... Second, he wanted to assess this territory for colonisation. And third, he hoped to find El Dorado, the Land of Gold.’20
Despite the elaborate preparations, the expedition hit major problems from the outset, forced to hack its way through endless swathes of impenetrable forest in rainfall that never seemed to cease. When local tribespeople refused to provide information about the Land of Cinnamon, Gonzalo Pizarro ‘tortured them - sometimes burning them alive on wooden frames, or casting them to be eaten alive by dogs - including some women...’21 When they did discover the so-called Land of Cinnamon, the trees were spindly and disappointingly few. Yet he and his men pressed on in search of the ultimate glittering prize, El Dorado.
Conditions only ever worsened for the expeditioners, with baggage and food lost, most of the porters dying from malnutrition and other illnesses, and Pizarro privately lamenting he had undertaken the expedition in the first place. With food becoming more scarce with each passing week - no-one, it seemed, knew how to find enough food in the unfamiliar forest - the members of the party began slaughtering and eating their horses.
After months of hacking through jungle they reaching the Coca River where Pizarro had a boat built, and in November 1541, eight months after leaving Quito, set sail downriver in it. But after celebrating Christmas Day with a mass presided over by a surviving priest, the remaining members of the expedition realised they were without any more food, and marooned in seemingly limitless jungle.
The party split up, with Pizarro’s one-eyed subordinate Francisco Orellana taking the boat with 60 men down the Napo River to seek food. He never returned; instead, swept along by the swift current, he found himself on a mighty river.
‘Orellana... heard tantalising stories of the existence of a fierce tribe of female warriors, like the Amazons in Greek myth... the tale gave the river the name it still has today: Rio Amazonas - the River of the Amazons.’22
The river turned out to be the world’s longest, and in an historic journey of epic proportions, Orellana and his compatriots travelled thousands of kilometres east across the entire South American continent, to the mouth of the Amazon, where they emerged into the Atlantic Ocean on 26 August 1542, eight months after parting from the main expedition.
The rump of Gonzalo Pizarro’s once mighty Conquistador party had by this time long been subsisting on lizards and snakes, even grilling its saddles and leather stirrups. Turning back west, he attempted to march his remaining followers out of the desperate straits they were in - all thoughts of any El Dorado long gone - skirmishing with tribes along the way back to Peru.
‘In June 1542, sixteen months after they had set out, the army staggered back over the Andes. They were emaciated, half-naked skeletons in animal skins... There were eighty men left...
a miracle so many had survived “the worst journey in all Indies”. They had endured as much, perhaps, as it is possible for human beings to take, and still live... Keeping up appearances until the bitter end, Gonzalo Pizarro refused the horse (brought out to him) and walked all the way to the gates of Quito.’23
When Gonzalo returned, his fortune spent, his companions dead, sick or disappeared, and all dreams of El Dorado vanished like so much smoke, he was devastated to receive the news that soon after his departure his elder brother Francisco had been killed in a feud with an old Conquistador comrade in arms, in his death throes drawing the cross in the dust with his own blood, and calling out the name of Jesus.
That was how Gonzalo Pizarro’s quest for El Dorado ended, in defeat, despair and heartbreak, but that is not to say that such a place was never found, as we shall see.
The gold of the Americas proved problematic for Spain as a whole, the pillaged loot attracting English and French privateers, who in their turn pillaged it from Spanish galleons on the high seas. What did reach the port of Seville was largely dissipated on wars and luxury goods, and in spite of what appeared an inexhaustible source of tapped wealth, Spain was forced to default on its debts in 1557.24
Gold and silver were not trucked across the Atlantic in massive quantities for decades, especially after the easiest, initial pickings had been taken. It would take some time before the military adventurism of the Conquistadors could be placed onto a solid business footing. ‘Although Mexico fell to the Spaniards in the 1520s and Peru in the 1530s, it was not until after 1550 that the effective exploitation of the new World’s resources can be said to have begun... The newly found territories had to be subjugated, settled, and at least nominally Christianised, before the Spanish and Portuguese could hope to create on the other side of the Atlantic viable societies in the image of their own. Until this was done, America would remain no more than a marchland of Europe, an advancing frontier pushed forward by rival warring gangs.’25
In addition to the problems of organising labour and those of transportation across vast distances of land and sea, a more thoroughgoing exploitation of South American silver had to await technological advances in mining and refining. Silver shipments to Spain grew massively in the latter decades of the century, valued at more than 80 million ducats in the 1590s26 - stupendous wealth for the era. Yet, ‘by no means all this silver came permanently to rest in European hands, for some of it flowed eastwards to pay for Europe’s purchase of Asian luxury products...’. Little silver “trickled down” too: ‘The mass of Europe’s rural population would rarely if ever set eyes on a gold or silver coin...’27
While the failure of the mines of the New World to benefit the peasantry of Europe might not come a complete surprise now, more surprising at the time was the unprecedented inflation which followed the influx of silver, causing much economic head-scratching. ‘We see by experience that in France, where money is scarcer than in Spain, bread, wine, cloth and labour are worth much less. And even in Spain, in times when money was scarcer, saleable goods and labour were given for very much less than after the discovery of the Indies, which flooded the country with gold and silver.’28
The economic benefits to Spain of its colonies in the Americas might be debated, but there is no doubt that contact with the New World helped transform the Old one, not only economically, but culturally. And while Rome might have received little direct benefit from the colonies - Spain did keep its possessions and bounties much to itself - there were undeniable benefits in other ways.
Rome might not have drunk as deeply from the river of gold of the Americas as much as it might have liked, but it found its own El Dorado in a far more important regard: followers. While the various Protestant factions confronted it in Europe, Rome outflanked them in the Americas, its missionaries who accompanied the the Conquistadors rapidly converting new adherents, creating a new constituency which grew to the hundreds of thousands, to millions, and in time, billions.
Figures released by the BBC in 2005 showed Christianity as the world’s biggest religion. Around 2 billion people - or one third of the world’s population - were baptised Christians, ahead of 1.5 billion Muslims, and almost 1 billion Hindus. Just over half the number of Christians, or 1.1 billion, were Roman Catholics - around one person in six on earth.29
The BBC figures also showed how the Americas remain crucial to Catholic numbers. Half of the total number of Catholics in the world in 2005 - approximately 541 million - were in the Americas. At the same time ALL of Europe counted together totalled 282 million Catholics, just half the number of Catholics in the Americas.30 The burgeoning populations of Central and South America continue to have very high proportions of Catholics.31
The New World of the Conquistadors became the storehouse of souls for the Church of Rome. With both contraception (other than the Rhythm Method) and abortion banned under the pain of Mortal Sin, Catholic numbers in the Americas can only be expected to swell too. This was the true riches of El Dorado: people, followers, in their many millions. The descendants of the slaughtered and exploited indigenous populations, of the African slaves transported later to work the colonial mines and plantations, and of Spanish settlers, together became adherents of the religion whose leaders, the popes, had proved powerless to prevent the bloodbath and excesses of conquest and colonisation.
In the New World, the Roman Catholic Church hit the golden jackpot to see it through the long winter of the Enlightenment, the ructions and transformations of the Industrial Revolution and the enormously destructive national wars of the twentieth century, down to the time of the current pope, Benedict XVI (and, the new pope, Francis I) with his more than one billion followers.
In the New World, the Roman Catholic Church hit the golden jackpot to see it through the long winter of the Enlightenment, the ructions and transformations of the Industrial Revolution and the enormously destructive national wars of the twentieth century, down to the time of the current pope, Benedict XVI (and, the new pope, Francis I) with his more than one billion followers.
1. The name is generally considered to have been derived in 1507 from that of Florentine merchant and early navigator of the New World, Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512), but the origin continues to be debated. http://www.umc.sunysb.edu/surgery/broome.html
2. Johnson, M., The Borgias, p217
3. Turner, J., Spices, p4
5. Elliott, J.H., Europe Divided: 1559-1598, p51
6. Chadwick, O., The Reformation, p328
7. Chadwick notes re the clergy in the New World: ‘The Spanish clergy in America (and the Portuguese in Brazil and Africa) were not for the most part perturbed by the condition of slavery or serfdom under which lived so many of their flocks.’ ibid, p328
8. Wood, M., Conquistadors, pp15-16
9. Lanyon, A., Malinche’s Conquest, p93
10. ibid, p93
10A. Chadwick, O., op cit, p323
11. Wright, R., Stolen Continents, pp23-24
12. ‘By 1519, when Hernan Cortes and his army attended an Aztec feast on the island capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) and witnessed the seed in a beverage, cacao was a profoundly sophisticated food. The Spaniards had seen nothing like it. The “beans”, as dried seeds were called, were roasted over a fire; crushed into a paste; flavoured with flowers, chillies, black pepper, and vanilla; diluted with cold water, poured between vessels until a froth formed, and served in a lacquered gourd by a train of solemnly reverent women...’ Bill Burford, Extreme Chocolate, New Yorker magazine October 29, 2007
13. Chadwick, O., op cit, p323
14. Wood, M., op cit, pp15-16
14A. ‘Chocolate was being drunk in Spain a few decades later, and by the sixteenth century was a favourite drink of the rich across Europe.’ Burford, B., op cit
15. Wood, M., op cit, p16
15A. Thomas, H., The Conquest of Mexico, p70
16. ibid, p70
17. Cambridge University art and archaeology academic and author Nigel Spivey says that in one massive rite in 1487, 40,000 people were ritually killed in the space of four days in Aztec sacrifice to the sun-god. According to his account, the lines of those waiting to have their chests slashed open and beating hearts cut out atop the stepped pyramids stretched back miles long. Given such customary events, it might hardly be seen as surprising that the Aztec rulers had neighbouring foes whom the Spanish could recruit in a divide and rule campaign against them, although it has also been noted that human sacrifice was not confined to the Aztecs in the Americas at the time. While Spivey opines that such terror was designed to enforce compliance with the political elite, some anthropologists have hypothesised that the flesh of the sacrificed was consumed to remedy deficiencies in the Aztec diet. Prisoners of war were killed in the ritual - scholars have remarked that the Aztecs employed tactics specifically designed to injure for capture rather than to kill their opponents in battle - as well as slaves considered lazy and worthless. Spivey, N., How Art Made The World, episode 5, To Death and Back, BBC TV, 2005.
18. Chadwick, O., op cit, p324
19. Wood, M., op cit, pp189
20. ibid, p192
21. ibid, p196
22. ibid, p209
23. ibid, p216
24. Elton, G.R., Reformation Europe 1517-1559, p77
25. Elliott, J.H., op cit, p50
26. ibid, extrapolated from table p61
27. ibid, p61
28. Grice-Hutchinson, M., The School of Salamanca, Readings in Spanish Monetary Theory, 1544-1605 (Oxford 1952) pp91-96, quoted in Elliott, J.H., Europe Divided: 1559-1598, p62
29. Only one person in six in the world identified as having no religion.
31. In 2005 in Mexico there were 93.6 million Catholics out of a total population of 104.7 million (89% of population), while in Brazil, there were 151.2 million Catholics out of a total population of 176.9 million (85% of population). One could expect similar proportions in many other Central and South American countries.
Bull, G, introduction to Machiavelli’s The Prince, Penguin, Ringwood, 1971
Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Mentor, New York City, 1960
Burford, B., Extreme Chocolate, New Yorker magazine October 29, 2007
Cervantes, M., Don Quijote, trans. Burton Raffel, Norton, New York City, 1996
Cervantes, M., Don Quixote, trans. John Rutherford, Penguin Books, London, 2003
Chadwick, O., The Reformation, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1982
Chamberlin, E.R., Cesare Borgia, International Profiles, International Textbook Company, London, 1969
Chamberlin, R., The Bad Popes, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill, 2003
Chidester, D., Christianity: A Global History, Penguin Books, London, 2001
Clark, K. Civilisation, Penguin Books, London, 1987
Crankshaw, E., The Habsburgs, Corgi Books, London, 1972
Dessaix, R., Night Letters, Picador, Sydney, 1997
Duffy, E., Saints and Sinners: a History of the Popes, Yale University Press, 1997
Dunstan, W.E., Ancient Greece, Harcourt College Publishers, Orlando, 2000
Jones, B, Barry Jones Dictionary of World Biography, Information Australia, 1996
Elliott, J.H., Europe Divided 1559-1598, Collins, London, 1968
Elton, G.R., Reformation Europe 1517-1559, Collins, London, 1967
Hale, J.R., Renaissance...
Heer, F., The Medieval World, Mentor Books, New York City, 1962
Johnson, M., The Borgias, Penguin Books, London, 2001.
Keen, M., The Pelican History of Mediaeval Europe, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1969
Kittell, E.E. and Madden, T.F., Medieval and Renaissance Venice, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1999
Lanyon, A., Malinche’s Conquest, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1999
Lo Bello, Nino, The Incredible Book of Vatican Facts and Papal Curiosities, Gramercy Books, New York City, 2002
Plazas de Nieto, C., and Falchetti de Saenz, A., The Discovery of Gold in the New World, El Dorado Columbian Gold, Australian Art Exhibitions Corporation, 1978
Plumb, J.H. (ed), Renaissance Profiles, Harper Torchbook, New York City, 1965
Rizzati, M.R., The Life and Times of Michelangelo, Hamlyn Publishing Group, Feltham, 1967
Robertson, A., and Stevens, D., The Pelican History of Music...
Seward, D., Prince of the Renaissance: The Life of Francois I, Sphere Books, London, 1974
Seymour-Smith, M., Robert Graves: His Life and Work, Abacus, London, 1983
Schjeldhal, P., Reformers, New Yorker magazine 17 December 2007.
Southern, R.W., Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1970
Spitz, L.W., The Protestant Reformation, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1966
Spivey, N., How Art Made The World television series, BBC, 2005.
Thomas, H., The Conquest of Mexico, Hutchinson, London, 1993
Turner, J., Spices, Harper Perennial, London 2005
Ullmann, W., A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1975
Waley, D., Later Medieval Europe, Longmans, London, 1968
Walsh, M.J., The Popes: 50 Celebrated Occupants of the Throne of St Peter, Quercus Publishing, London, 2007
Wood, M., Conquistadors, BBC Worldwide, London, 2001
Wedgewood, C.V., The Thirty Years War, Pimlico, London, 1992
Wright, R., Stolen Continents: The Indian Story, Pimlico, London, 1993
(from my book, Tales of the Popes: from Eden to El Dorado, New Holland Publishers Australia 2009)
With the election of Pope Francis I, the Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, it is timely to review the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America.
OLD POPES AND NEW WORLDS (Part One - The Brutes)
Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever owns it is
lord of all he wants. With gold it is even
possible to open for souls the way to paradise!
- Christopher Columbus
The words of Columbus, uttered a decade after his first sighting of the continent of America,1 reflect the confusion in the Renaissance mind between El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, and the popular vision of heaven. Through the agency of Cortes, the Pizarros and other Spanish Catholic soldier-adventurers, the two notions became interwoven so seamlessly that the slaughter of the native peoples of the Americas and the pillaging of their wealth became a “holy work” of sorts, entailing the saving of native American souls before their prompt dispatch to God in heaven and the taking of all they possessed on earth.
It would appear on the face of it that a line of credit the size of the Americas could not have come at a more opportune time for Rome. By the time of Columbus the papacy had presided over the Catholic Church for one and a half millennia, making it a most venerable human institution. But the challenges the popes faced at the time of the Conquistadors were many, varied and complex. They included the chronic intrigues of emperors and kings; the Protestant Reformation and the ongoing Inquisition; the leeching of wealth to the sovereign states and the banks; and the penumbra of the approaching Enlightenment in the writings of More, Erasmus and Montaigne and the theories of scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo.
In the sixteenth century the Church and papal power were in a period of rapid evolution towards their present form. The papacy had begun to undergo a process similar to Europe’s other absolute monarchs, a gradual ebbing away of real temporal power, to a remnant largely of spectacle and symbolism. Where once popes could consign those it wished to the flames, or have their flesh seared with irons, now they were on a path downwards to wielding moral authority alone. Even by the sixteenth century, although there is evidence they might have wished to prevent it, they were powerless to stop the rape of the Americas, and during the centuries that would follow it, little more than wardrobe would be left to the papal drama.
That the century had opened promisingly. The death of the wanton Alexander VI had opened the way for the militantly assertive Julius II, who expanded the papal territories and filled the treasury, ushering in a golden era which would last for two decades. Construction of the grandest building in Christendom, Saint Peter’s basilica, was underway, and the genius of artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael celebrated Catholic belief in works of enduring beauty. And then there was the New World, the fantastic, newly-glimpsed realm which promised riches beyond imagining for Catholic Spain, and surely something too for Rome, and for all the Catholic world.
The opposite occurred. Spain kept its plunder much to itself and the Vatican went begging, near destitute. With Christendom plunged into yet another round of conflict and chaos that lasted most of the century, in a few decades much of the initial wealth of the New World would be dissipated, spent, and Spain itself broke. Native Americans had died in their multitudes, worked to death by Christians, through whose fingers their stolen gold slipped like so much sand. It was not so much the wine in the chalice that was poisoned as the gold of the chalice itself.
The problem with history, as has been observed, is that it takes so long. Occasionally though it happens almost in a moment. This was the case in 1492, when a pope stood centrestage as the curtain parted on what has been called the greatest single event in human history, the sighting by Europeans of the Americas. The pope was Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, and though a Spaniard, in his position as pope it had fallen to him to divide the spoils of the New World between the two greatest maritime powers of the era, Spain and Portugal. To avoid conflict between the Iberian superpowers, it was decided in effect that Spain could exploit all that it found to the west of a line drawn north-south down the mid Atlantic, while Portugal could take all to the east of it. In brokering the agreement, the pope in effect poured oil on what might otherwise have become a very troubled Atlantic.
‘Alexander may have favoured his native Spain, but his intercession was a statesmanlike determination of a knotty problem that allowed the exploration, which no pope could have stopped in any case, to go on without warfare between two important Christian kingdoms... The pope saw exploration as a glorious means to evangelise pagans, spreading Christ’s gospel, but he intended to do this by good works and preaching... not by the sword.’2
How deeply Alexander really felt such good intentions is perhaps open to question, but any contrary views from the Vatican about the conduct of the conquest of the Americas were ignored anyway. By the time the New World was opened up, the word of any pope, devalued by years of scandal and unsavoury practices, weighed little against gold in the scales.
The Treaty of Tordesillas was duly drawn up and signed in June 1494, and the world was effectively divided in two at the stroke of the pen of a pope. A dramatic papal act had set the stage for the sixteenth century, just as another equally dramatic one - and far more terrible - would bring it to a close. In between lay ten decades of tumult, confusion and death.
When the grandparents of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, financed the 1492 expedition of the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, the objective was to find a westward route to India, and its wealth and spices. What Columbus did not know, nor anyone else knew for that matter, was that the continent of America intervened between him and his goal. Making landfall and believing they had arrived in India, the Spaniards dubbed the native Americans “Indians”.
‘...that was what Columbus believed (on his return to Spain). His gold was indeed gold, if in no great quantity, and his parrots were indeed parrots, albeit it not of any Asian variety. Likewise his Indians - the six bewildered individuals who shuffled forward to be inspected by the assembled company were not Indians but Caribs, a race soon to be exterminated by the Spanish colonisers, and, deadlier still, by the germs they carried. The misnomer Columbus conferred has long outlived the conception.’3
Although there can be no doubt about the appeal of the natural and man-made resources of the Americas, the Spanish Conquistadors4 who followed Columbus took what they wanted not for greed alone, but through a calculated blending of greed and missionary zeal. ‘The New World had been entrusted by God to the special care of the Kings of Spain, in order that its heathen inhabitants might be brought to an understanding of the Truth Faith; and, with the obligation, went also the reward, in the form of the gold and silver which these God-given lands were producing in such gratifying quantities.’5
While the rulers of Spain might have been grateful for such a bounty, and grasped it, this is not to say Rome endorsed the acts committed by the Spanish in the Americas. There is evidence the popes tried to mitigate against the cruelty of the Conquistadors and the colonists who enslaved indigenous populations to work the silver mines. ‘It is to the credit of the Popes of the Counter-Reformation that they steadily condemned the doctrine of slavery for the Indians.’6
But who was listening to popes when there was unimaginable wealth for the taking? Against the hunger for gold and silver, for untold riches in a far-off world, the views of the popes counted for little7.
The tragedy of one man was to have huge ramifications for the gold and silver the Spanish coveted. He was the Aztec king Moctezuma II, ruler of an empire of 10 million people, covering much of modern Mexico and stretching south to Guatemala. In 1519 Moctezuma met the conquistador, Hernan Cortes. Cortes had risen from humble beginnings in Medellin, in the province of Extremadura in western Spain. He embarked for the New World to a government post in Hispaniola, and a decade and a half later headed an expedition into the Yucatan Peninsula. Spurred on by tales of the gold and other treasures of the Aztecs, he marched on their capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) toting the gun and the cross, intent on claiming the kingdom for God and Spain.
‘In Mexico, Cortes, with his finely tuned irony, told the Aztecs that he and his men “suffered from a disease of the heart which is only cured by gold.” Cieza de Leon was inspired to sail to Peru after seeing the Inca gold unloaded in Seville: “As long as I live I cannot get it out of my mind.” All of which perplexed - and, in the end, disgusted - the native peoples. The half-Inca historian Waman Poma portrayed an Indian asking a Spaniard: “Do you actually eat this gold?” And the Spaniard replies, “Yes, we certainly do!” The last of the great Incas, Manco himself, bitterly remarked, “Even if the snows of the Andes turned to gold still they would not be satisfied.”’8
Cortes took up with an indigenous woman called Malintzin, known to history as Malinche. Talented with languages, she was initially his translator, and then his advisor in battles against other rival tribes and peoples, and gained repute as Cortes’s “Lover, mistress, concubine, whore.”9
Much about Malinche remains a mystery, but this is not the case with Cortes: ‘We know little of Malinche’s sexual history, but quite a lot about Cortes’s, for long before Malinche was ever heard of, he was already notorious for his promiscuity, and long after her death his notoriety would continue. In Cuba, for example, where he had lived for fifteen years before launching his expedition to the mainland, there had been persistent scandal... Bernal Diaz referred to all this in his memoirs. He admired his commander, but he was no fool and saw his faults too. He admitted that he had heard Cortes was “dissolute with women” and “addicted to women in excess, and jealous in guarding his own.”’10
This is not to say that Cortes, like many other Spanish Conquistadors, did not at least behave like a pious Catholic. ‘...(Cortes) was devoted to the Virgin Mary, and always kept a statuette of her upon his person, said his prayers and attended mass daily...’10A
The help of Malinche would be invaluable to Cortes in his campaign to conqueror of Mexico, but his final success hinged on a combination of other factors as well. These included the belief of the Aztecs in the coming of a god with a white skin which would herald the downfall of their civilisation, the bringing in of exotic diseases to which the Aztecs had no immunity, Cortes’s talent to divide and conquer, a lack of qualms about treachery and murder; and brute firepower, cannon law.
An early account of the strange and awesome weaponry of the approaching Spaniards was given to Moctezuma by a messenger, reported in the mid-sixteenth century Florentine Codex.
‘When (the cannon) is fired, a thing like a stone ball comes out of its entrails, raining fire and shooting sparks. And the smoke that comes out of it has a foul smell, like rotten mud, which assaults the brain. If it is fired... at a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters - an extraordinary sight, as if someone blew the tree apart from within. Their weapons and equipment are all made of iron. They dress in iron; they wear iron helmets on their heads; their swords are iron; their bows are iron; their shields are iron; their spears are iron. Their “deer” carry them on their backs, and these beasts are tall as a roof. Their bodies are covered everywhere; only their faces can be seen. They are very white, as if made of lime... Their dogs are huge, with flat waving ears and long, dangling tongues. They have fiery, blazing eyes...”11
Not surprisingly, reports like this filled Moctezuma with fear, and ultimately despair. When the two met, unfortunately for Moctezuma everything about him spoke to Cortes of vast wealth, of the exotic, and of plunder ripe for a Conquistador - even his favourite drink.12
Cortes tricked and kidnapped Moctezuma, who later died in suspicious circumstances, and the template was set for a conquest through guile and brutality. ‘Cortes sent the citizens of Cholula in Mexico a demand that they should recognise his authority and accept the Christian faith... he murdered more than 3,000 of them, the killing taking more than two hours.’13
Within three years Cortes had overthrown the Aztec Empire and installed himself as ruler of the newest province of Spain. He and his men embarked on a wholesale plunder of Aztec wealth, which was shipped in gold and artefacts back across the Atlantic to Spain.
In August 1520, the artist Albrecht Durer visited the palace of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and marvelled at the newly arrived booty of Cortes. ‘I saw the things which had been brought to the King from the new land of gold, a sun all of gold a full fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms of the armour of the people there, with all manner of wondrous weapons, harness, spears, extraordinary clothing, beds and all manner of wonderful objects of human use, much better than seeing prodigies. These things are all so precious they are valued at 100,000 florins. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that touches my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands.14
Of even greater value over time than the precious metals and artefacts, were the other items that would transform life around the world forever after, foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, avocados and chillies, exotic flowers, spices and tobacco, and the chocolate which gained rapid popularity in Europe.14A
Native peoples from the Americas were themselves freighted back to Europe, and became the subject of intense curiosity. ‘...Cortes transported Mexican ball-players and jugglers to perform before the king in Seville. Later they went to Rome and “juggled a log with their feet... before a delighted Pope” (Leo X). In Paris, Amazonian Indians acted out their forest lives in circus shows; a Brazilian chief was presented to Henry VIII, and an Eskimo man and woman, from Baffin Island, impressed Londoners with their dignified bearing and modesty.’15
It was this dignity of the native peoples of the Americas, however, as well as their wealth, which was under frantic assault, and within a decade of meeting Cortes and his band, many Aztecs were reduced to dogma-parroting mine slaves of Spain. There were voices raised from the beginning against the barbarous treatment of the native peoples, but they were few, and their ultimate effect limited.
‘...(Dominican Friar) Antonio de Montesinos... told his appalled congregation that they were living in mortal sin because of their treatment of the Indians. “Are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you do yourselves? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people?”’15A
When the colonial authorities protested to Madrid about his sermons, rather than waiting to be sent home, Montesinos returned of his own volition and argued the case before the king. His efforts and others like him helped bring about the Laws of Burgos of 1512, which laid down standards for the treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. They were to be made Christians, giving them protection which could not otherwise be guaranteed to people whom the Spanish regarded as savages.
‘Natives who worked for wages were not to be ill-treated. Every town was to have an inspector to ensure that the settlers conducted themselves humanely. There were some less philanthropic provisions. The naturales (natives) were forbidden to dance. Church-going was compulsory. Old houses were to be burned, to prevent sentimentality. A third of all Indians were to work in the mines.’16
Despite the cruelty which native peoples suffered, there are those too who feel the downfall of the Aztecs was inevitable, because of their own brutal practices.17 Whatever the case, within a few years of the arrival of Cortes, Mexico and its people were subject to Spain.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
The smell of toast reminds me of my father,
Not only because he was cremated.
He made it every morning, in strips three to a slice of bread,
Golden soaked with butter as a happy death.
My mother was the smell of damp wool, flooring wax
Down a gruel-dim hall, nail polish remover and hairspray,
The Roman triumph of a Sunday roast on a tray,
And over them both, the maudlin miasma of tobacco.
It is said that oxygen is odourless,
But surely only to our human noses,
As we sniff our way from pillar to post,
Ashes to ashes, toast to toast.