Wednesday, March 13, 2013

OLD POPES AND NEW WORLDS (Part Two - The Jackpot)

OLD POPES AND NEW WORLDS (Part Two - The Jackpot)

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.


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.
2. Johnson, M., The Borgias, p217
3. Turner, J., Spices, p4
4. Conquerors
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.


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 (from my book, Tales of the Popes: from Eden to El DoradoNew Holland Publishers Australia 2009)


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