The Fall of an Empire

Bartolome de las casas

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Cómo se derrumba un imperio (Spanish)

The Fall of an Empire


Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

The same day that Christopher Columbus left the port of Palos, the third of August of 1492, was the deadline for the Jews of Spain to leave their country, Spain.  In the admiral’s mind there were at least two powerful goals, two irrefutable truths: the material riches of Asia and the perfect religion of Europe.  With the former he intended to finance the reconquest of Jerusalem; with the latter he would legitimate the looting.  The word “oro,” Spanish for “gold,” spilled from his pen in the same way the divine and bloody metal spilled from the ships of the conquistadors who followed him.  That same year, the second of January of 1492, Granada had fallen, the last Arab bastion on the Iberian Peninsula.  1492 was also the year of the publication of the first Castilian grammar (the first European grammar in a “vulgar” language).  According to its author, Antonio de Nebrija, language was the “companion to empire.”  Immediately, the new power continued the Reconquest with the Conquest, on the other side of the Atlantic, using the same methods and the same convictions, confirming the globalizing vocation of all empires.

At the center of power there had to be a language, a religion and a race.  Future Spanish nationalism would be built on the foundation of a cleansing of memory.  It is true that eight centuries before Jews and Aryan Visigoths had called for and later helped Muslims replace Roderick and the rest of the Visigoth kings who had fought for the same purification.  But this was not the principal reason for despising the Jews, because it was not memory that was important but forgetting.  The Catholic monarchs and successive divine royalty finished off (or wanted to) the other Spain, multicultural and mestizo Spain, the Spain where several languages were spoken and several religions were practiced and several races mixed.  The Spain that had been the center of culture, the arts and the sciences, in a Europe submerged in backwardness, in the violent superstitions and provincialism of the Middle Ages.  More and more, the Iberian Peninsula began closing its borders to difference.  Moors and Jews had to abandon their country and emigrate to Barbaria (Africa) or to the rest of Europe, where they integrated to peripheral nations that emerged with new economic, social and intellectual restlessness.1 Within the borders were left some illegitimate children, African slaves who go almost unmentioned in the better known version of history but who were necessary for undignified domestic tasks.  The new and successful Spain enclosed itself in a conservative movement (if one will permit me the oxymoron).  The state and religion were strategically united for better control of Spain’s people during a schizophrenic process of purification.  Some dissidents like Bartolomé de las Casas had to face, in public court, those who, like Ginés de Supúlveda, argued that the empire had the right to invade and dominate the new continent because it was written in the Bible (Proverbs 11:29) that “the foolish shall be servant to the wise of heart.”  The others, the subjugated, are such because of their “inferior intellect and inhumane and barbarous customs.”  The speech of the famous and influential theologian, sensible like all official discourse, proclaimed: “[the natives] are barbarous and inhumane peoples, are foreign to civil life and peaceful customs, and it will be just and in keeping with natural law that such peoples submit to the empire of more cultured and humane nations and princes, so that due to their virtues and the prudence of their laws such peoples might throw off their barbarism and reduce themselves to a more humane life and worship of virtue.”  And in another moment: “one must subjugate by force of arms, if by other means is not possible, those who by their natural condition must obey others but refuse to submit.”  At the time one did not recur to words like “democracy” and “freedom” because until the 19th century these remained in Spain attributes of humanist chaos, anarchy and the devil.  But each imperial power in each moment of history plays the same game with different cards.  Some, as one can see, not so different.

Despite an initially favorable reaction from King Carlos V and the New Laws that prohibited enslavement of native Americans (Africans were not considered subject to rights), the empire, through its propertied class, continued enslaving and exterminating those peoples considered “foreign to civil life and peaceful customs” in the name of salvation and humanization.  In order to put an end to the horrible Aztec rituals that periodically sacrificed an innocent victim to their pagan gods, the empire tortured, raped and murdered en masse, in the name of the law and of the one, true God.  According to Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the methods of persuasion was to stretch the savages over a grill and roast them alive.  But it was not only torture – physical and moral – and forced labor that depopulated lands that at one time had been inhabited by thousands of people; weapons of mass destruction were also employed, biological weapons to be more specific.  Smallpox and the flu decimated entire populations unintentionally at times, and according to precise calculation on other occasions.  As the English had discovered to the north, sometimes the delivery of contaminated gifts, like the clothing of infected people, or the dumping of pestilent cadavers, had more devastating effects than heavy artillery.

Now, who defeated one of the greatest empires in history, the Spanish Empire?  Spain.  As a conservative mentality, cutting across all social classes, clung to a belief in its divine destiny, as the “armed hand of God” (according to Menéndez Pelayo), the empire sank into its own past.  The society of empire fractured and the gap separating the rich from the poor grew at the same time that the empire guaranteed the mineral resources (precious metals in this case) allowing it to function.  The poor increased in number and the rich increased the wealth they accumulated in the name of God and country.  The empire had to finance the wars that it maintained beyond its borders and the fiscal deficit grew until it became a monster out of control.  Tax cuts mainly benefited the upper classes, to such an extent that they often were not even required to pay them or were exempted from going to prison for debt or embezzlement.  The state went bankrupt several times.  Nor was the endless flow of mineral resources coming from its colonies, beneficiaries of the enlightenment of the Gospel, sufficient: the government spent more than what it received from these invaded lands, requiring it to turn to the Italian banks.

This is how, when many countries of America (what is now called Latin America) became independent, there was no longer anything left of the empire but its terrible reputation.  Fray Servando Teresa de Mier wrote in 1820 that if Mexico had not yet become independent it was because of the ignorance of the people, who did not yet understand that the Spanish Empire was no longer an empire, but the poorest corner of Europe.  A new empire was consolidating power, the British Empire.  Like previous empires, and like those that would follow, the extension of its language and the dominance of its culture would be common factors.  Another would be publicity: England did not delay in using the chronicles of Bartolomé de las Casas to defame the old empire in the name of a superior morality.  A morality that nonetheless did not preclude the same kind of rape and criminality.  But clearly, what matters most are the good intentions: well-being, peace, freedom, progress – and God, whose omnipresence is demonstrated by His presence in all official discourse.

Racism, discrimination, the closing of borders, messianic religious belief, wars for peace, huge fiscal deficits to finance these wars, and radical conservatism lost the empire.  But all of these sins are summed up in one: arrogance, because this is the one that keeps a world power from seeing all the other ones.  Or it allows them to be seen, but in distorted fashion, as if they were grand virtues.

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

February 2006.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

(1) It is commonly said that the Renaissance began with the fall of Constantinople and the emigration of Greek intellectuals to Italy, but little or nothing is said of the emigration of knowledge and capital that were forced to abandon Spain.

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