TT: First Contact — Colonial Style

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back for a discussion on how conflict is key to a story.  Then join me and Alan as we take a look at a situation fraught with potential for conflict: First Contact With Aliens.  (Or at least with Europeans.)

JANE: I’d asked you about the European settlement of New Zealand.  So, what led the Europeans to become interested in what a friend of mine referred to as “a place too big to be called an island, but too small to be called a continent”?

How Sweet Is the Penguin?

How Sweet Is the Penguin?

ALAN: Well, once James Cook’s discoveries became public knowledge, the whaling fleets of the world decided that New Zealand would make a great stopover where they could process the whales they had caught, and render out the oil from them. A lot of permanent and semi-permanent settlements quickly sprang up to serve the whalers. The most famous of these was Kororāreka; a Maori name which translates as “How Sweet Is the Penguin.”

JANE: Are penguins sweet?  The ones I’ve encountered seem rather fishy.

ALAN: The name supposedly derives from a Maori chief who was wounded in battle. Feeling gloomy and sore, he asked for penguin soup to cheer himself up and alleviate the pain (as one commonly does, of course). When the broth was served, he supped it delicately and said, “How sweet is the penguin.”

JANE: I get it!  Like a nice bowl of Mother’s chicken soup when you have a cold.

 How did the Maori feel about these new arrivals?

ALAN: The local Maori were quick to recognise the advantages of trading with these new people. The Maori supplied them with timber and rope and similar things and in return they received firearms and alcohol. Everybody found this very satisfactory.

Kororāreka had no laws worthy of the name – New Zealand had no real governing body at this time because it wasn’t a colony. It was just a set of isolated settlements with no unifying authority. Nobody really cared what happened in Kororāreka, that isolated tiny town at the bottom of the world. But it wasn’t long before the settlement’s name and reputation spread far and wide among the sailors of the world. They knew the place as “the hell hole of the Pacific.”  Prostitution, drink, drugs, robbery and murder were the norm. Just what sailors like best…

JANE:  Sounds like a film version of the Wild West with sailors in the place of cowboys and Maori standing in for Indians.

Does Kororāreka still exist?  And is it still a wild place?

ALAN: Yes, it still exists. These days it is a sleepy little village called Russell. It is a popular tourist destination because the setting is so beautiful. There is no remaining trace of its violent and dissipated past except perhaps for some colourful hints carved on the gravestones in the cemetery, and some relics and documents on display in the museum.

Did anything like that happen in America? I know that the English colonies on the east coast were quite rigidly governed, but what about the Spanish settlements in the west? I know absolutely nothing about what the early days of Spanish colonialism were like.

JANE: That’s a good question and fairly complicated.  Stop me if I go crazy.

In theory, the colonies were very well-regulated.  The Spanish crown loved law and legal codes. A good example of this is the Camino Real.  This translates as “Royal Road.”  However, it was more than just a road, it was a legal code.  As soon as a “road” (and it might be nothing more than a dirt track) was officially declared part of the Camino Real, the entire legal code pertaining to royal roads – including tolls, penalties for crimes and the like – went into play.  Moreover, use of alternate routes was officially forbidden, something which confused the indigenous populations no end.

ALAN: You take the high road, I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Albuquerque before you… Nope! Doesn’t quite scan. No wonder they were confused.

JANE:  The Spanish government’s affection for paperwork – something we tend to think of as a modern disease – has been hugely helpful to Jim and other historians/archeologists who are trying to find out what happened here in New Mexico in the early days of colonization.  The records may have been lost in the New World, but the copies are often still extant in the Old World.

ALAN: When you use a computer, you are always told it’s a good idea to make a backup copy of your information and store it somewhere safe – preferably a long way away from the computer itself. Many people fail to understand the importance of regular backups and don’t bother with them. Sooner or later, of course, a catastrophe happens and they lose everything. I don’t know why people don’t get the point of taking backups. It’s not a new idea, it’s just common sense. Clearly the Spaniards perfectly understood the idea 500 years ago…

JANE:  Yep!  They would have loved the option to make computer back-ups.  They would have loved carbon paper…  But I get off topic.

Where regulation is concerned, theory and practice are not the same thing.  To understand what happened in Spanish North America, we need to slide over to Spanish South America.  Through tremendous good luck, in both South and Central America, the Spanish stumbled on areas that had two things: lots of gold and unstable local governments.  I won’t go into details here, but for an excellent fictional treatment of the material, I recommend Fred Saberhagen’s novel Mask of the Sun.

May I indulge in a small commercial break?

ALAN: Yes, please do.

JANE: Once upon a time, Mask of the Sun would have been difficult to find, but it has been re-released as part of the anthology Golden Reflections, edited by Fred’s widow, Joan, and their good friend (and prolific author), Bob Vardeman.  I have a story in the collection.  For more about the collection, see my Wednesday Wandering for 11-12-11.

ALAN: That’s good to know. I generally like Fred Saberhagen’s books, but after he died they seemed to fall out of print, and they are quite hard to find these days.

JANE: Joan has been working hard to make sure Fred’s work is available, as least as e-books.  If you can’t get them via usual channels, let me know and I’ll link you up with her.  She has been a wonderful custodian for his legacy.

Now, back to the Spanish in the North America.

When the Spanish moved into North America, they came up via Mexico.  Cortez had done very well there, up to and including finding lots and lots of treasure.  So in 1540, when Coronado and his men came into what would later be called New Mexico, they were hoping to find more of the same.

ALAN: Ah! The power of human greed. The motivating factor behind so much history. Did they find what they were looking for?

JANE: No.  They didn’t.  There is some gold in this area, more silver, but nothing like what was found in South and Central America.  The inhabitants – in part because the terrain is a lot harsher – did not build large cities as did the Incas, Aztecs, Mayans, and such.  They built smaller communities, primarily from stone and adobe.  Or, to be less picturesque, rock and mud.

Do you think the Spanish were impressed?

ALAN: I very much doubt it. After admiring the impressive architecture of the empires they found in the south, they must have found muddy New Mexico very disappointing.

JANE: They did, although that didn’t mean they didn’t take full advantage of what they found.

ALAN: Perhaps you could tell me how they did that next time…

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7 Responses to “TT: First Contact — Colonial Style”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Heh. I’ve been reading some interesting things about the Conquistadors, but mostly it was about how Cortes and Pizarro and their goons succeeded because they found the two empires in the western hemisphere, found the disaffected elites and enemy neighbors, made common cause with these enemies, and then used these alliances (plus a generous helping of treachery) to take down the empires and install themselves at the top, after which they proceeded to trash both systems to pay off the gambling debts that had sent them off to conquer in the first place. The indigenous population crashes came after the Spanish had enslaved the empires to produce silver and gold for them, not before. And the whole story of the Incan emperor dying of smallpox? Well, he died of something that the Spanish later called variola (which we now think of as smallpox), but oddly enough, variola covered a lot of diseases back then, and no one described a variola pandemic going on when the Incan emperor died. The whole Guns, Germs, and Steel thing apparently is wrong in both the Aztec and Inca cases.

    I’m sure Jane’s going to have fun writing about the Conquistadors north of the border, but I do think the Puebloan Indians had it somewhat easier than did the Aztecs or or the Incas, if only because they got the chance to rebel successfully. I suspect that part of the reason they could rebel was that they weren’t part of any empire. They had (and probably still have) many of the advantages that the Afghanis have when dealing with imperial soldiers at the long ends of supply lines, and that included not having any corruptible nobles ruling them.

  2. Jim Says:

    Cortez definitely used the local alliances he made with groups other than the Aztecs to good effect, and he was able to do so because those other groups did not care to be part of the Aztec empire–they had been conquered by the Aztecs earlier and incorporated into their growing empire. However, the first smallpox epidemic in Mexico actually occurred before the final conquest of the Aztecs by Cortez, and that conquest was probably facilitated by the epidemic. Cortez’s actions were illegal under Spanish law, but sometimes success negates illegality, and this is one of those cases.

    Pizarro was a bit different. He patterned his approach to the Incas on Cortez’s actions in Mexico, and arrived at a time of strife. The previous Inca had died, and there had been a civil war between two of his sons, which was won by Atahualpa. Unfortunately, Atahualpa was not a legitimate heir, and his position was very tenuous. He accepted Pizarro and his men as allies, because he thought they would help shore up his position. He was unfortunately wrong about that.

    I would disagree with Heteromeles that the Pueblos had it any better than the Aztecs or Incas because they weren’t part of an empire. The fact that each village was an independent entity (as they are today) and didn’t all get along (ditto) hindered earlier attempts at rebellion. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was successful because all of the Pueblo villages cooperated for the first and last time. One of the main reasons that the Spanish could reconquer the region 12 years later was because that alliance was short-lived and fell apart almost immediately after the Spanish retreated from New Mexico. The Pueblos rebelled again in 1696, but failed because some villages sided with the Spanish instead of cooperating again.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Hi Jim, I’ll bow to your superior knowledge. Still, I thought the Aztecs and Incans experienced on order 80-90% population decreases in the century or two following conquest, and I believe that Peru currently has fewer people than it did at the time of the Conquest. Were the Pueblos similarly impacted? Obviously they suffered, but it seems like the people of Mexico and the Andes suffered a lot more.

  4. Jim Says:

    Sorry it took so long for me to reply, this is Bubonicon weekend and we’ve been busy with the convention. In reply to Heteromeles, the Pueblos suffered similar losses over the century or so after the Spanish conquest. They suffered losses from disease, war with the Spanish, and raids by nomadic Plains Indians that intensified in the Spanish period, primarily because the Spanish exacerbated the existing situation by raiding the Plains tribes for slaves to work the silver mines in northern Mexico.

    So, the losses were similar in scope. The Pueblo population was especially hard hit by smallpox in the late eighteenth century, and for the first time their numbers plummeted below those of the Spanish. They are only now really beginning to recover and their population is growing, but is well below the levels of the late prehistoric period.

  5. Paul Genesse Says:

    This whole post and all the comments are fascinating. Thank you all for writing this.

  6. Paul Says:

    Comments fascinating indeed – and a history lesson!

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