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Uncovering the Realities of Imperial Spain: A Review of Carlos Fuentes' Book "The Buried Mirror"

By       Message Herbert Calhoun     Permalink
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This is a passionately told story about Spain, a nation that came into existence in the context of imperial invasion, conquest and reconquest. A five-part television program with the same name, was based on this book. The author's thesis is that because the context of misery, death and embarrassments was so painful, that context is now missing from Spanish history? Therefore the author found it necessary to retell the story of Spanish history, adding back in, the missing context -- as well as its pretext and subtext.

What is missing from the "texts" of Spanish history are the same dark, negative, embarrassing elements missing from most national histories, including U.S. history. However, in the case of Spain, according to Mr. Fuentes, there are at least four missing parts to the context: (1) invasion, conquest, and reconquest; (2) race and class strife and the injustice and rebellion they inspired; (3) the decisive power and role of the Catholic Church, in Spain's conquest, and; (4) discovery and conquest of the New World.

What is missing from the context of invasion is the fact that like most other nations in the Western World, Spain too had emerged from the ashes of a disintegrating Roman Empire, as little more than an abused collection of feudal kingdoms on the periphery of Roman ruins. Invaded by no less than half a dozen countries.

But before it disappeared from the scene, Rome tried to turn Spain into a viable unified national entity -- giving it roads, aqueducts, governmental institutions, a language, and above all, an idea of national unity. It did this while leaving Spain's own traditions intact. Yet, despite this, Spain's tradition of honor, rugged individualism, its attachment to the land, "place" and to local chieftains, caused it to resist, and in the end, it was Spanish stubbornness that allowed the Romans to defeat them. And they did so in much the same way that Spain would later go on to defeat the Aztecs and the Incas -- but with one important difference: When Rome left Spain it was much better off. When the Spanish Conquistadors left, the lands they invaded were left much worse off. One of the reasons Spanish imperial rule and conquest was so brutal, the author argues, is precisely because Spain sought to return in kind the abuse it had received during the dark years of Roman occupation.

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Even though the Catholics tried to restore order during the long night of repeated occupations, a truly independent Spain did not emerge until 1492 -- the fateful year when the inquisition was in full swing; Moors and Jews were both being ejected, and Columbus had been sent off to discover America. Before that, the Moorish chief, Gibraltar, whose victory resulted in Spain being occupied for more than 700 years, was the most successful of the invaders. And anyone who has been to Andalusia, and seen the Alhambra and its surroundings, knows that it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the Moors transformed the deserts of southern Spain into an oasis of irrigated lands, pleasure gardens, splendid architecture, and superb cities. But more than this, in the tenth century, the independent caliphate of Cordoba was the most populated city in the West. It was a city based on openness and inclusion -- not on racial and religious exclusion that would later characterize the Spanish and English colonies. Even as they fought with other religions, the Arabs, still respected all "people of the book." In fact, it was in Cordoba that the three Abrahamic religions first began their long struggle to coexist. They did it through philosophy, medicine, law and international trade.

It is perhaps not well known in the West that it was the Arabs who brought Greek philosophy and classical literature science and medicine, astronomy, Algebra, and Arabic numbers into Europe through Spain. Cordoba, Seville and Granada were built on the rapid growth of a monetary economy: the commercial value of produce, the strength of bureaucracy, and development of the service sector. It is also seldom acknowledged that Jews played a major role in establishing and maintaining the Arab occupied Spanish economy, as well as the later reconstituted economy.

What is also not well known is that from the beginning of Arab occupation, a Christian remnant had survived in the mountains of Asturias and from the very beginning, had begun nipping at the Arabs heels, pushing ever southward over the centuries. Skirmishes continued over the next 700 years, until the Arabs finally lost the battle of Navas de Tolosa. After the fall of Seville to Ferdinand III of Castile in 1248, only Granada was left to preserve the Muslim heritage.

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During this period, the Catholic church was militarized with militant religious orders. And the crusades as well as the reconquest was on. But having spent all of its energy at home fighting Arabs, Spain was the only country that did not go to the Crusades. Instead, it welded together an army of the land, one that was at one time led by the Christian, El Cid, and financed by the King. It was this army that would serve as a base for the future standing army of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, and would eventually also provide the seeds for future Latin American military dictatorships.

During the 800 years of reconquest, the Muslim invasion had left Spain deeply scarred, with only weak kingdoms and a legal vacuum that was readily filled by a powerful Catholic church and strong locally based feudal lords. When the dust finally settled, feudalism had gained a tenuous foothold in Spain, and with it, Roman law was all but stomped out. But due to the constantly shifting borders, feudalism rested on a shaky foundation and was questioned more in Spain than in any other European nation.

Eventually, the need to repopulate the reconquered territories, gave rise to a class of peasants who were guaranteed freedom of movement, personal liberties and their own land in exchange for resettling in reconquered areas. These peasants, along with those who came back from wars with booty -- usually cattle, treasure and slaves -- and who usually preferred living near borders with fleeing Arabs -- became Spain's merchant class of traders. These trading areas gave rise to cities, and to the modern notions of "citizens," perhaps two of Spain's greatest legacies.

The cities had become the means of escaping the politics of feudalism, which curiously, empowered the "serfs-turn-merchants" in the triangular struggle for power taking place above their heads between the kingdom, the church and the feudal lords. The author claims that Spain became a frontier within itself, lying between strong feudal organizations based on the land, a rising mercantile class based on townships, and princes and feudal lords, struggling to recapture the Roman sense of authority and statehood over its lands and cities. The kings certainly were interested in attracting people with no feudal obligations, and were willing to confirm them as free citizens if for no other reason than to create a base against the nobility.

Making a virtue out of necessity, the "citizens" in the cities, mostly went along with the kings as the lesser evil. How much of their rights were bartered away in the process, makes up the untold story of democracy in Spain and Spanish America. But it must be said that this political tableau was true not just in Spain, but also throughout Europe. In each instance, it was a case of royal authority and national unity, being pitted against the civil freedoms of ordinary citizens, freedoms that had been fashioned by Spain during the Middle Ages.

As the townships gave a king financial and military help, so too did the king give them protection and political rights in return. And despite the fact that freedom eventually fared better in England than in Spain, it was nevertheless 15th Century Spain where the first European parliaments were to take hold and incorporate the idea of "the commons."' In contrast, France experienced a dramatic tension that only the French Revolution would resolve. And both Germany and Italy had to postpone democracy until the nineteenth century.

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Race and Class strife: The Second Missing context

Riding on the crest of it successes -- defeat of the Arabs and expulsion of the Jews, thus successfully defended the Catholic church and faith, and also serving as the incubator for European democracy -- Ferdinand and Isabella were now on a roll, fully prepared to flex their imperial muscles towards conquest of new undiscovered worlds. Columbus' discovery gave them the basis for doing this.

Spain first saw its colonies as a resource needed to replenish Seville's dwindling gold and silver reserves, and then as a place to expand the territories and influence of the kingdom, a kingdom that would rapidly expand into an unwieldily empire, one that itself would eventually self-destruct. The colonies were also a place to civilize the savage hoards by spreading christianity and the Catholic faith to them. Conspicuously missing from this imperial agenda however, was the desire to also bring to them a democratic form of government?

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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