Ruthless Conquistadores And No Less Ruthless Indigenous People

In his well-written, and impressively documented book, Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest, Mexican historian Fernando Cervantes (University of Bristol) tells us who these men were that beat the best warriors among the Indigenous People of the New World at their own war-making and conquering game—and how they did it. They certainly had diversity and inclusiveness. Christopher Columbus’ father was a Genoese wool-worker. Hernán Cortés came from a family of ancient lineage, though not wealthy. Most were of modest means. Cervantes does not mention that Francisco Pizarro is said to have been a swineherd as a boy.

The early chapters examine Columbus’ personality, his remarkable voyage, and the conquistadores’ Caribbean settlements. The later chapters focus on the conquests of Mesoamerica, the Inca Empire and adjacent lands, and the conquest of Florida. The final pages offer a thoughtful examination of the fate of the conquistadores’ descendants in the Americas, who were replaced in power and status by rulers and bureaucrats, sent from Spain by the Spanish Crown.

Cervantes minces no words describing the Spaniards’ exploitation of the Tainos with the system of encomiendas, which was designed to end slavery and facilitate evangelization, but turned into another form of slavery. Cervantes displays a deep knowledge of the religious context when telling us how Dominican priests in the Caribbean, inspired by the writings and life of Dominican lay sister, Saint Catherine of Siena, excoriated the conquistadores for their mistreatment of the Tainos.

The Tainos had been long preyed upon by their fellow Indigenous People, the Carib. The Encyclopaedia Britannica Online (as of October 23 2021) cautiously describes some of the Carib’s cultural practices:

“The Island Carib, who were warlike (and allegedly cannibalistic) were immigrants from the mainland who, after driving the Arawak from the Lesser Antilles, were expanding when the Spanish arrived. Peculiarly, the Carib language was spoken only by the men; women spoke Arawak. Raids upon other peoples provided women who were kept as slave-wives; the male captives were tortured and killed. The [Carib] men were individualistic warriors and boasted of their heroic exploits.”

Columbus ended the Carib’s terrorizing, enslaving, and (“allegedly”) eating of Indigenous People. Cervantes informs us that, when Columbus sent two Carib prisoners to the Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella ordered them freed because they were now her subjects and should not be mistreated.

Knowledge of the Spanish system of encomiendas and of their eventual abolition (new encomiendas were prohibited in 1721 but not abolished until the end of the eighteenth century), as well as knowledge of the conquistadores’ ruthlessness, should be placed in the historical context of the cultural practices of Indigenous People prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Cervantes’ book gives us this context.

The Indigenous People’s Cultural Practices

Cervantes’ book shows that Indigenous People in Mesoamerica and South America practiced slavery and were ruthless in their treatment of other Indigenous People. But also throughout North America Indigenous People practiced slavery of one kind or another, and were ruthless against other Indigenous People. As historian Francis Parkman observed in The Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac,captured enemy warriors in North America were sometimes tortured and mutilated: one of their feet might be cut to prevent escape.

A more recent book, edited by Richard Chacón and Rubén Mendoza, North American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence, presents further evidence. In its press release, the University of Arizona Press laments the all-too-familiar academic opposition to ideologically inconvenient facts:

“Despite evidence of warfare and violent conflict in pre-Columbian North America, scholars argue that the scale and scope of Native American violence is exaggerated. They contend that scholarly misrepresentation has denigrated indigenous peoples when in fact they lived together in peace and harmony. In rebutting that contention, this groundbreaking book presents clear evidence—from multiple academic disciplines—that indigenous populations engaged in warfare and ritual violence long before European contact.”

For a succinct popular account of violence among North American Indigenous People, see Bill Donohue, “The Dark Side of Indigenous People.”

In Mesoamerica, among the Mexica (“the Aztecs”) and other Indigenous People, war captives were sacrificed to the gods and/or eaten.

We learn in Cervantes’s book that Cortés admonished the cacique of Zautla, a town loyal to the Mexica ruler, Moctezuma, to desist from their practice of sacrificing humans and eating them. But the cacique, “who had no qualms about sacrificing fifty men at a festival,” responded that he would not do anything without Moctezuma’s consent and that Moctezuma had 100,000 warriors and sacrificed 20,000 men every year.”

The Mexica use of atrocities and terror as tools of war and politics, and not just as “religious practices,” as they are usually explained by academics, is exemplified by the Mexica ruler Cuauthemoc’s treatment of his Spanish prisoners: Cervantes tells us that, after Cuauthemoc had them sacrificed, he “sent their limbs “to be distributed to the nearby towns as a portent of Mexica supremacy.” What the nearby towns did with those limbs is left to the reader’s imagination.

The Mexica made a yearly war, poetically called “war of the flowers,” upon other Indigenous People, to capture them alive and sacrifice thousands of them to the god Huitzilopotchli on top of their impressive pyramid-temples, where a priest ripped out the palpitating heart and kicked the body down the pyramid.

As anthropologist Michael Harner explains, the body was then “carried off to be butchered.” Harner complained that

“These enormous numbers [of killed humans] call for consideration of what the Aztecs did with the bodies after the sacrifices. Evidence of Aztec cannibalism has been largely ignored or consciously or unconsciously covered up…. The major twentieth-century books on the Aztecs barely mention it; others bypass the subject completely. Probably some modern Mexicans and anthropologists have been embarrassed by the topic: the former partly for nationalistic reasons; the latter partly out of a desire to portray native peoples in the best possible light. Ironically, both these attitudes may represent European ethnocentrism regarding cannibalism.… A search of the sixteenth-century literature, however, leaves no doubt as to the prevalence of cannibalism among the central Mexicans. The Spanish conquistadores wrote amply about it, as did several Spanish priests who engaged in ethnological research on Aztec culture shortly after the conquest. Among the latter, [Franciscan priest] Bernardino de Sahagún is of particular interest because his informants were former Aztec nobles, who supplied dictated or written information in the Aztec language, Nahuatl” (“The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice,” Natural History, April 1977).

During his examination of the evidence of cannibalism in the remains of Indigenous People in the American Southwest, anthropologist Christy G. Turner concluded (Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest) that cannibalism was introduced among the Anasazi by Mexica immigrants, and he complained that research on cannibalism has been censored and demonized. An analogous complaint is eloquently articulated by Nirmal Dass (“Cannibalism And Child Sacrifice Are Obvious Evils. Why Can’t Cultural Relativists Admit That?”).

Slaves were also given as presents. Sexual slavery was part of the culture. Doña Marina, Cortés’ interpreter and mistress, was sold as a girl by her Mexica family to Maya slave traders. She was later given as a present to Cortés. Today she is widely regarded as a “traitor” to her Indigenous People. But what kind of allegiance should Marina have felt towards the Mexica, who sold her to the Maya? With Cortés, Marina attained a position she never had, and was unlikely to have, among the Indigenous People. She was admired by the Spaniards for her intelligence and knowledge of the land, its people, and Maya, Nahuatl, and Spanish languages. Perhaps Marina should be praised as a remarkable woman who paid back with interest the Indigenous People who mistreated her.

Cervantes explains that the Totonacs, a nation subjugated by the Mexica, sent envoys to Cortés to tell him that the Mexica were intolerable tyrants who oppressed them. This was one of the first indications Cortés had of the alliances he could establish with Indigenous People oppressed by the Mexica, which would help him conquer their empire with a few hundred Spaniards.

Smallpox, Cervantes writes, was “inadvertently introduced by Spanish explorers.” The narrative stating that the disease so decimated the Mexica that it made their conquest by Cortés possible was debunked (though to no avail because this debunking, as usual, has been largely ignored by academics) – by historian Francis J. Brooks. He concluded that “In the West Indies and Mexico, where smallpox was first carried from Euro-Asia-Africa to the rest of the world, a detailed examination of the historical sources calls into question the melodramatic stories of prairie-fire epidemics killing off the majority of the population in no more than a few years” (“Revising the Conquest of Mexico: Smallpox, Sources, and Populations,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Summer 1933).

Moreover, Cervantes reminds us that the conquistadores themselves got sick and died, unaccustomed as they were to their new environment. The hot and humid climate, the insalubrious air, the dysentery, the fatigue, and even hunger played havoc among the Spaniards. Barely eight months after the conquistador Ovando arrived in the New World, 1000 of his men had already died and 500 were sick. Hernando de Soto got ill and died in Florida at the age of 41. Pizarro’s men got sick with a strange disease that began with pain in the muscles and culminated with “large, disfiguring boils.” Several of his men died of this mysterious disease. But they soldiered on. The resilience of these tough Spaniards in the face of such physical adversity is remarkable.

Cervantes does not mention that the hot and humid climate also rendered their limited number of matchlock and powder arquebuses unreliable and their steel armor unwearable, so much so that, as conquistador Bernal Díaz tells us in his  Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España,they had to adopt the Indigenous People’s cotton armor.

In North America, the Mayflower Pilgrims, too, got sick and died from illnesses and malnutrition. Many of those who came in the Mayflower grew ill died.

Cervantes gives numerous examples of the Mexica’s ruthlessness towards other Indigenous People and the conquistadores. But he also tells us that they were ruthless in the training of their own people, which made them the best fighters among the Indigenous People of Mesoamerica—no small feat since Indigenous People in Mesoamerica were warrior-nations.

For the Mexica, as for most Indigenous People, cowardice was the worst possible feature of a man’s character. Women did not enter into such considerations of character because they were not part of the warrior contingents. They engaged in domestic, agricultural and low-level commercial activities.

Cervantes explains this Mexica military superiority over other Indigenous People by calling attention to their formidable training of men as warriors from childhood: “Their toughness and discipline had been imposed from an early age through the education system of the calmecac (‘the house of lineage’), which put the sons of the nobility through a rigorously disciplined religious and military training and the telpochcalli (‘the house of youth”), in which the commoners and the younger or illegitimate sons of the nobility received theirs. A generation after the conquest, native nobles could still recall the stern words of their parents the day they were packed off to school at an early age, warning them that they would not be honored or esteemed, but ‘looked down upon, humiliated, and despised.’ This was a system designed ‘to harden your body, and, as parents warned their children, ‘you will cut agave thorns for penance, and you will draw blood with those spines.’” The Spartan mothers could not have been tougher when they would tell their sons to come back from battle with their shield or on top of their shield, but never without their shield.

Cervantes does not mention other punishments meted out to discipline Mexica children. A child who lied would have his tongue pricked with a maguey spine. If a child stole, his body was pierced with maguey spines. Spanking was done with nettle branches. Crying kids would have their mouths stuffed with bitter herbs. Misbehaving children could be tied up and left outside overnight lying on wet ground. Problematic children were held up over a fire where they would breathe the smoke of burning chili, which would also penetrate through their eyes and mouth. When nothing else worked, desperate parents would sell the child as a slave or give the child to the priests to be sacrificed. See the Codex Mendoza for the depictions of these usually glossed over Mexica cultural practices.

Children, usually taken from Indigenous People oppressed by the Mexica, were sacrificed to the god of rain, Tlaloc (also worshipped and sacrificed to by the Maya). Hundreds of skulls of men, women and children have been found in racks of skulls used by the Mexica for public display (tzompantli) in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Many more are expected to be found as the excavations make progress. This finding confirms the truth of the conquistadores’ reports, long dismissed by academics as anti-native propaganda, of entire walls and towers made of human skulls in the big Mexica capital (“Tower of human skulls in Mexico casts new light on Aztecs”).

Cervantes reveals another reason for the Mexica toughness and ferocity as warriors: drugs. “As some Mexica noblemen recalled, those who ingested peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus, or sacred mushrooms, were filled with a drunkenness that lasted two or three days and which gave them courage for battle, destroyed fear, and kept them from thirst and hunger.” This the Spartans did not do.

The Maya And The Inca

The Maya are often referred to, accurately, as the most advanced pre-Columbian civilization. Yet their way of life featured such cultural practices as slavery, the subjugation of women, human sacrifice, and endemic wars among the various Maya nations—wars that even led to the sacrificial “killing of the nations,” told in the sacred book of the Quiché Maya, the Popol Vuh. In fact, one or more of these cultural features were normal in the way of life of the Indigenous People in the New World.

The conquistadores experienced several of these cultural practices. Cervantes explains that, before the conquest of Mexico, Gerónimo de Aguilar’s ship struck shoals and sank; the few survivors reached the Yucatan Maya coast. There, they were captured by one Maya nation. Five of the Spaniards “were sacrificed and eaten.” Aguilar and others were “put in cages to be fattened.” They managed to escape and were received“by a rival cacique…who enslaved them.” Eventually they joined the Maya. Aguilar’s friend had his face and hands tattooed, his ears and nose pierced, and he took a Maya wife. Aguilar claimed he had kept his chastity (he had taken minor orders in Spain), refusing the many women offered to him by his now fellow Indigenous People.

Academics who routinely write about the atrocities of evil white Europeans, who destroyed wonderful civilizations in the New World, and about the Indigenous People’s resistance, often avoid these central features of the Indigenous way of life–features which for us today are rather undesirable, and therefore glossed over or even denied in polite conversation, as well as in teaching and publishing, to avoid any accusation of “racism” (or, more recently, of “white supremacy”). But this avoidance and even opposition, to echo anthropologist Harner, may be yet another form of “European Ethnocentrism,” if not “paternalism,” because such rather unpleasant practices were perfectly normal in the Indigenous culture of the New World. And the inconvenient fact is that these rather unpleasant practices were only ended by the conquistadores.

Though not mentioned by Cervantes, in their vast empire, conquered through their superior capacity for organization, war making, and terrorizing, the Inca perfected the ethnic cleansing of rebellious Indigenous People. And they also practiced human sacrifice: archeologists have found the remains of young girls sacrificed on top of the Andes. The Inca rulers practiced sexual slavery methodically: they had the villages of their empire scoured for the best-looking girls to add to their harems. For all this, see Fernández-Morera, “Inca Garcilaso’s Comentarios Reales, Or Who Tells the Story of a Conquered Civilization?”

For an excellent examination of Inca culture from the debunking point of view of a great archeologist, see Albert Meyers, “Occidentalismo académico, lapsus americanus, y los Incas arqueológicos,” (Revista de Arqueologia Americana, 2017).

As Cervantes puts it, the Inca “concentrated power and wealth in the hands of an endogamous and exclusionary ruling oligarchy.”

The Inca’s terroristic approach to conquest is illustrated by their atrocious way of celebrating victories: Cervantes tells us that “they marked the occasion in a most dramatic manner, by flaying the defeated lords of the Altiplano and, after impaling their heads on poles, fashioning their skins into drums.”

Pizarro’s Conquest Of The Inca Empire

The war between two half-brothers, Inca rulers Atawallpa and Waskhar, was horrific. Cervantes illustrates the use of atrocities and other terror tactics as tools of politics and war among the Inca, with Atawallpa ordering “a sadistic spectacle of the slow torture and painful slaughter of… Waskhar’s wives and children, making sure that the defeated leader was forced to watch.” We learn that Pizarro later adopted some of these methods to punish Manco Capac’s Inca rebellion.

Atawallpa also had an entire squadron of his warriors executed because they flinched before the Spanish horses during Pizarro’s embassy’s visit. Atawallpa then also ordered the officers, their wives and children killed so that no one would dare run away when confronted by the strangers. When Atawallpa learned that Waskhar was coming to Cajamarca, “rather than agreeing with Pizarro that Waskhar should be allowed to arrive in safety, Atawallpa ordered his execution.”

Taking advantage of the scars of this war, and the resentment of Indigenous People oppressed by the Inca, Pizarro, like Cortés, established alliances with them. These alliances helped Pizarro, with a few hundred Spaniards, overcome the Inca. Pizarro also shrewdly handled a spy sent by Atawallpa, so that the spy told Atawallpa that the Spaniards were merely “bearded robbers who could be easily enslaved.”

Cervantes narrates vividly Pizarro’s difficult march towards Cajamarca, during which he fended off ambushes from some local chieftains who feigned friendship and then attacked. In Cajamarca, Pizarro succeeded in his own risky ambush of Atawallpa. Although Atawallpa’s warriors “outnumbered the Spaniards at least ten to one, they soon broke ranks and fled, pursued and cut down by the horsemen… In another echo of Cortes’s capture of Moctezuma, Pizarro seized Atawallpa…”

Repeatedly, Pizarro’s conquistadores’ lightning strikes of expert swordsmanship, on foot and on horse, cut to pieces and scattered the Indigenous battle formations, which always vastly outnumbered them. The Inca warriors’ pre-battle theater of threats against enemies, “which included looking forward with keen anticipation to drinking out of their skulls, adorning themselves ritually with necklaces made from their teeth, playing music with flutes constructed from their bones, and beating drums created from their flayed skins…was magnificent theater but totally ineffective against brutally pragmatic enemies.”

Though a captive, Atawallpa was treated with respect and allowed to meet with his subordinates and continued to give orders and rule his empire. But Pizarro’s plan was to go on to Cusco, where most of the Inca gold supposedly was, and he feared that carrying Atawallpa along would invite attacks to try to free the ruler. Eventually, he agreed with other conquistadores that it was best to kill Atawallpa. A court was set up and Atawallpa was found guilty of “fratricide, polygamy,” cruelty towards his people, and other charges taken from European law that made no sense within the context of Indigenous culture. He was garroted.

Pizarro then quickly installed as new ruler a surviving son of Waskhar, Thupa Wallpa, and convinced the Inca nobility, as well as Tupa Wallpa, to become vassals of Charles V, abandon their gods, and accept Christianity as the way to eternal life after death.

As Cervantes observes, this acquiescence was similar to the eventual acceptance by the Mexica and Maya nobility of vassalage and Christianity, and “Cortes’s admonitions about idolatry, human sacrifice and anthropophagy, and with the consequent need for them to abandon their idols and begin to venerate Christian images.” Put otherwise: in both cases, these great warriors reasoned that their gods obviously were inferior, since these bearded strangers, with their own God, had destroyed with impunity the statues of the gods and defeated the Indigenous People. From these warriors’ cultural point of view, might made right.

Moreover, as Cervantes points out, many Indigenous People, former followers of Waskhar or not, were relieved that Atawallpa was gone; and it was those bearded strangers who finished him off. We learn that, at Jauja, the Wanka received the conquistadores as liberators. Again, we have here echoes of the Indigenous People of Mesoamerica’s glad alliance with Cortés to end the rule of their oppressors, the Mexica. In the later defense of Jauja, in 1534, against a large Inca force, the Wanka were happy to fight alongside the conquistadores and were decisive in their victory. In the North, the Cañari also supported the Spaniards because “they had fresh and bitter memories of the violence with which the Inca had established themselves in the region.”

These alliances of Indigenous People with the conquistadores against other stronger Indigenous People anticipated analogous alliances in North America. Thus in the early 1600s the Algonquin nations (one of which was the Wampanoag, who signed a treaty with the Mayflower Pilgrims, remembered in the American holiday of Thanksgiving) allied themselves with European settlers as a counter to the ferocious Iroquois nations, with whom they had been at war for many years. Later, some North American Indian nations allied themselves with American settlers and with the British or the French in several wars. Some North American Indigenous People also owned and sold black slaves.

The Abolition Of Slavery

Cervantes explains that Pizarro’s execution of Atawallpa was not well received by Charles V and others around him. Cervantes cites the founder of International Law, the Dominican priest Francisco de Vitoria (University of Salamanca): “After a lifetime of studies and experience, no business shocks me more than the corrupt profits and affairs of the Indies. Their very mention freezes the blood in my veins… Neither Atawallpa nor any of his people had ever done the slightest injury to the Christians. Nor given them the slightest ground for making war on them.”

Cervantes points out that Vitoria’s arguments on law, politics, and economics found disciples in brilliant men such as “the Dominicans Domingo de Soto and Melchor Cano and the Jesuits Luis de Molina and Francisco Suárez.”

As Cervantes reminds us, Vitoria’s arguments against the conquistadores used ideas from a long Western tradition on the term “right” (ius in Latin, hence the term iustitia, justice)—from Socrates to Plato, to Aristotle to Roman Law, to Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Vitoria’s arguments on the concept of right addressed slavery, which Cervantes shows was practiced in one form or another by both Indigenous People and the European conquistadores. In his book  Esclavage, l’histoire à l’endroit (2020), Africanist Professor Bernard Lugan (University of Lyons) has observed that although all peoples have practiced slavery, it was the white Europeans who abolished slavery first. His observation has been echoed by African intellectuals like Ernst Tigori (R. Ibrahim, “’I ‘m Saddened by the White Man’s Emasculation’: An African Sets the Record Straight”).

Benin Professor Abiola Felix Iroko also has exposed the practice of slavery among black Africans long before the Transatlantic Slave Trade (“Historian: ‘Africans must be condemned for the slave trade’”). Ghana professor John Allenbillah Azumah’s book, The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa, documents the slave trade of African Blacks by Muslim Arabs long before the Europeans’ arrival.

Some European countries even enforced abolition beyond their frontiers. Between 1807 and 1856, the British Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, at the cost of the lives of British sailors, attacked the slave traders and liberated over a hundred thousand black Africans. For a succinct popular account of the practice of slavery by Black Africans in West Africa see, “A Brief History of West African Slavery for the Woke.” France abolished slavery in the late eighteenth century and later enforced abolition on its African colonies.

Nevertheless, perhaps the fundamental difference is that the Europeans based their pioneering abolition of slavery not on the decision of a particular “enlightened” ruler, but on religious and philosophical arguments on right and liberty that gradually spread among the culture of their people, eventually gathering enough strength to bring about political decisions; and that these religious and philosophical arguments were not part of the culture of the Indigenous People—or, for that matter, of the culture of other peoples in Africa and Asia. (Cf. Fernández Morera,  “Christian Slavery under Islam”).

Today, when politicians, professors, and mobs decry, remove, cover, or destroy the statues of Columbus, Franciscan priest Junípero Serra, and even Thomas Jefferson, and adopt a new version of Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” (replacing it with the Noble Indigenous People), Cervantes’ revealing and contextualizing account of the cultural practices of both Indigenous People and European conquistadores should contribute to a correction of the prevailing narrative—though this is unlikely because too many intereses creados, stake holder interests, now depend on that narrative. For a direct correction, see the open letters by Argentine political scientist and historian Marcelo Gullo Omodeo, and Spanish Arabist and historian Serafín Fanjul, in answer to the Mexican President’s demand for apologies from Spain for the conquest.


Darío Fernández-Morera is Associate Professor Emeritus of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University. He has published several books, and his more recent one, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, has also been translated into French (with a Prologue by philosopher, Arabist, Hebraist and Hellenist Rémi Brague) and into Spanish. He has served in the United States National Council on the Humanities. For more about him, visit his pages here and here.


The featured image shows a Mexica child being punished for stealing or raising his voice against his parents by having his body pierced with maguey spines. Codex Mendoza, ca. 1541-1542.

A New Historical-Political Debate: Greatness And Miseries Of The Spanish Empire

In recent years we have witnessed a very unusual publishing phenomenon. María Elvira Roca Barea, a high school teacher from Malaga, published in 2016 a historical essay, entitled, Imperiofobia y leyenda negra. Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español (Imperphobia and the Black Legend. Rome, Russia, the United States and the Spanish Empire). Despite its title, the book met with great success, ending up selling more than 100,000 copies.

The fact that a book whose subject matter revolves around the Black Legend reached such a number means that people without specific training in the field of history are interested in this topic, and that is precisely where the interest in imperiophobia (“the fear of empire”) lies, not only from a historiographical point of view, but also from a sociological, political or ideological point of view.

History is not a static science, but something that often acts as a pendulum swing that oscillates amidst the topics that generate interest and about which it is written. The fact that historiography does not cease to be a reflection of the concerns and interests of society is a recurring theme in historiographical treatises.

As Gonzalo Pasamar has pointed out as an example of the first steps of Contemporary History, these are inseparable from the political and social changes of the 19th century. In the same way, we see the death and birth of new historiographical trends, in step with the times, as when, from the second half of the 1960s, among the background factors that led to the decline of historicism we can cite the disappearance of the main historians of the generation that developed their careers during the Weimar Republic and Nazism, the student mobilization, or the end of the political hegemony of conservative governments.

In the same way, Charles-Olivier Carbonell surmised that in the 1930s an economic history, oriented more towards exchanges, prices or currency, and not towards the modes or processes of production, as well as a social history that was not limited exclusively to the question of classes, but to that of groups and their form of interaction, such as rural and urban communities, minorities or the marginalized, was constituted.

The Annales school itself is the child of a very specific political and historiographical conjuncture without which neither its genesis nor its consolidation can be understood. It was a period between two world wars, when the process of progressive decline and the end of the historiographical hegemony that had been typical of the Germanic world since about 1870, and which would enter into crisis with the First World War and then with the political rise of the Nazi party, took place.

It is pertinent to frame the publication of Roca Barea’s work within a very specific context, which is related to the image of Spain, both within Spain’s own borders, especially in Catalonia, and at the European level. It is a portrait that has become, if possible, less favorable since the massive Diada of September 11, 2012, the beginning, as Enric Ucelay-Da Cal has pointed out, of the so-called “pro-independence process” that became more radical as the “molt honorabilidad” [“great honor”] of former President Jordi Pujol was called into question, for his undeclared fortune abroad, in what can be understood as an attempt to distract attention, and which has ended with some Catalan politicians convicted by the Supreme Court for the crime of sedition.

In reality, the origin of this situation, at least in the Catalan context, should not be sought from the time Carles Puigdemont was elected president of the Generalitat, nor since the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the Statute of 2010, but from the time Jordi Pujol became president of the Generalitat in 1980, with a mandate that, as is well known, would last until 2003, when he was relieved by the socialist leader, Pasqual Maragall.

The feeling of belonging to a wider community, the Spanish one, seems to have been diluted in Catalonia, a society that shows a great polarization between a countryside with a pro-independence majority and a more cosmopolitan and integrated urban centers. At the same time, the decades-long indifference of the hegemonic Spanish parties, the PP and PSOE, captive to the need for votes that the party dominated by Pujol could provide them, led to a tacit agreement – that some would receive support in Madrid, in exchange for “Pujolism” being imposed in Catalonia without too many obstacles.

As a result, the concept of “Spain” was erased from politically correct language, as if it were a cursed word with Francoist reminiscences, and was replaced by the term the “Spanish State,” which seemed innocuous and neutral. All this was due, to a large extent, to the influence of the media as well as to essential elements in the process of building any nationalism, such as education, language or history, always manipulated from a prism aimed at satisfying nationalist anxieties. It is in these circumstances that Imperiofobia appeared as a kind of counterattack that seeks to vindicate the Spanish past, sometimes considered as a taboo, or perhaps as a counterweight that tries to balance the image of Spain.

Of course, the manipulation of history by nationalism is by no means a new element. J.T. Delos drew attention several decades ago to the national sentiment influenced by Germanic thought, whose peak was experienced in the 20th century and according to which, through the invocation of historical rights, blood and soil, there was belief in the “collective soul, in the dark and instinctive forces that prevail in the life of peoples and in the development of their institutions over the decisions of individual freedom,” thus being closer to nature and the physical conditions of life, and less to rationality, and ultimately oriented towards racism, since the principle of their unity was concentrated around race. Delos felt that, in Germany, the language community provided great arguments for national claims, and the poets seized on this argument from the beginning of the 19th century, while politics turned it into a weapon of war.

During the second half of the 20th century, interest in studying the concepts of nation and nationalism increased notably, which led to the publication of numerous works that made this subject one of the historiographical favorites and on which it is very difficult, given the abundant bibliography that continues to be published today, to undertake a detailed study. Ernest Renan, with his work entitled, What is A Nation? gave the initial indication signal for the defense of linguistic and consensualist theories about the nation.

Contrary to what was advocated by the essentialist theses, which served as theoretical support for the Galicia of Manuel Murguía, the Spain of Modesto Lafuente or the France of Jules Michelet, the nation is not in this case something immutable and eternal, but a reality dependent on external instruments, which make up the nation-state, and internal instruments, mainly language and national education, as analyzed by José Carlos Bermejo. This group of theorists also included Anthony Smith, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, who in 1983 coined the famous term “imagined communities,” in one of his books which marked a turning point in the debate that had been taking place on nationalism in recent decades.

In Spanish history we find several examples that show the need for nations to connect themselves with prestigious ancestors. The authors of the great narrative constructions, Juan de Mariana at the end of the 16th century, or the aforementioned Lafuente in the mid-19th century, emphasized the need to remember, for example, the main heroic deeds of Antiquity, which although they did not end in victory, as in the case of the sieges of Saguntum and Numantia, or in the biographies of Viriatus and Sertorius, were nevertheless heroic episodes. Both their memory and the bravery and courage shown in those resistances against the invader were to be internalized by the students who filled the classrooms in order to create citizens committed to the nation and the patriotic values it defended.

This yearning led in most cases to elaborate racist doctrines whose objective was to define “us” very well, since “we” were pure and uncontaminated by the rest of the races, which in most occasions were considered inferior. The case of the Basque Country is very curious, because during the 16th and 17th centuries the Cantabrians stood out as the first representatives of the Basques, a situation that remained more or less stable until the first decades of the 19th century, when this reference was still hegemonic among its cultural and political elites, when referring to the most remote past of Biscay, Gipuzkoa and Álava.

However, from the 1870s, we witness the emergence of the Iberians as the ancestral referent of the Basques, and by the end of the century, Sabino Arana formulated the first Basque national identity, completely separate and exclusive of the Spanish identity, based, as is well known, on race as the nuclear principle of his doctrine. And all this, as is natural, with the aim that the nation would sink its roots in the oldest and most glorious soils possible; or, in Fernando Wulff‘s expression, would be the depository of the “patriotic essences.”

But, as J.T. Delos observed, the nation is a product of social life and nationalism, that complex mixture of doctrines, political claims and passions. This same author, as Anderson would later do in Imagined Communities, stressed that aspects such as national sentiment are nothing more than manifestations of a collective conscience linked to historical conditions and a given environment, in such a way that the community exists insofar as there is a common state of conscience; that is, the awareness of “us” is given by the belief of forming an original entity that is constituted by opposing third parties, who are usually the enemies that all nationalism needs; and, secondly, by the will to perpetuate common life.

On this path, of which all the elements that make up the nation are part, the nation tries to generate a series of differentiating features that make up the identity of that people, since, as David Lowenthal has pointed out in a classic book, the ability to evoke the past and identify with it, both collectively and personally, offers meaning, purpose and value to our existence.

The Imperiophobia-Imperiophilia Debate

The purpose of Roca Barea’s book is, as she states in the Introduction, “to understand why [black legends] arise, what clichés shape them and how they expand until they become public opinion and a substitute for history.” The book, whose subject matter is one of the most controversial in the history of Spain and on which there is an enormous amount of bibliography, is divided into three parts.

The first, entitled “Empires and Black Legends: The Inseparable Couple”, begins with a review of the origin and meaning of the expression, “black legend,” including authors, such as, Arthur Lévy, Cayetano Soler and Emilia Pardo Bazán, who, according to Roca Barea, was the first author to use the expression, in April 1899 in the Salle Charras, in Paris, to refer to anti-Spanish propaganda. The analysis continues with Julián Juderías, who used the expression “black legend” as a title to his well-known book, in 1914.

However, according to Roca Barea, in recent decades there has been a tendency to deny the existence of the Black Legend. To justify this, she mentions a travel documentary broadcast on Spanish Television eight years ago where, under the theme of the discoveries carried out by the Portuguese, English, Turks or Spaniards in the 15th and 16th centuries, only unedifying facts were mentioned in the case of the latter.

On the other hand, there were a number of authors concerned with concealing, if not denying, that the Black Legend had existed or, in the best of cases, that it disappeared a long time ago. Among them, Henry Kamen and his book, Empire, where the British author defends the idea of Spain as a poor country, stand out. Roca Barea, with a certain ironic tone that she does not abandon throughout her book, concludes that Spain only “became an empire by a stroke of a pen; or, in other words, Spain did not build an empire but, let us say, fell upon it by chance.”

Next, and still within this first part of the book, Roca Barea begins to analyze the respective black legends of Rome, Russia and the United States, leaving the Spanish Empire aside, for the moment, since being the most abused, it will need a much larger space than the rest. Roca Barea states that the racist prejudices that affected the United States and Russia were born in France. The first author responsible for this was Arthur de Gobineau, author of the well-known Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, when he stated that the mixture that was taking place in the United States would end up provoking “a race without beauty or intelligence,” which would result in “the end of the different races,” and would also put an end to “the clear supremacy of the white race.” Whereas, in the Russian case, the French Enlightenment would be directly responsible; Russia went from being an example worthy of imitation, before the Treaty of Paris, to becoming a historical reality doomed to failure after the signing of the same.

After reviewing the three cases cited, Roca Barea finds a common thread that binds these three examples, which consist of the “mixture of admiration and envy.” In this way, she establishes “a fairly solid model of what we have been calling imperiophobia”. Roca Barea goes on to say that this would be “a particular kind of prejudice of racist etiology that can be defined as the indiscriminate aversion towards the people who become the backbone of an empire.”

She concludes the first part of the book by completing this definition a little more, in order to maintain that imperiophobia is particularized by two basic features. Firstly, that it does not go from a more powerful people against a weaker one, but the other way around. Secondly, by its intellectual immunity, given that, in Roca Barea’s opinion, “it is a prejudice of good tone, that is, it is not considered a prejudice but a completely justified and reasonable opinion,” and even finds “its most perfect accommodation among the literate classes, “which is logical “since it owes to them if not its birth, then certainly its development and spread until it became public opinion.”

The second part of the book, dedicated to the study of imperiophobia against the Spanish Empire, which, in her words, would not differ in essence from the cases previously analyzed, doubles the length of the other chapters because it is the paradigmatic example. Some of the episodes, characters and institutions that have traditionally contributed to forge a certain negative image of Spain that is associated with the Black Legend are touched upon. Thus, she reviews the major highlights, starting with the imperial military expeditions carried out by Charles V in Italy, and continuing with the conflict in the Netherlands during the reign of Philip II; Germany and Protestantism; Great Britain; as well, decisive and controversial episodes such as the Inquisition or the conquest of America and the work of Fray Bartolomé Las Casas, to cite some of the most relevant examples.

The fact that Roca Barea begins the epigraph dedicated to the Netherlands with the anthem of the Netherlands is noteworthy, since it highlights some clichés that are recurrent in the image projected both of the Spanish and the Spanish, as we will see. the image projected both of the Spanish and of what is Spanish, as we will have occasion to see later on. The lyrics read:

O that the Spaniards rape thee,
My Netherlands so sweet,
The thought of that does grip me
Causing my heart to bleed.

This question is interesting because it puts us before the mirror of the foreign vision of Spain and the Spaniards. In this sense, José Varela Ortega has just published a fundamental book. It is about how Spaniards have defined themselves and how they have been seen from the outside in a pendular movement that has oscillated between contempt and exaltation, between misery and exaltation.

Stereotypes, as Varela Ortega points out, although imprecise and inaccurate, have the virtue of being very effective. Vague or unproven assertions are the ideal breeding ground for these types of ideas to be successful. It is not only the merit of those publicists who, from the end of the 15th century to the present day, the period analyzed in this book, have proposed a distorted vision of our history, but also of Spain itself because many Spaniards were incapable of articulating a discourse that would counteract these stereotypes, a discourse that could mix both self-criticism and self-esteem about the image that was being projected from the outside, along the lines that Roca Barea also defends in Imperiofobia.

In fact, Varela Ortega gives an example of the prejudices that would continue to plague Spain, not only from the historical point of view but also from the judicial one, and that would translate into a double yardstick, depending on whether the events took place in Spain or in another country.

According to Varela, it is curious “that the U.S. press pontificates about the little left hand of Spanish politicians,” in a country where not two years ago the Supreme Court “unanimously rejected as unconstitutional a petition for the right to secession, signed by a hundred thousand plus citizens of Texas, who harbored desires and pretensions very similar to those of the Catalan nationalists.” Not to mention the German Constitution, which would expressly prohibit the secession of a federated state, so that the territorial unity of the Republic might remain “inviolable;” or, in other words, a case similar “to the secessionist process [which] would force any government of the Federal Republic to intervene in any land”.

The persistence of certain clichés about the history of Spain is a fact that both Roca Barea and Varela Ortega analyze in their respective texts. If we focus on the profile of Philip II and the Duke of Alba, we will see that their reputation in Europe is far from positive, even today.

Roca Barea mentions that a professor at the University of Ghent, named Lieve Behiels, examined, in the 1980s, textbooks used in Belgian education from 1843 to 1986. Behiels concluded that the Duke of Alba was described in most of them “with negative or very negative adjectives:” nineteen times he was called “cruel” and only five times a positive appellative, “brave,” was applied to him.

In the same vein, José Varela warns that, today, in a recently published and infantile Histoire de la Belgique (History of Belgium), the image presented of Philip II and Alba is that they tried to introduce the Spanish Inquisition in Flanders, an extreme event that is uncertain; and about the duke it is stated that he was “little less than a psychopathic butcher even by [the assessment of] current professional historians, such as Robert Goodwin.” A little further on, Varela argues that the Duke of Alba “came to represent the image of violence and cruelty, associated, from then on, with Spaniards in general,” making the Duke the “bogeyman” of Dutch children to this day.

It is true that both Philip II and the Duke of Alba are true protagonists in the Black Legend. Not in vain, for it was William of Orange who wrote his Apologie in 1581 as a rebuttal to the Edict of Proscription, under Margaret of Parma, which had been made public in August of the previous year, where he was accused of treason, rebellion and disloyalty, with the aim of developing a story or an alibi to justify the crime of lèse majesté that he had carried out against his king, a crime we must not forget was one of the worst that could be committed.

Some of these characters who contributed to the origin and consolidation of the Black Legend have been marked by the taint of treason. Indeed, there were active traitors because they wrote slogans, pamphlets or texts denouncing the alleged abuses perpetrated by Philip II and his administration, such as, William of Orange himself or Antonio Perez and his Relaciones, who perhaps perfectly represents the prototype of the traitor in the history of Spain. However, we also find other traitors who are passive, such as Don Carlos, a young prince who left no testimonies to incriminate his father but was nevertheless used and exploited with the aim of showing the ruthless behavior of his father, the king, and who ended up being associated with the “Demon of the South.”

In the eyes of Spanish historiography, Don Carlos was understood as someone dominated by a lust for power, to the point of wanting to overthrow his father with the help of some Flemish subjects who were very unhappy with the treatment meted out by Philip II; he would end his days without his father’s pardon, in a prison cell at the age of barely twenty. Don Carlos went beyond the limits of history, literature and his time; and proof of this is that Friedrich Schiller was inspired by him to compose his drama, Dom Karlos, Infant von Spanien, and of course Giuseppe Verdi and his work, Don Carlo, which premiered in Paris in March 1867, and which definitively consecrated the image of a despotic and cruel Philip II, even to his own son.

Imperiofobia then turns to two fundamental elements of the Black Legend, the Inquisition and the conquest of America, which are the themes with which Roca Barea closes the second part of the book.

In regards to the Holy Office, Roca Barea devotes herself to demonstrating that from “Frenchified literature to the theater of Martínez de la Rosa,” there has been “what we could call a complete normalization of the myth of the Inquisition in Spain itself within the political-literary world of the 19th century.” Her aim is to demonstrate how that myth was created, and she begins by stating that the identification of the Holy Office “with the Antichrist is already found in some texts from the 1530s; that is, at a surprisingly early date, and not only in Germany.” The procedure, in the author’s opinion, was always the same: “a small part of truth served to raise up a big lie that justified a prejudice of racist etiology that so far refuses to recognize what it really is.”

She then cites some of the testimonies that came to justify this thesis of the myth of the Inquisition. Among the authors she mentions are Reginaldo González Montano, author of the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispaniae Artes, whom she suspects was a Spanish apostate; Francisco de Enzinas, another apostate of Burgos origins, who wrote, with the help of his brothers Jaime and Juan, a Historia de Statu Belgico deque Religione Hispanica, under the name of Franciscus Dryander; or Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who wrote a complete history of the Protestant Church and its martyrs, Catalogus testium veritatis (Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth), dated 1556.

Again, as had happened with the Black Legend, “the myth of the Inquisition passed unshaken to the Enlightenment, and then to Romanticism and liberalism, and from there to the present day.” And not only that, but, in Roca Barea’s opinion, the acceptance of this myth is also influenced by the laziness of Spanish society, incapable of counteracting centuries of insults against the Holy Office.

She cites a report broadcast by La 2 of Televisión Española, entitled “The Inquisition: A Spanish Tragedy,” which was aired on May 22, 2013; also the fact that by typing into Google, “tortures of the Inquisition,” “you will find 171,000 results; and these only in Spanish;” or that in a survey carried out by the Council of Europe in 2009 on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the telescope, among students of the European Union, “30 percent of students think that Galileo was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, 97 percent are convinced that before that, he was tortured” and that almost one hundred percent believe that the phrase, “Eppur si muove” (“and yet it moves”) was in reality said by Galileo.

Authors such as Varela Ortega have called attention to the fact that the Holy Office does not need a special appellation. Therefore, it is revealing that not even in English do they refer to the Inquisition as just the “Inquisition,” but rather the allusion is made through the formula “the Spanish Inquisition,” even though the Spanish Inquisition was by no means the pioneer, although it was the one that obtained the most fame or repercussions.

According to José Martínez Millán, the episcopal Inquisition, administered by local bishops, was born with Lucius III. From 1231, with the bull, Excommunicamus of Gregory IX, it became known as the Papal Inquisition, already subordinated to pontifical power. Even within the borders of the Iberian Peninsula, as García Cárcel wrote in a short article, the Castilian Inquisition had antecedents in Aragon. In the words of Varela Ortega, the polemic could be summarized, not without a certain irony, as follows: “It is already known that it [the Inquisition] is Spanish; that of other countries, does not count (the fact that it came from France and that it acted there until almost the French Revolution hardly anyone knows about or is interested in knowing, outside of the odd expert).”

Roca Barea’s next objective is to list data that demonstrate that the Inquisition was not as savage, bloodthirsty and arbitrary as it has been made out to be, adjectives that, incidentally, respond either to the difficulty that often exists with certain institutions, battles or characters when it comes to distinguishing between reality, myth and prejudice, or directly to ignorance. Perhaps, in the history of Spain, one of the best examples of this sense is offered, as we are seeing, by the Inquisition itself.

Furthermore, she establishes a comparison with the rest of the European countries to prove that their legal system was more severe than that of the Inquisition. As an example, she mentions that studies, such as those of Henningsen and Contreras, bring the number of people condemned to death by the Holy Office, between 1550 and 1700, to a total of 1346, while Henry Kamen‘s estimates amount to 3,000 victims. In contrast, Sir James Stephen calculated that “the number condemned to death in England in three centuries reached the chilling figure of 264,000 people,” adding that some convictions “were for crimes as serious as stealing a sheep.”

This series of clues leads Roca Barea to conclude that, in reality, the Inquisition “was never a shadow power, nor did it have the capacity to control society,” since the inquisitors, in general, “worked under difficult conditions and their work was quite routine and bureaucratic. ” Consequently, the Holy Office is for the author “an icon, and its mental representation belongs more to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth.”

From 1480, the Catholic Monarchs, in possession of the functions they had acquired by virtue of a papal bull signed by Sixtus IV in 1478, appointed Juan de San Martín and Miguel de Morillo as inquisitors, and the first act of faith took place in February 1481, in which six people were killed. This is the beginning of a period that Joseph Pérez defines as one of “terror” and about which Modesto Lafuente declares in his Historia general de España: “It was the first step, product of an error of understanding of the enlightened and kind Isabel, whose consequences she did not foresee, and whose results were to be fatal for Spain.”

A chronicler of the time, Andrés Bernáldez, considered that between 1480 and 1488 “they burned more than seven hundred people, and reconciled more than five thousand and threw them into perpetual prisons, where there were such prisons, where they were kept for four or five years or more.” This is perhaps the harshest period of the Holy Office, although the one chosen by Roca Barea to establish her estimates, on the other hand, begins in 1550, some twenty or thirty years after this brutal stage of the Inquisition took place.

Equally problematic are the figures offered by Sir James Stephen, among other reasons because, first of all, Roca Barea does not indicate in which three centuries these hundreds of thousands of murders were committed. Sir James Stephen, who, let us remember, lived in the 19th century, states in his book, A History of the Criminal Law of England, originally published in 1883, that, if the average number of executions in each county was 20 per year, the total would be 800 per year in the 40 English counties, data that Julián Juderías also cites, following Stephen: “And following the same author with his calculations, he arrives at 264,000 executions in three hundred and thirty years.” Naturally these are unrealistic figures which, moreover, would have us to believe, without evidence, that the intensity was always uniform over more than three centuries. In any case, it is difficult to maintain, as Roca Barea does, that the Inquisition belonged more “to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth,” or that it did not have “the capacity to control society.”

The other extreme that attracts Roca Barea’s attention in the construction and maintenance of the Black Legend is the conquest of America, to which she devotes the final pages of the second part of Imperiofobia. The hypotheses she maintains with respect to the Conquest are similar to those defended for the Holy Office: “In the case of America, the deformations reached such a point that it has been impossible to try to make history without adopting a belligerent defensive attitude.”

Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to bring to light the efforts of the Spanish Empire to provide what was necessary to accommodate life in the Americas. She mentions that between 1500 and 1550 “some twenty-five large hospitals were built in the Indies, in the style of St. Nicholas of Bari, and a much larger number of small hospitals with fewer beds,” to the point that in Lima, she tells us, there was one bed for every 101 inhabitants, which we should not expect in each of the cities of the Americas, although she does think that “this pyramid has a broad base of support, as evidenced by the fact that few of these institutions failed.”

If in the field of health this is just some of the data she brings to bear, in the case of education she offers much more that ranges from the creation of higher education centers, which she estimates at more than twenty, and the number of graduates that came out of them, which she estimates, until independence, at “approximately 150,000… of all colors, castes and mixtures.” Likewise, she does not miss the opportunity to establish a favorable comparison, indicating that one must add “the totality of the universities created by Belgium, England, Germany, France and Italy in the colonial expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to approach the number of Spanish-American universities during the imperial era.”

In relation to the conquest of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, José Varela indicates that, as in all American conquests, it was indispensable to collaborate with other indigenous ethnic groups subjugated by the Aztecs “who forced them to a very demanding regime of tribute and decimated them, imposing on them macabre human sacrifices and systematic and very numerous ritual cannibalism.”

In this sense, Varela Ortega argues that it might even be legitimate to question the term conquest because “in most places there was no conquest at all,” to such an extent that the characteristic feature was “the scarcity of warlike acts and the abundance of negotiations.” In this respect, it cannot be denied that, in the conquest of America, which extended beyond the 16th century, there were new formulas for convivencia or coexistence. However, it is quite a different matter to suggest that the military conquest and political, economic or religious subjugation were not the basic pillars of the process, so it does not seem important to argue that these events did not respond, in effect, to a conquest.

However, the main protagonist in the entire chapter dedicated by Roca Barea to the conquest of America has a name of his own: Fray Bartolomé Las Casas and his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indias). Roca Barea dismisses this work as an unreliable historical source; she discredits it because simply, “it produces astonishment and pity,” so no one “with a little intellectual serenity or common sense defends a cause, however noble it may be, as the Dominican did.”

To some extent the life of Las Casas, the Spanish religious, was overshadowed by this work, of which there were many negative comments by prominent authors. But what is certain is that Las Casas had a very broad and systematic bibliographical production, covering several volumes, ranging from the political to the religious, passing through the social and the legal.

In fact, the protective legislation passed in 1542 was inspired by the reflections of the friar. To understand the historical transcendence of Las Casas, it is necessary, on the one hand, to take into account all his work and not only the Brevísima, and, on the other hand, to draw attention to the context in which he lived and avoid the great myths that surrounded him and contributed to create a distorted profile of him. In this way, it is possible to reach a broader understanding of his real persona, a task to which Bernat Hernández devoted himself in his most recent biography.

One of the lasting consequences of Las Casas’ book was, in Roca Barea’s view, to have facilitated “the birth of the myth of the indigenous Eden crushed by the evil white man,” arguing that it did not matter “whether the native is anthropophagous or head-shrinking,” but that “his state of nature makes him intrinsically good.” Subsequent translations into English, French or German, along with the famous engravings of Théodor de Bry in which sadistic, bloodthirsty and brutal scenes, such as that of the natives being devoured by dogs, can be seen, helped to spread and sustain the Black Legend.

Throughout the third and last part that integrates Imperiofobia, Roca Barea links, as she did already in the first part, the French Enlightenment with the creation of Hispanophobic prejudices, to the point of affirming that “Hispanophobia in France does not occupy an eccentric and marginal place, but is part of the central body of ideas of the Enlightenment.” She cites in this sense those authors responsible, among whom she highlights, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, the Encyclopédie or the articles published therein by Louis de Jaucourt.

The essential summary drawn from the French cultural environment about the Spanish is, as the author summarizes, the following: “Spain is a country of ignorant and uneducated people; Spain is backward; the Inquisition and, therefore, Catholicism are to blame for the backwardness and uneducatedness of Spain, and in general of any place in contact with it; Spain is not part of civilization.” And again, Roca Barea again draws the comparison with the political, economic and social situation of France at that time, marked by a deficit that it is unable to control, by successive cholera epidemics, by a backward banking system or by the fact that “there is no running water or sanitation in Paris, and it was the most malodorous capital in Europe.”

But the basic idea with which the book ends and which we have already stressed throughout this discussion is the assumption about the Black Legend by the Spaniards themselves, who are responsible, in the final analysis, for not creating a narrative to counteract the accusations and falsehoods heaped on the national past. In the first place, Roca Barea blames Spanish liberalism, saying that all the clichés of Hispanophobia “rejuvenated by the Enlightenment are already assumed with perfect naturalness, as an unappealable and self-evident truth, in El fanatismo” (Fanaticism by Meléndez Valdés).

Regarding Valdés’ book, an author who, according to her, naturally assumes the clichés of the Black Legend, she mentions that during the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV there were four death sentences handed down by the Inquisition, the last one in 1781. A year later, Anna Göldi became the last witch burned by Calvinism, which leads Roca Barea to argue that “the bonfires go out in Europe almost at the same time from coast to coast,” in an attempt to play down the importance of the Spanish case.

According to the scheme proposed by Roca Barea, the relationship of the Spaniards and their elites with the clichés of the Black Legend were structured as follows. During the “golden centuries,” the Spaniards, although aware of the Black Legend, did not take much interest in it, and when they did, it was in a tone of “cheerful contempt.” In the eighteenth century, part of the elites began to take on certain clichés of the Black Legend. And from the middle of the 19th century onwards it became a natural part of Spanish life because society needed these prejudices to explain its own situation and, at the same time, with reasons admitted by all, to evade its responsibility.

In conclusion, Roca Barea suggests the need, on the one hand, to admit that the Black Legend and its consequences are still alive, and, on the other, to create an alternative discourse that combats the inaccuracies and insults perniciously maintained about the history of Spain. As an example of the former, the author delves in the last pages into the cinematographic sphere to note that, in most of the films analyzed, especially those that deal with the prevailing historical themes, the image of a Spain dominated by fanaticism, backwardness, tyranny and cruelty prevails. With respect to the second point, and in the words of the author, the book was written “to help clarify not the past, but the future.”

It is pertinent to mention at this time that with Imperiofobia Roca Barea completes her views of the Black Legend, and which she leaves off in the Enlightenment. The basic thesis she defended in Fracasología. España y sus élites: de los afrancesados a nuestros días (Failurology. Spain and its Elites: From the Frenchification to the Present Day), is made clear in the Introduction when she says, “There is a moment from which a significant part of the Spanish elites assume the discourse of the Black Legend because it is the winning discourse of the eighteenth century.” Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to follow the path that takes her from the time the Bourbons acceded to the throne down to the present, with the aim of demonstrating that the prejudices associated with the Black Legend still survive in Spanish society.

Continuing her account near the end of Imperiofobia, Roca Barea maintains that it was in the century of the Enlightenment when a series of problems were born that Spain still suffers from today, such as, the rejection and moral condemnation of the Habsburg period, for which the Spanish elites were responsible because of the influence of Frenchification. Of course, and in line with her previous book, the source of the necessary breeding ground for the clichés to survive was France, especially with regard to Spain’s responsibility for the Inquisition and the destruction of the Indies. The Spanish inferiority complex would explain not only why these prejudices were present in the 18th century, but also why, by the 19th century, the intellectual and political elites cared little about the dismemberment of the empire and its eventual decomposition.

The Black Legend is, in the end, and in Roca Barea’s opinion, “the hanger from which hangs northern supremacism,” made possible because “not only has the Roman Church been completely defeated, but also because the Spaniard, the last of the sons of Rome to rule in the West, has been defeated.” The essential conclusion that this whole series of arguments brings forward for Roca Barea, what she wishes to emphasize, is that “from the situation of cultural subordination there is no way out without the assistance of the elites.”

She concludes Fracasología by arguing that the weakening of Spain can be seen in how the Fifth Centenary of the Discovery of America was celebrated and how the Fifth Centenary of Elcano’s and Magellan’s Round the World Tour is being celebrated. If Portugal, “with eight million inhabitants, is in a position to impose its presence on an equal footing in the celebration of a historic event, a milestone in the history of mankind,” that means that “our country has reached a state of extreme weakness,” to the point that “Portugal is right now capable of imposing its will on Spain, which has five times its inhabitants.”

The truth is that the theses defended by Roca Barea have raised debates, if not very heated controversies, which have gone beyond, in something that is rarely seen, the scope of academic discussion. This can be seen very well when in the newspaper El Mundo, in its edition of December 26, 2019, a heterogeneous group formed by journalists, lawyers, writers, academics or university professors signed a manifesto “In defense of Elvira Roca,” whose purpose was to reject the information given by the newspaper El País on December 20, 2019, according to which Imperiofobia gave, in at least about thirty instances of incorrect or even non-existent references. Among the signatories in support of Roca Barea were personalities, such as, Carmen Iglesias, Director of the Royal Academy of History, the playwright Albert Boadella, and the philosopher Fernando Savater.

The response published by El Mundo revealed “an astonishing campaign of public vilification directed at the researcher Elvira Roca Barea,” a harassment that had its origin in the pages “of the newspaper El País, with no holds barred,” but which “was taken up by other media.”

The final paragraph of the manifesto closes by linking it with one of the clearest argumentative lines of Roca Barea’s book, that is, the assumption of the prejudices about the Legend believed by Spaniards themselves, who also do nothing to remedy it – an idea which yet persists, although this time in journalism, since as one reads, “the very article in El País, in its efforts to disavow the book, Imperiofobia, does nothing more than confirm one of the theses that its author defends;” and this is, as we have just pointed out, “the resistance of a part of present-day Spanish intelligentsia to admit the survival of the Black Legend among us.”

However, perhaps the most forceful response to Imperiofobia has been the book by José Luis Villacañas, professor of philosophy at the Complutense University, Imperiofilia y el populismo nacional-católico (Imperiophilia and National-Catholic Populism), which is another history of the Spanish Empire.

There were two motivations, according to Villacañas in the Prologue, which prompted him to write this book. In the first place, because he considers Imperiofobia a “harmful and dangerous” book; and in his opinion, it is “an ideological artifact that has initiated the offensive of a reactionary thinking whose effects we are now clearly observing.” And secondly, because Roca Barea’s book attacks “in an insidious and grotesque way” everything that this author defends in his work, to the point of qualifying what Roca Barea does in her book as “reactionary intellectual populism.”

Imperiofilia is an amendment to the entirety of Roca Barea’s book. For Villacañas, both Imperiofobia and the reception it has received are the reflection of something he defines as follows: “The success of the book reveals the limited cultural demands of certain elites of the country, who, faced with a world they no longer understand nor know how to lead, need a legitimacy that Imperiofobia offers them in a brutal way.”

Thus, in the first part of Imperiofilia, he sets out to dismantle the theoretical scheme on which the work he intends to refute is based, by questioning aspects, such as, the distinction he makes between the “superiors” and the “inferiors,” the relationship between intellectuals and the maintenance of imperiophobia or the use he makes of the term “empire.”

According to Villacañas, the essential point in Roca Barea’s book is when she suggests that in order to analyze such complex phenomena, “the variable is still the difference between Catholics and Protestants;” so that “if you go against a Lutheran empire, then you are neither anti-Semitic nor racist.” On the other hand, “if you go, for example, against the Spanish Empire, which expelled the Jews in tragic conditions and exterminated them as a very ancient peninsular people, then, by a strange rule of three, you are anti-Semitic.” In his opinion, this type of approach meets not only with the approval, but also with the complicity, of “famous film directors, influential journalists and far-sighted editors,” who applaud without hesitation Roca Barea’s hypotheses.

In the second part of Imperiofilia, Villacañas exposes what he considers to be the two fundamental categories that constitute Imperiofobia, following the case studies chosen by Roca Barea: Imperial victims and the victimizers. Within the first group we find Rome, Russia and the United States, while in the second group we find Italy, German Protestants, England and Holland.

Villacañas understands that, in the epigraph dedicated to the imperial victims, Roca Barea’s objective is none other than to defend the idea that the use of the power of empires does not produce a bad conscience, which is why she presents a precursor, Rome, in the process of forming Black Legends. From his point of view, she is only interested in proving Rome’s innocence: “At last the eternal city finds its advocate before history. Now its ghost can rise again and put on the white robe of the innocents of history.”

On the contrary, regarding the victimizers, Villacañas thinks that what Roca Barea wants to demonstrate above all is that Protestant Germany is the true enemy of Spain; or, in other words, the precursor and forger of the Black Legend, an opinion that he does not share, since he believes that the beginning should be placed in the wars of the Netherlands. Furthermore, he does not accept Roca Barea’s interpretation of Luther’s or Calvin’s behavior when he says that the latter, in a period of four years, had fifty-four people burned, alleging that Calvin “may be an unsympathetic character, but to turn him into a pathetic criminal is unfounded.”

Villacañas also says that, in general, Roca Barea’s description of Italy, Germany and England is “superficial and inconsistent,” and adds that in the case of Holland it borders on “delirium.” And, finally, he recalls that the entirety of Imperiofobia is riddled with messages that lead to Catalonia, which is why he wonders if, in reality, there is the possibility that Roca Barea “wants to send the tercios to Brussels, to extradite Puigdemont, or to continue celebrating autos de fe, and force the good people to roar after the inauguration of the inquisitor of the day.”

At the part dedicated to Spain, Villacañas simply dismisses Roca Barea’s argument regarding the Holy Office and the conquest of America. At the heart of the matter is his own deficient methodological apparatus. In relation to the Inquisition, he maintains that the sources most used by the author of Imperiofobia to document her assertions are “comics” or “television documentaries;” or what amounts to the same thing, “the sources of the new populist science.” Again, he insists that it is Roca Barea’s intention to compare the Inquisition with the way the French courts used torture, for example, in order to demonstrate in this way, in a view clearly favorable to the Spanish Inquisition, that it was more regimented.

Villacañas summarizes Roca Barea’s view of the American issue as an attempt to limit everything to a battle between the Catholic world and the Protestant world, which prevents the observation of reality with the necessary clarity to understand it. All of this is clothed by the tendency to use “populist anachronisms,” since anachronism is the method most loved by what he calls “intellectual populists.” From Roca Barea’s treatment of Las Casas, valuable because it can thus be demonstrated that a Spaniard initiated the Black Legend, perhaps making good the idea of that negative community which evolves directly towards a lack of community, and to other aspects, such as, the fact that in America, in the 18th century, “the most audacious theories of the Enlightenment were arriving and being studied,” which he regards simply as exaggerations.

Villacañas devotes the end of the book to two other topics to which Roca Barea does not pay as much attention as to the previous ones: the Enlightenment and liberalism. In both cases Villacañas’ opinion is similar. On the one hand, when analyzing the Enlightenment, he says that Roca Barea “is not interested in the movement of ideas nor in understanding them,” but only in “counting the Catholic embassies that were set on fire by the English and pursuing this cosmic battle of which she is the last champion, the last crusade, the Spanish Joan of Arc.” When time comes to say something about liberalism, she does it to point out that “what interests the author of liberalism itself is the will to put into circulation the concept of Latin America as opposed to that of Hispano-America, which affects the Spanish Empire and constitutes the last sign of imperiophobia.”

Imperiofilia closes by recalling that Roca Barea’s success is based on the need that, in the absence of a Spanish nationalist response to the excesses of Catalan nationalism, there is compensation “in a work that calms many insecurities, generates absolute loyalty and attends to the unhappy conscience of many of those who see themselves endangered as a people.” Imperiofobia, he concludes, is ultimately “a product of Steve Bannon’s factory, mixed with the castizo heart of Gustavo Bueno’s imperial melancholy, used by the founding fathers of the Association in Defense of the Spanish Nation in its inaugural proclamation, and current inspirers of the VOX political party.”

The historiographical debate between María Elvira Roca Barea and José Luis Villacañas is nothing more than a reflection of the polarization suffered by Spanish society at present, since it has also had its manifestation in the media. It is not a question of reiterating here the fundamental role that historical knowledge plays in any democratic society, but of vindicating the need not to trivialize it in order to obtain political, economic or ideological advantages.

This becomes even more pertinent in a society dominated by immediacy, where slow and original thinking seems to be disappearing and history tends to satisfy old longings for grandeur. Otherwise, we will continue to be prisoners of a historical narrative riddled with inaccuracies, which refuses to debate with researchers and specialists and which finds in anachronism its best ally; or perhaps this is just a symbol of our own curse, and therefore we are condemned to be haunted by it throughout our history.


Bruno Padín Portela is a historian, with a Masters in Archaeology and Ancient Sciences and a PhD in History from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published articles in Spanish and has written international reviews analyzing topics related to Spanish historiography, especially the role of traitors in the accounts of the histories of Spain. He is also the author of the book, La traición en la historia de España.


The featured image shows, “The Conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521,” an anonymous work, painted ca. 17th century.

Open Letter To The President Of Mexico, On The Aztecs And Their Cannibalism

The Argentine political scientist and historian, Marcelo Gullo Omodeo, professor at the National University of Rosario, recently published an important book with the evocative title, Madre patria (Mother Country), dismantling the Spanish Black Legend from Bartolomé de las Casas until today.

This book, with a preface by Alfonso Guerra, former vice-president of the Spanish government (1982-1991) and former vice-secretary of the PSOE (1979-1997), has not failed to raise some controversy.

The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (whose name clearly testifies to his Spanish origin), recently responded with disdain for the idea expressed by Gullo, according to which Spain, for the majority of the indigenous peoples, liberated Mesoamerica from the dreadful Aztec oppression.

It should be kept in mind that on March 1, 2019, López Obrador even sent a letter to the King of Spain, Philip VI, demanding an apology for the conquest of America.

In an uncompromising open letter, reproduced in the newspaper, El Mundo and the website ElManifiesto, Professor Gullo dispels doubts and sets the record straight. [Arnaud Imatz]


Mr. Andrés Manuel López Obrador,
President of the Republic of Mexico

Dear Mr. President:

On August 13, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the liberation – though for you, the fall – of Tenochtitlán, you quoted verbatim, without naming me, a paragraph from my interview that appeared in the newspaper, El Mundo, on Friday, July 23, following the publication in Spain of my book, Madre Patria. Desmontando la leyenda negra desde Bartolomé de las Casas hasta el separatismo catalán.

In your speech, you said, “There are issues that need to be clarified as much as possible. For example, a few days ago, a pro-monarchist writer from our continent claimed that Spain did not conquer America, but that Spain liberated America, because Hernán Cortés, and I quote, “gathered 110 Mexican nations that were oppressed by the anthropophagous tyranny of the Aztecs and fought with him.” You have also accused me without any evidence – and without even bothering to examine my academic background or gather information about my anti-imperialist political trajectory – of being a representative of colonialist thought.

Since I agree with you that some points need to be clarified, I would like to remind you that the Mexican archaeologist, Alfonso Caso, former rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, states that “human sacrifice was essential in the Aztec religion.” That is why in 1487, to celebrate the completion of the construction of the great temple of Tenochtitlán – of which you inaugurated a monumental model on August 13 – sacrificial victims were gathered in four rows that stretched along the causeway connecting the islands of Tenochtitlán. It is estimated that during these four days of celebration, the Aztecs killed between 20,000 and 24,000 people.

The North American historian, William H. Prescott, who can hardly be suspected of “Hispanophilia,” gives an even more frightening figure: “When the great temple of Mexico City was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli in 1486, the sacrifices lasted several days, and 70,000 victims perished.” In his book Historia de América, the Uruguayan, Juan Zorrilla de San Martín, explains that “When they took the children to kill them, if they cried and shed tears, they rejoiced more because it was for them the sign that they would have a lot of water in the year.” The number of victims sacrificed each year was immense,” Prescott admits, even though he is one of the most critical historians of the Spanish conquest and one of the most fervent defenders of Aztec civilization.

Hardly any author estimates it at less than 20,000 per year, and there are even some who raise it to 150,000. In his famous work Cannibals and Kings. Origins of Culture, the North American anthropologist, Marvin Harris, writes, ” The main source of food for the Aztec gods was prisoners of war, who were marched up the steps of the pyramids to the temples, seized by four priests, spread-eagled backward over the stone altar, and slit open from one side of the chest to the other with an obsidian knife wielded by a fifth priest. The victim’s heart—usually described as still beating—was then wrenched out and burned as an offering. The body was rolled down the pyramid steps, which were built deliberately steep to accommodate this function.”

What became of the sacrificed dead? Where were the bodies of those human beings whose hearts had been torn out at the top of the pyramids taken? What was done with the body of the victim? What was the fate of these bodies sacrificed to the gods day after day? Anthropologist Michael Harner, who has analyzed this question with more intelligence and courage than many other specialists, answers, “There is really no mystery about what happened to the corpses, since all the eyewitness accounts largely agree – the victims were eaten.”

The numerous scientific works – doctoral theses, books published by world-renowned researchers – that we have today leave no room for doubt that in Mesoamerica there was one oppressor nation, the Aztecs, and hundreds of oppressed nations, from whom the Aztecs not only took their raw materials – as all imperialism in history has done – but also their children, their brothers and sisters. … to sacrifice them in their temples and then distribute the dismembered bodies of the victims in their butcher shops, as if they were pork chops or chicken legs, so that these human beings could serve as substantial food for the Aztec population.

The nobility reserved the thighs, while the entrails were left for the general population. The scientific evidence we have today leaves no room for doubt. The number of human sacrifices practiced among the peoples enslaved by the Aztecs was such that they built the walls of their buildings and temples with skulls.

That is why, on August 13, 1521, the Indian peoples of Mesoamerica celebrated the fall of Tenochtitlan. You even had to acknowledge in your speech, Mr. President, even though you did so reluctantly and between the lines, that it is materially impossible that with only 300 men, four old arquebuses and a few horses, Hernán Cortés could have defeated Montezuma’s army of 300,000 disciplined and courageous soldiers. It would have been impossible even if the 300 Spaniards had had automatic rifles like those used by the Spanish army today.

Thousands of Indians from oppressed nations fought alongside Cortés against the Aztecs. That is why your compatriot José Vasconcelos says that “the conquest was made by the Indians.” And what happened after the conquest, after those first hours of blood, pain and death? It is precisely the opposite of what you say. Spain merged its blood with that of the defeated and with that of the liberated. And let us remember that there were more liberated than defeated. Mexico now teemed with hospitals, bilingual schools and universities. Spain sent its best teachers to America, and the best education was directed at the Indians and mestizos.

Let me remind you, Mr. President, that the Spanish liberators – sorry: the conquistadors – were so respectful of the culture of the so-called indigenous peoples that in 1571 the first grammar book in the Nahualt language was published in Mexico, that is to say, 15 years before the publication of the first grammar book in English, in Great Britain. All the facts show that when Mexico became independent from Spain, it was much richer and more powerful than the United States.

Forgive me, Mr. President, if I risk overstepping the mark, but I would like to suggest, with all due respect, that on February 2, the anniversary of the despicable Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo – by which the United States seized 2,378,539 square kilometers of Mexican territory – you organize a great event like the one you held on August 13.

May I also suggest that, in order to give more importance to this event, you invite the President of the United States, Joseph Biden, and that, in a great speech before the American President, you demand that he apologize to the Mexican people for stealing Texas, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Arizona, lands that were unquestionably part of Mexico.

Finally, dear President, I would like to tell you that since my childhood I have always felt a sentimental attachment to the oppressed peoples – perhaps because I was born in a humble house, in the city of Rosario, in the Republic of Argentina – and that if I could travel back in time, once or a thousand times, I would join the 300 soldiers of Hernán Cortés who, with the greatest courage known in history, freed the Indians of Mexico from the anthropophagous imperialism of the Aztecs.

Marcelo Gullo Omodeo,
August 27, 2021


The featured image shows a heart sacrifice, from the Tudela Codex, ca. 1540.

The Aztec In Their History

I have long admired Hernán Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs. He may not have gotten to Heaven, though who can say, but he exemplified the spirit of the West, that which from Charlemagne to Frémont drove the world forward. Fifth Sun would have us stop and shed a tear for the Aztecs, considering them on their own terms. It’s a modest request, and when done is modestly interesting. But we should remember that unlike the Spanish, the Aztecs never accomplished anything notable, and never would have accomplished anything notable. Which raises the question—what price glory?

It helps the reader of this book that the author, Camilla Townsend, is a very good writer. Her method is to use post-Conquest writings of descendants of the Aztecs, combined with a small number of plausible fictional vignettes, to attempt to recapture the history of pre-Conquest Mexico, to “conjure the world of [the] long dead.” (The book’s title comes from the Aztec creation myth, in which the cyclical rebirth of the Sun is triggered by an ordinary man choosing to sacrifice himself to the gods.) This method is more successful that it sounds it should be, but its accuracy is open to question. Nonetheless, I think it lets us get as much of a handle on the Aztecs as is worthwhile. Townsend further offers a good deal of detail about how she conducted her scholarship, her different sources, and an extensive bibliography, all of which are interesting in their own right.

Why are there few writings of Aztecs prior to the Spanish conquest of 1519, that Townsend could have used instead? Townsend says in passing that many were burned by the Spanish, although many also simply decayed, being composed on plant material. But the far more important reason, which Townsend at no point specifically admits, is that the Aztecs didn’t have any writings in the modern sense, that would allow real transfer of information, because they lacked an alphabet. Their “writings” were mere pictographs, and Aztec culture an oral one, like primitive cultures the world over. We might learn a little if we had more of their pictures, but not likely much. Townsend claims the Aztecs used these pictographs as “records of business decisions and chains of authority,” but that seems very unlikely; certainly surviving pictographs don’t allow any such precision.

Moreover, Townsend faces two problems as regards accuracy of the post-Conquest writings she uses (none of which are newly-discovered, despite breathless claims made on the book’s blurb). First, those recording what supposedly happened decades before they were born are very likely to introduce distortions, either by choice or as a result of being given bad information by informants. Townsend claims to be able to tease out the truth; maybe she’s right, but probably not, in many instances. Second, those recording here were not Aztecs, nor were they, as the blurb also claims, “indigenous people”; they were Spanish subjects, largely or completely Hispanized, most or all devout Roman Catholics, some of them of mixed parentage. Townsend assumes that when criticizing the Aztecs, they were lying or exaggerating, and when saying something positive, they were recording accurately. When writing a revisionist history, this approach gives the desired result, but it’s not objective. And much of what these writers wrote are obvious tall tales and legends, so again, where the precise truth lies is open to question. On the other hand, this is often the historian’s lot. One cannot uncritically rely, either, on Spanish reports contemporaneous with the Conquest, in particular reports to the King or his ministers, and much Spanish history of Mexico in this period was also written well after the fact.

Townsend is most of all keen to dispel what she claims are simplistic myths about the Aztecs at the time of the Conquest, such as that their leader when Cortes arrived, Moctezuma II, believed the Spanish to be the returning god Quetzalcoatl (a story I learned as a child). This notion only appeared a few decades after the Conquest, and Townsend makes a strong case it is a fiction. The Aztecs were primitive, not dumb, and as I have said before, it is a great error to believe that people who came before us were stupid—in fact, they usually had to be smarter than modern people. When the Aztecs captured cannon or crossbows, they couldn’t use them, but they didn’t consider Spanish technology magic. As with all peoples of the Americas, when the Europeans arrived, they simply lacked good choices. That’s not some great tragedy; it’s the normal course of all human history. Reading books like this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, some call to a ludicrous irredentism, merely a way to learn more about the human story.

Townsend proceeds chronologically, covering events pre-Conquest, during the Conquest, and for a hundred years after the Conquest. In general, Townsend spends more time than I would have liked on trying to reconstruct Aztec lineages and politics, and not as much as I would have liked on Aztec daily life. But it’s her book. Other than a few ideological blind spots, she tries hard to not blur the truth, as when discussing population she calculates that the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, might have had a maximum of 50,000 people. She says claims for populations greater, up to 400,000, are “wild exaggerations,” and obviously so, because they claim a density greater than modern Manhattan for a clearly-defined area composed of single-story homes.

The Aztecs, whose youthful minor empire was centered on what is now Mexico City, had only arrived in the Valley of Mexico recently, and had cemented their power less than a century before the Spanish arrived in 1519. The Mexica, as they called themselves (though that covered their enemies, too, and those in Central Mexico were collectively the Nahua), came from the north; where exactly we do not know (although maybe this is one of the many historical questions DNA evidence will answer). Migrations of nomadic peoples are the norm throughout history, and the same was true in the Americas. They were farmers, after a fashion. In the Americas, farming arose millennia after it did in the Old World, and was considerably cruder than in the Old World, as well as always combined with hunter-gatherer activities, but still often provided enough surplus to allow stratified societies.

Aztec social organization was complex, with extended families sharing power. Constantly shifting alliances with other tribes and groups, combined with continuous warfare, was the norm in Mexico. Within the Valley, links of kinship and marriage bound most or all of the tribes, sometimes to a degree that prevented war, sometimes causing war as an ambitious man sought the main chance. Crucially, with polygamy and an extractive society that ensured the nobility was well-fed, along with wars that killed few because of crude weaponry and cultural dictates, elite over-production very rapidly became a problem; the cracks were showing in the Aztec edifice before the Spanish arrived.

The upper classes kept the lower classes down. Slavery was extensive. As Townsend delicately concedes, Aztec slavery is rarely mentioned today, but as with all ancient non-nomadic societies, it was a key part of the social structure. “Because the Aztecs were disparaged for so long as cannibalistic savages, serious scholars have been loath to write anything that might be perceived as detracting from their moral worth.” In other words, any “scholarship” about the Aztecs from the past sixty years or so should be considered prima facie unreliable, because edited by the authors to present the Aztecs in the desired positive light.

And, in fact, the Aztecs were cannibalistic savages. There’s no getting around that. They were cannibalistic, certainly, and they were savages in two ways. They behaved barbarously, famously engaging in massive amounts of human sacrifice, including of children, something Townsend tries to downplay but does not deny. And they were quite primitive, even by pre-modern standards, using only modest technologies (no smelted metal; no wheels) and developing none themselves. As extractive top dogs in the Valley, for a few decades, they were able to buy shiny baubles from far away (turquoise, feathers) and to use slave labor to build reasonably impressive temples, but that’s about it.

Townsend tries to claim that had agriculture existed in Mesoamerica for longer, the Aztecs would have been the equal of the Europeans, but that’s silly. The Europeans were unique in world history; as I like to say, without Europe, the world we live in would be the world of the sixteenth century, or before. How long the ground had been cultivated had nothing to do with it. Even by non-European, pre-Christian Old World standards the Aztecs were primitives. If not for the Spanish, we would probably know next to nothing about the Aztecs, as we know next to nothing about the other Mesoamericans who preceded them, whom they conquered or exterminated, because they would have been conquered or exterminated in their turn.

Unfortunately, one short section in Fifth Sun makes Townsend seem unserious, and casts doubt on the rest of her work. She pushes homosexuality among the Aztecs in an attempt to make them seem like good modern Americans. I know nothing about Aztec homosexuality, but Townsend’s claim is that for the Aztecs “there was a range of sexual possibilities during one’s time on earth, understood to be part of the joy of living, and it certainly was not unheard of for men to go to bed together in the celebrations connected with religious ceremonies, and presumably at other times as well.” Her footnote to this passage, however, lends exactly zero support to this contention, and Wikipedia, always aggressively curated to cosset sexual deviants, says (citing a Spanish-language source), “[Aztec] law punished sodomy with the gallows, impalement for the active homosexual, extraction of the entrails through the anal orifice for the passive homosexual, and death by garrote for the lesbians.” I’m putting my money on the impalement as the reality, not Townsend’s gauzy and unsupported fantasy. That elsewhere she notes that “Adultery, for example, was a crime for everyone, punishable by stoning or strangling,” suggests that in fact the Aztecs were very strict about sexual crimes. Once again, this sort of thing makes the reader wonder what else is being shaded.

The Aztecs were already tottering when Cortes arrived. Townsend admits that human sacrifice absorbed more and more of their energies and that “Moctezuma himself spent an exorbitant amount of time playing a sacrificial role,” so much that he couldn’t even attend battles. They also had innumerable bitter enemies surrounding them, and this, of course, is one important reason why Cortes was successful (the other reasons being steel, attitude, and the diseases the Spanish brought). Townsend insightfully points out that even had Moctezuma managed to defeat the Spanish, he still would have fallen, because the cost would have been enormous and the resulting weakness would certainly have led to the Aztecs being exterminated by their indigenous enemies. Thus, Moctezuma had to bargain, which is what he tried to do, but failed because he had nothing to offer the Spanish. He didn’t understand the bigger picture, that the Spanish had vastly more resources and power than he could ever hope to command.

Once they defeated the Aztecs, events Townsend describes relatively quickly and from the Aztec perspective, the Spanish only took a few years, less than a decade, to transform the Aztec capital into Mexico City. (Roma Agrawal’s Built describes in fascinating detail the engineering behind the five-hundred-year-old Cathedral of the Assumption, built by the Spanish on the site of a razed human sacrifice pyramid.) “By the early 1600s, Mexico City had become one of the wealthiest and most impressive metropolises in the world.” The Aztecs were, and are, nothing but a memory.

Would the Aztecs, and more broadly the Indians in Mexico, have been better off if the Spanish had never arrived? Not in the long run, and probably not in the short run, either, except for the upper classes. Switching suzerains has no moral component and little impact on most in a primitive society, and that’s what happened here. After all, the rest of the globe, disease and all, would have intruded sooner or later into Mesoamerica. Moreover, the Aztecs acted in an evil fashion; their human sacrifice alone made their destruction a virtue. It was less virtuous that the Spanish often mistreated the Indians, arguably worse than their own lords mistreated them, although to their credit they argued about it, and frequently undertook initiatives to curb the worst excesses. The Aztecs would have thought it bizarre to have an internal debate on how to treat their defeated enemies, and this debate shows how very different Christian Europeans were from any other human civilization (we retain some of these impulses, but they will soon be entirely gone).

The world is undoubtedly a better place, spiritually and physically, as a result of Cortes defeating the Aztecs. I shed no tears for their demise, any more than I shed tears for Neanderthals or the Hittites. In fact, less. The West was, before it fell in the twentieth century, an immeasurably superior civilization, and on balance, its expansion a high good in all the places to which it expanded. But what is the limiting principle in this conclusion? Or, as I asked at the beginning, what price glory?

Cortes, in the words of David Gress, “conquered Mexico for God, gold, and glory, and only a mundane imagination would distinguish these impulses, for they were one and the same.” But what acts should we allow to be washed clean by this goal? How much brutal seeking after gold, or more broadly material advantage and advancement, can or should we tolerate, if that is part of God and glory? Cortes was not a nice man, and although his sins have long been exaggerated, even in his own time, for propaganda purposes, they were real enough, as were those of his lieutenants, such as Pedro de Alvarado, who slaughtered the Aztec nobles while Cortes was absent. We retrospectively sanitize great men of the past, and yes, it is true that the past is a foreign country. Nonetheless, it can’t be that all violence and suffering inflicted on others is justified by the inseparable ends that drove Cortes. But if we can have “God, gold, and glory,” is that possibility, or its achievement, and the passage of time, enough to balance the scales of justice? I am not sure.

Certainly, for our own civilization to be renewed, or more likely a new one to be born, extremes of violence and cruelty will be commonplace, and the basest of motives compete eagerly with high motives. Such is the way of change, and the greater the change, the greater the sins in the transition, as men seek all of God, gold, and glory. I suppose my first-cut conclusion is that men being who they are, the evil will always accompany the good, and there is no cure for this. So we should accept it, as the price of necessary change. That, as with the Aztecs, what the West has become is truly evil makes this conclusion easier. We may not have racks of tens of thousands of skulls on display, but that’s just because we hide them in the abortionist’s dumpster, after we sell our children’s other organs for experimentation and profit. Therefore, we should accept the costs of renewal, and as the Spanish did, try to curb the worst excesses that result, both juridically and ad hoc, hoping to get to a more stable and less brutal future as quickly as possible.

No doubt that I ask these questions itself proves I will never be the Man of Destiny, yet who can tell, if participation is offered, and the exchange of God, gold, and glory for the death of globohomo is offered, whether I would yet not seize the brass ring? Probably I am too introspective, and ultimately fearful of judgment, and would rather participate in a secondary capacity. We will see, each of us, what our choices are, in the times ahead. With luck, they will be better choices than those faced by Moctezuma and his people.


Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.


The featured image shows Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec Feathered Serpent.

Restoring Balance: A Dominican Call To Arms

The Dominican Republic (DR) overcame a grave political-institutional crisis in 2020 – the incumbent president attempted to use undemocratic and fraudulent means to stay in power. Luckily, our polity graduated toward consolidated democracy and witnessed the peaceful transfer of power from that party to the current one. As political theory predicts, internal resistance from diverse political forces was essential to avoiding the perpetuation of the previous party’s hold on power: First in defending the constitutional limits on re-election, and then in preventing the imposition of a puppet candidate whose primary election was marred by rampant electoral fraud that drained any legitimacy he might have had. This movement constituted the expressed will of the Dominican people and the democratic forces organized for change in decayed institutions with the aim of preserving the freedoms won by our founding fathers. We must also recognize the help of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who warned the incumbent of the dangers of the ambition to perpetuate himself in power. Senators Bob Menéndez and Marco Rubio also played starring roles in providing international scrutiny.

Having overcome such a moment, the local party-political system faces another crisis in the form of a dead end. The current system is shot through with corruption and rent-seeking, if not openly mafioso. The major parties – which have historically gained power through forming broad coalitions with other parties and social movements – recently gave themselves advantageous rules for electoral competition, entrenching their dominance. At present, both “major” parties constitute expressions of leftist Latin American political forces. Both viable options for power in the DR are members of Lula’s Foro de São Paulo. Though important factions within them are not truly ideological (their power rests in patronage), this consolidation of leftism guarantees a bad result for the political right, no matter the victor in elections – with attendant consequences for such areas as relations with China and Venezuela.

Historically, most of the Dominican people have voted for moderate parties, with a strong preference for right wing ideology. The cycle of the post-civil war (1966-1996) was dominated by the Reformist party, now a rump minority faction. In 1996, for exceptional historical reasons to do with election rigging, a historic pact between the center-left and center-right brought Dr. Leonel Fernández to power, defeating the most important mass movement led by Dr. José Francisco Peña Gómez. This new cycle initiated by Fernández allowed his party to stay in power for 5 of the 6 terms from 1996-2020. In this period, the parties of the right were substantially weakened in electoral terms, having previously dominated the political scene. To cut a long story short, there is an unbalanced status quo where no conservative political organization retains the possibility of acceding to power, despite representing the views of a plurality or more of the citizenry.

There is hope. New generations have shown elevated interest in electoral participation under conservative and patriotic colors. Conscious of this reality and of the confrontations elsewhere in the region and the world, a group of organizations and movements with a long political tradition is exploring the best way to articulate the axioms of conservative thinking at this local level. At the same time, great efforts are being made to modernize the systems of communication and integrate new leaders and new blood. Some of these organizations are already part of the International Democratic Union (IDU), the Union of Latin American Parties (UPLA) and the Christian Democrat Organizacion of America (ODCA).
We are convinced that we are at a historic crossroads which, if we work together and ensure the means and resources necessary, we may constitute a viable option in 2024 and future elections, restoring the ideological balance this naturally right-wing country needs.

Among the first steps in our plans is the cohesion of a school of political training for leaders – an institution which by nature must have regional projection towards central America and the Greater Caribbean. We already have the spaces and installations suited for these ends and understand the necessity of opening digital communication channels to attract, integrate and unify participants who can fill important roles in implementing our values, ideas and policies.

The Dominican Republic must strengthen its national project. One of the most urgent changes to meet this goal is a change in the capitalist development model, reducing substantially the presence of the State in national livelihoods, while nurturing productive forces and creative energies within an export-oriented market economy. The Christian identity of our people, along with democratic, republican and liberal values in pursuance of the preservation of rights, must be at the center of this push.

For these ends we will appreciate any and all assistance of fellow-traveling organizations, especially those to do with communications, organization, capacity-building and political strategy. In the meantime, you know where you may find us: In the first city of America – Santo Domingo.


Don Pelegrín Castillo is the Vice President of the National Progressive Front, a patriotic and socially-conservative political party in the Dominican Republic. He is a former Cabinet minister, having held the portfolio for Energy & Mining in a past administration, as well as a former member of the Dominican lower house of Congress. He publishes widely in Spanish is affiliated to a number of issue-based groups such as the Dominican friends of Taiwan, the Cuban Democratic movement in exile.


The featured image shows, “Duarte contemplating the birth of the Republic,” by Luis Desangles; painted in 1890.

The Man Who Saved The Spanish Empire

Everyone knows about the unfortunate fate of the “Invincible Armada” of Philip II of Spain (1588), a defeat inflicted by the English, which was aided by circumstance – and in a determining way – by the anger of the sea. However, it is less known that the name “Invincible Armada,” of English origin, was given in derision to the Spanish “Grande y Felicísima Armada” (“the Grand and Most Fortuitous Armada”). In fact, during the Battle of Gravelines (August 8, 1588), no Spanish ship was sunk by the English. Rather, the very bad weather conditions, a few hours later, led to the sinking of several Spanish ships, forcing them to give up their plan to destroy the enemy naval forces. However, 87 ships out of 122, three quarters of the Spanish fleet, returned to Spain.

It is also not widely known that a year later, Queen Elizabeth I of England, in turn, sent an invading fleet against the Spanish king, and that this naval intervention also resulted in bitter failure. Commanded by Francis Drake and John Norreys, this “English Armada” had the triple mission of destroying the Spanish fleet on the Cantabrian coast, disembarking in Lisbon to stir up the population, and seize an island in the Azores. The operation, which took place from April 15 to July 10, 1589, ended in the rout of the Anglo-Dutch forces, which lost 40 ships out of 150, and 70% of their strength (nearly 13,000 men).

Of all the important events, which marked the war between the Spanish Empire and the Kingdom of England, it is however the epic of the Basque-Spanish admiral, Blas de Lezo, which has been forgotten the longest. This savior of the Spanish Empire, in Cartagena in 1741, has been paradoxically ignored by almost all historians for nearly two and a half centuries. It was only from the 2000s that we really started to take an interest in him and his brilliant tactics and innovation in weaponry.

From Young Officer To Severely Disabled

Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta was born on February 3, 1687, in Pasaia (Pasajes in Spanish) a port which, a few kilometers from San Sebastián, has the safest harbor of the Basque coast. It is from there that La Fayette set sail for America aboard La Victoire, on April 26, 1777, three years before the adventure of the Hermione, “frigate of freedom,” which brought the Marquis to join the American insurgents in the struggle for their independence.

Blas de Lezo’s career began very early. Barely a teenager, he became a sailor, like his ancestors and like so many of his compatriots from Gipúzkoa. At that time, Spain was plunged into a war of succession, which lasted from 1701 to 1713, and which saw the partisans of Archduke Charles III, from the House of Austria, clash with those of Philip V of Bourbon, the grandson of Louis XIV. During this war, dynastic solidarity led to the ranks and military charges of the army and navy of the Spanish Bourbons to be merged without distinction with those of the Bourbons in France.

Barely seventeen years old, Blas de Lezo was thus enlisted in the French squadron of the Count of Toulouse, Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon. While serving on the flagship, he took part in the important naval battle of Malaga (1704), which brought together the Franco-Spanish and Anglo-Dutch squadrons. During the fight, the young Blas was severely wounded in the left leg, which then had to be amputated below the knee. Reports from the time indicate that he remained stoic, impassive, during an operation which was then performed without anesthesia.

Brought back to health, he now had a peg-leg, and was soon given permission to set sail again, and we can follow him in Peñiscola, Valencia, Palermo and Genoa, then along the entire Mediterranean coast, and soon on the Atlantic coast.

Promoted to the rank of lieutenant in July 1707, he was assigned to the defense of the fortress of Saint Catherine of Toulon, where he fought against the forces of Prince Eugene of Savoy. But fate was cruel yet again – struck in the face by one of the countless shards of wood that a cannonball sent across the bridge, he lost his left eye. He was not a man to be discouraged and he now served as a lieutenant in the coast guard at the port of Rochefort. At twenty-five, he was promoted to captain of a frigate.

When the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, he commanded the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, one of the main ships in charge of securing the blockade of Barcelona. At the forefront of the fight, urging on his men, he received a musket ball on the right forearm. At 27, Blas de Lezo was one-eyed, one-armed and one-legged. His men and fellow combatants nickname him with affectionate irony, “Patapalo” (in Basque “Anka Mot,” wooden leg) or “mediohombre” (half-man).

Blas de Lezo then took command of the galleon Lanfranco, a ship that was part of the Franco-Spanish squadron tasked with fighting against the corsairs and pirates raging in the southern seas (off Peru). For twelve years, from 1716 to 1728, he was Commander-in-Chief of the South Seas Armada. Married in 1725 to Josefa Pacheco, a Peruvian Creole, he went on to have seven children. In recognition of his services, the king made him a member of the Order of the Holy Spirit and of the Golden Fleece, the two most prestigious chivalrous orders of the French and Spanish monarchies.

As leader of the Spanish Mediterranean squadron, in 1731, he supported the Infante Don Carlos (later Charles III) in his campaign to recover the Duchies of Parma and Piacenza. He then went to the port of Genoa to demand payment of a debt to Spain, before taking part in the Spanish expedition to retake Oran. In 1736 he was Commanding General of the galleons responsible for the Atlantic trade. A year later, he was appointed Commander General of Cartagena de Indias on the coast of present-day Colombia. This is where he carried out his toughest mission and achieved his greatest feat of arms.

Defending Spanish America Against England

In the 18th century, Cartagena de Indias was a thriving and prosperous city of 20,000 inhabitants. It is a port in a sheltered bay, where all the riches of the viceroyalties of America flowed. It was also a strategic point particularly coveted by the enemies of Spain. In London, complaints from shipowners and traders were mounting. The action of the Spanish Coast Guard, tasked with combating smuggling, was considered to be intolerable. Tensions mounted between the two crowns.

Taking advantage of a minor incident, the British tried to seize Cartagena and destabilize the Spanish Empire. The incident was the seizure, in 1731, of a British merchant ship commanded by Captain Robert Jenkins. Called to testify in parliament, Jenkins said that the Spanish captain, Juan de Leon Fandiño not only confiscated his cargo, but cut off his ear with a saber while threatening him: “Go and tell your king that if he dares to do what you did, I will do the same to him.” The incident was soon regarded as an offense to the crown and to national honor. In October 1739, the “Jenkins Ear War” was declared on Spain.

To “avenge the affront,” England began arming the largest fleet ever assembled. Placed under the orders of Admiral Edward Vernon, it included 186 ships, equipped with more than 2,000 guns and carrying 25,000 men, which was soon reinforced by 4,000 American militiamen, commanded by Lawrence Washington, the half-brother of George Washington, the future President of the United States.

Opposing them, Blas de Lezo’s forces seemed paltry, with only a very limited number of troops – less than 3,000 troops, some 600 Indian auxiliaries and members of the crews and infantry troops of 6 ships. But Admiral “Patapalo” had two strengths, however: his good knowledge of the terrain and the tropical, humid and very rainy climate. From May, swarms of mosquitoes dangerously increased the risk of an epidemic.

Entering the bay of Cartagena, by sea, is only possible through two narrow straits: the Bocachica (small-mouth) and the Bocagrande (large-mouth). The first was defended by the forts of San Luis and San José, and the second by the forts of San Sebastian, Santa Cruz, San Juan de Manzanillo, Santiago and the Castillo of San Felipe. To ensure the defense of the city, Blas de Lezo had chains stretched across the Bocachica and deployed the six ships he had at the two mouths. Orders were given to scuttle them before they fell into enemy hands, with the hope that the wrecks would delay their advance.

Before attacking, Vernon wasted precious time. He did not want to divide his forces and feared being taken from the rear by the French squadron of the Marquis and Vice-Admiral d’Antin. He seemed unaware that this squadron, usually stationed at the harbor of Saint-Domingue, had only twenty-two warships. When he learned that the French, weakened by tropical diseases and without sufficient supplies, had been forced to return to France, he hurried to take advantage.

One Against Ten

On March 15, 1741, the English fleet deployed in front of Cartagena. The disproportion of force was enormous: there was one defender for every ten attackers. The bombardment of the Spanish forts began immediately. Blas de Lezo, responded from his flagship, El Galicia. He did this by using cannonballs that he had chained two-by-two to maximize damage to enemy ships.

After an intense cannonade, Admiral Vernon landed a small part of his troops. The Spaniards fell back and abandoned two forts, that of San José and Santa Cruz. At the mouths, Blas de Lezo sank his ships and ordered a retreat. Two of these ships were also set on fire, but in vain, because the English managed to tow one of them, thus freeing the passage and opening access to the bay. The Spaniards had no other option but to entrench themselves in their last three forts.

The English flagship entered the bay, with its flags fully displayed. Convinced that the battle was over, Vernon began to celebrate his triumph. A frigate was immediately dispatched to England to announce the victory. In London, the news was received with joy and parties were organized to celebrate the hero. A commemorative medal was engraved read; it read: “Spanish pride humiliated by Vernon,” and it showed Blas de Lezo on his knees, handing his sword to the English admiral.

But in Cartagena, events took an unexpected turn. To put an end to the Spanish resistance, Vernon decided to attack the castle of San Felipe. Rather than suffering heavy losses by engaging in frontal combat, he preferred approaching the rear. His men were therefore forced to go through the jungle, which was not without risks. The operation turned out to be more difficult than expected and resulted in the illness and death of many men. But once his troops got behind the fortress, Vernon could finally give the order to assault.

Two times, the English attacked the 600 Spaniards. The first attack resulted in the death of 1,500 English deaths. Before the second attempt, Vernon had scaling ladders made. Then, on April 19, British forces attacked again, but a surprise awaited them. The ladders turned out to be too short to reach the top of the walls. Warned at the last minute by a spy, “Patapalo” had the idea to dig a pit around the walls to increase their height. After a bloody struggle, the attackers were once again pushed back. This episode was crucial to the morale of the defenders. The British made many more attempts, but all proved unsuccessful. The city was bombarded by cannons for long days, but without success.

After two months, on May 20, 1741, Admiral Vernon was forced to lift the siege and return to England. A yellow fever epidemic and food shortage had significantly weakened his troops and undermined their morale. The toll was heavy: the English lost nearly 8,000 men, and 26 of their ships were set on fire, sunk or seriously damaged.

In London, the truth about the Cartagena de Indias affair would long remain unknown. The English authorities banned publication of any news relating to the lost battle. Paradoxically, Blas de Lezo, the main protagonist of the siege, was never to be rewarded by the Spanish.

Ingratitude Of The Spanish

Blas de Lezo ‘s relations with the viceroy of New Granada, Sebastian de Eslava y Lagaza, a fifty-six-year-old Navarrese, commander of the region, had been poor throughout the siege. They become execrable after the departure of the English. Blas de Lezo was a strong supporter of taking the offense, at least when possible. Eslava, instead, advocated caution and favored the defensive. Less than ten days after the victory, the viceroy sent Madrid an extremely negative report on Lezo’s attitude, demanding that he be immediately relieved of his duties and recalled to Spain.

Admiral de Lezo, who was wounded during the siege, was deteriorating rapidly. Abandoned by everyone except his family and a few friends, he passed away on September 7 at the age of 52 and it is not known where he is buried. Ironically, a month and a half later, on October 21, his dismissal and the order to return to Spain were approved by King Charles III. Conversely, Viceroy Eslava returned to Spain, where he was covered with honors and glory. Promoted to Captain General of the Armies, then Director General of the Infantry, he was subsequently appointed Minister of War in 1754, a position he held until his death in 1759.

The eldest son of Blas de Lezo finally did obtain the full rehabilitation of his father, but only in 1760, a year after the death of Minister Eslava y Lagaza. The defender of Cartagena then received, posthumously, the title of Marquis d’Ovieco for himself and his descendants. Only the Royal Spanish Navy continued to honor the memory of Admiral Blas de Lezo in the centuries that followed, always naming a ship after him.

But it was not until 2014 that the memory of the admiral, victorious over the English, was publicly honored. Two monuments were erected, one in Cadiz, the other in Madrid, on Piazza Columbus, and today there are Blas de Lezo streets in a dozen cities in Spain (Valencia, Malaga, Alicante, Las Palmas, San Sebastián, Cadiz, Huelva, Fuengirola, Renteria, Irún, Pasaia and Madrid).

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

The image shows, “Admiral Blas de Lezo,” by an unknown painter, daited 1735.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila: An Authentic Reactionary’s Critique of Modernity

I.

The philosophical, political, and theological thought of Don Nicolás Gómez Dávila (Bogotá, 1913 – 1994), perhaps one of the few authentic reactionaries of our time, rises as a reaction – and a most authentic one – to an intellectual, religious and aesthetic crisis whose invariably dire consequences form the heart of his overwhelming critical discourse: That crisis is that of the twentieth-century, with all that it implies.

All of Dávila’s work is a serious and passionate attempt to root out some cursed codes that have upset the immutable essence of the human, down through the centuries (and, by extension, the essence of the divine). But at the same time, his work establishes a solid, intellectual alternative to the inanity of our present era.

Unfinished philosopher, or consistent thinker who renounced the fatuous pretense of getting on the pulpit of philosophical pontification, Dávila never finished – that is, in writing – a philosophical system properly speaking, if he even sought to make such a claim, which would not have ceased to be ironic in a thinker of his stature and clairvoyance, for there is nothing dogmatic or conclusive in his work, if read intelligently. It is simply lucid.

Like Nietzsche, like the best of Cioran, he resorted to the ingenious and flammable spark of the aphorism, capable of setting fire to the largest surface only with its friction. But instead of calling such outbreaks of genius aphorisms, he called them scholia (escolios), thus approaching Spinoza.

Though a thinker in fragments, Dávila offers, on the contrary, a philosophical discourse of absolute coherence and integrity, whose intellectual depth and paradoxical acuity is unparalleled among philosophers and thinkers in the area of contemporary Hispanicism (both in Spain and in Spanish America). His references, on the other hand, leave no room for doubt about the depth of thought that pervades his discourse: Thucydides, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne, Juan Donoso Cortés, Jacob Burkhardt, are some of his distinguished professed teachers.

A miniaturist of language rather than a writer, a thinker rather than a scholar, and an artist of words; better than a mere philosopher, Dávila exemplified, with his illustrious reactionary position, one of the most notable, coherent and fortunate examples of ethical, aesthetic dignity and, if you will, spiritual dignity to be remembered.

Ignored for decades, his silent and monastic life, removed from the madding crowd, from the petty intellectual environments, from the miserable academic trivialities, went far beyond such conventions – his repeated refusal to publish and rub shoulders with power; his greatness of mind and keen sense of duty towards one’s own self, led him to make of his existence a true aesthetic exercise, and that of an “authentic reactionary.”

Secluded in his mansion, within the walls of a fabulous library of thirty thousand volumes, he took advantage of being well-off and devoted his life entirely to the complex exercise of thought. The most visible result of such efforts was his magnum opus, recovered for our benefit today, thanks to the effort, it must be said, of people like Ernst Jünger, Botho Strauss or Franco Volpi, among other enthusiasts – and which, under the title of Escolios a un texto implícito (Scholia to an Implicit Text ), heralds one of the most prodigious, valuable and imperishable examples of the effort of human thought during the 20th-century.

If the “heart” of Dávila’s work is his Escolios, then the “brain” in his Textos – a strange but effective comparison: What the Escolios forcefully feel (the incendiary jolt of the aphorism), the Textos reason through (the discursive continuity of the prose). A satellite accessory for some, Textos I carries in its pages the “key” stone of construction; that is, the enigmatic implicit text, the standard of future battles. But that is how one of his best readers, Francisco Pizano de Brigard, saw this work – and as far as we are concerned, we will stick with this option, which is very well justified – for where else can we turn? To the Notes, those conclusive sketches? To the fragmentary Escolios, despite their fullness? Is it worth the redundancy, the fragmentariness? Or perhaps the marginal texts, such as, the article entitled “The Authentic Reactionary,” or the one entitled, “De jure,” which remains inaccessible? In the absence of an “obvious” philosophical text, or even that which is simply obvious, we will take the aforementioned implicit text as the starting point for our precarious, well-intentioned exposition. So, let’s get into the matter.

The first idea may seem simple to a reader wearied by established ideologies: Capitalism and communism have a similar goal in common. They are different masks that cover, therefore, the same face: The nature of man (displaced to the political realm). A broken dialogue, therefore, between two democracies, whose mimicry becomes a forced conflict: The bourgeois and the popular, eternal rivals: “If communism points out the economic contradictions (the alienation of man, abstract freedom, legal equality) of bourgeois societies – capitalism underlines, in parallel, the inefficiency of the economy, the totalitarian absorption of the individual, political slavery, the reestablishment of real inequality in communist societies.”

In effect, Dávila does not seem to take a position on either one side or the other, even though the biased reader may consider him prone “to the right, and even to the extreme right.” Big mistake: The author’s reactionary discourse, extremely lucid, and part of the contradiction that directs communism and capitalism towards supposedly antagonistic goals – when, in fact, their goal is the same: Property, an obstacle for the former, a stimulus for the latter, without assuming otherwise: Ownership after all.

Bourgeois ideologies and ideologies of the proletariat consequently rush towards the same common hope: Man – “If communism denounces the bourgeois fraud, and capitalism the communist deception, both are historical mutants of the democratic principle, both yearn for a society where man is, in short, lord of his destiny.”

The theological, political, cultural reading of Dávila thus ratifies democracy as an anthropotheistic religion; a theology of the man-god is thus categorized: “The divinity that democracy attributes to man is not a figure of rhetoric, a poetic image, an innocent hyperbole, in short – but a strict theological definition” – a theological definition inherent in the perverted nature of the modern, whose essential corruption is nothing but an unspeakable product of the fixed idea of the discourse of modernity: Progress.

Progress, which is theodicy of futuristic anthropotheism, otherwise justifies all the atrocities of man in the name of the progress of humanity. The process of progressive improvement cancels the time of man and restores the no-time of man-god. It is mechanistic and industrial orgy, which disrupts the useless human effort in the tedious transformation of matter. It is filthy monologue, which sacrifices perishable existences to its own ends in the name of the fixed idea, thus banishing the supreme value from itself, because as Dávila poetically affirms:

“Life is a value.
To live is to choose life.”

Consequently, it thus becomes a theory of values which rests on two filial concepts: Atheism and progress, in need of an adequately emphatic rhetoric to penetrate deep among their potential victims.

The mere play of matter thus implies a universal determinism whose product is none other than a rigid universe, emptied of all possibility, where the cult of technology is the verb of the man-god, the principle of the sovereignty of the modern state.

Even so, the democratic era, and with it, economic development that is inherent to it, has money as the only universal value, its first and last reason: “Money is the only universal value that the pure democrat abides by, because it symbolizes a useful piece of nature, and because its acquisition is assignable to human effort alone. The cult of work, with which man flatters himself, is the engine of the capitalist economy; and the disdain for hereditary wealth, for the traditional authority of a name, for the gratuitous gifts of intelligence or beauty, expresses the puritanism that condemns, with pride, what the effort of man does not grant itself.”

This terrifying fact degenerates, therefore, into economic robbery and petty individualism, generators of ethical indifference and intellectual anarchism that dominate the modern world.

Faced with such detritus, the only path that Dávila clings to is that of reactionary rebellion. His great work, Escolios, is about such a quixotic undertaking, an implicit text, putting into practice reactionary rebellion through his most powerful weapon: The word.

II.

Entering the immense garden of the Escolios – a Versailles on paper – is an arduous undertaking, although stimulating over time: Tasting its fruits, savoring them for the right time and extracting the nutritious pulp from them – that is, something that is not empty didacticism. But it will become a fruitful task of enlightened pleasure for the intelligent reader. In this sense, Scholia to an Implicit Text is a healthy elitist work, against the current, and very politically incorrect, aimed at reactionary minorities; or, failing that, at awakened minds whose thinking does not gravitate around the state of predetermined ideas.

But what an effort to synthesize – if something like that can even be done, to further synthesize the essence of the rose – would go far beyond the narrow margins that we have imposed on ourselves. Even so, Dávila’s thematic ambition transcends the heterogeneous and shapeless mélange, while advancing a compact mass, more or less consistent, and capable of standing up to a hypothetical attempt at analysis.

But as we say, it is that thematic ambition, that looking from various points of view through a gaze that is neither Manichean nor tendentious, which allows its author to carry out, in a subtle and distanced way, the most brilliant critical x-ray of modernity: Democracy, the nature of the politician, the essence of communism, the Marxist problematic, the Left and the Right, technology, liberalism, the idea of progress, life and death in modern society, art and literature, God and religion, the modern Church, culture, atheism, the bourgeoisie, the work of the historian, intelligence, youth, mediocrity, sex, Sade, Plato or Nietzsche, as well as the privileged figure of the reactionary, among many other philosophical questions of the first order appear and reappear like recurring milestones, closely linked to each other by a fine chain of ideas. Such accumulation, on the contrary, does not degenerate into a string of tedious evidence of a graphomaniac charlatan, but rather into a disturbing problem not without acute paradoxes. This makes Scholia to an Implicit Text a river-like book, always in motion, capable of tackling a profound (in the real sense of the word) question anywhere, without betraying its ultimate meaning.

Of course, one of the most violent and effective criticisms, which is not really effective, despite its abrupt reiteration, is that carried out against democracy, a democracy understood not in the abstract, but empirically in the light of facts, and therefore as fraud, as effective apotheosis of the dominant mediocrity: “The bigger a democratic country, the more mediocre its rulers have to be: They are elected by more people.” And these mass rulers are none other than politicians, obviously: “Politicians, in democracy, are the condensers of imbecility.” Imbecility inherent in the crowds themselves and the basis of the politician’s explicit speech: “The democrat only respects the opinion that a large choir applauds.”

This unquestionable statement the author rethinks throughout his discourse, with historical considerations: “Democratic killings belong to the logic of the system. The ancient massacres of man’s illogism;” and from this, the following scholium: “Democracy celebrates the cult of humanity on a pyramid of skulls.” Recently updated pyramid: A concert-tribute to the victims of terrorism? A commemorative statue for a certain defender of democracy? In the name of democracy… But what exactly does democracy play out, play at?

Dávila does not hesitate to point with his pen to the main subject, a subject annihilated at the root: The stupid or the insane, depending on the times: “Democracy, in times of peace, has no more fervent supporter than the stupid, nor in times of revolution a collaborator more active than the madman.” And to give consistency to his thesis, Dávila only has to look to the past: “Athenian democracy does not inspire, except those who ignore the Greek historians.” The colossal figure of Thucydides, once again, strides forth to meet him.

In the midst of this abject masquerade that is modern democracy, the parodic figure of the politician is reduced to his most apt, creeping position: “The politician may not be able to think any stupidity, but he is always capable of saying it,” because ultimately , even “the ‘politician’ with the most delicate conscience barely manages to be a modest whore.”

An impassive critic of both the right and the left, as a genuine reactionary, Dávila throws some of his sharpest, sarcastic darts at the left: “The leftist miraculously avoids stepping on the calluses of the authentically powerful. The leftist only vilifies the simulacra of power.” Dávila concludes that in any case “leftism is the banner under which the bourgeois mentality of the nineteenth-century maintains its hegemony into the twentieth.” But, in the end, “the left and the right have signed, against the reactionary, a secret pact of perpetual aggression.”

The critique of democracy thus finds a point of equilibrium in the critique of Marxism, whose illustrious exposition, once again, clings to historical-economic reasons, drawn even from the most prosaic daily life: “Marxists economically define the bourgeoisie, to hide from us that they belong to the bourgeoisie.” But his criticism does not end in the petty contradictions of the mundane, since as a current of thought, “Marxism did not take a seat in the history of philosophy thanks to its philosophical teachings, but thanks to its political successes.” Only a certain exception is allowed with the very promoter of the pseudoscience of yore: “Marx has been the only Marxist that Marxism did not abominate.”

After these brilliant meanderings, the reactionary attack on modern society manifests everywhere, like a constant leitmotif, a kind of insect – of an invertebrate idea – that never ceases to whine behind Dávila’s ear, even within the walls of his aristocratic library, there where he feels farthest from that despicable and sordid society composed of a violently homogeneous mob: “The anonymity of the modern city is as intolerable as the familiarity of current customs. Life should resemble a room of well-educated people, where everyone knows each other but where no one embraces.” The very product of that crude and democratic society, “the modern man tries to elaborate with lust, violence and vileness, the innocence of a hellish paradise.”

It is not necessary to illustrate it – it is enough to open our eyes and look around us to confirm what has been said, since it is true that “modern society has been progressively reduced to whirlpools of animals in heat,” while the two poles of the modern life are clearly business and sex. And in the midst of such nonsense, “recent generations circulate among the rubble of Western culture like caravans of Japanese tourists through the ruins of Palmyra;” mere dots. Such a terrifying and accurate panorama duly crystallizes into one of the author’s greatest scholium: “Modern society does not educate to live but to serve.”

In midst of such a desert of skulls, a mass grave where everyone fits but no one actually belongs – and that, and nothing else, is democracy in the long run – there is nothing left for man but to die gracefully. Here are truly authentic reactionary words: “When everyone wants to be something, it is only decent to be nothing.”

José Antonio Bielsa Arbiol is a writer, art historian and graduate in philosophy. His work has appeared in many media outlets.

This article appears courtesy of El Correo de España. It originally in two parts, in Spanish. Translation by N. Dass.

The image shows Poem of the Soul, 18, Reality by Louis Janmot.

Indeed, Let Us Apologize

It is not a good argument (and if we cannot offer another) to simply reject the recurring and very dire accusations about the Conquest of the Americas, by saying that the current Hispanic Americans are the descendants of conquerors and settlers of the 16th- and 17th-centuries. It is escapist and leads to a contradiction: If we do not acknowledge the bad, we will not be able to fully claim the good. And, by way of global analysis, there was a lot of good.

Thus, assuming “the account of grievances,” as the grandson of a Santanderian likes to say, and if it is a matter of proven historical facts, rather than demagogic talking points, we would like to offer the Mexican president something to really chew on. Why scold him like any other father might when he hears a spoiled child let loose some impertinence. Therefore, let us accept that ours is a more moral than genetic responsibility, as successors to the nation called Spain.

Therefore:

We apologize that in 1536 Fr. Juan de Zumárraga founded the College for children of Aztec nobles, paid for by Viceroy Mendoza. The institution was known as Colegio Imperial de Sta. Cruz de Tlatelolco. In it, worked Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún and Fr. Andrés de Olmos, and this College was replicated in Tepozotlán, Puebla, Guadalajara, Valladolid (Morelia), Texcoco.

Also, we apologize because in 1536, Zumárraga established the first printing press on the continent, in a building that still exists, near the Zócalo.

Likewise, we apologize for founding the University of Mexico, in 1551, under Royal Patronage and which followed the model of Salamanca and Alcalá, with studies in Philosophy, the Arts, Theology, Law, Medicine.

And we apologize for giving you Fr. Cervantes de Salazar – professor of Rhetoric in Mexico and author of México en 1554. Crónica de la Nueva España. Túmulo imperial de la gran ciudad de México – in which he brought to you the thought of Luis Vives, the great humanist.

And we apologize for the very gracious attempt by Vasco de Quiroga, Bishop of Michoacán, to establish Thomas More’s utopia, which still survives, like the olive trees, now hundreds of years old, that he planted in Tzin-Tzun-Tzan; the towns he founded to welcome and promote the Indians; and that wonderful altarpiece in the church of Tupátaro, from the 18th-century, indigenous coffered ceiling, square. with ocher and white arcades.

And we apologize for developing livestock, agriculture and mining, which brought about the rise of urban classes that, together with the clergy and the vice-regal bureaucracy, promoted the great public works and construction. And these they are still there, despite the deterioration – Mexico, Morelia, Puebla, Pátzcuaro, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Querétaro, San Miguel Allende, Veracruz – and which surpass Toledo, Madrid or Seville. In the 17th-century, Mexico City, being now a great economic pole, was home to more inhabitants than Paris, London or Rome. And in Mexico are found four of the most important works of the Baroque: The tabernacle of the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Jesuit College of Tepozotlán, the convent of Santa Rosa in Querétaro, and the parish church of Sta. Prisca in Taxco.

And we apologize for the greatest work of ethnography and archaeology of our 16th-century, in three languages (Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl), La Historia Universal de las cosas de Nueva España by Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún.

We apologize for the great Mexican scholar, Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora; for Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz; for Juan Ruiz de Alarcón from Taxco; for the book-poem by Bernardo de Valbuena, Grandeza mexicana (1604), where he establishes the “Story” of art, letters and prosperity of the city, visible, for example, in the Casa de Comedias by D. Francisco León (from 1597) in which three companies operated.

And we apologize for the Mercurio Volante (1693), the first newspaper in Latin America, (in 1737 it would be followed by La Gaceta de México); and for the Mexican School of Mining (1792), where worked Fausto de Elhúyar, the discoverer of tungsten, and Andrés del Río, the discoverer of vanadium. And there is no space to “relate” the admiration that the country aroused in Humboldt at that time.

And we apologize because the population of the viceroyalty of New Spain (almost six million), in 1776, doubled that of the English colonies of North America because of the economic, technical and cultural development in New Spain exceeded that of the English in all these areas.

So, draw your conclusions about this past that you do not want to remember and which you so carefully hide. Otherwise, it would be necessary to take responsibility for what has happened since 1821, and not place blame on distant conquerors. For example, instead of crying for the umpteenth time over Cholula, call out by name, General Jesús González Ortega, a good liberal, who in 1857 plundered the cathedral of Zacatecas, or who in the same city (in 1862) handed over the convent of San Agustín to the Presbyterians, who razed it to the ground.

We apologize for having instituted Nahuatl and Otomi as common languages for evangelization, which enlarged their role and rank, as well as their extension to lands that were previously alien to them.

Also, we apologize for having had a king (Philip II) who, opposed the calls of advisors and viceroys to exclusively impose Castilian, and instead agreed with the friars (who wanted to limit contact with the indigenous people) and favored missionary work to be only in the local languages (Royal Cedula 1565 to the bishops of New Spain), and who even issued this command: “It does not seem advisable to urge them to leave their native language…. Do not provide the parishes with priests who do not know the language of the Indians” (1596). And this was the case until the end of the 18th-century, when in view of the notable problems that multilingualism presented (in the diocese of Oaxaca alone, there were sixteen aboriginal languages) that the Mexican bishops, Fabián and Fuero from Puebla, Alvarez Abreu from Oaxaca and Lorenzana from Mexico, obtained the Royal Cedula of Aranjuez (May 1770).

We apologize for having been the main players in the global knowledge of the planet, facilitating the interrelation between its various parts, with the Discovery of the New World and with the first circumnavigation of the Globe and establishing communication between the various empires and nations of America that were previously completely isolated.

And, finally, we apologize for enjoying a mole poblano, a pozole taxqueño, some chilaquiles and a chilpachole of crab, although afterwards, given our Spanish stomach – we have to head to the hospital.

But we do not apologize for the disasters in which the triumphant creoles, in their independence, immersed their countries, by breaking the entire vice-regal commercial and administrative systems, to become cacique-holders of millions of square kilometers.

That is enough apologizing for today.

Serafin Fanjul of the Royal Academy of History, and Professor Emeritus at CEU San Pablo University.

Translated from the Spanish by N. Dass.

The image shows a portrait of Antonio Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain, dated 1535, by an unknown painter.

The Chaco War

Paraguay, it turns out, owes much to Russia. Thanks largely to a few dozen Russian officers, the country emerged victorious in an almost unwinnable war, and doubled its territory in the process.

The Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay was the bloodiest conflict in Latin America, in which well-over 100,000 lives were lost. It was also the first air-war fought in South America. It is a war little remembered now. A key role in the hostilities was played by Russian and German émigré officers on the two warring sides. It was, in effect, a continuation of WWI on another continent.

For decades, Paraguay and Bolivia had bickered over the vast region of Gran Chaco. Both considered it as its own, yet neither risked an open confrontation. That was until 1928, when geologists claimed that this sparsely populated, impassable territory could be a source of oil.

Asuncion and La Paz (the administrative capital of Bolivia) were soon at each other’s throats. And oil companies added literal fuel to the metaphorical fire. The sworn enemies Standard Oil (a U.S. company supporting Bolivia) and Royal-Dutch Shell (an Anglo-Dutch company backing Paraguay) saw great prospects in Gran Chaco.

The first clash occurred between a Paraguayan cavalry detachment and Bolivian police in August 1928. All-out war was prevented only through the intervention of the League of Nations. Four years later, however, the organization was powerless to do anything. On June 15, 1932, the Bolivian army launched a surprise attack on Paraguayan outposts in the disputed territory.

Tiny Paraguay seemed to have little hope against the far mightier Bolivia. Not only was the latter’s manpower 3.5 times larger, but just 60 years previously Paraguay had endured a brutal war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, which claimed the lives of up to 70% of its male population.

Moreover, the Bolivian armed forces had three times as much air power and an overwhelming advantage in terms of armored vehicles. The Paraguayans could not field a single armored vehicle against the Vickers Mk E light tanks and Carden Lloyd VI tankettes of Bolivia. Only in respect of artillery guns was a certain parity maintained.

In this dire situation, only a miracle could save the country, and one duly arrived in the form of several dozen Russian officers who had left their homeland after the Russian Civil War and found a new home across the ocean.

One of the émigré officers, Lieutenant General Nikolai Stogov, wrote: “There seems not to be a single area of military affairs that our Russian émigré officers in Paraguay have not contributed to in terms of know-how and experience.”

Even before the conflict began, realizing the invaluable experience of the Russian officers, Paraguay’s leadership actively engaged them in modernizing both the armed forces and the country as a whole. “Russian émigrés were a boon to Paraguay, which needed to restore its shaky economy. Bridges, roads, administrative buildings, barracks, etc. all started to be built. The country gradually came to life thanks to the help of Russian technical personnel,” said Russian architect Georges Benois, who visited Asuncion in the 1920s.

It was Russian advisers who insisted on adopting the Danish Madsen machine gun, which the Tsarist cavalry had used in WWI. It was far more effective and reliable than the Chauchat machine gun, which the French military mission gave the Paraguayans.

Thanks to the Russians, in 1932, Paraguay created its first cavalry division. In this regard, it outpaced Bolivia, where such a formation appeared only two years later. The Paraguayan cavalry was trained to carry out blitz raids on the enemy rear, and Major Nikolai Korsakov even translated Russian cavalry songs into Spanish to instill military spirit.

Meanwhile, 120 German officers had settled in Bolivia and were now serving in the national army, which had been remodeled along German lines and dressed in the uniform of the Reichswehr. WWI veteran officer Hans Kundt was appointed commander-in-chief, arrogantly asserting that he would easily deal with the Russians (meaning the Paraguayan army).

At that time, 86 Russian émigrés were serving in the ranks of the Paraguayan armed forces. Despite their small number, most were officers with invaluable combat experience, and almost all proved their considerable worth in their respective area of expertise.

Having completed 13 reconnaissance trips to Gran Chaco, General Ivan Belyaev had vast experience as both a cartographer of the region and an artilleryman. And as the head of the cartographic unit of the General Staff and adviser to the Paraguayan president, he was heavily involved in planning the offensive and defensive operations of the Paraguayan army.

Thanks to the deciphering of the Bolivian military codes at the very start of the war by the head of Paraguay’s military intelligence, Nikolai Ern, and Captain Sergei Kern, the Paraguayan military secured an invaluable advantage. They often knew about the enemy’s intentions before the Bolivian troops had even received their orders.

A major role in the organization of the Paraguayan air defenses was played by aviator Captain Sergei Schetinin. Through his efforts, Bolivian aviation became far more potent. On his advice, the Paraguayans created dummy artillery, which the Bolivian planes wastefully bombarded.

The culmination of the Bolivian-Paraguayan (as well as Russian-German) Chaco War was the second battle of Nanawa (a suburb of Asuncion) in July 1933. In this operation, Kundt concentrated 6,000 of his Bolivian men against 3,600 Paraguayans.

Under the cover of German-crewed tanks, led by a detachment of flamethrowers, the Bolivians advanced on the Paraguayan army’s positions. Thanks to the solid defenses set up by the Russian military experts (fortified areas equipped with mortars and machine guns, surrounded by minefields and barbed wire), eight enemy attacks were repelled, followed by a successful counterattack. The Bolivian army lost several tanks and around 2,000 men, against Paraguayan losses of just 448. Shortly after the failed operation, Kundt was removed from his post.

The following year, after several major victories, Paraguay finally gained the strategic upper hand. When its armed forces entered Bolivia, the latter turned to the League of Nations for assistance in concluding a peace.
Under the 1935 peace treaty, Paraguay received most of Gran Chaco, which almost doubled its territory. In an evil twist of irony, oil was discovered in the valley only 77 years later, in 2012.

The Paraguayans praised the Russian officers for their vital role in the Chaco War. The future president of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, who had served under General Stepan Vysokolyan, had deep respect for both his commander and the entire Russian officer corps, calling them “people of honor.”

After the war, many of these Russian émigrés received all kinds of awards, were proclaimed national heroes, and occupied high positions in the country. To this day, six streets in Asuncion are named after the six Russian officers who were killed in the Chaco War.

How Ivan Belyaev Became Juan Belaieff (1875–1957)

Belyaev lost everything in his homeland after the Bolshevik revolution, so he moved to Latin America, chasing his childhood dreams – and became Juan Belaieff, Paraguay’s national hero.

Imagine your country just had a terrible civil war and the side you fought for lost. Your land is occupied by communists who killed your friends; you have nothing and are forced out to foreign lands. What would you do?

That’s the question all the officers and soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik White Army had to answer in the 1920s, after losing in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. Some settled down in Europe or the U.S., becoming successful bourgeois. Those less successful had to work as butlers or taxi drivers; some succumbed to alcoholism or committed suicide.

But General Ivan Timofeevich Belyaev (better known as Juan Belaieff), a hero of World War I and old-school Russian imperial officer, had a far more impressive and adventurous fate than any other emigre. He moved to Paraguay and tried to build a second home for Russian émigrés there, at the same time studying the South American Indians and becoming their hero. How so?

“My fate was decided by a completely minor event,” Belyaev wrote in his autobiography, Notes of a Russian Exile. “As a child, having a stroll with my aunt in St. Petersburg, I noticed a small book at a book market, with a picture of an Indian, named The Last of the Mohicans.”

After reading that adventure novel and many other, far more serious, stories, touching upon customs and civilization of American Indians, little Belyaev completely fell in love with this theme, becoming interested in Indians for the rest of his life. “Each night I was praying for my Indians,” he recalled of his childhood. Yet, it would take several decades and Russia’s national disaster to make Belyaev actually meet Indians.
He had another career ahead of him – born to a family where all men were in military service, Belyaev became an artillerist and devotedly served Russia.

By the time World War I began in 1914, Belyaev held a rank of colonel. When hearing the news that Russia had declared war on Austro-Hungary and Germany, he reacted simply: “Long live Russia, death to her enemies!” and headed to the front to fight.

“Artillery is a mother of a child who got sick,” he used to say. “We are to watch our infantry close, listen to its pulse, being always ready to help it.” Loved by his soldiers, Belyaev was a classic Russian officer of his time, conservative and brave.

At war, the colonel survived many dangers, but once – only by chance. A bullet came through his chest but didn’t reach his spine or guts. Wounded Belyaev was transferred to a hospital near Petrograd, where he met Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and was promoted to general. After recovery, Belyaev headed back to the front-line.

In his memoirs, Belyaev admitted that despite the bravery and efforts of the Russian army, by 1917, Russia was too exhausted with the war, losing its best sons. “The last of the decent drowned in a sea of blood, the last impulse to fight burned out,” he wrote. The chaos of revolutions made Russian people turn their weapons against each other – at first Belyaev refused to fight against Russians but then his monarchist views prevail.

The White Army lost the war. In the 1920s, Belyaev, as well as many other soldiers and officers, sailed away from the shores of Russia. Along with his family, he moved to Europe, but didn’t stay there either. He decided to find a new home in Latin America.

In the 1920s, Russian émigrés in Paris could find a strange Russian-language newspaper called Paraguay, published in France by Belyaev. Each issue read on the front page: “Europe failed the Russian hope. Paraguay is a country to build a future in.” The general called on his compatriots to go to Paraguay and help him to, basically, build a new small Russia there. As for him, he had already been living in Paraguay since 1924, and was known as, Juan Belaieff.

Why Paraguay? Even by Latin America’s standards, that poor and underpopulated country was hardly a popular destination – but that’s why the local authorities welcomed immigration. Ever since losing the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870 to the alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay remained weak and lacked military force – and inviting some Russian officers was a good option for the government.

Belaieff, along with 12 other White Army officers, entered Paraguayan military service in 1924, joining the General Staff. His interests, however, lied beyond just military – in Paraguay he became a scientist.

Belaieff led 13 expeditions to the Gran Chaco, a vast area in West Paraguay populated by indigenous Maká people. “They spoke their own languages and hardly communicated with the other Paraguayans,” historian Boris Martynov, author of Russian Paraguay, notes. Belaieff, fascinated by Indians since his childhood, immediately established close ties with them, helping with supplies and clothes, studying their ancient culture, opening schools and even theaters.

Paradoxically, the Russian officer became a bridge uniting the Maká with their more-Westernized compatriots. The Indians adored Belaieff, calling him the ‘White Father’.

Even though he enjoyed his communication with the Maká, Belaieff had bigger plans. “I’d like to find a corner where everything sacred that created eternal holy Russia could be preserved, as Noah’s Ark did during the flood until better times,” he recalled. With his help, several Russian settlements were founded in Paraguay, but Russian migration to the country didn’t become widespread, and internal conflicts condemned the idea of some kind of “new Russia” in Latin America.

Though disappointed, Belaieff considered Paraguay his second home and, along with many Russian officers, gladly supported it in the Chaco war of 1932-1935, when neighboring Bolivia attacked Paraguay. Wounded and infected with malaria, Belaieff could have died a dozen times – but he survived and his side, though outnumbered, prevailed, with the help of the Maká, who were loyal to Belaieff.

He never returned to Russia, living out the rest of his long life in Paraguay. When he died, the Maká transported his body to their area and kept it in a mausoleum, worshipping the spirit of the White Father as a deity. A fellow Russian émigré officer in Paraguay said to a friend about Belaieff: “We, perhaps, will be forgotten after we die, but not him.”

Boris Egorov and Oleg Yegorov write for Russia Beyond.

The image shows a colored drawing of a military telephone depot, by Juan Belaieff, dated 1935.