Archive for March, 2019

Review: The Golden Empire

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

The Golden Empire is the second volume in Hugh Thomas’s history of the Spanish Empire in America following on Rivers of Gold. The style, balance and sourcing remain strong.

Thomas continues to place the colorful Europeans in the context of the expanding Spanish Empire begun in Rivers. These are large-as-life folks who come to the new world for as many motivations as they are people modulo a selection bias for enough courage to challenge a comparative wilderness.

He pays less attention to specific Mayans and Mexica, though my impression is that this is more due to fewer sources of information than excessive Euro-centricism. When he has sources, he brings the indigenous folks to life as well. Of course, I’m new to the history of the region and I’m not a member of the indigenous. Take me with a kilo of salt on this.

Thomas places considerable emphasis on the Empire’s internal grappling with their duties toward the people they are taking the land from. Conquistadors are killing the people en masse, destroying their governance and culture, and taking their resources. Even with trans-Atlantic supply lines, these raids’ outcomes were never really in doubt. While I agree that decisions about how to treat the survivors is splitting a hair, understanding why slavery in South and Central America is materially different than in North America was compelling.

Spain was an aggressively Catholic Empire at the time, as the Inquisition and pogroms in the continental Spanish Empire demonstrate. The distinction in the Empire is between full people – Christians – and less-than-people is entirely based on embracing the religion. It is worth listening to the voices who argued that the indigenous people were humans who deserved to be saved. The arguments have practical aspects and repercussions. Slave trading is fantastically lucrative; many conquistadors are in it for the money. That Spain is willing to constrain enslaving natives and enforce it is remarkable. So is the fact that enforcement is spotty.

Thomas also points out that environmental and economic realities affected the nature of slavery and exploitation of South America. Unlike the North where (two centuries later) tobacco and cotton were both lucrative and labor intensive, the Spanish Empire focused on mining – gold, silver, copper – that is less labor intensive. The Spanish conquerors are less incentivized to enslave the locals or to import Africans.

They did do both, of course, but some amount of traditional serfdom also seems to prevail. I found it telling to see that evolution.


Review: Dear Los Angeles

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

Because I look at everything through the lens of 1980’s comic books, I see David Kipen’s Dear Los Angeles as Ozymandias‘s video wall turned on Los Angeles’s history.

Kipen accomplishes this by collecting and sequencing snippets of first-person letters and diary entries written in LA that span 1542 to 2018. Having sifted unguarded glimpses of the place from those sources he curates the collection by arranging them by on day of the year on which they were written. The resulting temporally unanchored panopticon synthesizes a unique view of the place.

There are myriad ways for this to fail, but I really enjoyed this literary kaleidoscope.