“We want to make the story as clear as possible”

My first thought when I saw this headline on the splashy, full-page story in the Arts section of the Sunday Union-Tribune was:

“The Rise of Spain” – on the backs of how many?

Spanish soldiers were called “conquistadors,” which means “conquerors.”  The native people in the Americas were no match for Spain’s superior weaponry, diseases – and greed.

This was the San Diego Museum of Art announcing its new exhibition, “Art & Empire:  The Golden Age of Spain.”

My next thought:

“Golden Age” – for whom?

Certainly not for hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in South America, Central America, North America and elsewhere.

People the Spanish conquered, stole from, enslaved, raped, murdered, infected with diseases, and ultimately, in some areas, destroyed.

“Golden Age,” my ass.

I read the extensive article, curious to see what spin the museum put on glorifying Spain’s “Golden Age.”

To the newspaper reporter’s credit, she addressed this issue in the second paragraph:

Spanish_America cropped
Spain’s colonization of the Americas (in red).

“…the Spanish Golden Age, when Spain laid claim to land around the world, including vast swaths of North and South America, parts of Italy and the Netherlands, as well as the Philippines.  Spain’s global expansion that began around 1500 brought a shift in the world order with the conquest of land, the subjugation of people and the demise of many societies.”

But then came…the “but.”

“But there was also a broadening of culture that led to a brilliant era in the arts, producing what are still considered among the finest works of art in history.”

So, what are we saying here?  That “conquest,” “subjugation” and “demise” are fine, as long as we got some paintings along the way?

I read on.

“The Spanish empire marked the first major globalization in history.”

gold bars cropped
A fleet of Spanish ships transporting treasure from the Americas to Spain sank off the coast of Florida in 1622.  Nearly 400 years later some of that treasure was recovered, including jewels, precious stones, silver coins, and 39 of these gold bars; total value today:   $387,000,000.


I think the correct word is “colonization.”  Because that was Spain’s goal:  To colonize as much of the New World as possible for the purpose of expanding its territory, filling its coffers with gold, silver and other treasure, and converting the “savages” to Catholicism – for their own good, of course.

And if this meant eliminating the native people who objected to being colonized and converted, well – it was all in the name of God.

Further along the article says,

“A gold cross with pearls and four large emeralds tells the story of conquest and conversion.  The four emeralds were mined in Colombia before the Spanish arrived and would have been used in jewelry.”

That’s a way of saying, “The native Colombians mined the emeralds and owned them.”

“After the arrival of the Spanish, the gems were incorporated…”

Wait.  Stop right there.  “Incorporated”?  You mean stolen, don’t you?

“…incorporated into a diminutive four-inch cross, made for a crown for a statue of the Virgin Mary.”

So the Spanish stole the emeralds, put them into a cross, and that made everything OK?


potosi cropped
Emeralds and gold weren’t the only treasures “incorporated” by the Spanish during the “Golden Age.”  In the silver mines of South America, both enslaved natives and Africans produced as much as 100,000 metric tons of silver between 1500 and 1800.  One of the most famous South American mines was in Bolivia on the mountain of Potosí, where the average working life of a miner was six to eight years.

One of the exhibition’s five section is entitled “Splendors of Daily Life,” and I suspect this was not referring to the “splendors” in the daily lives of the people Spain was conquering and killing.

Velazques kitchen-maid-with-the-supper-at-emmaus-diego-velazquez-1618-a4113044
The exhibition includes this painting by Diego Velázquez, “Kitchen Maid With the Supper at Emmaus,” 1619-1620.  Was the kitchen maid contemplating the “splendors of her daily life”?

The article winds down with the quote I used in my title from the museum’s executive director, Roxana Velásquez:  “We want to make the story as clear as possible.”

OK – let’s “make the story as clear as possible” about Spain’s “Golden Age.”

The Spanish Conquest of the Americas:  This began in 1497 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean and continued for three centuries.  The Spanish Empire would expand across the Caribbean Islands, half of South America, most of Central America and much of North America including present day Mexico, Florida, and the Southwestern and Pacific Coastal region of the U.S.

The indigenous population plummeted by an estimated 80% in the first century and a half following Columbus’s voyages, primarily through the spread of diseases.

The native populations were also decimated by superior Spanish technology and weaponry:

Mexico, 1521:  Historians estimate that between 100,000 and 240,000 Aztec warriors and civilians were killed during the three months that Hernán Cortés laid siege to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.

The Spanish Inquisition:  Over these same three centuries, beginning in 1478, these same fine folks were conducting the Spanish Inquisition, “to purify Catholicism in all their territories.”

spanish inquisition
Circa 1500, a prisoner undergoing one of many forms of torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.  A monk in the background waits for his confession with quill and paper.

This “purification” included torture and execution, with a death toll estimated at tens of thousands of “heretics.”

California:  In 1769 another great land grab began under order of the Spanish king.  Sea and land expeditions departed Mexico for what would become California, meeting in San Diego where the first fort and mission were established to serve as frontier outposts.  The King sent military troops and Franciscan missionaries to the new land to colonize the territory and convert its indigenous inhabitants to Catholicism.

Twenty-one missions were established between San Diego and Sonoma, mainly built by native populations under the threat of whippings and imprisonment and, according to one visitor in 1786, “whose state at present scarcely differs from that of the negro inhabitants [slaves] of our colonies.”

california missions
Indigenous people strike back:  Attacking and killing Franciscan Padre Luis Jayme in 1775 at Mission San Diego de Alcalá.  The Franciscans’ treatment of the natives included whippings, torture, imprisonment, and many also died of European diseases.

In the 65 years between establishment of the missions in 1769 and their secularization by the Mexican government in 1834, more than 37,000 California Indians died at the missions.  Around 15,000 of those deaths were due to epidemics aided by the missions’ crowded conditions, while a significant number of the rest succumbed to starvation, overwork, or mistreatment.

Estimates place the pre-Spanish coastal native Californian population between 133,000 and 300,000.  By 1890, thanks in a large part to Spain, it had fallen to under 17,000.

Transatlantic Slave Trade:  As busy as the Spanish were, from the 1500s to the 1800s they still found time to capture an estimated half-million people from Africa and transport them, primarily to Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America.  Those that survived the horrible conditions on slave ships faced brutal lives of captivity, enforced labor, beatings, disease and death:

slave ship cropped
Spain’s “Golden Age” included enslaving and transporting a half-million Africans to plantations in the Caribbean and South America.

Now let’s return to present-day San Diego and the museum’s “Art & Empire:  The Golden Age of Spain.”

I’m sure visitors will flock to the exhibition, enamored by the works of Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, El Greco and others.

While they’re there, I hope they’ll spend an extra bit of time with the weary young woman – “The Kitchen Maid” – and remember that for many, Spain’s “Golden Age…”

Was not so golden for so many.

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