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A heir at any cost
Friday, December 2, 2022

Isabel of Castile’s youngest daughter, Catherine, was betrothed to Arthur, the Prince of Wales, the son and heir of Henry VII of England. The marriage had been arranged when Arthur was only three and Catharine two. It was a high-profile agreement between two nations designed to cement an alliance between Spain and England against France. The Treaty of Medina del Campo was a bold plan by Henry II Tudor, who had ousted the Plantagenet line at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and was worried about the many more rightful claimers to the throne of England still alive. Of the twenty six clauses in the treaty, seventeen covered economic trading deals and military agreements, only one was about the marriage, the rest were negotiated rights following the wedding. Catherine’s dowry was fixed at 200,000 crowns (Over £5 million pounds in present day values.) and both parties happily signed the contract. After this, things started to become more than a little silly.

 Cathrine of Aragon.

Arthur’s father was a great believer in the legend of King Arthur of the round table, and at that time legend had it that Worcester was where the fabled court of Camelot had been. He built a manor house there, and took his wife to have his child there, so that his son would be born in the same place that King Arthur ruled from. When she had a boy, Henry was overjoyed and called his son Arthur in anticipation of a golden future ahead for the child.


Before the children were of age a request was sent to the Pope for a dispensation to marry them even though they had never met, and were still far too young to be considered a husband and wife. The Pope duly sent his blessing and they were married by proxy in 1497 at Arthur's home, Tickenhill Manor near Worcester. Eleven year old Arthur was reported to have said to Roderigo de Puebla, the Spanish proxy for Catherine that “He much rejoiced to contract the marriage because of his deep and sincere love for the Princess.”

The young couple wrote to each other in the common language of Latin for four years until on the 20th September 1501 they were deemed old enough to live together. Arthur was 15 and Catherine was 14. Catherine arrived at Plymouth on the 2nd of October and a month later, the children met each other for the first time at Dogmersfield in Hampshire, and immediately discovered that they had been taught different forms of Latin and could not understand each other. Despite this setback, they eventually rode to London to be married.

On 14 November 1501, the marriage ceremony finally took place at Saint Paul's Cathedral; both Arthur and Catherine wore white satin and the ceremony was conducted by Henry Deane, Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by William Warham, Bishop of London. Following the ceremony, Arthur and Catherine left the Cathedral and headed for Baynard's Castle, where they were entertained by "the best voiced children of the King's chapel, who sang right sweetly with quaint harmony."

Arthur’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was a party to the next bout of insanity when Catherine was led away from the feast and undressed by her ladies-in-waiting. They veiled her and placed her in the nuptial bed, which had been sprinkled with holy water beforehand. Arthur was led in escorted by his gentlemen friends, to the accompaniment of viols and tabors, with no less a dignitary than the Bishop of London, who blessed the bed then led everybody from the room. In royal weddings, this was a not uncommon thing but this was probably the only public bedding recorded in Britain during the sixteenth century. Needless to say, the marriage was not consummated that night.

The following morning, the poor boy had to brag to all the courtiers of his prowess in bed. Whether the marriage was eventually consummated can only be known by the royal family, and later events would make the falsification of Catherine’s virginity highly desirable. The couple took up residence in Ludlow Castle in Shropshire where they both fell ill with the sweating sickness, a contagious disease that first appeared in 1485 and spread throughout England and Europe. The symptoms appeared rapidly and often caused death within hours. It effected rural areas the worst, and unlike other epidemics, spiked quickly before disappearing. Catherine survived the chills, body pains debilitating weakness and fever, but Arthur did not. He died on April 2 1502.

With his carefully laid plans in disarray, a heartbroken Henry VII now had to pass his title on to his second son, also named Henry. However, the trade treaty with Spain that a marriage to Catherine would bring was too important to lose. Catherine was now 17, but Prince Henry was only 11 years-old. To continue with the lunacy seemed reasonable, so Catherine was betrothed to little Henry. Catherine would need to be still a virgin in order to be married again, and she always claimed that she was. Isabel and Ferdinand were more than a little dubious of the marriage arrangements, but they feared the French, and an alliance with England was much desired, and so, the betrothal of Henry and Catherine went ahead.

Isabel knew all about the onerous duties of royalty from her own experience, and she had given Catherine advice and guidance. The two women corresponded continuously, but the loss of Juan had drained Isabel’s spirit. The constant wheeling and dealing with the fate of her family must have been a strain over the years and in November 1504, Queen Isabel died. She never saw Catherine crowned Queen of England, but for a while her other daughter, Joanna, became Queen of Castile with King Ferdinand as Governor and Administrator. Ferdinand was occupied with the growing discoveries and trade and with the new colonies in the Caribbean, and in April 1505 Columbus docked in Sanlúcar from his fourth and final voyage to discover that his patron was gone and he would have to deal with King Ferdinand or the unstable Joanna. He was still owed considerable money under the terms of his 1492 agreement, and he and his family were to sue the crown for payment for years to come.

Ferdinand married again to Germaine of Foix in March 1506 in the city of Valladolid where he had established his court, and a by now terminally ill Columbus followed him there on the back of a mule to continue with his demands. On 20 May 1506 Christopher Columbus died. In fourteen years he had transformed the world. But Queen Isabel’s legacy of change and expansion was still to be fulfilled, and so was Columbus’ belief in a westward route to China.

In 1509, five years after the death of Isabel, Henry VII died and Prince Henry became King Henry VIII, and the English crown was secure again. Twenty-five years-old Catherine married 19 years-old Henry. On June 15 of the same year, Catherine was crowned Queen of England alongside Henry in an extravagant joint coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. On their nuptial night Catherine discovered that Henry was nothing like his brother. Henry thought the now slightly plump Catherine was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. His ardour was unquenchable. Not unexpectedly, she was pregnant within a few weeks.

Bad luck dogged Catherine all her life. She was a noble queen and a loving wife, but she failed to give Henry the one thing he needed most. Her first child, a girl, was stillborn on Jan 31, 1510. She kept the almost painless birth a secret because Catherine’s abdomen was still large, and it was thought that there was another child within her. Henry knew, of course, and he and Catherine’s two ladies in waiting were sworn to secrecy. Finally, as her abdomen returned to normal, it was realised that there was no other child. Catherine’s confessor, Frey Diego, wrote to her father, King Ferdinand, the following May to tell him of the loss. There would be other pregnancies, but the only child to survive was a girl called Mary who was born on February 8, 1516. She would fight similar battles to her grandmother’s on English soil to claim her birthright as the Queen of England, but bad luck followed Mary as it did her mother, and her womb refused to produce a male child when she married Philip II of Spain. Had it done so, England would have returned to being a Catholic country and become a part of the greatest empire the world had ever seen, and Mary’s step-sister, Elizabeth, would never have become queen of England; how this would have affected world history is incalculable.

Catherine’s inability to produce a male child would bring a catastrophic change to England and the death of thousands. The genesis of this calamity lay in the hands of a German priest who was ordained in 1507. He became disillusioned with the Catholic Church and ten years later he nailed his proposals for its reform on the church door at All Saint’s Church along with several other churches around Wittenburg.  (This was an accepted way of inviting discussion within the church.)

The 95 theses of Lutherian reform.

He also published a sermon in German that all could read. At this time, the first printing presses were being used for posters and books, and Luther had his thoughts printed for publication. The sermon he printed can be read aloud in ten minutes, but it became a best seller with sixty thousand copies sold all over Christendom.


Luter pinning his thesis to the church door. Unknown artist.

The Church was furious, and Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, excommunicated Luther. He was escorted out of town, but friends intercepted the carriage, and he was spirited away to safety. By 1522, and still in hiding, Luther had translated the Bible into everyday German from Hebrew and Greek making it more accessible to the laity.

Henry VIII had been told about Luther’s bible and he was prompted to denounce it and back the Pope. Henry wrote his own book and had it published in which he re-affirmed the seven sacraments, or seven stages of the soul through life to heaven. The Pope was so pleased with Henry’s devotion that he granted him the title “Defender of the Faith,” a title which all British Kings or Queens still carry.

The printed works of Luther and Tyndale were being shipped clandestinely into England and Cardinal Wolsey ordered their collection and burning before the doors to the old St. Pauls Cathedral. The power of the Catholic Church in England was being undermined by the reproduction of a bible that all men could read. The clergy knew that real danger was that everybody could see that the Catholic Church had been distorting the true meaning of the faith for centuries.

Henry had been casting a roving eye around his court, and had his choice of young girls. Early that year, a young girl of 15 years came to take up a post as maid of honour waiting on his wife. Anne had a striking beauty and her sophisticated manners earned her many admirers at court. Although she resisted Henry VIII's advances, by 1533 Anne was pregnant to Henry. This is just what Henry had been waiting for. He appealed to Pope Clement VII for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne. The Pope was afraid to go against the will of Catherine's nephew, Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor, and refused his plea.

When she came to Henry’s court, Anne brought with her a book written and published in Antwerp by William Tyndale entitled “The Obedience of a Christen man, and how Christen rulers ought to govern.” Henry had condemned Tyndale and his Bible, but here was his pretty lover with a book that told Henry that Kings were accountable only to God and not the Pope. She had underlined the passages that she wanted Henry to read. When he had finished, he remarked that “This Book is for me and all kings to read.”  Henry had seen the lesson in Leviticus.  “And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.” He believed that by marrying his brother’s wife, Catherine, he had cursed himself to childlessness.

Catherine pleaded with Henry not to divorce her, saying that her marriage to his brother had never been consummated. With Anne pregnant with a possible male heir, Henry was backed into a corner. He made his decision and broke with the Catholic Church. He passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring that he was the head of the English Church and appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, who immediately annulled the marriage between Catherine and Henry and announced the wedding of Ann and Henry. In June 1533 Anne was crowned Queen of England in a lavish ceremony at Westminster.

The dynasty of Queen Isabel was not over yet, and already the religious world had been split down the middle, but the next century would see that her joining of León, Castile and Aragon into one kingdom would eventually raise Spain to superpower status.



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The fight to be Queen of Castile
Thursday, November 24, 2022

Enrique, king of … well, nothing, flew into a rage when he heard about the marriage of Isabel and Ferdinand. His seedy and devious advisors, chief of whom was Juan Pacheco, the Marquis of Villena, put Joanna forward as the rightful heir to the crown. In a breathtaking betrayal, the Archbishop of Toledo left Isabel’s court to unite with his great-nephew, Juan Pacheco, to support him with his claim. This foul crew were even more enraged when Isabel gave birth to a girl, whom she named Isabella after her mother, just over eleven months after the marriage. (2 Oct 1470) To the delight of the nobles of Castile, this was a much better alternative to the embarrassing Beltraneja who Enrique was proposing as heir. Tensions rose within the kingdom, and to defuse this situation, Isabel and Ferdinand met with Enrique to discuss matters in order to give him some measure of respect and reassurance of his royal lineage.

(So far, this account has seen at least two mysterious deaths and one suspected poisoning, but the twist that wins the prize happens now.) 

Shortly after the meeting with Isabel and Ferdinand, on the 1st October 1474, the thorn in everybody’s side, Juan Pacheco, died suddenly in Trujillo. His son, Diego, ingratiated himself with King Enrique and stepped into his dead father’s shoes, but six weeks after Pacheco died, King Enrique died on 11 December 1474, and on the 13th December 1474, Isabel was crowned undisputed Queen of Castile.  

You would think that this would be the end of Isabel’s worries, but no.

Diego Pacheco, backed by the Archbishop of Toledo, invited King Afonso V of Portugal (43 year-old uncle of Joanna) to marry the 13 year-old and invade Castile to take the throne from Isabel. Alfonso’s first wife had died in 1455, and to the king, this seemed like a reasonable offer at the time.

In May 1475, the Portuguese army crossed into Spain and advanced to Plasencia. Here Afonso married Joanna and began his campaign to take the Castilian crown. The war raged back and forth for almost a year until 1 March 1476, when the Battle of Toro took place, a battle in which both sides claimed victory, but neither won.

The armies fought each other to a standstill, and King Afonso was forced to retreat and regroup his forces. Ferdinand showed his genius by sending messengers out to all the cities of Castile and the nearby kingdoms that he had crushed the Portuguese in a great military victory. Overnight, support for Joanna collapsed.

To capitalise on the victory, Isabel convoked courts in Segovia in 1476, where her eldest child, Isabella was proclaimed as heiress to the crown of Castile, thus legitimising and strengthening her own claim to the throne. Later the same year, inspired by her husband’s successes in battle, Isabel led an army against an uprising in Segovia while Ferdinand was fighting elsewhere. She successfully negotiated a peace deal with the rebels, much to the surprise of her military advisors. The nobles of the kingdoms were watching events, and they realised that Isabel was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

He had to defuse this dispute to ensure Christian stability in a Europe that was beset in the east a new order. Several diverse principalities of Anatolia had unified by 1453 to become the Ottoman Empire, and led by Mehmed the Conqueror, had ended the old Roman Byzantine Empire by taking Constantinople in 1454, and then advancing into Europe by taking the Balkans. They had closed all trade routes by sea and land to the orient. This represented a huge financial loss to all Christendom and a threat to the Catholic Church.  

This is where the wheeling and dealing started.

Pope Sixtus IV now stepped in to end the dispute over Castilian succession. To avoid further bloodshed and more costly wars, Isabel and Ferdinand were urged to sign a treaty with King Afonso and his son, Prince John of Portugal. The involvement of one of his bishops in the double-dealing between kingdoms, to say nothing of the forging of papal signatures, must have angered him more than a little.

The treaty of Alcáçovas

The treaty that the pope offered had five parts:

The first part was an agreement by both sides to abandon all claims on each other’s thrones.

The second part was to grant Portugal exclusive rights to all Atlantic trade.

The third part was about the fate of Joanna, who had been an innocent pawn in all of this. The pope annulled her marriage with King Afonso on the grounds that she was too closely related to him, (consanguinity) and rendered her ineligible for either crown.

The forth part was a contract to marry Isabel’s daughter, Isabella, to Afonso, the son of Prince John of Portugal.

The final part was to pardon all the Castilian supporters of Joanna.

The Treaty of Alcáçovas, as it became known, was signed by both sides on September 4, 1479.

It was not a very fair treaty as far as Castile was concerned, but Isabel and Ferdinand were backed into a corner. Granting Portugal the exclusive right of navigation and commerce in all of the Atlantic Ocean south of the Canary Islands meant that España was practically blocked out of the Atlantic and deprived of any share in the gold of Guinea. This created unrest among Andalusia’s nobles, who feared that they had bought peace at too high a price and had restricted their expansion into the Atlantic.

It was not all loss to the Catholic family, on 30 June 1478 Isabel further secured her place as ruler with the birth of her son, John, Prince of Asturias, and in 1479, Ferdinand’s father died and he became King of Aragon joining the kingdoms of Aragon, Castile and León into a united country.

Meanwhile, law and order had broken down in the kingdoms, and robber bands made normal trade and commerce difficult. Isabel and Ferdinand created a militia whose sole purpose was to police their kingdoms and eliminate the bandits. She gradually gained more control of the economy, and stability returned, but España was desperately poor.  

With Atlantic maritime trade thwarted by Portugal, and Mediterranean trade with the east blocked by the Ottoman Empire, Isabel turned her eyes to the south, where a large part of Iberia was still ruled by the Moors whose caliph Muhammad XII oversaw rich farmlands from his capitol in Granada. They had gold and jewels in abundance, and were probably still trading with the east.

In 750, the Galicians had been the first to force the occupying Muslims from their lands in the northernmost tip of Iberia, and the Reconquista had been raging ever since. The first crusade was started on November 27, 1095 by Pope Urban II when he gave a sermon outside the Cathedral at Clermont, Auvergne, urging the nobles to unite and liberate Jerusalem. The Holy wars were in reality organised raids to collect as much booty as the Christian invaders could take from the Moors. A noble religious cause was just a good excuse for daylight armed robbery. This had been going on for 729 years when Isabel began planning the final campaign to drive the Moors from Iberia.

It took twelve years, with Christian troops advancing a little more each year. During this campaign Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba rose to prominence and became Isabel’s most trusted general. A masterful strategist and tactician, Córdoba constantly refined the army of España, gaining himself the unofficial title of El Gran Capitan. His training brought the troops under his command to a new level of efficacy not seen since Roman times. He trained his men in the use of pikes as a defence against the dreaded jinetes, the much feared Moorish cavalry, and he was one of the first Europeans to introduce specialised regiments trained in the use firearms onto the battlefield. His visionary training made the Spanish army the dominant force in Europe for more than a century and a half. Isabel rewarded him by making him Duke of Santiángelo in 1497.

But it was in the final capitulation of the Moors at the Alhambra palace in Granada in 1492 that brought Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba to the forefront. It was he who negotiated the final surrender terms with Caliph Muhammad. Gonzalo spoke Arabic fluently and was highly respected by both sides as an honourable man who would deal fairly with the Moors. King Ferdinand had little respect for the outgoing Moors and as soon as he entered the palace he removed everything of value. But the greatest treasure of Moorish civilisation was in their philosophy, medicine and science, and this was to be found in the libraries which were abandoned when they left. Ferdinand made a show of emptying the libraries and publicly burning all the books.

Worse was to follow. Intolerance of anything Islamic had begun to grow into intolerance of anything not Catholic. Tens of thousands of Moors had been forced to convert to Catholicism during the reconquest though many had retained their Islamic faith and worked in society as doctors, lawyers and artisans. So had the Jews, but posters began to appear depicting Jews as necromancers with dark and evil rituals and a cancer was growing that the conversos were untrustworthy and secretly worshiping their own prophets. As early as 1478, while Ferdinand and Isabella were still consolidating their kingdom, they made formal application to the Pope for a tribunal of the Inquisition in Castile to investigate these and other suspicions. Moors and Jews had never had full equal rights within Christian lands and were taxed more than their Christian counterparts. This culminated in the Alhambra decree of 1492 issued by Isabel and Ferdinand requiring that all Jews convert to Catholicism or leave España. This edict would later be watered down in its severity, but for the Jews in España it was catastrophic, and the enforcement of the edict by over-zealous officials and the inflamed racist mobs who persecuted the Jews was close to genocide. All their possessions were seized and they were only allowed to take the clothes they stood in as they fled en mass. However, the booty collected was added to the almost empty coffers of the kingdom drained by ten years of constant warfare and the battles with her half-brother over the crown.

The gamble that she took to finance Columbus’ insane theory was small fry to the gambles that she was taking with the newly formed and victorious nation of España, but even though it brought huge dividends, it also brought the jealousy of King Manuel I of Portugal.

    King Manuel I of Portugal.

Isabel was acutely aware that she needed to cement trading ties with other countries, and her growing family was to be instrumental in securing an income for España. The Treaty of Alcáçovas obliged Isabel to marry her daughter, Isabella, to King Manuel of Portugal and Isabella became Queen of Portugal at the age of 27 in September 1497, but she only reigned as queen for a year before she died. Portugal had always been Castile’s rich neighbour and a family bond with King Manuel was crucial, so Isabel betrothed her third daughter, 15 years-old Maria, to be married to King Manuel to replace Isabella. It seems callous now, but to keep her country solvent, she needed peace, and time to make other connections.

Los Reys Catholicos, Museo del Prado.

Isabel’s pride and joy was her son Juan, who was to be her heir to the throne. He was married to the Archduchess Margaret of Austria, but tragedy struck when he became ill and died at the age of 19 in 1497 leaving no heir. Isabel took his death badly and never really recovered her spirit; her health began to deteriorate. That left Juanna, who became the female heir at the age of 18 and who was dutifully married to Philip the Handsome. From her infancy Juanna had been a problem child. She was given to tantrums and irrational behaviour that caused her mother, not the most tolerant of women, to use sometimes draconian methods to control her. However, once married, Isabel hoped that she would be somebody else’s problem. She was wrong.

Isabel and Ferdinand had achieved so much, but they are overshadowed in history by seemingly insignificant events whilst she was reforming España. Reluctantly agreeing to fund Columbus was one, but Queen Isabel would only see a small part of the revolution that her life brought to the world. Her least likely daughter, Catherine, would bring changes that would rock Christendom and cause a schism in the Christian faith that is still a problem now. It was not what she did that brought the changes, but rather something that she couldn’t do.  


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The Catholic Queen
Friday, November 18, 2022

Written history is mostly composed of the names of kings and queens and the wars that they got themselves into. Peppered with dates of their births and deaths, they lie silently on the pages of history books like gravestones in a cemetery. But every so often, the whole world is changed forever by a monarch whose strength and spirit transcends the dust of time. Queen Isabel of Castile was one such monarch. Before her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon, Hispaña was a disjointed union of often warring kingdoms. Powerful ducal family dynasties really controlled the power of the kings, and in turn, the kings and dukes all bowed to the pope and the Catholic Church.

Her path to the crown of Castile was itself a testament to the courage and resilience of Isabel. Her story begins when her father, King Juan II, was king of Castile. He was crowned in 1406 and he and his first wife, Maria de Aragon, produced four children before she died in 1445, but the only one to survive was a boy called Enrique.

 King Enrique of Castile

Enrique grew to manhood and was married to Blanca de Navarra, but after seven years, the marriage was still unconsummated, earning Enrique the unofficial title of “El Impotente.” This left his 42 year-old father with a problem. His close advisor and friend, Álvero de Luna, suggested that he remarry, and proposed 19 year-old Isabella of Portugal as a likely candidate to produce another male heir. They were married in July 22 1447, and Isabella duly gave birth to two children with King Juan, a girl, Isabel, and Alfonso, a boy. Had her step-brother, Enrique, produced a male heir, then Isabel would never have been born.

This is where the plotting began.

Before the ink was dry on the marriage documents, Álvero de Luna began to dominate the new queen and her husband, even to the point of trying to control their marital couplings. The young Isabella railed at this interference, and tried to convince King Juan to get rid of his closest and most-trusted advisor. During her confinement, there were bouts of sickness, and Isabella suspected that the evil Álvero was trying to poison her. On 22 April 1451, she gave birth to a daughter whom they named Isabel, but she knew she must find a way to eliminate the threat that Álvero de Luna posed to her and the life of her daughter.

Several years after Isabel and Juan’s wedding, De Luna made a fatal mistake. One of the nobles had openly defied him, and Álvero had him thrown from a high window to his death. Isabella badgered her husband to have him arrested for murder, and when the witnesses described what had happened, King Juan had no alternative but to order Álvero de Luna’s execution. With the threat to her life removed, Isabella faced a new problem as the health of her husband slowly deteriorated. She gave him a son, Alfonso, in November 1453, but by the following July, Juan was dead.

Enrique had seen the writing on the wall and petitioned the pope to annul the marriage with Blanca de Navarra. (Blanca was entirely happy with the annulment and went on to have two children with her next husband). He now needed a new wife and a son. He was crowned King of Castile in 1454, and the following year he was married to Joanna of Portugal. In 1462, they had a baby girl, (eight years after the wedding!) whom they named Joanna. Unfortunately, the noble families of Castile were highly suspicious of Enrique, and even more suspicious of his drinking partner and friend, Beltrán de la Cueva, who had been seen slipping into Joanna’s room so often that the whole court knew of the affair, and the rumour grew that Enrique was not the father of the girl.

Princess of Asturias is a title usually given to the heir to the Spanish crown. And when Enrique invited the nobles to come to the palace and swear allegiance to little Joanna, the new Princess of Asturias, they grudgingly obliged, but gave her the unflattering name of Beltraneja; a name that has stuck with her throughout Spanish history. The disquiet festered amongst the nobles, who finally persuaded him to grudgingly name his half-brother Alfonso as heir. Enrique had been led into a trap. The following year, the same nobles proclaimed11 year-old Alfonso as king, and Enrique had to fight to keep his crown.

Civil war broke out amongst the nobles, who were split into factions about who should rule Castile. Enrique was weak and was ruled by his advisors who were disliked by many of the populace as well as the nobles. Isabel was 13 by now and of marriageable age, and Enrique tried to use her as a pawn to placate the wayward nobles. He was advised to marry Isabel to Pedro Girón Acuña Pacheco, Master of the Order of Calatrava and brother to the King's favourite, Juan Pacheco. These were two of the most evil men in the kingdom, and Pedro was known as a drunken violent lout. Badgered by his nobles, and desperately short on money, he agreed. The lure was that Pedro, who was very rich, would pay into the impoverished royal treasury an enormous sum of money.

Isabel was aghast and prayed to God that the marriage would not come to pass. Her prayers were answered when Don Pedro suddenly fell ill and died while on his way to meet his fiancée. The civil war began anew and went on for another three years. Whilst the war raged on, young Alfonso died of unknown causes. Isabel had powerful, ruthless and devious followers amongst the nobles, and she realised that poisoning and murder might be a part of their strategy, even to the extent of killing her own brother.  Now there were only two choices for who would inherit the crown after Enrique; Joanna or Isabel.

The Toros de Guisando in Avila. Prehistoric sculptures that may have predated the Romans.

Isabel was front and centre in the battle to win the crown of Castile. Isabel had enough followers to defend her claim to the crown, and the dispute broke into open civil war again. Finally, Isabel and Enrique met at the Toros de Guisando in Ávila on 18 September 1468 and negotiated a truce which included agreeing to name Isabel as heiress to the throne and give her the title of Princess of Asturias. Many of the nobles wanted to have Isabel crowned immediately, but Isabel refused to be queen whilst Enrique was still alive. Enrique was still king, but only in name.

This was where the church became involved. The bishops called into doubt the validity of Enrique’s daughter Juana's lineage, and he desperately sought to marry her back into a royal family to regain her title. Meanwhile, Isabel had made herself the hottest, yet most dangerous woman in a boiling political stew of conflicting loyalties and alliances. Enrique and his nobles tried to marry her off in power deals with other kings, but she evaded all attempts at an arranged marriage and despite pressure from the nobles, she steadfastly refused to take the crown from her half-brother before he was dead.

The brother of the King of France and the King of Portugal paraded themselves before her, but she remained unmoved by them. The only candidate that Isabel had any interest in was the son of the King of Aragon. He had originally been betrothed to Isabel, but had been brushed aside by events. Aragon had just fought a war with France, and Isabel marrying into French royalty would be a disaster for the kingdom. The only problem was that Isabel and Ferdinand were second cousins, and the Church forbade their union because of the danger of inbreeding. Nevertheless, her advisors began negotiations for the wedding. Enrique had depleted the coffers of Castile with constant wars, and the main reason he was forced to sign the peace treaty of Guisando was a lack of money to continue fighting. Enrique tried to raise an army to contest the wedding, but found that his impoverished nobles refused to fund another war. Andalusia withdrew financial and military support making him virtually powerless to stop the wedding.

The secret wedding negotiations were not going well. To Ferdinand's dismay, Isabel was implacable about relinquishing her claim to the crown of Castile and she stipulated that the pre-nuptial agreement gave them equal power to rule over the kingdom. The deal was called “tanto monter, monter tanto” meaning that whoever rules, it comes out the same.

In a desperate attempt to block the marriage, Enrique took Isabel's mother away and kept her in isolation in the castle at Arévalo. Knowing that Isabel would follow her, he had conceived a plan that would imprison them both away from her advisors without the use of force. He could now lead her into a marriage with Luis, whose father had died and who had now become the King of France.

Isabel’s mother was deteriorating mentally and she suffered bouts of hallucinations an frequently could not recognise her own children. Alone, and in great danger, Isabel was constantly badgered to sign a marriage proposal from the French King. One of her trusted friends rode to rescue her, bringing a gift from the King of Aragon, a necklace of rubies and pearls. Isabel made up her mind in an instant and rode off with him, leaving her mother with her enemies.

So far, Isabel and Ferdinand had never met. The capitols of the two kingdoms were two hundred miles apart, and Enrique controlled the borders of Castile. Ferdinand disguised himself as a servant, and with two aides, passed over the border into Castile to meet with Isabel. To everybody’s delight, the two fell in love, and the wedding plans accelerated.  

Enrique's only hope of stopping the wedding now was through the Church. His spies had discovered the weak point in their plans. A papal bull had been drawn up by the previous pontiff, Pius II, allowing second cousins to marry, but he died before he could sign it. Through the bishop of Toledo, Isabel and Ferdinand had been petitioning his successor, Pope Paul II, to uphold the bull and give the marriage his blessing. The Pope refused, and the marriage of Isabel and Ferdinand was forbidden.

The nobles and the church realised that they had a winning team with Ferdinand and Isabel. Their marriage would stop the constant wars that were bankrupting their kingdom. Enrique was a total embarrassment, but putting him out of the battle for the crown would not be easy. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Bishop of Toledo, with the backing of the clergy, managed to obtain the old unsigned papal bull granting the second cousins the right to marry. He forged the dead pope’s signature on the bull and showed it to Isabel. Isabel and Ferdinand were delighted that they had the permission of the pope for their wedding, but Enrique’s spies also had friends in the clergy, and a letter was delivered to Isabel by one of her friends telling her of the deceit. Isabel was furious that her trusted advisors would lie to her and lead her into a trap. With great tact, they persuaded her that the pope would be led by events. If they married, then he would be forced to give his consent.

Isabel allowed her heart to rule her head, and in the greatest secrecy, Isabel had her mother and handmaiden friends brought to her side. They were all with her when she married Ferdinand at the Palacio de los Vivero in Valladolid on 19 October 1469.  

The true power over the kingdoms had now passed to Isabel, effectively uniting Castile, León and Aragon to form the basis for one state, which became the nascent country called after its ancient name of Hispania, and later changed to España. The united kingdoms still continued to govern themselves as separate entities, but the seeds had been sown for something greater.




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Black gold and white powder
Friday, October 7, 2022

Galicia’s countryside is a land of smallholders whose farms may be small, but whose farmhouses are large. Many still contain the horreró, a store for grains and maize, like a small chapel standing on stilts sometimes crowned with a cross. Manuel Rivas, a poet and novelist who writes in Galego once calculated that there were a million Galician cows – one for every three inhabitants. Mad cow disease coupled with reduced EU milk quotas have reduced that number, but the early twentieth-century politician, Daniel Castelaeo, stated that the cow, the fish and the tree are Galicia’s holy trinity.

It is here between the Atlantic and the mountains that the vineyards are for the Rias Biaxas white wines are. Fermented from the indigenous Albariño grape, the local climate is perfect for the variety and produces wines that are equal to those of the Loire and Rhine valleys. But the future of the northern regions is uncertain. Castilla, Galicia and León have more than 3,000 abandoned villages. The owners of the land have disappeared and records of ownership, which would have been patchy at best, are now gone forever. The old have moved to the towns to be nearer to hospitals and their children. The infrastructure of roads and transport that would have served the isolated villages is gone, and many of the roads are impassable. The ancient forests that once covered this land have returned to claim their long-denied heritage.

The west coast of Galicia from Vigo to Coruña is indented with sea lochs or rias which are ideal places to harvest the many varieties of shellfish which grow in the nutrient rich Atlantic waters. It’s here that gangs of women wearing gum-boots and carrying buckets comb the sand and rocks at low-tide collecting winkles, clams, cockles, scallops razor clams and oysters. Their families build the neat rows of bateas, trellisworks of timbers from which hang ropes that mussels cling to by their hundreds. Hanging from the rocky cliffs on the sides of the long rias are the much-prized goose barnacles, or percebes which cling like bunches of purple claws. They are collected by the percebeiros, men who risk life and limb to scale the cliffs and scrape them off the rock. Costal Gallagoes have always been fishermen, and they still are, but now their trawler fleets range the Atlantic from Argentina to Angola in their constant search to find enough fish for a fish-hungry nation. They trawl seas that others have given up as too dangerous, with the result that around 20 Galician fishermen are lost each year.

Cape Finisterre is probably only known to people who listen to the shipping forecast. It’s not the most-western point in Europe, that claim to fame goes to Cabo da Roca in Portugal, 450km. further south, but according to the Romans, it was the end of the known world. The oldest working Roman lighthouse is still lighting the way for ships at La Coruña. The Torre de Hercules was built in the second century and reformed in the eighteenth century. But Finisterre is a place that ancient sailors dreaded.

There is safe haven at La Coruña and at the naval shipyard and military base of El Ferrol del Caudillo, (Temporarily so named because it’s the birthplace of Franco) but for the many ships that turn east into the Bay of Biscay or south into the Atlantic at this very busy corner there is very real danger. The weather is notoriously unpredictable, and the rocky coast faces the full force of Atlantic storms. Any ship unlucky enough to make a navigational mistake or run into difficulties on this coast has little chance of rescue or assistance. North of Cape Finisterre the coast turns east and gains the grim name of Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death. A local historian, José Baña, has recorded some 200 shipwrecks and more than 3,000 dead between 1870 and 1987. The Royal Navy training ship, Serpent, with 170 boy sailors on board ran into a violent storm here in 1890, and all were lost except three of the boys. The only reminder of the tragedy is a lonely walled graveyard called the Cemetario de Los Ingleses on the cliffs above the rocks where they died. All along this coast are granite crosses to denote other ships lost within sight of land.

More than 40,000 merchant vessels round this point each year, 1,500 of which are oil tankers. Every decade or so one of the tankers gets into difficulties or goes aground, releasing its foul cargo into the sea to be smeared across Galicia’s coastline. Three of the world’s worst 20 tanker disasters happened here. The Urkuiola spilt 100,000 tons of crude oil in 1976; the Aegean Sea was forced onto the rocks beneath the Roman lighthouse at La Coruña in 1992 releasing 74,000 tons of oil. Then in 2002, the Prestige carrying 77,000 tons of heavy fuel oil broke its keel in a storm on the night of 13 November, and the people of the tiny coastal village of Muxia woke up to find the crippled tanker on their doorstep.

Rescue tugs arrived and got lines to the tanker and the crew were taken off. Meanwhile, the Juntas of Portugal, Asturias, and Cantabria were screaming at the tugs and each other over where to tow the crippled ship; none of them wanted oil on their beaches. Eventually they all agreed to tow the ship into the Atlantic far from their coasts and then south so that any oil spill would go to Africa. Their cynical logic being that the third world would lose nothing of value if its coastline and wildlife was destroyed by the foul black oil. Alas, it was not to be, 130 miles off Finisterre the Prestige broke in two and sank. The heavy fuel oil was supposed to solidify at low temperatures, and that is what the government had told everybody.  It didn’t, and most of the oil ended on the beaches of the Costa da Mort.

The damage to the ecology of the Costa da Morte was horrific. Coastal fishing was impossible and the thick oil covered the bateas and killed the mussels. The beaches were covered killing the native molluscs. Seabirds unlucky enough to land in the oil floated lifeless on the black tide and were washed up along the coast in their thousands. The government sent in the army, but took its time in arriving in person. Meanwhile, the television coverage of the carnage enraged the population of Galicia, and indeed the rest of Spain. Coachloads of volunteers turned up to clean up the mess, and the government donated masks and white overalls. Their fury at the scale of the damage to the coast erupted into a national protest with the slogan Nunca Mais, Never again!

The master of the Prestige, Captain Mangouras, was arrested on a charge that he did not comply with the Spanish request to re-start his engines and move away into the Atlantic, making sinking inevitable. He wanted to bring his ship into port and surround it with an anti-spill boom which would have contained the oil. The Prestige had set sail from St. Petersburg, Russia, and her previous captain, Esfraitos Kostazos, had resigned in protest at the poor state of the ship. The two sister-ships to the Prestige had been condemned for metal fatigue in their centre sections and scrapped. After the ensuing court case, Captain Mangouras was imprisoned for two years, and Spain was granted 1.5 billion euros in compensation. To commemorate the national effort to clean up the oil-spill and to re-affirm the call of Nunca Mais, a monument was erected on the headland within sight of the sanctuary of A Barca. The Prestige now lies at a depth of 3,000 meters, 30 miles from the coast and as of August 2003, the tonnage of  oil released stands at 63,000 tons; 80% of the Prestige’s cargo. The remainder is still in her tanks.

A memorial sculpture was erected close to the church to commemorate the huge effort by ordinary Spanish people to clean up the oil-spill and remind people that this must never be allowed to happen again.

There is a more sinister and terrible aspect of this part of Galicia that is perhaps worse than oil-spills and it owes its origins to the thousands of emigrants who left Galicia for South America. The coastline of Galicia is perfect for smuggling, and until the 1980’s this was a harmless trade, even a little romantic. For the most part, the Civil Guard looked the other way as tobacco, alcohol and sometimes even white goods and televisions would be unloaded from trawlers or merchant shipping offshore onto smaller, faster boats, which landed the goods on the many isolated beaches of the rias.

This changed when the Colombian cocaine cartels made use of the family connections between Galicians who lived in Colombia and their relatives who still lived in Galicia. The network was already there; it just needed beefing up with some heavy muscle and big money. Typically, two men would book into a hotel in one of the port towns like Villagarcia along the coast. They would share the same room, but that was not because they were gay; one was an armed bodyguard for the other. They bought large houses in the country and fast boats which they moored in the harbour. New businesses would appear which never seemed to have clients, and the fast boats only went out to sea at night. The drug wars to establish routes, links and corrupt officials, which were common in Colombia, began to seep into the Galician cities. The bodies of young men with gunshot wounds began to appear on the streets. Soon the cartels became known and infamous; the Charlines, the Oubiñas, Prado Bugallo, and Sito Miñanco. The cartel bosses rarely put in an appearance, and the drugs arrive by a tortuous route that is difficult to unravel, let alone prove in court. Somewhere off Cape Verde, the drugs are offloaded from merchant vessels or private yachts and transferred to trawlers which have no discernable routes or destinations. The trawlers eventually pass close to the Galician coast and are met by high-speed inflatable RIBs driven by Galician planeadoras, who take the drugs to isolated beaches where they are picked up and taken by road to secure houses in the campo. The drugs are left there for Colombian distributers to pick up.  It is they who have arranged devious overland transport to cities all across Europe where they distribute it to their dealers. In just two decades, they have made Galicia the main gateway for cocaine to enter Europe.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Galicia, and to a lesser extent the rest of Spain, tied with Mexico in the league tables of sheer tonnage of cocaine captured by the police each year. Only the United States and Colombia consistently beat them. Every year more than 44,000 kilos of cocaine are seized, which at around 40 euros a gram (2006 prices), adds up to 1.76 billion euros. The Spanish police are only too well aware that this represents about half of the total traffic, with at least as much again reaching the streets of Europe. The Galician cut, as facilitators in this trade, is around 25%, giving the local economy something like 660 million euros bonus annually. As one Spanish customs official explained to the press: “We are not the tip of the iceberg as we once thought. We are the iceberg!” The Spanish are Europe’s biggest cocaine consumers along with the British, with one in fifty admitting to have used cocaine recently. Meanwhile, cocaine accounts for half of the victims in the drugs related death-rate league tables for both counties.

 Much of the above was taken from The Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlet. The rest was from Wikipedia.

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The end of the world
Friday, September 30, 2022

Galicia is not mainstream Spain. It has always been separate as an older, less cosmopolitan, part of the Iberian Peninsula. For centuries Galicia was a byword for poverty and emigration, and its heritage granted it an equal status to Catalonia or the Basque country as a fringe society, but there has never been any argument in that Galicia one was amongst true Spaniards. They were probably here first; right after the end of the last Ice-Age. The rest of Spain has been overrun by many invaders whose feet first trod the earth in far distant lands, and whose mix of bloodlines has diluted the ancient Spanish recipe, but the invaders rarely spent much time in this far corner of Europe.

The castros of Santa Trega.

Part of Galicia’s economy then was based on iron and gold mines in the area and from fishing and harvesting the abundant shellfish in the many inlets or rias. Their Iron-Age settlements, now called castros, are scattered across the landscape of the north western corner of Spain. There are around five thousand castros in Galicia on hilltops and promontories, and many of these settlements are still being excavated by archaeologists.

Inhabited from around the 6th century BC, the oldest were built entirely of straw and mud, with later ones constructed in stone. Their roofs were made of cut poles and straw with compacted mud as filler. Pathways and streets between the houses were rarely straight, but curved or circular around the buildings These were fortified villages where outlying farmers or herders could retreat to in times of war and they were protected by pits and parapets with sometimes a torreón guarding the entrance.  The castros were not isolated settlements, and were placed strategically near to rivers and arable land or on the border between low and high grazing pastures. Significantly, they were constructed to be within sight of other nearby castros so that warning signal fires could be seen in emergencies.

Their peak occupation was between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC. The Romans overran Galicia as they did most of the rest of Europe. However, that was not the end of the original Galicians. When the Romans left they re-emerged only to be briefly invaded again and suffer under the rule of the Moors until 740 when they were expelled from Galicia. From then on, apart from some brief periods of independence, Galicia was always ruled by the kings of Asturias, León or Castile, and its ancient language swept aside by Castilian. For five centuries, Galago was considered inculta, or uncultured.

Now the ancient language is undergoing resurgence with 83% of the population being able to speak it fluently as a second language. Compared with just 16% of Basques who speak euskara daily; this has been a quiet revolution for Galicia.

Their folklore goes back beyond Christianity to a time when other lesser demons roamed the world. There are no people in Spain more religious than Galicians, but although they go to church, they are traditionally very superstitious and have a pantheon of horrors lurking in the shadows. Meigas and Brujas abound, (good and bad witches) and mysterious beings called mouros, who hide treasure beneath the abandoned Iron-Age castros. Death, the afterlife and purgatory predominate in the legends, and there is supposedly a band of tortured souls called the Santa Compaña who are trapped in purgatory and who roam the country roads seeking a way to redeem their souls. The bestiary is at least as large as the lost souls group, and some of them are real. It includes lobishomos (werewolves) and mouchas, melodic owl-like creatures whose call announces an imminent death. The fishermen also have their own demons to face in the form of nereidas, beautiful but deceptively evil women of the sea.

However, many of the wolves are real, and have survived in freedom well into the twentieth century. A new plan to re-wild the forests of Asturias and Castilla-León has resulted in an eco-overspill into Galicia, and their numbers there are believed to be in excess of 500, with a total number for Northern Spain of around 2,000. Wolves have been a very real danger to humans in the past, and near the town of Berdoias there is a stone cross on a rock where, as legend has it, a pilgrim monk on his way to Santiago de Compostela was cornered and devoured by a pack.

There are places of mystery in Galicia, the history of which only the silent stones can tell. Built on a promontory jutting out into the ria de Camerinas, the remote Santuario da Virxe da Barca has attracted thousands of pilgrims as part of the Camino de Santiago. Originally a pre-Christian Celtic shrine, the ancient people who worshipped here resisted the conversion of Spain to Catholicism until the 12th century. To them, the strange concave slabs of rock called pedras, that surround the hermitage had both names and magical powers. The Christians originally built a hermitage here, and later, in the 17th century, the church. After the conversion to Catholicism, the mystery that surrounds the stones became New Testament and not pagan, and the pedras at A Barca were claimed to be the remains of a stone boat that brought the Virgin Mary here to encourage St. James with the evangelisation of Spain. The legends do not make it clear whether this was the same stone boat that brought St. James’ remains to Santiago or another, but there is a small harbour and village nearby called Muxia which may have been the landing point. The stones are displayed around the church like the outdoor exhibition of a surrealist sculptor, and I am not suggesting divine comment on the stones or the church, but the church was destroyed by lightning on December 25, 2013 and has since been restored.

The Pedra de Ablar can be rocked if sufficient people stand in a certain place on its surface, and has in the past provided yes-no answers to important questions.

Pedra de  Cadris

The Pedra de Cadris has a low, wide opening eroded through it, and people with suffering with kidney, back pains or rheumatism scramble through it hoping for a cure. Eighteenth-century Catholic priests tuned a blind eye to this paganism, but when couples were copulating openly on the Pedra de Namorados stone that was deemed to have powers of fertility they campaigned to put a stop to it.

 Certainly the Galician character has endured the centuries. One of the more well-known Galician characteristics is retranca, a devious refusal to let others know what you are thinking or doing. If you ask a Galician his opinion he will say Depande … (that depends). A Spanish saying illustrates this characteristic with the observation that if you meet a Galician on a staircase it is impossible to tell if he is going up or down. The confusion is compounded with the official adoption of Galego for the road signs. Galicia’s unmarked county roads will wind through aldeas (hamlets), which are governed by concellos (councils) with sometimes different ecclesiastical parroquias (parishes) and finally lugares, which seem to be the same thing as aldeas. On the next level up, there are four Galician provincias, which are divided into a dozen or so comarcas, which sometimes share the same name with one of the smaller subdivisions. This all leads to more confusion for an outsider who sees the same name repeated for different places. Even the Galego-Castilian dictionaries cannot agree on the meanings of words, and many visiting Spanish come away with the sneaking suspicion that they have been lied to, or worse, made fun of. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the confusing road signs are a joke played on all non-Galicians.

Strangely, half of the place names in Spain are Galician. Galicia has 25,000 of them, but the names excel in beauty as well as numbers. There are Galician valleys called Silence, Sea, Love and Gold, and towns with names like Pin, Goo, Zoo and Bra, but also ominous names like The Mouth of Hell and Sacred Peak. On the border with Portugal is a forest which bears the beautiful name of A Fraga de Escuro Vermello, The Deep Red Forest.

Most Galicians like to believe that they have Celtic origins, but the philosopher Miguel Unamuno wrote in 1911 that this was the result of: “self-interested tinkering with history by nineteenth-century Galician Romantics.” The truth is that the pre-Roman Galicians certainly had trading ties with Brittany, Ireland and other Celtic areas, and modern genetic research shows a shared gene-pool of the European  Atlantic countries, including Galicia and the Basques. There is even an ancient pre-eleventh-century Gaelic text called the Lebhar Gabhala (The Book of the Invasions) which claims that Ireland was once invaded and overrun by the Galicians. This improbable army was called “The Sons of Mil” and according to the legend, they conquered all of Ireland in a single day. Whatever the truth is does not matter, the fable is intertwined with modern reality and Vigo’s football club is called Celta de Vigo. At the foot of the above mentioned old Roman lighthouse, the Tower of Hercules, lies a huge round modern mosaic, the rosa de los vientos , a huge wind compass carries the symbols for the world’s Celts including Irish, Cornish and Bretons, and bagpipe players here are as common here as in Scotland.

Sculpture of Rodriguez Castelao

Before the Spanish Civil War, Galicia was well on the way to becoming autonomous from Spain when Rodriguez Castelao, the father of Galician nationalism, and one of the founders and president of the Galicianist Republican Party presented the results of a referendum for the Galician Statute of Autonomy which had been approved by 98% of Galician voters. He travelled widely to gain support for the Spanish Republic against the Nationalists led by Franco. Finally, in 1946 he was appointed as the Minister of the Spanish Republican government in exile in Paris, but a year later he was diagnosed with lung cancer in Buenos Aires and died there in 1950 at the hospital Centro Gallego.

Castelao once wrote: the Galician does not protest, he emigrates, but Castelao was not the only Galician forced to emigrate to the New World. During the nineteenth century Galicia was reduced to abject poverty and an estimated 900,000 left for the Americas. Another million emigrated during the 20th century, when boys as young as twelve were shipped off, most of whom could neither read nor write. Some survived and even prospered, but they never forgot their homeland. In Latin America today those of Spanish origin are still called Gallegos.

For those who remained, life in the famine became unendurable, and in 1853 Rosalia de Castro, who was a child at the time, remembered the sight of hungry masses begging for food in her home town of Santiago de Compostela. Her husband, the writer Manuel Murgia, wrote that the scenes were repeated in 1880 when: “the inhabitants of Luago ate grass”.  Poor, desperate and easily exploited, the rest of Spain treated the Gallagoes with contempt for centuries. Their only virtue was considered to be a strong back and an obedient attitude. Mariano José de Larra, a nineteenth century Madrid commentator, wrote: The Galician is a very similar animal to a man, invented to relieve the ass.

For those who did escape to a new life in the Americas life was still hard, but not cruel, and a group of them who had emigrated to Cuba formed a charity to fund school building in the small pueblo of Santo Tome; their home town. Situated in a beautiful valley named with typical Galician eloquence, El Valle de Oro, the villagers will confess that there was probably not a single family that did not have a relative in Cuba, but not every emigrant prospered or even survived. The stark truth is that the biggest Galician graveyard is the Cristóbal Colón cemetery in Havana.

Nevertheless, the Valle de Oro charity gave money for schools with the encouraging words that:“Esquela que se abre,celda de carcel cierra”.  (For every school that opens, a prison cell closes) and there are photographs of the returned émigrés  in suits with their hair neat and oiled alongside the peasants dressed in their thick woollen trousers and collarless shirts with their buttons done up to the top. Those who return from Cuba to spend the final part of their life in their home village invariably can afford the larger houses in the village. A sign of their Cuban status and affluence is to plant a palm tree in the garden. Strangely, unlike the Basque countries or Catalonia, only one in thirty of present-day Galicans wants a separate state.  

To be continued. Much of the above was taken from The Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlet. The rest was from Wikipedia.

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Spain’s connection with Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee.
Friday, June 3, 2022

Having just watched the celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, I remembered something that I read some time ago. There have been many ties and conflicts between British kings and queens and the royalty of Spain over the centuries, but this is a very incorruptible and noble one.  

Antonio de Ulloa was born in Seville, Spain in January 1716. His father, Bernardo de Ulloa, was noted for his writings on economics, and his brother, Fernando, would become an engineer and the chief of works of the Canal de Castilla, a 207 km. long canal that runs through Burgos, Palencia and Valladolid. His family were outstanding and highly respected both in an aristocratic and intellectual context.

In 1729, thirteen-year-old Antonio embarked on the galleon San Luis in Cádiz, bound for the port of Cartagena de Indias in present-day Colombia. The young man was impressed by the seafaring life, and upon his return in 1733, he enrolled in the Real Compañía de Guardias Marinas (the Spanish Naval Academy) at the age of 17.

Longer voyages made it essential that ocean-going sailing ships needed to be able to accurately navigate a course on what was clearly a sphere. Straight lines were not straight, but curved in three dimensions, and drawing accurate flat charts a nightmare for cartographers.

There was an on-going battle of theories at the time: Descartes’ model, in which the earth was like a rugby ball with the poles further from the centre than the equator, and the Newtonian model, with the earth flattened at the poles. Newton published his Principia in which he calculated that the earth was an oblate spheroid with a flattening at the poles equal to 1/230th of the diameter at the equator.

To settle the argument, in 1735, the French Academy of Sciences organised two scientific expeditions. One to Quito, in present-day Ecuador, to measure the length of a degree of meridian arc at the equator. The other, to Lapland in the Arctic Circle, to measure a degree of arc there. They had already measured a degree of latitude in France, and now they needed to do the same in different parts of the globe and compare the three.

 Antonio de Ulloa

Ulloa, and another young naval officer, Jorge Juan de Santacilia, were appointed by the Spanish Crown to accompany the French Geodesic Mission to Quito. This was by no means an easy posting. To make the observations the scientists would have to cut their way through dense jungle and climb mountains from whose peaks they would take the measurements. It did not help when the first leader chosen for the expedition spent a large part of the money allocated for provisions on a diamond for his wife.

 Jorge Juan de Santacilia

The expedition soon became bogged down in a plethora of problems. The first and most frequent problem was money, or rather the lack of it. Nobody had anticipated the problems of transport in the area they needed to cover, or the merciless corruption that existed within the Spanish government of Ecuador, who were supposed to give every assistance to the expedition. Another problem was the time it took to painstakingly set up the complicated instruments used to make the measurements. The members of the team argued frequently, but they managed to make the required observations, only to find that after two years work they had taken erroneous star sightings when setting up the equipment and the measurements were invalid. It took six month’s work to re-calibrate the instruments and re-take the measurements.

Things went from bad to worse in 1737 when Charles Marie de La Condamine, the leader of the French funded expedition complained bitterly to the president of the Real Audiencia de Quito, Joseph de Araujo y Río. As fellow Spaniards, Ulloa and Juan had been acting as go-betweens for the French, but Araujo ordered their arrest and announced his intention to have them murdered. The two men took refuge in a church, before escaping through the cordon of Araujo's men. They made their way to the coast and obtained passage on a Spanish boat going to Lima, Peru, where they gained the protection of the Viceroy of Peru, the Marquis of Villagarcía. Ulloa and Juan’s adventures were not over yet. Whilst they were in Lima waiting for a ship to return to Spain, war broke out between the Spanish and the British, and as officers in the Spanish navy, they were obliged to defend Peru.

The origins of the war, now known as The War of Jenkins' Ear, took place seven years earlier in 1731 when a Spanish patrol boat, La Isabela, part of La guarda costa, stopped and boarded the British brig Rebecca off the coast of Cuba. The Spanish captain, Juan de León Fandiño, accused the captain of the British ship, Robert Jenkins, of smuggling sugar. In an attempt to obtain more information about the illegal trade of the British, Fandiño tortured Jenkins and cut off one of his ears. Fandiño told Jenkins, "Go, and tell your King that I will do the same, if he dares to do the same." Seven years later, in March 1738, Jenkins was ordered to testify before Parliament, presumably to repeat his story before a committee of the House of Commons. As proof of the incident, he brought his severed ear. This incident, when considered alongside other cases of "Spanish Depredations upon the British Subjects", was considered an insult to Britain's honour and a clear and just cause for war. The war began in earnest in 1739 when the Royal Navy under Admiral Vernon sailed for the West Indies. On 22 October, British ships attacked La Guaira and Puerto Cabello, principal ports of the Province of Venezuela and Britain formally declared war on 23 October 1739.

The war was pretty much over by 1742, but was officially ended in 1748. Meanwhile, the conflict had hardly touched Ulloa and Juan. Though they had taken part in some very minor skirmishes, they had been allowed a free hand to do pretty much as they liked. Ulloa and Juan travelled extensively around Peru making many astronomic, natural, and social observations from 1736 to 1744. Meanwhile, the final results of French Geodesic Mission were published by La Condamine in 1745. These, combined with the measurements of meridian arc in Lapland near the Arctic Circle that had been published in 1738 by Pierre Louis Maupertuis decisively vindicated the predictions first made by Isaac Newton.

Now free to return home to Spain, Ulloa and Jorge Juan packed their samples and volumes of notes and prepared to sail in 1745. They decided to return on separate ships to minimize the danger of losing all their work if one ship was lost. Unfortunately the ship that Ulloa was travelling on was captured by the Royal Navy, and he was taken to England as a prisoner of war. Ulloa’s work had not gone unnoticed and he was visited and befriended in prison by other scientists. When he explained his work over the last ten years, Martin Folkes, the President of the Royal Society, stepped in and obtained his release. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in December 1746 and given permission to return to Spain.

In 1749, Ulloa published his Relación histórica del viaje a la América Meridional containing a full, accurate, and clear description of the greater part of South America geographically, and of its inhabitants and natural history. It was translated into English and published in 1758 as A Voyage to South America. Both Ulloa and Juan had been disturbed by the endemic corruption of the civil authorities and the Catholic clergy in their ruthless exploitation of the Native American population. They jointly wrote a secret letter to their political patron, the Marquess of Ensenada, but it remained unseen until 1826 when it was published in London by an Englishman named David Barry.

Ulloa continued his rise as an international scientist as his reputation grew. He still worked with Jorge Juan, and together the two friends established the first metallurgical laboratory in Spain along with the first museum of natural history and the astronomical observatory of Cádiz. In 1751, Ulloa was elected as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He returned to Peru in 1758 as governor of Huancavelica and manager of the mercury mines in the region. He fought against the deep-rooted corruption in the local administration before finally asking to be relieved of his post in 1764.

In 1756 the Seven Years War erupted with Spain and France trying to deny Great Britain dominance in world affairs and trade. This was a global war, which the Prussians and Austrians took advantage of and joined the fighting hoping for territorial expansion on land. Old disputes in Europe surfaced and loyalties changed frequently. Spain tried to invade Portugal who was aided by the British. Much of the naval fighting took place in the Caribbean and the Royal Navy took Havana for Britain and, half a world away, Manila in the Philippines. Finally, in 1763, the French were defeated and secretly signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau to cede to its ally Spain its remaining territories in North America.

The Spanish Crown appointed Ulloa as the first governor of Spanish Louisiana in March 1766 and shortly after arriving, fifty year-old Ulloa married Francisca Melchora Rosa Ramírez de Laredo y Encalada, daughter of the Count of San Javier y Casa Laredo; Ulloa had joined the nobility of Lima. Govenor of Louisianna turned out to be a very short appointment and one which must have alarmed his new wife. The French Creole colonists refused to recognise Spanish rule and riots broke out in New Orleans and the old French Superior Council voted that Ulloa and his wife should be given three days to leave.

This setback did not dampen Ulloa’s spirit, and he Returned to Spain where he and Francisca had six children. He was made Viceroyalty of New Spain (now Mexico) and supervised the construction of a military shipyard in the Atlantic port of Veracruz. Finally, in 1779, Ulloa was promoted to teniente general de la Armada (vice-admiral) and participated in the Siege of Gibraltar. The failure of the Spanish navy to prevent the British relieving Gibraltar led to charges of dereliction of duty against Ulloa and two captains under his command. Ulloa was later aquitted.

Antonio de Ulloa died in 1795 at the age of 79, and you might say that he had a platinum anniversary on his seventy-plus years of age. But that is not the link. When Antonio was roaming in the mountains of Peru he watched the gold panning operations in the Chocó region of what is now Colombia. He spotted shiny slivers of an unknown metal which he found in the sand of the rivers. He collected samples and made notes on the properties of the metal. It seemed to be immune to corrosion. He called the metal platina (little silver), and when he brought the samples back to Europe it was identified as a new element which was named Platinum. Ulloa is now credited as the discoverer of the noble element of Platinum.


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The bitter end
Friday, April 8, 2022

When Columbus’ ships beached themselves in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on 25 June 1503 his crews were tired and disillusioned. Columbus had been suffering from ill health ever since the return voyage on the first expedition. During the height of a storm he had suffered an attack of what he thought was gout. During subsequent voyages he suffered further bouts coupled with fevers, bleeding from the eyes and temporary blindness. Add to this the problem that his crews were not the most congenial of companions to be marooned with.

He still had friends, and the man who had been assigned to Columbus as personal secretary, Diego Méndez de Segura, together with Bartolomé Flisco, a Spanish crewman, took one of the large native canoes and six natives and set out to across the 150km. wide Jamaica Channel to reach Hispaniola. It’s not clear whether they finished the last Santo Domingo by land or sea, but the result was that the governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres was indifferent to their pleas for help. Cáceres was deeply jealous of Columbus and he prevaricated with preparations to rescue him. Weeks turned into months, and the rescue preparations had not progressed despite the constant pleading of Segura. 

On Jamaica, the 250 men with Columbus were dependant on the natives for food and water and Columbus and his brother, Bartholomew, struggled to keep the crewman in line. They kept order for seven months, but the natives were uneasy with these strangers who kept promising that they were going to leave soon, and they became restless and threatening.  This is where Columbus’ self-education paid dividends. His celestial navigation was not too good, but he had with him an Ephemeris compiled by the German astronomer Regiomontanus, which gave dates, times and positions of celestial events. One of these events was a lunar eclipse, which was due to happen on the night of 29 Feb 1504. Columbus called a meeting with the chief of the local tribe and told him that if they did not continue helping them he would extinguish the light of the full moon. He had picked his time carefully, and when the chief scoffed at his threat Columbus told him to call his tribe together to watch the moon with him that night. Of course, Columbus knew the exact hour that the eclipse would begin, and he made a show of calling to the heavens to strike out the moon. The natives were impressed when the moon dimmed, and Columbus made them promise never to doubt his word again or go against him. Then, with a wave of his hand and some arcane words the moon gradually returned to full brightness.

Controlling the mutiny in his crews was not so easily accomplished. The ringleaders were the Porras brothers, who were planning to overthrow Columbus and take control of the ships. Eleven months after they had become stranded on Jamaica open rebellion broke out, and Bartholomew Columbus had to defend his brother in a swordfight with Francisco de Porras. Bartholomew eventually got the better of Porras and spared his life, but unless help came soon there would be blood spilled. Finally, on June 29, a caravel sent by Diego Mendez arrived from Santo Domingo to take the crews back to Hispaniola. Even then, the bad luck that had dogged Columbus on his final voyage had not run its course. The wind became strong from the south-east and the ship made little or no headway. The journey to Hispaniola took 45 days and of those 110 sailors who landed in Santo Domingo, only 72 wanted to continue home to España. Columbus and his son Fernando paid their own passage and arrived at Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 7 November 1504, and from there they made their way to Seville where they settled. Columbus was by now suffering from frequent bouts of fevers and illness that left him bedridden for weeks.

The previous year, Juan de la Cosa had arrived from the Caribbean to find that his Mappa Mundi had been taken to Portugal some three years earlier by Vespucci and had never been seen since. His map had been for the benefit of all mariners, and it was they who provided new information to update it with. De la Cosaa was furious that somebody would take the map and the information it contained for their own private gain; that it was no less a thief than the King of Portugal did not matter. He set off in pursuit of his property and arrived in Lisbon in 1503, but as soon as the authorities knew that he was making inquiries, he was promptly arrested and imprisoned. A series of letters followed between the crown of España and Portugal, and Vespucci finally agreed to return the map. It was a pointless exercise; the map was hopelessly out of date by now and had been copied, updated and distributed to Portuguese mariners. De la Cosa’s Mappa Mundi was returned to the office of Rodríguez de Fonseca, where all trace of it was lost until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was discovered in a Paris junk shop by Baron Charles-Athanase Walckenaer. It was only identified as an important historical document in 1832 by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. The map was purchased by the Spanish government in 1853 and is now in the Naval Museum in Madrid. Juan de la Cosa sailed with Ojeda again in 1509 to take possession of the coasts of modern Colombia, but he and his men were surrounded by natives and all were killed.

Queen Isabel had died in 1504, and the monarchy was in turmoil. Isabel’s oldest daughter, Joanna, was now next in line to be Queen of Castile, but Archduke Phillip, her husband, who would have become King Phillip I, died in 1506. Ferdinand proclaimed himself Governor and Administrator of Castile. He declared Joanna insane, and continued to rule as regent until his death in 1516.

Undaunted, Columbus continued to pursue his case for the unpaid royalties which had been promised in the contract that he signed (The Capitulations of Santa Fe) with Isabel and Ferdinand.  The contract stated that he be paid “one tenth of all the riches and trade goods yielded by the new lands.” The crown argued that since he had been removed as governor of Hispaniola, he was no longer entitled to claim them. The royal court moved to Segovia, 500 km. from Seville, and Columbus was obliged to make the arduous journey there by mule to continue his case. Ferdinand married Germaine of Foix in Valladolid in March 1506, and they set up a new court there. Columbus, now 56 years-old, doggedly followed them to Valladolid to continue petitioning the crown for his entitlements. But the voyages, and his betrayal by the crown of España, had taken their toll on his health, and he died in Valladolid on May 20 1506.

During his later years he had written two books with the assistance of his son Diego and his friend the Carthusian monk Gaspar Gorricio.  The first was the Book of Privileges published in 1502 detailing the promises and contracts that the crown had made with him when they granted him funding for the first voyage. The second was The Book of Prophecies (1505) which quoted passages from the bible as prophecies of his voyages of exploration. His heirs continued to sue the crown after his death in a long series of legal disputes known as the pleitos colombinos (Columbian lawsuits).

These two publications are Columbus’ testimony of his betrayal. They represent his bitter recriminations against the established hierarchy of the nascent country of Spain, where the privileged aristocracy and the church ruled. But the church was about to suffer a schism that would rock it to its foundations. In 1517 Martin Luther hammered to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg his “ninety-five theses of discontent” with the Catholic Church. (Posting notices in this way was the recognised way of inviting discussion.) Sixteen years later in 1533, Queen Isabel’s youngest daughter, Catherine, would fail to provide King Henry VIII with a male heir, and when the pope refused to give him a divorce, Henry declared himself head of the protestant Church of England.

At some point during this period, to avoid further tension between España and Portugal, and with absolute arrogance and consummate ignorance of the native inhabitants of rest of the world, the Tordesillas line was carried on through the poles to divide the planet in half; one half owned by España, and the other half owned by Portugal.

Neither the Portuguese or Spanish explorers had found any signs of a superior civilisation anywhere they landed. (Except for the initial landings in the Indies, which was as near to an ideal society as humanity has ever produced.)  Iron, steel, gunpowder and oceangoing ships were unknown in the new world. Given the history of the Mediterranean civilisations, subjugation and near extermination of the native population was inevitable. The brutality of the conquest of the Americas and the following importation of slaves from Africa is one of the darkest periods in world history. But I am not going to go there.

When I started these blogs at the beginning of Covid lockdown it was because I had become very interested in Spanish history during the eight years that I lived there. I wrote two fictional books set in medieval Spain and published them. I have also been (and still am) painting aviation art, amongst other subjects. Nearly all of the blogs have been about wars. For Spain, the Roman occupation and Numantine Wars were followed by the Islamic invasion and reconquest. Later on came the French invasion and Spanish Civil War.

Spanish soil is steeped in the blood of a thousand generations of people who fought to defend it against invaders. But the history of Europe is 10,000 years of nearly constant warfare, and just when we thought that two World Wars would have put an end to it, we now have the horror of the Ukraine. I believed that it was only by looking at the past that we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future, but I see that I am wrong. Malicious, sick, psychotic people exist at all levels of society and it is only by standing up to them that the world can improve.

Spring is here, and the Covid plague has seemingly passed. I am going to stop blogging for a while and visit some of the places that I have been blogging about. I have enjoyed writing these blogs and it has been very educational for me. I would like to thank the editor at Eye on Spain for his support, and the 71,000 people who have been reading them over this period. I am not going away, but I will post less frequently than I have been doing.  Thank you for your support.

Alan Pearson. 

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Thursday, March 24, 2022

When Queen Isabel agreed to fund Columbus’ first voyage, she spread the financial risk by asking a group of Seville-based traders to jointly invest in the voyage. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco Medici was one of the very rich Florentine traders who employed trading agents in Seville, and Tomasso Capponi was one of these agents. Four years before Columbus was granted the money for his first voyage, di Pierfrancesco had become dissatisfied with the work of Capponi and he asked one of his Florence-based employees to go to Seville and assess candidates for his replacement. Based on his employee’s recommendations, Pierfrancesco sacked Capponi and replaced him with a Seville-based merchant named Gianotto Berardi.  Beradi was perfect for the job; he already ran his own business in African slavery and ship chandlery, and was easily capable of managing the Medici's trade in Seville. The 41 year-old Medici employee who did the dirty on Cappioni was called Amerigo Vespucci.

Americo Vespucci: Painting: Christifano de'll Artisimo.

Vespucci moved to Seville sometime before 1492 and was working closely with Beradi in his business dealings, and when the queen asked for investors for Columbus’ first voyage, Berardi chipped in with half a million maravedis.  When Columbus returned triumphant, the queen awarded Beradi the lucrative contract to provision Columbus's larger second fleet. In 1495, Berardi signed a contract with the crown to send 12 resupply ships to Hispaniola, and things were looking good for both Beradi and Vespucci. Unfortunately, Beradi died unexpectedly in December 1495 before he could complete the contract, leaving debts of 140,000 maravedis. But all was not gloom. Vespucci had met and married a Sevillian lady called Maria Cerezo, who was allegedly the daughter of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba the “Grand Captain” hero of the reconquest and capture of Granada. With this marriage, he improved his social standing in Seville by several pay-grades.

However, that’s not what put Vespucci on the map.

Realising that Columbus was out of his depth as governor of the Indies, and certainly under-qualified to be the governor of the huge continent that was growing in magnitude with each new exploration expedition, Isabel once more hedged her bets. She charged Rodríguez de Fonseca with creating an office of colonial administration from as early as 1493. From the very first meeting, Fonseca disliked Columbus, who he felt was assuming too much of the authority which should belong to the crown. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that perhaps Fonseca would wish to take some of that authority from Columbus and have it for himself as an agent of the crown.

When Columbus got into difficulties in 1499, it was Fonseca who advised Isabel that he be removed as governor of the Indies. That same year, Fonseca began to organize a series of voyages commanded by such captains as Diego de Lepe and Rodrigo de Bastidas. All these captains had sailed with Columbus and knew the seas around the Indies. Alonso de Ojeda had returned to España from Hispaniola in 1496 disillusioned with the disjointed rule of Columbus and his mistreatment of the natives. It was no doubt his outspoken criticism of Columbus that caught Fonseca’s attention and influenced him to make Ojeda commander of the next voyage of exploration to be undertaken by the crown. Isabel and Ferdinand decided not to notify Columbus that they were sending rival explorers into what he had been promised would be his exclusive trading domain.

Ojeda had taken part in Columbus’ second voyage, and it was Ojeda who Columbus charged with finding Caonabo, the cacique who had destroyed Fort Navidad and killed all the men he had left behind on the first voyage. Ojeda presented Caonabo with a set of polished brass manacles and convinced him that they were a symbol of royalty in his own country. The moment the chief put on the manacles, Ojeda had him dragged away for punishment. In 1495, the first native rebellion took place at a river crossing where a fort had been built. The ten-man garrison were killed and the fort destroyed and Columbus ordered Ojeda to lead a 500 man force and secure the area. Fifteen hundred natives were captured and distributed to the settlers as slaves, with 600 of them shipped back to España to be sold in slave markets.

Alonso de Ojeda.

Ojeda’s flotilla of four ships set sail in 1499 with Juan de la Cosa as chief navigator and cartographer. Vespucci was on one of the ships, but his role is not recorded and the only reference to him is from much later when Ojeda remembered that "Morigo Vespuche" was one of his pilots. Their brief was to explore the coast line as far as they could with emphasis on locating the source of pearls that Columbus had reported finding. They made landfall in what is now French Guiana and the flotilla split up; Ojeda led two of the ships north, whilst the other two headed south carrying Vespucci. There are no official records of the southern voyage other than those later written by Vespucci himself, and according to him, they passed the mouth of the Amazon and were amazed to find that the ocean was still freshwater 25 miles out into the Atlantic. The two ships continued south for another 40 leagues (150miles) until they encountered a strong northerly current and could make no headway. They retraced their course northwards again and possibly made contact with the other two ships. The flotilla entered Lake Maracaibo on 24 August 1499, and the captains decided to end the exploration voyage here.

The whole voyage had been a financial failure. Except for a few pearls, a little gold and a few slaves, they had nothing to show to their backers. Santo Domingo was just a couple of days sailing due north from where they were, and so they left the mainland behind and headed for Hispaniola. They docked on 5 September, and as soon as the crews went ashore they ran into trouble. Those settlers faithful to Columbus realised that these men were trying to infringe on their hard-won trading privileges with the crown. Fighting broke out immediately and many of Ojeda’s men were killed.

With their tails between their legs, Ojeda’s crews returned to their ships and hastily left Hispaniola behind. They made a brief slave raid in the Bahamas, capturing 232 natives, and then returned to España. To add further to their chagrin, Pedro Alonso Niño, another one of Fonseca’s favourites, had docked just before them with a cargo of pearls from the Gulf of Paria and a contract with the crown of España to give 20% of their cargo to Castile, leaving them with a handsome profit. From then on, Pedro was known as Peralonso Niño.

 Pedro Alonso Niño.

However, Vespucci the salesman had his toe in the door, and was about to snatch victory from disaster. Upon his return to Puerto Santa Maria, Juan de la Cosa began updating the Mappa Mundi.  He didn’t make the alterations himself, he had a team of cartographers who did that for him, and he was truthful in that he acknowledged each country’s separate claims. He added the discoveries of John Cabot, Vicente Pinzon, and Pedro Álvares Cabral by putting their national flags on the map.

Because of his seamanship and encyclopaedic knowledge of the Indies Juan de la Cosa was becoming an essential inclusion in every expedition to the Caribbean, and in October 1500 he sailed with Rodrigo de Bastidas and Vasco Núñez de Balboa on another voyage to the Indies. Amerigo Vespucci visited de la Cosa's office in 1500, probably to report data on coasts he had explored, and it is likely that when de la Cosa sailed with Rodrigo de Bastidas he left Vespucci in charge of the map updates.

Vespucci was still custodian of the updated Mappa Mundi when he received a letter from the Manuel I, King of Portugal, on an urgent matter that required his personal attendance at the royal court. He was cordially invited to bring along the Mappa Mundi, which Vespucci did. Once within the royal palace, he was offered the post of pilot on a Portuguese expedition to be led by Gonçalo Coelho to ascertain how much of the new continent was east of the Tordesillas line. Meanwhile, somewhere out of sight, the Mappa Mundi was being copied.

The expedition left Lisbon in May 1501, and they sailed to Cape Verde to take on provisions. It was here by pure chance that they met Cabral on his return voyage from India. Coelho’s fleet set out across the Atlantic and landed on August 17, 1501, near to a town now called Recife. They continued south following the coast, and on January 1, 1502, they anchored in a bay at the mouth of a small river which, because of the date, they called Rio de Janeiro. Their mission complete, they set out across the Atlantic again on February 13, 1502.

The log of the voyage was kept by Vespucci, and he was no navigator. His measured distances are hopelessly wrong and his astronomical observations woefully confusing and inaccurate. (To be fair, the instruments used were not that accurate, and they required competence in mathematics and astronomy that a trader would be unlikely to possess.) They arrived in back in Portugal sometime in the summer of 1502, and this is when the facts start to become muddled. What is known for sure is that Vespucci published his first booklet on his voyages to the Nova Mundi. The book was full of wonderful descriptions of the new lands and their people. It was extremely popular and was widely read throughout Europe. He followed it up in 1505 with another book along the same lines, which also sold well throughout Europe.

As Vespucci’s fame spread, inconsistencies began to appear in the record. Florentine official Piero Soderini received a letter supposedly from Vespucci in 1504 which he published the following year. It describes an expedition that left Spain on 10 May 1497, and returned on 15 October 1498 after exploring the mainland.  These dates would show that Vespucci discovered the continent of America before Columbus. The letter is the only known reference to the voyage, and some of the historians, including a contemporary, Bartolomé de las Casas, believed it to be a fake. The navigational information in the letter is highly suspect. It states that the voyagers left Honduras and went northwest for 870 leagues; this would have put them on the other side of Mexico in the Pacific Ocean. The Soderini letter is one of two attributed to Vespucci that was edited and widely circulated during his lifetime. The publication of the letter prompted cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to recognize Vespucci's accomplishments in 1507 by applying the Latinized form "America" for the first time to a map showing the New World. Other cartographers followed suit, and by 1532 the name America was permanently affixed to the newly discovered continents.

The Waldseemüller map.

Vespucci returned to Seville sometime before 1505 and King Ferdinand welcomed him with open arms. In April 1505, he was declared a citizen of Castile and León. In 1508, (The year after Columbus died.) he was appointed to the newly created position of piloto mayor (master navigator) of España for the Casa de Contratación, which was overseen by Rodríguez de Fonseca, Columbus’ arch enemy. The salary for this post was 50,000 maravedis a year with an extra 25,000 for expenses. Vespucci was responsible for ensuring that ships’ pilots were adequately trained and licensed before sailing to the New World. He was also charged with compiling a "model map" based on input from pilots who were obligated to share what they learned after each voyage.

On the death of Queen Isabel in 1504, King Ferdinand allowed Fonseca almost unlimited scope in administering the overseas colonies. Rodríguez de Fonseca was successively named Bishop of Badajoz (1495), of Córdoba (1499), of Palencia (1504), and, finally, of Burgos (1514), one of Castile’s wealthiest dioceses. In 1519, he was also named Archbishop of Rossano in the Kingdom of Naples. In 1513, King Ferdinand asked the pope to create a new title for Fonseca; Patriarch of the West Indies, a position that would grant Fonseca a cardinal’s red hat. The pope declined; there was opposition within the church. A Dominican bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas, known as the Protector of the Indians, denounced Fonseca for his indifference to the cruelties that Spanish settlers inflicted on the native populations. When challenged over the slaughter of 7,000 children in Cuba, Fonseca was reported to have snapped, "And how does that concern me?" He was never made to answer for his indifference to the suffering in the Indies.  

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Columbus, the real hero of this story, has been marooned since 1503 at St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica.




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One last chance
Friday, March 11, 2022

Columbus and his brothers were thrown into prison upon their arrival in Cádiz. There they remained for six weeks before a busy King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel deigned to give them audience on 12 December 1500 in the Alhambra palace in Granada. Whilst he had been incarcerated in Cádiz he had written a bitter letter to a friend.

“I have placed under their sovereignty more land than there is in Africa and Europe, and more than 1,700 islands... In seven years I, by the divine will, made that conquest. At a time when I was entitled to expect rewards and retirement, I was incontinently arrested and sent home loaded with chains…”

He wore a short sleeved shirt when he stood before the royals, so that they could see the raw scars left by the chains and made an impassioned plea for their mercy.  Real tears ran down his face as he admitted his faults and mistakes.

“I beg your graces, with the zeal of faithful Christians in whom their Highnesses have confidence, to read all my papers, and to consider how I, who came from so far to serve these princes... now at the end of my days have been despoiled of my honour and my property without cause, wherein is neither justice nor mercy.”

The king and queen took pity on the brothers, and they were released. Isabel was furious that Bobadilla had also exceeded his authority, and ordered his return. He would be replaced by another avaricious nobleman, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres. The power-plays and the stakes were too high now for Columbus to be a player. However, he kept his title of Admiral and Viceroy and Bobadilla was ordered to return Columbus’ possessions.

The royal couple knew full-well about the attempts to sabotage Columbus’ meteoric rise on the world stage. When Martín Alonso Pinzón, captain of the renegade ship, the Pinta, who had deserted Columbus on the first voyage, landed at Galicia in Spain, he had actually arrived before Columbus, who had been delayed by the King of Portugal in the Azores and later in Lisbon. Hoping to claim all the credit and relate his version of the voyage before Columbus could malign him, Pinzón dispatched a letter to the royals requesting a private audience with them. It was rejected, and he was ordered not to come to Barcelona except in the company of Columbus. A shamed Pinzon docked in Palos just hours after Columbus arrived. He died there shortly after, suffering from illness caused by the hardships of the voyage. Columbus never reported the mutiny of Juan de la Cosa when the Santa Maria had run aground under very strange circumstances. This would normally a hanging offence, and de la Cosa was to be involved in even more scandal and subterfuge.

When Columbus was provisioning his fleet in Seville for the second voyage in June 1493 he had to commandeer his ships from whatever was available in local ports at the time, and he soon had leased 17 ships “large and small” from their owners. As before, their crews became paid sailors in the queen’s navy regardless of their status before.

This does not mean to say that they were press ganged into the enterprise. There were plenty of volunteers, some of whom were willing to serve without pay. Columbus chose 1500 men for various duties. Some were to be armed as soldiers and others would become settlers in the new lands. The queen issued them with new arms and armour, which they promptly sold in Seville and replaced with old and rusty weapons. Similarly, the fine cavalry horses supplied by Isabel were exchanged for old nags at a large profit. After hearing stories of docile unarmed natives the crew had decided there would be no battles like the ones they fought during the reconquest.  The wholesale fiddling of the queen’s funding continued with the provisions loaded onto the ships. Short measure in filling the barrels, leaky barrels, salted beef that was near to going off. Food to be cooked on the journey that was ticked off on the manifest but was entirely missing. One of the officials that Columbus was to take with him alerted Queen Isabel who sent officers to arrest the culprits and ensure that the ships were properly provisioned. They waded into the contractors who were now only too happy to produce the correct supplies. 

But as Governor, Columbus had overstepped a line in trustworthiness in his dealings with the natives and settlers. Isabel had wanted the natives to be converted to Christianity. She was bitter when greed and slavery had replaced that wish. Columbus now had to use all his powers of persuasion to redeem his reputation. His only justification for another expedition was his belief that there was an undiscovered passage to China beyond the islands that he had already discovered. Undoubtedly, it was his eagerness to face the perils of exploration once again and his atonement for his previous mistakes that convinced them to fund him again. What may have prompted them to trust him were the alarming gains made by Portugal with the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Cabral. Valuable time had been lost in squabbling over a small group of islands when, as was becoming obvious, a huge continent was there to be claimed. 

On 11 May 1502, Columbus sailed on his fourth and last voyage with four ships carrying 147 men and strict orders from the king and queen not to stop at Hispaniola, but only to search for a westward passage to the Indian Ocean. He was accompanied on his flagship, the Capitana, by his 13-year old son, Ferdinand, and his stepbrother, Bartolomeo. The other ships were named the GallegaVizcaína, and Santiago de Palos. For some unexplained reason, they sailed first to Arzila on the Moroccan coast to rescue Portuguese soldiers who Columbus heard were besieged by the Moors. When they arrived the siege had been lifted and so they sailed on to the Canary Islands. They made good time crossing the Atlantic, and made landfall at Carbet on the island of Martinique on June 15. It took them another two weeks to island-hop north to the one island that he had been forbidden to land on. He arrived at the port of Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, on June 29 and was immediately refused entry despite having urgent need of repairs to one of his ships and the threat of an approaching storm. Unable to take shelter in the port, his tiny fleet moved a few kilometres along the coast to the west and anchored in the mouth of the Haina River.

Governor Bobadilla had received the letter from Queen Isabel ordering to return Columbus’ seized assets and return to España, but when he was given the news of Columbus’ arrival he panicked, and he and many of his crooked entourage loaded their belongings onto ships and prepared to sail. Despite the approaching hurricane and a warning from Columbus, a convoy of 30 ships left Santo Domingo and sailed into the teeth of the storm. All the gold that Bobadilla had confiscated when he arrested Columbus (an estimated US$10 million) was loaded onto the least seaworthy ship of the fleet, the Aguya. They didn’t get far before the storm scattered them like windblown leaves. Some were driven back to Santo Domingo, where even the harbour was no protection, and they sank in full view of the quay. Bobadilla’s ship is believed to have reached the eastern end of Hispaniola where it sank with all hands. Something like 20 ships were lost when they entered the Atlantic and met the full force of the hurricane.  Around 500 people drowned, and if you believe in avenging angels, then the fact that they were all Columbus’ enemies and accusers will give you some satisfaction; I am sure that it did Columbus. However, one of the ships that did manage to dock safely in Santo Domingo disgorged Juan de la Cosa. He had narrowly survived the storm, but whilst Columbus was in the area, he lay low. Columbus’ guardian angels were still watching over him, because by what can only be described as a miracle, the only ship that made it back to España was the Aguya, carrying all Columbus’ gold. Even then, many of his enemies at court accused him of summoning supernatural powers to bring the storm that punished his accusers. (Hurricane is a Taíno word.)  

Map of 4th voyage Credit to Keith Pickering.

When the hurricane had passed, Columbus regrouped his little fleet and sailed northwest stopping briefly at Jamaica and Cuba to top up his provisions and drinking water. The ships then turned west and on July 30, 1502, they landed Guanja, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras. It was on August 14 that they finally landed on the mainland at Puerto Castilla, near Trujillo, Honduras. For the next two months he searched the coast for the passage that would let him into what he thought would be the China Sea. They arrived in Almirante Bay, Panama, on 16 October having found no such passage, and Columbus was finally beginning to realise that this was an entirely new unknown continent. (He was, in fact, just 60km away from the Pacific Ocean.) On his voyage down the coasts of modern-day Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, Columbus had seen no signs of other Europeans, but had been introduced to cacao (the cocoa bean) and had seen a large canoe which he described “was as long as a galley”.

Once again he was promised “gold without limit” by the Ngobe natives, and in mid-November, he prepared to sail on another wild-goose chase to a province called Ciguare, which they told him “lie just nine days’ journey by land to the west”, or some 200 miles from his location in Veragua. He had set off on this journey, when on December 5 he encountered a storm more severe than any that he had ever encountered. He writes:

“For nine days I was as one lost, without hope of life. Eyes never beheld the sea so angry, so high, so covered with foam. The wind not only prevented our progress, but offered no opportunity to run behind any headland for shelter; hence we were forced to keep out in this bloody ocean, seething like a pot on a hot fire. Never did the sky look more terrible; for one whole day and night it blazed like a furnace, and the lightning broke with such violence that each time I wondered if it had carried off my spars and sails; the flashes came with such fury and frightfulness that we all thought that the ship would be blasted. All this time the water never ceased to fall from the sky; I do not say it rained, for it was like another deluge. The men were so worn out that they longed for death to end their dreadful suffering.”

He abandoned the search for gold after the storm, and after a few weeks of exploration he established a garrison in in January 1503 at the mouth of the Belén River, close to Panama. Things went from bad to worse when the local tribe leader, El Quibían, refused to allow them to explore up the river Belén. The chief was captured, but escaped and returned with an army and attacked the ships causing o much damage that one had to be abandoned.  The remainder of the fleet of set course for Hispaniola on April 16, but ran into another storm which damaged all of the ships, and his exhausted and rebellious captains and crews were forced to beach them in in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, on 25 June.

 Diego Méndez de Segura, who had been assigned as personal secretary to Columbus, and a Spanish shipmate called Bartolomé Flisco, along with six natives, took a native canoe and paddled to Hispaniola (A distance of nearly a thousand kilometres.) to bring help.  The new governor, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, was jealous of Columbus’ renewed status and prevaricated with rescue efforts. Columbus and the 230 men of his crews would remain marooned on Jamaica for six months. (Other sources give a year.) Meanwhile, events on the Iberian Peninsula were gathering pace.

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Begging for mercy
Friday, February 25, 2022

Whilst Columbus had been away discovering the South American mainland, the unrest had grown in Hispaniola, and the lobbying against the Columbus brothers in the court of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand caused them to reconsider his status and the promises that they had made him when he was asking for funding. In October 1499, Columbus had sent a letter to the queen asking her to send him somebody to help him govern. Clearly, from the reports coming from the colony, something was going wrong. Isabel asked one of her closest advisors and friends, Francisco de Bobadilla, if he would go to Hispaniola to discover what was happening in her new colony. He arrived in Santo Domingo in August 1500 whilst two of the Columbus brothers were away.

Bobadilla was a member of the Order of Calatrava, a position high in the hierarchy of the nobility of España. Columbus and his brothers were not even Spanish, and were rank outsiders as far as nobility was concerned. Columbus may have been an excellent explorer, but the game had changed, and the big players were moving in. Bobadilla immediately began to investigate the accusations of brutality and corruption. Seven Spaniards had already been hung, with another five awaiting execution. Bobadilla’s instructions from the queen were to ascertain:

 “Which persons were the ones who rose up against the admiral and our justice and for what cause and reason, and what damage they have done.  Detain those whom you find guilty and confiscate their goods.”

He used force to stop the executions and confiscated Columbus’ possessions, including all the papers that he would need to prove his innocence.  He suspended the much-abused tribute system and in October 1500 summoned the Admiral to face the charges made against him. Columbus was ordered to relinquish all control of the colonies, but was allowed to keep his personal wealth. Columbus’ son, Ferdinand, recorded that Bobadilla:

“Took testimony from their open enemies, the rebels, and even showing open favor,” and auctioned off some of his father's possessions “for one third of their value.”

The charges against Columbus were many and grievous. He was accused of preventing the priests from baptising the natives, (One of Isabel’s conditions for his funding was the conversion of the natives to Christianity.)  Allegedly, he captured a tribe of 300 natives to be sold into slavery and told all the Christians who employed natives to give him half of them to sell as slaves. There were lists of accusations of brutality to Spanish settlers and overly severe punishments for minor crimes. The worst of the charges was that he had allowed 50 men to starve to death in La Isabela when he had imposed severe rationing of food whilst in actual fact there was an abundance of supplies. Columbus was put in chains at his own request, and he and his brothers were sent back to España to stand trial in the royal court.

In the eight years since Columbus’ first voyage, Isabel had changed the way España was run. After overturning the 700 year rule of the Moors and forcing them out of the country, she had given the Jews an ultimatum; convert to Christianity or leave. The alternative was torture and death. She established a rudimentary police force throughout her kingdoms which was more paramilitary than law enforcement. This was to curb the lawlessness that had replaced the structured society of the Moors as they were driven out of España. During the reconquest, the makings of a dedicated military service governed by the Church had begun to form. The Templars, Knights Hospitaller and the Order of Calatrava were distinct and powerful entities with their own hierarchy of command. Isabel and Ferdinand ruled their kingdoms, but the Catholic Church ruled them, and every other Christian country in Europe. Isabel’s confessor was Archbishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, and it was he who was given the job of replacing Columbus’ haphazard rule with something more controllable, or rather, controlled more by the church. Fonseca was instrumental in forming España’s colonial policy. It was he who established the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) in1503. As well as keeping track of which ships were trading with the Indies, and what their cargoes were, the Casa de Contratación controlled immigration. Prospective settlers were vetted to make sure that they were of old Christian heritage and had no Jewish or Muslim tornadizos in their family history. Finally, the church had control of the financial and judicial control of trade with the Indies.

As Columbus was being ferried across the Atlantic in chains, another explorer was setting off in the opposite direction at the head of a fleet of 13 ships. In 1488 when Columbus had been touting his insane idea all over Europe, he had been rebuffed by King John II of Portugal. Isabel had a bankrupt and fractured country after centuries of reconquest, but King John was less controlled by the church and only had a balance of payments problem. Since he came to power in 1481, John had been looking for ways to increase trade with the orient. He was eager to break into the highly profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia, which was conducted chiefly by land. At the time, this was virtually monopolized by the Republic of Venice, who operated overland routes via Levantine and Egyptian ports, through the Red Sea across to the spice markets of India. He set a new objective for his captains: to find a sea route to Asia by sailing around the African continent.

In October, 1486, King John commissioned Bartolomeu Dias to lead an expedition in search of a trade route around the southern tip of Africa. Dias was provided with two caravels of about 50 tons each and a square-rigged supply ship captained by his brother Diogo. He recruited some of the leading pilots of the day, including Pêro de Alenquer and João de Santiago. Sometime in February 1487 they rounded the tip of Africa and noted that they were sailing north in a new ocean. The crew and officers made it clear that they had achieved their objective and should now return home. On the return trip, they once again passed the southernmost point of Africa. Dias named it the Cape of Storms (Cabo das Tormentas), but the story is that King John II later renamed it the Cape of Good Hope (Cabo da Boa Esperança) because it symbolized the opening of a sea route from west to east. This was a significant event that went pretty much unrewarded. King John was preoccupied; he had lost a son in a war in Morocco, and his health was failing. A decade went by before Portugal mounted any more expeditions.

This was not the first time that Dias had sailed down the coast of Africa. His family had a maritime background, and one of his ancestors, Dinis Dias e Fernandes, explored the African coast in the 1440s and discovered the Cape Verde islands in 1444.

Dias had been part of an expedition, led by Diogo de Azambuja, to construct a fortress and trading post called São Jorge da Mina in the Gulf of Guinea. There is also evidence that he may have joined Diogo Cão's first expedition down the African coast to the Congo River in 1482. Diogo Cão had made two voyages to try to reach the southern end of the continent of Africa, but had failed both times. Knowing all this, King John had turned away Columbus with his ridiculous idea that he could sail west to China. He didn’t need this idiot. He already had the trade route to China that he wanted.

By the time that Columbus had returned from his third voyage in 1499, Portugal had a new king. Manuel I was the grandson of King Edward, the father of king of John II. He and his advisors were determined to follow the same ambitious plans of exploration the John had started.  It was obvious now that Columbus had stumbled on a new continent that had hitherto been unknown. When the pope moved the line of the old Treaty of Tordesillas to its new position in 1494, King John was happy knowing that he had the whole of Africa to trade with and the possibility of a trade route with the orient via the Cape of Good Hope. But the new discoveries to the west of the line were becoming very alarming. It seemed that España was entitled to claim a huge undiscovered continent whilst Portugal was shut out.

 King John had never been one for waiting for events to overrun him. As early as 1487, he had dispatched two spies, Pero da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva, overland via Egypt and East Africa and India, to scout the details of the spice markets and trade routes. If he could get to India by sea, he knew where to establish his trading centres.

Vasco da Gama leaving Portugal.   Biblioteca National de Portugal.

Whilst Columbus was in the Caribbean on his second voyage, King John equipped a fleet under the command of Vasco da Gama. They sailed in 1497 and rounded the Cape of Good Hope without problems to finally land at Calicut in India in May 1498. Portugal now had unopposed access to the source of the spices that had made the Republic of Venice the richest city-state in the Mediterranean. When the seasonal winds and currents in the southern hemisphere were charted and understood, convoys of trading ships were to make regular annual trips to India and back. In 1524 da Gama was appointed Governor of India, with the title of Viceroy, and was ultimately ennobled as Count of Vidigueira in 1519.

Vasco da Gama

With this success under his belt, Manuel I turned his attention to the west again. Vasco da Gama had reported seeing signs of land to the west when his fleet sailed down the mid-Atlantic.  He commissioned Pedro Álvares Cabral, a 32 year-old nobleman who was a military commander and navigator to lead an expedition and Bartolomeu Dias was asked advise on the type of ship that he would need for the new long-distance trade routes that were opening up.  In 1500, the fleet of 13 ships sailed into the Atlantic, and whether on purpose or driven by storm, they landed on what turned out to be the coast of modern-day Brazil. Cabral was not that good a celestial navigator, and with the instruments of the day it was hard to tell where the Tordesillas line fell, which meant that nobody else could conclusively prove him wrong. As it turned out, he was well within the region that the pope had allowed Portugal to claim. Cabral did not hesitate; he promptly claimed this new continent for Portugal and sent one of his ships back to take the king the news. He re-provisioned his ships and continued with the rest of the fleet to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail to India.

Cabral and his ships became the first mariners to touch four continents in one voyage. They sailed from Europe to South America, then to Africa and India. His voyage was not without peril. Several ships were lost in a storm in the Sothern Atlantic, and when he reached Calicut in India, Arab traders had mounted an attack on Portuguese assets on the coast. Cabral attacked the Arab fleet and burned and looted their port in retaliation.  The Portuguese trading empire would eventually stretch from the Americas to the Far East, and its navigators and captains would be envied and feared throughout the world.    

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