Old Spanish Main provides lesson in colonialism

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Nicole von Germeten

A major slave port, site of an inquisition high court, target of pirates and focus of colonial ambitions, the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indies formed a dramatic microcosm of empire building along the old Spanish Main. Its story has not been told before in an English text despite the importance of Caribbean culture and history to the United States, but this is being remedied by Research Fellow Nicole von Germeten through her book project, “Chaos and Control in Colonial Cartagena de Indies, 1600-1800.”

“The city was a crucible for most of Spain’s policies in Latin America,” said von Germeten, an assistant professor of history at OSU and author of the forthcoming book, Black Blood Brothers, about African religious brotherhoods in colonial Mexico. “But these forms of rule, while intensely concentrated on Cartegena, can be extended to Spain’s empire as a whole, or, in fact, any colonial enterprise.”

The central theme of her study “is the unavoidable tension between imperial institutions designed to close off colonies and the inescapable presence of outside influences.” Cartagena was the only legal port in the Viceroyalty of New Granada, a region that now includes the countries of Colombia and Venezuela. As a crucial Caribbean port city during the era of Spanish rule over Latin America, Cartagena exported massive amounts of silver, but, nonetheless, cost the Spanish crown a great deal because of the need for defense. Francis Drake invaded in 1585, a French expedition destroyed the city at the end of the 1600s and the English devastated it in 1741.

“The city, especially as a port at the crossroads of Spain’s export economy, was an extremely artificial construction, physically and symbolically, and required immense efforts in infrastructure to prevent it from disappearing or disintegrating. Several Spanish colonial institutions worked against overwhelming forces to protect the city’s function as a port for incoming European goods and outgoing gold and silver.”

For the Spanish empire, as for many world empires, the undermining forces included: devastating epidemics; foreigners who were not indigenous to the ruling country or the conquered territory who sought to make money or gain power over the colony; cultures that challenged the colonial power, in the form or religious or social practices; and internal threats from behavior considered devious or rebellious.

Von Germeten intends to devote a chapter to each of the most powerful institutions and forces in colonial Cartagena, focusing on the individual human stories revealed through surviving records. Primary source documentation is limited because the hot, damp climate destroys paper records, plus many of the archives were ransacked during the nineteenth century, but enough evidence remains to have provided her with rich materials during visits to the major archives in the region.

The best known Spanish institution in Cartagena was an inquisition high court, one of only three in Spain’s massive American empire, which tried cases of religious heresy against Catholicism. These included the practice of Judaism or Protestantism, moral crimes such as bigamy or concubinage, and witchcraft.

“Cartagena received trends in philosophy and politics earlier than inland cities, and of course the inquisition reacted to the new ideas. . . The king and the inquisitors hoped to become self-sufficient through trying wealthy, heretical locals, but generally only persecuted poorer people for the minor crimes of blasphemy and superstition.”

A less known institution was a leper colony that isolated sufferers from the surrounding territory. “This hospital joined forces with several other local hospitals in fighting a losing battle against tropical disease. The population needing medical care grew when slavers or trading ships entered the ports or when pirates and foreign navies attacked the city.”

Yet another institutional element was a penal colony, consisting of prisoners from throughout the region, who provided the labor to build and maintain massive fortifications meant to keep out foreigners and pirates.

“Decrees from the king and the Viceroy, who ruled from Bogota, several hundred miles inland, attempted to limit and control the presence of permanent foreign residents,” said von Germeten. “However, Portuguese, Africans, Jews, Muslims, Protestants and people from most parts of Europe and even North America passed through Cartagena, defying enforcement of Spanish imperial ideals that naively envisioned an empire of Catholic Spaniards and protected and isolated indigenous populations.”

Cartagena hosted the standard Spanish civil and ecclesiastical bureaucracy—including half a dozen religious orders—who fought constantly among themselves. “The presence of the penal colony, the barracks and the port from which treasure ships disembarked prevented any possible realization of a peaceful and orderly city and, in fact, encouraged crime and disease. The fact that Cartagena was one of the most important slave markets in the Americas also meant non-Spanish religions and racial backgrounds were inevitably present, either in the form of African slaves or English, French and Portuguese slave traders.”

The United States has significant vested interest in Colombia; the country is among the top five recipients of U.S. military aid. “To understand modern Colombia, it is important for Americans to have a sense of the origins of Colombia’s internal conflicts. As a Caribbean port city, Cartagena represents an important example of the peaceful and violent mix of cultures and ethnicities created by imperial expansion.”