A Pirate’s Voyage in Latin America from the Caribbean to the Pacific

March 8, 2018 — Dr. Sharonah Fredrick

This spring semester, the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica at the University of Florida along with the Alexander Grass Chair in Jewish History, co-sponsored a visiting fellow and speaker series entitled “Jews in the Americas.” The event brought together seven visiting fellows to the University of Florida to conduct research in the university collections, such as the Judaica Library and the Latin American & Caribbean Collection. Each speaker also delivered one public lecture to university students, faculty, and guests.

Dr. Sharonah Fredrick launched the event, delivering a lecture on Jewish Piracy and Anticolonial Rebellion. Dr. Fredrick is the Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Buffalo, SUNY. Her research explores different expressions of resistance against early modern colonialism in the Americas. As a follow-up to her lecture, Dr. Fredrick has written the below article focusing on Latino identity and piracy.  

A Pirate’s Voyage in Latin America from the Caribbean to the Pacific
Findings from the Latin American and Caribbean Collection of the UF George Smathers Libraries

Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, SUNY at Buffalo (UB)-Romance Languages and Literatures
Winner of Fellowship: Jews in the Americas, 2017-2018, Judaica Collection- UF Smathers Libraries

The shelves of the Atlantic seaboard, and the shelves of a library, often provide unexpected surprises, and crises, to even the most experienced navigator. The George Smathers Libraries, and in particular the Latin American and Caribbean Collection (LACC), provide the scholar with invaluable material for researching the pathways and clandestine escape routes of refugees during the conquest and colonization of the Americas (1492-1824).

That long list of “outlaws” included Sephardic Jews, some forcibly converted and some not, fleeing the long arm of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions; English and Irish Catholics dubbed “disloyal” to the Protestant Crown; French Protestants whose worship was intermittently permitted or persecuted back in France, and many, many others. These refugees were sought after by the vice-regal authorities in the Americas, upon the orders of the ruling metropolis (Madrid, Lisbon, London or Paris). When found, said subjects were alternately tortured, imprisoned, deported or killed. They could not retire to a comfortable drawing room to dictate their memoirs. Therefore, their trajectories must be pieced together from several sources.

The holdings of the Smathers Libraries encompass a large geographical scope (the whole of Latin America, including the American Southwest, which was part of Mexico till 1846, and the Spanish, English, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean and Pacific). They boast an equally wide chronological range (Pre-Colombian civilizations to the present) and are essential for students of Latin America’s literatures, cultures, and histories. LACC’s sources aid the scholar to glean information on “marginalized” figures in Spanish and Portuguese America while shedding light on Dutch, Anglo, and Francophone America as well. Latin America was, of course, in ongoing and fluid, and sometimes violent, contact with Dutch, English and French empires during the period of Spanish and Portuguese colonization.

In terms of understanding the processes of colonization, the “official” approach, beloved by 19th-century Victorian historians, is frankly discriminatory. Only the dominant elites of the colonial period enjoyed the luxury of compiling all-inclusive tomes, and those only from their point of view. The first self-liberated Black slaves of Latin America, in the second half of the 16th century-the “Cimarrones” of Panama-could not dedicate time and energy to recording their experiences. In contrast, some of the most famous Conquistadores, who enjoyed the Spanish Crown’s backing, were able to enshrine their highly subjective accounts: Hernán Cortés re: the Mexica (Aztecs); Pedro de Alvarado re: the Maya; and Pedro Pizarro, cousin of the illiterate Francisco Pizarro, re: the Inca.

Influential Cuban author and essayist, Alejo Carpentier, in Los Pasos Perdidos, observed that Latin American history demands the heterogeneous archive that conjoins the memories of the conqueror, the conquered, and the many shades of grey that lie in-between. Historians of alternate approaches in the Americas and Southeast Asia (two areas that underwent extended periods of colonial exploitation), such as Marcus Rediker and Robert Anthony, often remark on the need for understanding history “from the bottom up.” This is particularly so, they point out, when researching piracy. Piracy in Latin America and Southeast Asia, during the Early Modern Period (16th-18th centuries, loosely defined) expressed discontent with a colonial system from which most of its subjects were excluded, on either the basis of religion, color, gender or class. Literature may help us decipher historical attitudes that have left their mark in contemporary Spanish and Portuguese-speaking America.

While certainly not history per-se, historical fiction, of which the LACC collection contains many intriguing examples, offers the possibility of understanding popular perceptions of times and events. One could argue that a Conquistador such as Hernán Cortés could hardly be viewed as an objective historical source, yet his Cartas de relación have frequently been studied as such. Some of the most pertinent examples of historical fiction in LACC deal with pirate documents of the Caribbean and the Spanish Main (Northern Latin America), documents which, by their nature, spilled over into the Pacific. Reasons? During Spanish colonial administration, clandestine trade and refugee routes united Latin America’s Atlantic and Pacific shores. Many “respectable” citizens in Latin America (and Anglo-America), found themselves increasingly drawn towards piracy during the 16th-18th centuries. These included the Canary Islands born-poet, Silvestre de Balboa, regarded as Cuba’s first national poet, and frequently cited in 17th-century colonial sources as a collaborator of the pirates who plied Cuba’s northern coast.

Since Spain imposed a monopoly on trade in the Atlantic and the Pacific, which stifled the economic interests of Latin America’s emerging middle class, piracy became a more effective option, economically. Many English-language authors chose Latin America, and the tremendous part that it played in initiating truly global trade (and warfare) as the context for their narratives.

Examples of historical fiction, books such as F. Van Wyck Mason's Cutlass Empire and John Steinbeck's Cup of Gold (both in LACC), provide conflicting visions of piracy in Latin America. Nonetheless, both works focus on the man who, in the popular imagination, embodied the pirate ethic of the Caribbean, and later of the Pacific: Captain Henry Morgan. Was he a scoundrel or a liberator, from Spain’s, England’s, or post-colonial Latin America’s point of view? Why is it that the Black populations of Colombia and Panama’s Pacific coasts recount sympathetic stories of Captain Morgan’s aid to them in rebuilding their Church of San Jose, during Morgan’s supposed “sack” of Panama during January-February of 1671? Do popular testimonies of marginalized groups-ie: the Black population of Central America-constitute a neglected form of history? Why is it that historical fiction constantly makes use of such accounts? In Cutlass Empire, F. Van Wyck Mason portrays Morgan as being appalled that the colonial authority of Panama had ordered the burning of the city. In that work of fiction, Morgan never dreamed of such a thing.

In September of 2016, researcher Vladimir Berrío Lemm, at the invitation of the Municipality of Panama City, presented documents confirming a supposed “legend”-often repeated in Hispanic and Anglo historical fiction, a legend quite sympathetic to Captain Morgan. This information, culled from colonial “official” sources in Panama (and Spain’s) archives, proves that the Old City of Panama was not burnt to the ground by Morgan, but rather by its colonial overlord, Pérez de Guzmán. Pérez de Guzmán was, in fact, held accountable in Spain for that crime. In Latin American culture, where the debate between pro-imperial and anti-colonialist perspectives continues, many sources are crucial in order to provide a more objective version of the Spanish and Portuguese conquests and their post-colonial aftermath. Berrío Lemm notes that, as more and more resources are digitized, our vision of Latin America is being transformed. Does this imply that “official” history can validate incidents previously categorized as historical fiction? What would be the repercussions, and the intellectual rewards, of widening this discussion to include Anglo-America and Francophone America as well?

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