The Other American Colonies

I struggled to come up with a title for this post that was not United States-centric*–a fact which pretty much sums up the topic at hand. For most Americans** the grade school version of history that we carry in our heads jumps from Columbus in 1492 straight to the arrival of the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1620. *** There’s a vague awareness that the Spanish and the French were out there doing something. Colorful bits bubble through: conquistadores, voyageurs, New Orleans, the Alamo. But for the most part, the story focuses on the development of the thirteen more or less English colonies.

I do pretty well on the French part of the story. For the last fifteen years or so, My Own True Love and I have been on the trail of the French in North America–easy to do if you regularly drive from the historic Illinois Country to the land of the Louisiana Purchase. But I knew I had gaps where the Spanish colonies in the New World were concerned. In the last months of 2013, thanks to family weddings in Texas and Chile,**** I discovered that those gaps were an abyss.

Filling in the hole, one story at a time, is going to take a while. (Not that I’m complaining. This is the kind of history I like best: the places where two cultures meet and change each other.) In the meantime, I’m beginning to squeeze the history of the Spanish colonies into the scaffolding of dates/ideas/images/people from which I view world history. Here are a few of the bits that have caught my attention:

  • Harvard, founded in 1636, was not the first university in the New World. That honor goes to the University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Santo Domingo (now the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo), which was founded in 1538. The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico (now the National Autonomous University of Mexico) was a close second, founded in 1551. Just to put this in context, the oldest continuously running university in the world is Al-Azhar in Cairo, founded in 960 CE. Europeans called the Americas the New World for a reason.
  • Mexico City was the largest, and possibly the wealthiest, city in the Americas in 1776, with a population of 137,000. Philadelphia, the largest city in the thirteen colonies, had a population of 40,000. Not a meaningful measure in itself, but a useful reminder. Gold and silver from the Spanish colonies flooded Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I’m used to looking at that flood in terms of its impact in Europe and Asia, not in terms of the colonial society that produced it.
  • I was already familiar with baroque poet-nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), who regularly appears in the pantheon of feminist precursors. I didn’t realize that she is simply the most famous of an entire generation of Mexican intellectuals interested in questions of Mexican identity and history. I clearly need to learn more about criollismo: nationalism in another form.
  • And the one that had me gaping with disbelief at my own ignorance: Mexico was a stop on Spain’s version of the Asia trade as early as 1573. The ships known as the Manila galleons brought Asian merchandise through the Philippines to the Spanish port of Acapulco. The goods were then carried by mule to Mexico City and Veracruz, where they were shipped to Spain. A neat way of getting around Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean.

It feels like history nerd Xmas.

* And failed. Or at least failed to come up with something that didn’t sound like the driest survey course text ever written.

**Or at least for most of us raised in the United States, as opposed to those raised in other parts of the Americas. Linguistic sinkholes gape before me. Just like the early days of graduate school when as students of the Indian sub-continent we struggled to find words that did not rest on imperialist/racist assumptions. It isn’t just a question of “political correctness”. Sometimes the language used shapes the knowledge itself.

***Or perhaps the arrival of settlers at Jamestown in 1607, depending on where you grew up or how historically inclined your third grade teacher was. Personally, I owe a great deal of my historical curiosity to Mrs. Bates of Delaware Elementary.

****The educational benefit of weddings should never be underestimated.


  1. Gina Conkle on April 8, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    Great post, Pam. Elementary school was just like you said, a jump from Columbus to the Puritans and beyond. In 6th grade, I remember learning extensively about South America: the formation of each country, a bit about each nation’s unique culture, the capitals, and Simon Bolivar being South America’s George Washington. Strangely, there wasn’t as much about Mexico. Thanks for the share! I’m enjoying my Viking cookbook by the way.

    • pamela on April 10, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      Gina: I don’t think we got Simon Bolivar until high school!

      Glad the Viking cookbook is a winner.

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