The story of almost all of the conquistadors is one of tragedy. They endured inhuman suffering and visited it upon their victims, what glory they enjoyed was fleeting, and they usually died violently or forsaken. The tale of the conquistador Nicolás Féderman follows this pattern, but according to Juan Friede his tragedy is compounded by the fact that he was a German and an agent of the Welsers of Augsburg. As a German he was resented by the Spaniards, who regarded the conquest as a national undertaking, and he was suspected of Lutheranism. As an agent of the Welsers he was handicapped by a conflict of interest between making profits and governing a colony.
Upon these two points lies the essence of Juan Friede’s study. It is an effort to present Nicolás Féderman and other German conquistadors in a new light. There is little detail of Féderman’s explorations that is not found in Germán Areiniegas, Germans in the Conquest of America, but Friede maintains that the achievements of the Germans have never been acknowledged. In fact, he believes that their role has been misrepresented. Whereas the Germans have been depicted as extremely cruel in their conquest of Venezuela, Friede argues that these charges stem from irresponsible testimony taken during a residencia to which Féderman was subjected in Coro in 1538. He has carefully reviewed this testimony, as well as other pertinent documents in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, and concludes that the Spanish colonists in Coro bore false witness out of hostility towards the Germans, whom they regarded as heretics and alien intruders.
When Féderman returned to Europe in 1540, his troubles with the Welsers began. He was severely criticized by the colonial chronicler, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who Friede believes had business ties with the Welsers. Féderman sailed to the court of the Emperor Charles V in Flanders, hoping that the Emperor would personally appoint him governor of Venezuela. Féderman felt that this position entrusted to an employee of a private company was prejudicial to “the true work of colonization.” The Welsers, irritated by this maneuver, demanded a rendering of accounts by Féderman, and when he refused they seized his property and had him imprisoned.
The next two (and last) years of Féderman’s life were taken up by a legal battle that involved Féderman, the Welsers, and the Council of the Indies. The Council of the Indies tried to use the dispute between Féderman and the Welsers as a pretense for nullifying the Weiser grant in Venezuela. Féderman, in turn, welcomed the intervention of the Council, because it transferred his case to Spain and secured his release from prison in Belgium. Author Friede documents this court fight very well and in so doing provides some good insights into the legal nature of the conquest. As in the case of many of the conquistadors, Féderman’s legal and financial status was undetermined at the time of his death, and his heirs were left to continue the litigation.
Juan Friede’s use of documents, ten of which are appended to the book, is most effective. Through these documents the jurisdictional disputes, charges of usurpation of authority, and descriptions of the work in preparing expeditions are vividly presented. The story of the conquest takes on new dimensions, and the obvious conclusion is that it was an extremely complex affair.