The subject of the book is defined in the introduction as “an account of the various political, economic and social changes taking place in the Caribbean,” which are more precisely tied to a “fairly detailed account of events and processes on the four islands from the beginnings until 1526.” The author states that this subject has not been treated before, because the romantic tradition favored the great biographies of Columbus, Las Casas, and Cortés. The relatively quiet developments on the islands were left to authors with special interests, whose prejudices stressed either the unique, or indulged in unjustified generalizations.
The term “Columbus Dynasty” identifies the contest between the discoverer’s dream and King Ferdinand’s nightmare, neither of which came true, and it is not really the burden of this story. The book begins with the Capitulations of Sante Fe, which, in fact, at a calculated risk to the crown, covered a single expedition of three ships. Columbus was granted powers necessary to control his men aboard and ashore, and to act as representative of the king of Castile upon any landfall on any unknown coast, possibly confronting alien peoples and sovereignties. In order to implement his privileges under the capitulación, Columbus had to test each one as the occasion might arise to claim it. This must be the reason why a discussion of historical precedents is felt to be immaterial and the enormous literature from Verlinden through Pérez-Embid, Konetzke, Manzano, and Muro Orejon is not considered. Comparisons with other contemporary grants (like those of Pinzón, Ojeda, and Nicuesa, which are being worked on particularly by Ramos and his school) are likewise omitted.
The first expedition of Columbus had, as the author states, “a certain unity of purpose in that the participants were used to the mercantile institution of the factoría,” the establishment of which they imagined to be the result of a successful voyage. With the second voyage, a cross section of Spain reached the Caribbean. And while the king favored the letrado-hidalgo class, several expedition members with their followers, criados, encomienda Indians and naborías, soon established a social structure in the islands in which the first families— the Columbuses, the Velázquezes, the Ponce de Leóns at the top—represented the tip of a social pyramid of considerable height, constructed on a wide base of emigrants and natives.
The complementary story taking place in Spain is only sketched in. It can be classed under three headings: (1) calculated protection of the Admiral in his primary function as discoverer, (2) moves to ascertain the “secretos de la tierra” by a multitude of separately licensed voyages especially after 1504, the viajes andaluces, and (3) construction of a colonial base as numbers of Indians and resources permitted.
In the first part of the book the administration of Columbus, his brothers and their retainers is discussed. Successive confrontation of the Columbuses with rival parties express themselves in jockeying for preferred positions by Genoese, Sevillians, Spanish court, and church factions and then-overlapping and contradictory interests. To these are added the twists and turns due to misunderstanding, mistrust, distance and accident, and the reaction of the Indians. This story embraces the four islands and the Columbus claims on the mainland, and is based on reliable published sources and the use of specialized literature to 1968. This is complex material which since Morison and Ballesteros has been assiduously enriched by many specialized works. Still, for the lack of hard evidence, the author on occasion has to let the chips fall where they may. For instance, his exasperation with the “anachronism” of the demographic debate over how many Indians died how soon, is understandable, since much of the literature is confined to the wickedness of the causes. Whether the omission of Borah’s work is really justified by a statement that “had the Spanish come over to sell roses, the result for the Indians would have been the same—a fairly rapid decline,” strikes the reader as doubtful.
But the author’s attempt to allow for “the changes in men” instead of “manipulating such handy blocks as classes, races, nations, ethnic groups, (and) social systems” is laudable. History, he writes, should go beyond the manipulable noun. He does this well in collecting the early events in the islands which heretofore have been scattered about. We see clearly the migration of the world of La Celestina.
With the second half of the book, we arrive at the main contribution. It contains a harvest of detail on families, their retainers and familiars on their estates, on early towns and developing exploitation of resources under the rule of Diego Colón. His rule was interrupted, as had been his father’s, because he was erratic and inept, but could not be “deposed.” Instead he could be recalled “to render account of his conduct in office.” Recent publications of Murga Sanz, Aurelio Tío, The Chaunus, José de Tudela, and Jiménez Fernández have been used to good effect, as have those of Inchaustegui and Demorizi for Santo Domingo and Morales Padrón for Jamaica. One misses the use of Otte’s article (which appeared in Revista de Indias in 1965) based on the unique document from the Archive in Simancas concerning the fleet of Diego Colón in 1509. It is singularly rich in social data on who traveled with Diego’s wife and with how many servants and slaves, what merchants went along and with what specific goods of what value, etc.; such information is so very rare for that early epoch.
The Columbuses, assembled as a “dynasty” only once on p. 137, appear very unimpressive. There is no avoiding the fact that despite their considerable wealth and undoubted primacy in the islands’ hierarchy, this first family does furnish the transition from the world of the Celestina to that of Don Quixote. The author uses “dynasty” in the sense of an intellectual construct. Though there may be more reality in wealth of a Genoese family and their heirs having made good, I presume the debate will never cease between the bookkeeping author of the Book of Privileges and the seer of the Book of Prophesies.
Much intriguing material in this work on the Caribbean islands is relegated to the footnotes, which should be read with care. People and places are simply too many for all to appear on stage or to take on much color, though the author cannot be faulted about where he is at any given point. On who is against whom and why, one has to pay as close attention as to a Spanish family political conversation today.
The first part of the book will gain praise or provoke criticism in proportion to the specialized information and resulting prejudice that many people who will read it will bring to it, as did this reviewer. The second part is a commendable step into a void. Here we have made available in English a large amount of data, some still controversial, which have been scattered about far and wide. The history of the early church and mission, and the reference to non-American concerns of Castile where they impinge upon the Caribbean situation, are expertly handled and exceptionally well placed. Our knowledge of the integration of the Caribbean story with that of the mainland empire has made a visible advance. In conclusion it is safe to predict that considering the drift of interest, this book is easily overtaken, but it will not be overlooked.
Three useful appendices are a list of governors of the Caribbean islands, a table of the Royal Fifth of Gold sent to Spain compiled from a variety of sources, and a list of the Royal Fifth of Pearls sent to Spain from Cubagua and environs. Maps of the islands and an Index complete the useful accessory material.