Between 1537 and 1543, six European expeditions reached the altiplano of Bogotá in the eastern cordillera of the Colombian Andes. Men of these bands of conquest would form the nuclei of settlements in the New Kingdom of Granada. In this book, José Avellaneda offers a general overview of the expeditionaries and, as source material permits, compares them with conquistadores of Panama, Mexico, and Peru. Avellaneda provided more detailed treatment of the expeditions to the Colombian altiplano in four earlier publications, and he has two more forthcoming to complete a study of each of the six. His excellent and painstaking work is based on extensive archival data from Colombia and Spain and on published materials. All of these are well documented in the previously published monographs but less so in this volume, which therefore is best read in association with the others.
Avellaneda describes the expeditions’ organization and discusses their impact. Of the 1,930 individuals who set out from Quito and various places on the Atlantic coast, 933 arrived in the altiplano. The author has been able to reconstruct the lives of 658. The framework of his analysis includes place of origin, economic and social status, age, education, and time spent in the Indies. He finds that most of the men came from Andalusia, the two Castiles, and Extremadura. At the time of arrival, they ranged in age from 16 to 62, with a median age of 27. About 80 percent of them could sign their name. Some could write well and were well read. They included a poet, a musician, lawyers, medical doctors, merchants, and artisans. Of the 326 about whom pertinent information was found, 49 percent had been in the Indies for five years or more. Of the men discussed, 246 married Spanish women and had an average of 2.2 surviving children. Only 4 married Indian women, but 91 cohabited with them; 3 did so with Spanish women and 1 with an African woman.
The author employs several generally very useful descriptive features, but two of them are problematic. Some of the terminology used to describe social status, such as lower-, middle-, and upper-class, is more appropriate to industrial society than to the sixteenth century. Second, applying the term race to ethnic, religious, and other groups (Moor, mestizo, Jew, and so on) is unnecessary and misleading. Race is not an objective category but a construct that has been based variously (and wrongly) on external physical characteristics, ethnic and cultural affiliation, and, more recently, genetic differences. For some time now, anthropologists have consigned the concept to disuse, because there is often greater variability within groups defined “racially” than between groups assigned to different categories.
Overall, Avellaneda offers a very careful assessment of the lives of the conquistadores. He analyzes the sixteenth-century social, economic, and political organization of the colony, finding that some of the early expeditionaries achieved and maintained the highest of statuses there, accumulated wealth via acquisition of lands and eneo-miendas, and had a significant voice in local government and politics as members of the cabildos. This book is a very welcome addition to the growing body of works on sixteenth-century New Granada, allowing readers better to understand the processes of conquest, settlement, and colonization.