Category Archives: Global Cultures of the Past

My interest in the first age of Globalization arises from my scholarly interest in early modern culture (1450-1750). I like to look at these early modern globalization stories from a local viewpoint: the search for new trade routes and the Conquest did not occur in the abstract but always happened in a geographic location, directly affecting human beings. I find both the moment of the first encounter and the negotiation of hybrid cultures over time very fascinating. Many of these issues and stories live on in unexpected and interesting ways in our contemporary world.

Copán and the End of History

Copán Ruinas is a small, modest town in western Honduras, near the border to Guatemala. The town bears the Spanish name of an ancient Mayan city. Copán is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its elegant architecture and magnificent carved stelae and altars, perhaps the best art the Mayans ever produced.

Temple 10L-11 at Copán, constructed around 769 CE.

The valley of Copán has been populated for at least four thousand years. Dynastic rulers of Copán are known as early as 426 CE. The last dynastic ruler is mentioned in the year 822 CE. The four centuries between the two dates are generally considered the classic period of Mayan civilization of Copán during which the city was a major regional power. It suffered a humiliating and catastrophic defeat in 738 CE at the hands of its former neighboring vassal state Quiriguá, located in Guatemala, from which it never fully recovered.

The Copán culture collapsed between 800 to 830, and its population gradually declined in the 9th and 10th centuries. All Mayan states failed in this time period, meaning that aristocratic rule, political and military power, urban construction, and cultural production ended, that urban centers were gradually abandoned, to be quickly reclaimed by the jungle, and that their population dissipated in various rural settlements. Deforestation, overpopulation, extreme drought, depletion of soils, and military conflict likely contributed to this decline and collapse.

Altar Q, created in 763 CE, showing the 16th ruler of Copán receiving the insignia of power

The rulers of Copán were conscious of their exceptional history, and they enshrined it in inscriptions and in an iconographic program on a number of altars and stelae. Altar Q, created in 763 CE and shown above, is one of the most outstanding monuments in the Mayan city of Copán. It represents the founder of the dynasty transferring the power to the 16th ruler of Copán by handing him the staff of office. The four sides of the altar show all 16 rulers, each passing on the insignia of power to his successor.

Altar L, created in 822 CE, is perhaps the last piece of art produced at Copán. Altar L  was a monument intended to commemorate Ukit Took’, the reigning ruler, who was never officially crowned. Only one side of Altar L was completed. The others are either partially completed, as seen below, or left completely blank, with history yet to be inscribed. Such history never unfolded as the Copán culture collapsed around that time. While artistically insignificant, this altar is remarkable in that it marks the unexpected end of the history of Copán, even though the rulers of Copán had believed in the perpetual continuity of their rule.

The unfinished Altar L from 822 CE marks the abrupt and unexpected end of Copán’s history.

When the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote his infamous essay “The End of History” (1989), this is clearly not what he had in mind. Rather, he believed that liberal democracy had celebrated a final victory over totalitarian systems. The exceptionalist view of American history precludes a narrative where America could decline and even disintegrate, and the end of the Soviet empire seemed to validate that point of view. Yet the study of ancient empires, like the Mayan state of Copán, shows that all empires decline eventually, their exceptionalist narratives notwithstanding.

Many factors that led to the collapse of Copán are present in our own time. Climate change and environmental degradation are creating a cascade of problems ranging from severe overpopulation, drought, and soil depletion to resulting pandemics, loss of inhabitable land, and mass migration. The political fallout is visible already, as is evident in the European backlash to the Syrian refugee crisis and US efforts to build a wall on the border to Mexico to keep out Central Americans displaced by climate change and victimized by gang violence.

The political polarization in the United States has become so extreme that it even taints the discussion of basic and undisputed facts, such as climate change, Covid-19, and election outcomes. This is the stuff of cultural decline, which poses a real threat to the democratic foundations and the political stability of the country. The Biden administration may be able to slow the institutional slide, yet the culture wars continue to intensify. Internal discord and polarization invariably play a role in collapse as they can undermine and erase existing power structures suddenly and quickly, followed by a period of unrest and rapid political and social disintegration of society. The tumultuous end of the Trump presidency put the instability and dysfunction of the American system on full display.

How history ends: a collapsed temple on the acropolis, the center of power in Copán, reclaimed by the jungle.

We can’t imagine that our civilization ever could collapse. Likewise, the rulers of Copán spun their historical narrative to the bitter end, apparently unable and unwilling to anticipate their own demise. It is difficult to assess the level of discord in Copán at the time when its culture and political structures collapsed. Yet the abrupt end of Copán’s historical narrative in 822 CE, as documented by the unfinished Altar L, points to such a rapid disintegration process.

Of course the history of Copán did not end entirely. While the sophisticated high culture vanished, Mayans continued to live in the area as farmers, The modern town of Copán Ruinas represents a modest reminder that cultural collapse is not followed by void. Copán teaches us that great empires and cultures inevitably decline and that cultural collapse is irreversible. Yet, Copán also shows us that life, while altered, invariably goes on.

Copán Ruinas after the end of history: evidence that life goes on after cultural collapse.

Contagion–Trump’s Harmful Blame Game

Plague doctor wearing protective clothing, including face mask, during the outbreak of the plague in Rome in 1656.

Pandemics have been around since creation–whether you think that this was 5,780 or 4.5 billion years ago. They all have two things in common. First, as Black Swan events, they evoke a tremendous amount of fear as they are not understood and cannot be controlled, which leads to mass panic and hysteria. This prompts humans to take some form of personal protective action. But it also sets in motion the second, more consequential effect: a race to the bottom in search of a culprit. The two are intertwined as scapegoating is invariably linked to fear and loss of control. The current Coronavirus, or Covid-19 pandemic is no exception.

There are many historical examples to make these points. Let’s first look at the names we choose to attach to pandemics. The Spanish flu of 1918-20 is a great example. It had little to do with Spain. At the tail end of the World War I, neither of the warring parties were interested in disclosing that their soldiers were dropping dead like flies. Neutral Spain had less at stake and reported on the progress of the pandemic more honestly. Subsequently, the world started to believe that this really was a Spanish problem. The Spaniards, incidentally, started to call it the French flu, with little success. By the way: where did the Spanish flu take its origin? Donald Trump, take note: the United States of America is a leading contender. US soldiers likely carried it across the Atlantic. So let’s call it the American flu.

The grandest of all known pandemics, perhaps with the exception of Covid-19, was the bubonic plague, also referred to as Black Death. It arrived in Europe in 1347 and spread over the continent like wildfire over the next four years. As there was no understanding of bacterial infections, a range of explanations mushroomed, from adverse celestial constellations to toxic vapors emanating from the earth to divine punishment for an immoral and godless society. By far the most virulent explanation was that Jews had poisoned the wells and thus were responsible for the death of the masses all over Europe.

In this woodcut from 1475, Jews are tortured to confess that they had poisoned the well, are woven onto wagon wheels, and burned. The inquisitor (left) points to a bag containing the poison as evidence.

By 1351, sixty major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed, Jewish residents evicted from cities and towns, and many killed. More than 350 separate massacres occurred between 1347 and 1351. In Strasbourg, almost 200 Jews were burned in a single massacre in 1349. Most of these pogroms were not officially sanctioned, rather they were triggered by a firebrand preacher or civic leader. The plague thus unleashed hatred and aggression against a group that already had been marginalized and discriminated for centuries. Subsequent waves of the plague had a similar impact, such as the Lisbon massacre of 1506. The takeaway is that pandemics not only are mass killers but that they also shatter the political, social, and moral order.

The burning of Jews (Hartmann Schedel: Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493).

This brings us to our current predicament. The moment the Corona-virus started to spread person to person in the United States, people started to engage in panicky protective action. Understandably, people hoarded hand-sanitizer and a range of cleaning products, including soap. But there also was a run on bottled water, which makes sense when a hurricane is approaching. However, a virus is extremely unlikely to disrupt our water supply. Almost comical is the run on toilet paper. It speaks to a deep-seated need to engage in some protective behavior. Hoarding toilet paper can be comforting, even though it does not objectively enhance the preparedness for a virus infection.

We also have seen an uptick in finger-pointing and scapegoating. There is the almost comical attempt by Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s defense minister, to frame the virus as God’s punishment for sanctions against her country. More seriously, China started to blame the US for planting the virus in China. US President Donald Trump spent many weeks downplaying the threat and framing it as a hoax promoted by the Democrats and by the media intended to harm his reelection bid. When the size of the upcoming pandemic no longer could be concealed, he switched to a vicious blame game.

In an abrupt shift in rhetoric, Trump now consistently refers to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” thus not just designating a point of origin but also implicating an entire ethnicity. Trump added this justification: “‘Cause it comes from China. It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.” Others in his echo chamber, notably Fox News, have picked up on the blame game as well, using the phrase “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” Host Sean Hannity stated, “Their months-long coverup is now causing death and destruction and carnage all over the world.” Laura Ingraham added, “China has blood on its hands.” Trump himself accused Beijing of harming the United States by suppressing early information about the spread of the virus in Wuhan, while simultaneously accusing the media of corruption: “They’re siding with China. It’s more than fake news; it’s corrupt news.”

Trump’s irresponsible blame game may have dire consequences. The social fabric of our society already shows signs of tearing. Almost over night, a health crisis unmasked the glaring shortcomings of our public health system and more generally of our social safety net. Millions who do not have health insurance or do not have any paid sick leave have no incentive to get tested and to stay home. Almost over night, tens of millions of Americans have become threatened by unemployment and existential ruin. This is a time when we need steady leadership, not a narcissist in charge with a pathological urge to always fault others. The incompetence and immaturity of the President and the unpredictability of a pandemic may turn out to be an explosive mix.

The concern is that the razor-thin veneer of civilization in the United States may be wearing off, and that Trump’s rhetoric acts like coarse sandpaper rather than another protective layer. One worrisome indicator is that gun sales are skyrocketing. Guns can be used to protect one’s home, but also to rob a pharmacy, a grocery store, or a neighbor’s food pantry. Frustrated people confined to their homes for weeks may use their guns to act out on their aggression. This is how a President who is pandering to his mindless supporters rather than showing calm leadership during a generational crisis endangers us all. The plague pandemic should serve as a warning for what social collapse could look like.





The Thirty Years’ War as Foil for the War in Syria

This year, we are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). It was the most comprehensive, complex, devastating and brutal armed conflict in human history up to that point. In fact, many seventeenth-century sources called it the “Great World War.” When the war began in 1618, it was primarily a conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the German Empire. The emperor and many territorial princes sought to push back the influence of Protestantism and to reclaim the territories and cities that had switched to the new faith.

A second layer of conflict was what we would call the Federalism debate today. The emperor sought to consolidate his power over the territories and cities, both Lutheran and Catholic, who in turn were fiercely protective of their privileges. The immediate trigger for the war was the effort of the Bohemian estates to prevent the Hapsburg dynasty from establishing the dominium absolutum, that is absolutist rule, in their homeland that lead to the defenestration of imperial envoys–they literally were thrown out the window at Prague Castle.

Prague Defenestration of 1618. Copper engraving by Johann Philipp Abelin (1635)

Early wins by the Catholic Emperor against Protestants led to the weakening of support from Catholic princes who feared the Emperor would use his battlefield successes to force all princes into submission, Protestant and Catholic.

The third layer was the complex geostrategic context. Early territorial gains by the Emperor brought Protestant Denmark and Sweden into the war who wanted to support Protestants in North Germany. Sweden also saw an opportunity to control the Baltic coast of Germany. Catholic France supported the Protestants as well because they did everything to break the hegemonial stranglehold by the House of Hapsburg–the Hapsburgs held both the Imperial and the Spanish crowns. They also wanted to expand their territory to the Rhine river.

This constellation led to a dynamic of shifting coalitions that made the war unwinnable for any side. While the Emperor was the only stakeholder who realistically could have won the war, the coalition supporting him crumbled the more successful he was on the battlefield. What resulted is one of the longest and protracted conflicts in human history. The devastation to German cities was immense, and the cost in human life immeasurable. The destruction of the city of Magdeburg in 1631 was just one of many atrocities of the war.

Sack of Magdeburg in 1631. Copper engraving by Daniel Manasser (1632, detail)

Money ran short on all sides, mercenaries did not get paid, and supply lines did not work. As a result, many regular units, but also groups of mercenaries, ransacked landscapes and raped, plundered, and killed at will.  People fled where they could. Millions got killed, many more got displaced. This perhaps is the first war in European history whose victims were primarily civilians. Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showed the immense brutality of the war against civilians in his native Lorraine in his stunning series of etchings called The Great Miseries of War.

Jacques Callot: Looting and Burning of a Village (1633)

What does this have to do with the brutal and complex war in Syria that arose out of the 2011 Arab Spring protests? The German historian Herfried Münkler described the Thirty Years’ War as a conflict that was very difficult to end from the outside and that military interventions from the outside usually effected the opposite of their declared intentions. In his view, the current war in Syria is a conflict of the same type.

There are a large number of players in the War in Syria pursuing diverging interest and engaging in shifting alliances. The Syrian government is supported by Russia, but also by Iran and Hezbollah. Then there are a number of rebel groups who work together sometimes, and sometimes they fight each other. ISL is attempting to get a foothold in Syria. The Kurdish Front sees an opportunity to create a Kurdish state, combining territories in Syria and Iraq. The Turks, fearing a Kurdish insurgency in their own country, are fighting this effort. Israel is attacking positions in Syria periodically, as have the US in the past. There is great concern that Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Israel will get sucked in more deeply.

As in the Thirty Year’s War, there is dynamic of shifting coalitions that make it impossible for any party to win. Furthermore, there are forces who are interested in maintaining the conflict. The Russians, for instance, want to keep the Syrian refugee crisis going in order to further destabilize the European Union, a strategy that has worked quite well so far. Just like in the Thirty Years’ War, the toll on the civilian population has been immense: millions have been killed, raped, or have lost their livelihood and were forced to flee. The city of Aleppo, a major commercial hub in the Levant for two millennia, has been mostly leveled, and now the world is watching as the city of Idlib is just about to be ground into dust.

Johann Rist: Peace-Wishing Germany (1647)

How does it all end? There is no clear path to peace in Syria at this point. The Thirty Years’ War ended because the warring parties finally recognized that victory was impossible. Germany was bled out, and there was little to gain at that point–it took Germany a century to recover from the devastation. There was a tremendous war fatigue, and there was a growing consensus that the war needed to end, no matter the conditions or circumstances. The war in Syria may have to end this way as well. But there are no signs that we are nearing this point.



Mare Nostrum?

Mare Nostrum (Latin for “Our Sea”) was a common Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. The term was always somewhat ambiguous: it both implied Roman dominance of the Mediterranean and the cultural diversity of the nations that have bordered it for well over two millennia. Since before the Roman times, the Mediterranean Sea always was a meeting ground for cultures that bordered it–sometimes peaceful, sometimes not.

The island of Sicily is not just the geographic center of the Mediterranean, it always was a place where the Orient and the Occident intersected, and it was located at the historically fluid boundary between Europe and Africa. In Antiquity, native peoples like the Elmynians shared the island with Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans who all laid claim to all or part of Sicily at some point. Many of these cultures coexisted in Sicily over time, although many battles were fought as well.


Greek temple of the Doric order at Segesta, Sicily, built by the indigenous Elmynians around 420 BCE.

After the demise of the Western Roman Empire, a number of Mediterranean cultures dominated Sicily throughout the Middle Ages. Vandals, Goths and Byzantines ruled Sicily in quick succession, until the Arabs erected the Emirate of Sicily (827-1091). The Normans arrived in Sicily in 1061 and created and gradually expanded their own kingdom that lasted until the Norman dynasty died out in 1198. The Hohenstaufen dynasty from Southern Germany assumed the Sicilian crown, followed by the house of Anjou in 1266. By the early 14th century, Sicily had fallen under influence of the Spanish house of Aragon. The common thread in Sicilian history is that it was always ruled by foreign kings who brought in foreign cultural influences.

Today, the narrow lanes in the old towns of Palermo and Cefalù still show the Arabic layout. But it was the Normans who left a huge architectural imprint on Sicily with their ambitious construction program which was designed to re-establish Christianity on the island. The cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, both close to Palermo, and the Norman royal palace in Palermo with its stunning palace chapel demonstrate that Norman Palermo was perhaps the most important European cultural center in the 12th century–and an early hub of globalization.


Monreale Cathedral, built 1174-1182 in a Norman-Arab style, with its stunning Byzantine mosaics.

The Normans left a big imprint on Sicily from the time of their first arrival in 1061 until around 1250. They created a hybrid culture that is commonly referred to as Norman-Arab or Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture. This civilization resulted from the interaction between the Greek-speaking population, Arab settlers who had dominated the island before the arrival of the Normans, and of course the Romanesque Northern European culture imported by the Normans. As a result, Sicily became the crossroads of Mediterranean cultures under Norman rule, and a hybrid culture arose that integrated Norman-Catholic, Byzantine-Orthodox and Arab-Islamic elements. The Monreale Cathedral with its Byzantine mosaics and the adjacent cloister created by Arabic craftsmen is the crowning achievement of this culture.

Today, the concept of Mare Nostrum has taken on a different meaning. Following the tragic  2013 Lampedusa migrant shipwreck in which over 360 African refugees drowned, the Italian government implemented the Operation Mare Nostrum, a military and humanitarian operation designed to simultaneously rescue refugees who cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa in unsafe, overloaded boats and to apprehend the traffickers. The initiative has since been scaled back for financial reasons.


Memorial to African refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean, made out of boat fragments (Cathedral of Noto). The inscription quotes Pope Francis “Chi piangerà per questi morti?” (Who will cry for these dead?)

In this contemporary usage, the term Mare Nostrum is intended to embrace the diversity of Mediterranean cultures and to enhance exchange and cooperation between them. But the opposite is happening in Sicily today. The unresolved refugee crisis that is focused on Sicily, primarily due to its proximity to the North African coast, highlights how Sicily’s role in a new era of globalization has changed. What once was the center of the Mediterranean world now has become an outpost of the European Union, the border between the wealthy industrialized nations and the Global South. Ironically, the globalization of the 21st century has created an impermeable border, a bulwark both physical and mental, on an island that was the meeting point of Mediterranean cultures and civilizations for over two millennia.

Islamic Extremist Iconoclasm–and Its Christian Precedents

In recent days, there has been a global outcry about the destruction of the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud by ISIS. Over the past few years, many invaluable antiquities and irreplacable world heritage sites have fallen victim to Islamic extremists in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The theological justification for these acts is that these artifacts are idols which propagate a false religion and seduce the faithful to stray from the path to true faith.

Perhaps the most spectacular act was the the destruction of two giant Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001. Ever since then, Islamic extremists have destroyed valuable antiquities up to the most recent atrocities committed by ISIS. Aside from expunging idols of false religions, the destruction serves a second purpose: it has become part of a propaganda war in which ISIS is shocking Western audiences in order to remain relevant. The destruction of antiquities and its documentation in videos thus serve as propaganda stunts not unlike the brutal and inhuman beheading videos.

While these are despicable acts, the fact that we infidels find these acts reprehensible is part of the reason why they were committed in first place. I decided not to link images in order not to fuel this propaganda effort by the Islamic extremists. The “propaganda video featuring the apparent destruction of the Mosul Museum” also raises the possibility that these accounts are actually exaggerated. It appears that many of the destroyed artifacts actually were plaster replicas–which reinforces the point about the propaganda stunt.

It is useful to remind ourselves that the Christian tradition had its own moments of sometimes violent iconoclasm–the theologically motivated destruction of religious artifacts. In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Byzantine Empire went through two periods of iconoclasm, for instance. But the most virulent example of Christian extremist iconoclasm is the Protestant Reform of the 16th century, promoted by Lutherans like Andreas Karlstadt and the two founding figures of the Reformed Church, Huldrych Zwingli and Jean Calvin. They regarded the visual representation of the divine as a form of heresy and ordered the systematic destruction of religious art in churches they controlled.


Damaged relief in Utrecht Cathedral, desecrated in 1566 during the iconoclast fury in the Netherlands. (Wikipedia)

The Protestant iconoclastic fervor was as virulent and extreme as the destructive energy displayed by the modern-day Islamic extremists.  In the Zwinglian part of Switzerland, and particularly in Zurich, churches were purged of all religious images in 1524. Wooden art was publicly burned, and stone sculptures damaged and destroyed with heavy tools. Similar purges happened in some South German cities in the following years. A wave of iconoclast riots swept through the Low Lands in 1566 as an expression of Calvinist assertion against Spanish-Catholic rule.


Removal and public burning of religious icons in Zurich in 1524. (Wikipedia)

Citizens were incited by preachers to remove idolatric religious art and to ritualistically destroy it in an act of public performance that amounts to a publicity stunt–an aspect which is reflected in many images from the period. Pre-Reformation church art had been commissioned and sponsored by prominent noble and patrician families whose members continued to identify with it. Reformers staged these acts of destruction to shock the entrenched establishment: the point was to destroy what was emotionally dear to its members. Just like with the destruction of antique treasures, there was a theatrical aspect to Reformation-era iconoclasm. So the barbaric destruction of antiquities at the hands of ISIS is not an Islamic specialty–rather an outgrowth of misguided religious fundamentalism. The examples from Christian history vividly illustrate the point.


Destruction of religious art in the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp in 1566, staged as a communal act. (Wikipedia)


Francis Drake’s Sack of Santo Domingo: A Case of Terrorism?


Santo Domingo, sacked by Francis Drake in 1586. Note the small harbor protecting only a handful of ships.

We believe that we live in an age of terrorism. But terror is as old as humankind. Just ask the unsuspecting population of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola which on January 1, 1586, woke up to Francis Drake (c. 1540 – 1596) and his marauding mercenaries ransacking their city. Santo Domingo, founded in 1496, is the oldest colonial city in the New World and at that time as the seat of a real audiencia still was a Spanish administrative center for the Caribbean. But it long had lost the political and strategic centrality it enjoyed during the years of the Conquest, and its pivotal role in the Transatlantic trade had been passed on to nearby San Juan, Puerto Rico, as I have discussed in a different post. When Francis Drake arrived, Santo Domingo was well past its prime.


The Fortaleza Ozama, built 1502-1505, with its modest size was no match for Drake’s forces.

Drake’s men took the city by surprise, both by shelling the Fortaleza Ozama and by entering the city through the poorly defended gates on the land side. The pirates plundered and vandalized the city, burned down parts of it, and started to destroy stone buildings and monasteries to extort a ransom. He set up his headquarters in the cathedral where he looted the altars, destroyed all religious art, plundered the tombs, taking anything that was of value, and quite literally defecating on all things Catholic. Finally, a ransom of  25,000 ducats was negotiated–an extraordinary sum that only could be amassed by forcing citizens to surrender gold and jewels. At the nearby Casa del Cordón Drake installed a scale to weigh the exact amount of gold and jewels that were turned in by citizens.  Drake and his men left again a month later, turning their attention to Cartagena which was sacked and plundered in a similar fashion.


Catedral de Santa María la Menor: Drake housed in a chapel to the right of the main altar.

Drake left behind not just a city that was a smoldering ruin, he also left behind a humiliated and traumatized city. To be sure, most of the churches and houses were restored, but the Spanish did not update the defense installations as they did in San Juan, Cartagena and other strategic points in the Caribbean. Simply put, the Spanish stopped investing into Santo Domingo. Very little of importance happened here after 1586, and the Spanish colonial Baroque architecture and culture of the 17th and 18th centuries which flourished in Mexico and South America completely bypassed Santo Domingo.

IMG_1693_Puerta de la Misericordia (2)

The Puerta de la Misericordia, built in 1543 and expanded in 1568, could not stop Drake’s attack on land.

In a modern definition, terrorism involves non-state actors fighting enemy states, their representatives, institutions, and populations in asymmetrical warfare. In that sense, Robespierre‘s Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France in 1793-94 does not qualify: this is just a case of a despot savagely abusing his own people. We have seen many since: from Stalin and Hitler to native sons “El Jefe” Trujillo and “Papa Doc” Duvalier who more recently traumatized the two nations that now share the island of Hispaniola.

Obviously, we have to see Francis Drake’s savage pillaging in the geopolitical context of the time: England challenging the Habsburg hegemony (the Habsburgs ruled Spain, Austria, and the Low Lands and controlled the Empire), supporting the Dutch in their wars of liberation against the Spanish, taking an active role in fighting Catholicism, and striving to become a maritime and colonial power in its own right.

In fact, Francis Drake, Sir Francis Drake if you are British, was sailing to the West Indies in something of an official mission. His acts of piracy in the Caribbean clearly were part of an English strategy to weaken the Spanish control over the Caribbean and the Transatlantic trade. But his fleet of 30 ships was financed by merchants who clearly had an interest in developing a trade network in the Caribbean, and his mission was not to take land and plant the English flag. His mission was to plunder and destroy, to take ransom, in short to inflict terror. Drake may have been the original of the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” He ushered in a century of piracy that left the Caribbean an unsafe, violence-filled space.

Like most explorers and navigators of the time, Drake also was a privateer, entrepreneur and free agent who worked for himself first and foremost. This agency is also an attribute of modern terrorists. Like many terrorists today, Drake had the implicit support by a state actor, the English crown, and had the financial backing of his own commercial network. Most importantly, the trauma of this humiliation he inflicted on Santo Domingo more than four centuries ago lives on today.* That is the very definition of terror.

IMG_1561 (2)

Iglesia de San Francisco, constructed 1544-1556. The Franciscan convent in Santo Domingo was mostly destroyed by Drake, then partly restored, damaged again in earthquakes in 1673 and 1751, abandoned in 1795.

* Note added 5/22/14: Gabriel García Márquez in his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold (NY: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 98) describes the Palace of Justice in Riohacha on Colombia’s Caribbean coast with this apparently random phrase: “decrepit colonial building that had been Sir Francis Drake’s headquarters for two days.” This is the only overt historical reference in the book and indicates how Drake’s terror lives on in the collective memory in the areas he affected.

Santo Domingo, San Juan, and the First Age of Globalization

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, were the two first cities the Spanish built in the Americas, in that order. But the histories of the two cities located on two neighboring islands in the Caribbean and only 254 miles apart could not be more different. A close look at the architecture in these two cities makes this evident.

Santo Domingo became the early hub of all Spanish activities in the Americas and was booming in the first half of the 16th century. The first stone houses were built there in 1502, just ten years after Columbus first had arrived, a real audiencia was established in 1511, and a magnificent cathedral followed. All early conquistadors, like Cortés and Pizarro, came through this city, owned or rented houses, and spent months or years preparing for their respective conquests. The earliest fortifications were built starting in 1502, and in the 1540s a city wall was built to protect the entire city. Yet, building activity dropped off in the second half of the 16th century, and the fortifications remained modest in size and scope.


The modest Fuerte de San Gil, erected 1503-1510, overlooks the entrance to Santo Domingo harbor.

The Spanish established the Real Audiencia (1528) and the Viceroyalty of New Spain (1532) in Mexico City, and political power gradually began to shift there. The Pedro de Mendoza expedition to the Río de la Plata region in 1534 was the first allowed to bypass Santo Domingo altogether, thus diminishing the role of the city as the hub of the Conquest. The sack of Santo Domingo by the pirate Sir Francis Drake in 1586 dealt a final blow to the aspirations of this city, as I have discussed in a different post, and little of significance seems to have been built in the 17th and 18th centuries.

San Juan, by contrast, features two of the most massive forts the Spanish ever built in the Americas to protect city and harbor, and the entire city was surrounded by a massive wall 40 feet tall and 18 feet thick. The military installations were a work in progress: starting with the first small fort in 1534, the Spanish continued to expand walls and bastions until 1790.


Castillo San Felipe del Morro, built 1539-1786 to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay and San Juan harbor.

And all this in spite of the fact that San Juan never played a major role in the Spanish colonial administration. Ironically, it remained under the jurisdiction of the Real Audiencia of Santo Domingo. But Santo Domingo failed to thrive because it could offer only a modest seaport consisting of the mouth of the Río Ozama, a minor river, which was protected by a small barrier island. The harbor was difficult to defend, in spite of the Fortaleza Ozama next to it, built 1502-1505. As trade picked up substantially within a few decades, this port could neither provide the needed capacity nor offer sufficient protection.


Entrance to the Santo Domingo harbor, protected by a small barrier island, seen from the Fortaleza Ozama (1502-05).

The Spanish needed a large and safe seaport as the Western anchor of the Atlantic crossing. This was critical as ships sometimes needed to wait for weeks or months for favorable trade winds to guarantee safe and expedient passage to Spain. Inversely, Puerto Rico was the first large island with food, a reliable fresh water supply, shelter and a secure deep-water port the weary sailors en route from Spain encountered in the Americas. It also was important to have a safe place to repair ships and to tend to sick crew members. San Juan Bay offered all of that.

These factors, plus the favorable location on the course of the eastern trade winds, gave San Juan and Puerto Rico great military, economic, and strategic importance: its harbor could protect merchant fleets and offered a safe point from which warships could be dispatched to maintain control over the Caribbean. While the Spaniards ceded the Western portion of Hispaniola (now Haiti) to France in 1697 and lost control of Santo Domingo in 1801, they vigorously defended San Juan and its strategic harbor entrance for almost 400 years–until Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898.


Castillo San Felipe del Morro controlling the entrance to San Juan Bay–the most important half mile in the Americas.

Puerto Rico is only a footnote in the history of the Conquest as it never played a major political role–in contrast to Santo Domingo which was the political center of the first phase of the Conquest. So the fact that the Spanish invested heavily in the massive defense infrastructure in San Juan is surprising to the uninitiated visitor. But we tend to overlook the centrality of trade and commerce in the Conquest of the New World. San Juan became a major hub in the Spanish trade in silver and gold, and that is the true significance of the city: the San Juan seaport was used by merchant and military ships traveling from Spain as the first stopover in the Americas, but it also was the port where ships heading to Spain prepared for the transatlantic voyage. So the fortifications served to protect the lucrative trade in silver and gold and thus one of the major hubs in the early modern trade network and of the first age of globalization.


The large, protected San Juan Bay could give shelter to large merchant fleets and to Spanish war ships. Today, it is lined with harbor installations. As these two large cruise ships indicate, San Juan now is part of a different kind of global network.


“When did globalisation start?” A Response.

This question was posed in a blog post on The Economist web site on September 23. Why does the question matter? It matters because it forces us to think about the nature of globalization, its history, and its interpretation. And it forces us to address the question of whether globalization has benefited humanity over time. In that sense it is important to understand whether globalization started in Antiquity, around 1500, in the 19th century, or in the 1980s, as arguments can be made for all scenarios.

Economists like to connect globalization with a convergence and integration of markets, enhanced by a progressing division of labor and expanding trade systems. The great European discoveries around 1500 thus must be seen as a major incubator for globalization. Already Adam Smith argued that the influx of great amounts of silver from mines in Mexico and Bolivia in the 16th century profoundly affected the markets in Europe by dramatically lowering the price of silver–to which the value of European currencies was pegged–while accelerating inflation. Inflation only slowed around 1650, so the theory goes, “when the price of silver fell to such a low level that it was no longer profitable to import it from the Americas.”


The fact is that Europe suffered from serious inflation between 1500 and 1650 which had a destabilizing effect on European societies. Inflation was real, and it was feared. In church hymns of the time, inflation joined illness, hunger, disorder, celestial events, and the Turks as the most serious ills of the time that required God’s assistance. But did Columbus cause inflation?

While the story of American silver is a compelling one, there are a number of destabilizing factors after 1500 that contributed to inflation: the Protestant Reform, the transformation of a feudal society into a mercantilist one, the rapid growth of urban production with rising wages, the Little Ice Age, and the Turkish threat, to name just a few. Then there was the demographic collapse created by the arrival of the plague around 1350 which caused low prices, and the rapid rise of the population starting in the late 15th century which caused a rise in price levels and promoted a rapid expansion of the European trade system. Inflation was also driven by the Thirty Years War (1618-48) which created both shortages and high demand for weapons and provisions for soldiers. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia ended the high demand, and coupled with a massive population loss in the Empire it also ended inflationary pressures.

But there is a larger point to be made. Globalization is a way of thinking about the world and the role of the human in it. Around 1500, the way humans thought about space and the way they related to it changed profoundly. The earth now was thought of as a sphere that could be traveled on endlessly, the universe became infinite, and art marked the centrality of spatial relations through Leonardo’s innovation of the perspective. It is in this context that Columbus’s westward travels to Asia and Vasco de Gama’s travels around Africa and across the Indian Ocean became thinkable. So globalization reflects a state of mind which allows humans to see the world as a whole, to understand spatial relations, to make connections between its parts, and to act upon this insight. The transformation from the old T-O world map, printed as late as 1475, and the Waldseemüller world map of 1507 that first marks “America” indicates this intellectual leap.


Vasco de Gama may have stopped at this protected natural harbor on Mozambique Island in 1498. The Portuguese built their first fort here in 1507.

The second element in this globalization story is competition. It is no accident that Columbus and Vasco de Gama ventured out almost simultaneously to find a sea route to Asia. Both Spain and Portugal were in an open competition to find a commercially viable route to Asia to enhance their trade in high-value goods such as silk and spices. While quickly seizing the opportunities the newly discovered continent offered, the Spanish for three decades were feverishly looking for navigable passages through or around it.

The third element was that the discoveries were driven by commerce, not by sheer curiosity.  As opening a sea route to Asia had great economic promise, many merchants and investors financed expeditions to lands unknown. Voyages of discovery were financed by private venture capital under license from the Spanish and Portuguese crowns to a significant degree. Santo Domingo, the first Spanish hub in the Americas, became a city with stone buildings teeming with investors, entrepreneurs and adventurers within a decade of Columbus’s arrival. From there, the new Atlantic trade system evolved with breathtaking speed–which included mining and plantation operations in the Americas, the Transatlantic slave trade, and an intensifying trade with Asia. But it is the intellectual leap of seeing the world holistically which is the true moment of globalization, the evolving system of global trade just being its logical outgrowth.


The Calle de las Damas in Santo Domingo in 1502 became the first paved road built by the Spanish in the Americas, just 10 years after Columbus first arrived here. These stone buildings were built as investment properties around the same time. One tenant was Hernán Cortés.


“Strings of Chinese Pearls” of the Past

What do these three pictures have in common?


Bergen Bryggen, outpost of the Hanseatic League


Ilha de Moçambique: Fortaleza de São Sebastião


Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka (Source: The Economist, June 8, 2013)

All three images show attempts by a major power to expand its hegemonic sphere by expanding its own trade network.

Around 1360, the Hanseatic League established a Kontor (trade office) in the wharf of Bergen, a major Norwegian port city on the Atlantic coast. The Hanseatic League, based in Lübeck, was a trade and defense pact which dominated trade in the Baltic and North Sea from the 13th to the 17th century; at the peak of its power in the 14th century, it included 170 cities in Northern Europe. Over the next years, members of the Hanseatic Kontor bought all properties at the Bergen wharf which then was the city center, thus displacing the local traders and even forcing the city hall to move. The members of the Kontor, 2,000 strong at the peak, formed their own segregated society and system of governance that de facto ruled Bergen over centuries. It also controlled trade along the Atlantic coast of Norway. The Bergen Kontor only closed in 1754.

Access to the Asian spice and silk markets fueled a competition between Spain and Portugal to open a trade route to India and China during the first age of globalization. While the Spanish headed west but were slowed by this hitherto unknown continent that blocked access, the Portuguese traveled around Africa to reach Asia. Vasco de Gama landed on Mozambique Island probably in 1498. Subsequently, the Portuguese established a string of fortified outposts along the coasts of Africa, India, and China to secure their trade routes. By 1507, the Portuguese built a small fort on Mozambique Island. As the area was part of the Arabic and Ottoman trade systems, a more substantial fort was required. Between 1546 and 1583, the Portuguese built the Fortaleza de São Sebastião, the grandest of all European forts in Sub-Saharan Africa. Gradually, the Portuguese started to control territories and their populations on the adjacent mainland, predominantly to control the food supply for their trade posts. But the Portuguese did not assume full control over the territory referred to as Mozambique today until the 19th century when the major European powers started to carve up Africa into their own fiefdoms. Mozambique achieved independence from Portugal only in 1975.

These days, China is creating a shipping hub in Colombo, just 200 miles from India’s southern tip. A Chinese company is building a new container terminal which will be run by an entity controlled by another Chinese firm. The terminal opens this month and will be completed by April 2014. According to The Economist, this will make Colombo one of the world’s 20 biggest container ports. As the Economist article points out, the new Chinese hub in Colombo is part of a network of ports around the world that are at least in part controlled by Chinese interests, as the map below shows–which looks similar to the maps of the Hanseatic and Portuguese trade systems.


The Economist, June 8, 2013

Recently, Chinese investments in the ports of Piraeus and Karachi made the news–both times because they expand Chinese influence in parts of the world not traditionally considered in China’s orbit. The subtitle of the Economist article spells it out that “China’s growing empire of ports abroad is mainly about trade, not aggression.” But as the examples of the Hanseatic League and of Portugal show, this strategy of establishing trade outposts can serve to secure access and political power over long periods of time.

While the three images show three different historic periods and different parts of the world, they all illustrate the same pattern. They all represent the hegemonial aspirations of major powers which in all three cases are successfully implemented by securing trade posts far away from home and by creating expansive trade networks. Both the Hanseatic League and the Portuguese crown used their trade posts and their respective trade systems to gain political control over the areas in which they were active. It remains to be seen to what extent the Chinese strategy of creating a “String of Pearls” will translate into establishing hegemonic rule.


Pizarro in Exile

The monument of Francisco Pizarro (1470/71 – 1541) in Lima is the work of the American sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey (1879 – 1922). In 1913 Rumsey received an invitation to contribute a large equestrian statue of Pizarro to the Panama-Pacific International  Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. His work appears to have been well-received. Other copies were cast later, and three of them are extant today: in Buffaly, NY, in Trujillo, Spain (Pizarro’s place of birth), and of course in Lima, Peru. This particular bronze statue was donated to the city of Lima by his widow Mary Harriman Rumsey (1881 – 1934) and unveiled on January 18, 1935, on the occasion of the fourth centenary of Lima’s founding by Pizarro.

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The Pizarro monument in the Parque de la Muralla (2010)

Francisco Pizarro led a brutal and bloody campaign to conquer and subjugate the Inca empire. His expedition reached northern Peru in 1532, and he founded the city of Lima in 1535 which was going to become the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1541. Later in 1535 he entered the Inca capital of Cusco, thus completing his conquest of the Inca empire. Pizarro was murdered in Lima in 1541 by a fellow Spaniard as a result of political conflict among colonizers–which was a common feature of the Conquest.

While the landscape of South America is dotted with monuments to the two main South American liberators Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) and José de San Martín (c. 1778–1850), why would the city of Lima set up a monument to Francisco Pizarro? The reasons lie in the way the Peruvian Republic, which declared its independence in 1821, dealt with the colonial past.

Even though the revolutionaries and liberators of the early 19th century, like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, were of Spanish descent, they pursued a distinct nationalist Peruvian (and South American) identity that was detached from the Spanish colonial masters, following the path the United States had taken from 1776 onward. In the 1860s, the Republican governments started to transform Lima into a modern capital which was modeled after Paris; it featured wide avenues and large stately buildings in the then-dominant neo-classical style. The imitation of the European colonial masters had become acceptable again.

After World War I, a neo-colonial style became more fashionable, the palace of the archbishop (1924) next to the cathedral perhaps being the best example. This conscious reflection on the civilizing legacy of the Spanish colonizers on the Peruvian Republic was in part in response to growing indigenist viewpoints that framed the Spaniards as brutal colonizers who had committed genocide. It also was a tribute to a rising European fascism which had a significant impact in Latin America and to which many in the elites had an affinity. It is in that context that the veneration of Pizarro became a point of identification among the Peruvian elites. In 1928, a chapel celebrating Pizarro’s achievements was dedicated in the historic Lima Cathedral, including a memorable mosaic showing Pizarro entering a primitive and depraved Peruvian landscape.

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Mosaic showing Pizarro’s conquest of Peru (chapel in Lima Cathedral, dedicated in 1928)

This was followed by the erection of said monument to Pizarro just a few steps away in 1935. In his opening speech at the unveiling of the Pizarro monument in 1935, Lima mayor Luis Gallo Porras (1894 – 1972) called the statue a “figura preclara del héroe y del civilizador” (illustrious statue of the hero and civilizer).


The Pizarro monument in front of Lima cathedral after 1935

Initially, the monument was located in front of the Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor), the most prominent and symbolic space in the entire city of Lima.  From the very beginning, the placement of the monument caused conflict.  Due to complaints from the Archdiocese of Lima, the statue was moved to a small square off the Northwest corner of the Plaza de Armas, between the Presidential Palace and Lima’s Palacio Municipal, in 1952. The small square then was called Plaza Pizarro.

Pizarro monument in a corner of the Plaza de Armas (1950-2003)

Pizarro monument in the Plaza Pizarro, off the Plaza de Armas (1952-2003)

Conservatives saw it appropriate to commemorate the founder of the city and to celebrate the colonial roots of contemporary Peru. They likened the Spanish conquest of Peru to the Roman conquest of  Spain and argued that Peru in its essence was Spanish. Progressives viewed the monument as a symbol of colonialism and oppression and argued that Lima should not honor the destroyer of the Inca culture and oppressor and murderer of Peru’s indigenous people. They viewed Peru as a nation rooted in indigenous culture which survived centuries of efforts to eradicate it.

As a clear majority of the Peruvian population identifies with indigenous cultures, the political mood was changing in this direction in the last quarter of the 20th century. In 2003, Lima Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio ordered the removal of the statue. The plaza was remodeled and renamed “Plaza Perú”. The statue was eventually placed into a remote corner of the Parque de la Muralla (park of the wall), a park that was developed at the time as part of a project to protect remnants of the historic city wall which were discovered  during a construction project a few years earlier. The statue also has been deprived of the large and commanding base which it enjoyed in its previous two locations–the equestrian monument has been demoted to a pedestrian level. While the statue still is publicly displayed, it is clear that Pizarro has been exiled to an insignificant spot outside the boundaries of colonial Lima.

Pizarro is founding father to some and war criminal to others. His monument is a lightening rod for ongoing political conflicts between the conservative elites mostly of Spanish descent and progressive forces who identify with and support the cause of Peru’s indigenous majority. It is symbolic for the negotiations to create a unified national identity and for the ongoing effort to define a hybrid culture that in some form existed ever since Pizarro arrived. As the conflict surrounding the Pizarro monument illustrates, even two centuries after Peruvian liberation, the legacy of colonial rule is omnipresent in Peruvian culture and political discourse.

Pizarro in exile today--apparently not commanding a lot of respect

Pizarro in exile today–apparently not commanding a lot of respect (2010).