The qualities of empire

Remember that story I mentioned around here a couple of weeks ago, the one about the Spanish treasure galleon (the San José) whose 18th century wreckage was just discovered off the coast of Colombia? Yesterday, Africa is a Country published an interesting piece about the provenance and the proper destination of that find by Camilo Ucrós, and it was thought-provoking enough that I wanted to share. The fallout from this find is evidence that colonial history still reverberates today.

Ucrós rejects Spain’s argument that the treasure belongs to them because the ship was the property of the Spanish Empire. Here he’s paraphrasing a December 10 editorial in Spain’s El País newspaper, but I figure we can trust his summary (it’s at least got to be more reliable than whatever my three years of high school Spanish would allow me to make of the piece):

But, as an op-ed in the Spanish newspaper El País conveys convincingly, there is no continuity between the idea of the Spanish Empire and the Spanish nation. Modern day Colombia was as much a part of the Empire as modern day Spain, and both of them are the result of the dismemberment of that shared past.

Furthermore, this claim has tints of an unrepentant colonization; rather than wanting to conserve the common past, it is an extractive, one-sided reclamation.

The colonization of the Spanish Americas was different from subsequent colonial ventures in North America, Africa and Asia, respectively. Describing this particular history as a bleeding of Latin America’s resources and people would simplify and obscure the complex narratives and interactions that took place in the continent.

I think this is a great point, although I actually think it may be too generous to Spain. Modern Colombia was as much a part of the Spanish Empire as modern Spain, but theirs wasn’t a relationship of equals. Yes, the colonial Latin America experience involved more interaction than other, more purely exploitative or genocidal, colonial experiences, but it was still a colonial relationship. The San José was taking treasure extracted from Spain’s colonies back to the mother country to pay for the mother country’s wars (the War of the Spanish Succession, specifically), and I have a hard time imagining that any Spanish ship ever took the opposite voyage. I’m not disputing Ucrós’s point, and I imagine that he’d agree with the one I’m making here. I just think it bolsters the argument against Spain’s claim to remember that this treasure, while sailing under a Spanish flag, was extracted from people under the implicit threat of force, and without their full consent.

What really stuck out to me about Ucrós’s piece was his argument that Colombia shouldn’t get the treasure (or at least not all of it) either, and this gets into the inadequacies of replacing empires with nation-states:

The heritage of the San José could be another symbol of this mestizaje, the ports across the ocean, the ship built in Spain and the goods carried from America were all necessary for the trans-Atlantic trade. If Latin America has this stronger claim to the empire, the treasure, and even the galleon, it then becomes harder to justify why they should stay in Colombia rather than sharing it with her South American counterparts. It is a historical accident that, of the entire Caribbean, the precise spot of the wreckage would become part of the modern Colombian nation.

Primarily, this exposes the artificial nature of the American nations. The idea of sovereignty drawn from a previously integrated system of social and economic institutions, of the same languages and similar macrohistories, can only be understood as an administrative arbitrariness.

There’s not all that much difference between the argument that “the treasure should go to Spain because the San José was flying the Spanish flag” and the argument that “the treasure should go to Colombia because the San José was discovered in what are now Colombian waters.” There were no “Colombian waters” in 1708, because there was no “Colombia” in 1708, and the treasure on board that ship came from all over Spain’s New World colonies, not from any one modern country. Most of the people from whom that wealth was extracted had no more say over whether or not they wound up living in Colombia, or Venezuela, etc., than they did over whether or not they wound up living under Spanish colonial rule in the first place. If justice means returning plundered wealth to the people from whom it was originally plundered, then giving it all to Colombia doesn’t achieve that end anymore than giving it all to Spain would.

The Spanish Empire (Wikimedia | Trasamundo)

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