Sunday, June 22, 2014

Beringia and Geopolitics

While in graduate school I learned, via the then-new H-AMINDIAN mailing list, that Europeans had begun developing the Beringian theory of Native American origins as early as the sixteenth century. Jose de Acosta and Daniel Gookin, among others, had posited a land bridge or narrow strait between Siberia and North America well before Vitus Bering's second voyage, and had asserted Siberio-Indian kinship based on linguistic similarities and other evidence. More recently, I was surprised to learn, from Claudio Saunt's intriguing new book West of the Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2014), that eighteenth-century Europeans used this hypothesis to advance geopolitical agendas. In the 1750s the Franciscan Jose Torrubia used “Aztec tradition” and colonial documents to argue that the Indians of Mexico came from Siberia and that very little distance separated that chilly wasteland from the northwest coast of America. When he learned of Bering's discoveries (which the Russians had kept under wraps for twenty years), Torrubia wrote a long essay warning that the “Muscovites” would shortly move into California if not checked (pp. 52-53). In the early 1770s, Spanish Ambassador Antonio de Lacy noted that the Russians were using not only geography but the Beringian-origins hypothesis to promote colonization: Russia, according to one of Catherine II's advisers, had a clear claim to North America “because that country was once peopled by Siberians” (73-74).

Such reports exaggerated Russia's intentions. It would take another quarter-century before Russian traders established a settlement east of Kodiak Island, and several decades before some built a small trading post in northern California, on the river that a younger Saunt thought must be the “Rushin' River” (12). Spanish officials of the 1760s and '70s did not have the benefit of this hindsight, and their alarm caused them to approve the colonization of California, with, as Saunt observes, devastating consequences for Native Californians. That fear of Russian expansion drove Spain's colonial venture in California is well-established. Saunt's new contribution to the history of that venture is to note how the Beringian-origins theory changed the way the Spanish thought about geography: it made Siberia, the putative homeland of Native Americans (with whom the Spanish were quite familiar), a much more immanent reality, and helped eliminate the mental distance between Russian Siberia and Spanish America, just as Bering's discoveries were erasing the physical distance between them. For all its ivory-tower trappings and pretenses, sometimes intellectual history has a very immediate impact on political history.

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