Saturday, September 26, 2015

Junipero Serra, Saint or Colonialist?

Earlier this week Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who, between 1769 and 1784, established the first Catholic missions in California. Serra and his successors baptized over 80,000 California Indians, a colonial North American record, during the half century of Spanish rule. Father Junipero's elevation to sainthood generated some controversy, however, as many modern Native Californians see him as a pioneer of colonialism and cultural imperialism. Louise Ramirez, chair of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, observed that her people primarily associated Franciscans with corporal punishment and servitude, while Deborah Miranda, an American Indian university professor, identified Serra as an“impose[r]” upon, rather than a contributor to, California's indigenes.

The historical account of California's mission Indians, while slightly more complex than the one provided by Serra's latter-day critics, generally confirms their charges. Stephen Hackel, author of Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis (2005), observes that California Indians did indeed come to the missions involuntarily, but what drove them was not the soldier's bayonet but the specter of starvation. When the Spanish came to Alta California they brought with them their livestock and weeds, which so ravaged the indigenous ecology that many Indians had to resort to the missions for food and shelter. Within those missions, the Franciscan priests imposed a strict discipline upon converts: they had to wear Spanish peasants' clothes, spend their days at labor, live in gender-segregated dormitories, and marry only spouses whom the missionaries approved. As in New Mexico a century earlier, the Franciscans flogged Indian converts guilty of sexual misconduct or apostasy, a practice secular Spanish colonists considered barbaric.

Jean Francois de la Perouse, visiting Monterey in 1786 during his attempted circumnavigation of the globe, reported that the missions reminded him of the slave plantations in the West Indies (Life in a California Mission [Santa Clara, 1989], p. 81). Perouse's comparison wasn't entirely fair: mission inmates enjoyed more autonomy than slaves, with more freedom to travel beyond the mission walls and some political power. (Spanish officials appointed Christian Indians' leaders to secular offices like alcalde.) However, one might note a similarity between sugar plantations and California missions that escaped Perouse's attention: both proved deadly places to live. Diphtheria, measles, and venereal diseases scythed through the conversos' ranks, killing or sterilizing them. 75 percent of children born in the missions died before their fifteenth birthdays, and few inmates lived past the age of 60. Caught between a subsistence crisis outside the mission walls and an epidemiological one within, California's Native American population declined sharply, from 300,000 people in 1769 to 200,000 in 1821.

Prof. Robert Senkewicz, in an article by Emma Green, argued that Pope Francis isn't, in fact, trying to justify mass death, torture, and cultural imperialism with the canonization. He values Junipero Serra as a brother Franciscan, and as an advocate of the evangelism that his pontifical predecessor (who sought to conserve the existing Church rather than increase its ranks) did not emphasize. Moreover, Latin American Catholics view missionaries in a different light from North American ones: in South America, missions often served as refuges for Indians trying to escape forced labor.

And, while we shouldn't downplay Francis's obvious concern for the secular needs of the poor, his Church has historically concerned itself more with the salvation of souls than the preservation of bodies, more with unearthly than earthly priorities. Serra probably would have disliked the high death rate in his missions, but he wouldn't necessarily have deplored it – after all, the deceased would spend eternity in heaven. Francis doubtless prefers to think there isn't much cultural distance between himself and Saint Junipero, but that's because he is a prelate, not a historian, less interested in the “past-ness” of the past and its people than in institutional continuity. One must leave it to modern scholars, and modern Indian leaders, to remind the public of the importance of those differences, of the Native cultures that Franciscan missionaries sought to efface, and the tragic impact of the California missions on Indians' physical lives.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Vikings in Greenland: Ivory and Profits at the Edge of the World


 I find the traditional account of the Norse settlement of Greenland, of farmers and herdsmen coming to the island on the advice of Erik the Red, struggling to make a living, and gradually declining over the centuries, strangely appealing. It is a tragic story of deception, fighting against the odds, and the ultimate triumph of nature over man. On reflection, though, the account doesn't match what most historians (and, I think, most people) know about overseas colonization: people rarely undertake something so dangerous, certainly not for hundreds of years at a time, without the promise of profitable returns.

Archaeologists have long known, thanks to Norse artifacts found in Native American sites, that the Greenlanders weren't just isolated farmers. They certainly traded with their Inuit neighbors and had at least one post on Helluland (Baffin Island) in the fourteenth century. Thomas McGovern now argues that the Norse came to Greenland for commercial reasons – specifically, to harvest walrus tusks, one of medieval Europe's primary sources of ivory. Walrus proved hard to come by: it took a month of hard rowing to reach and return from the prime breeding grounds in Disko Bay (latitude 69 degrees N). But significant rewards came to those who made the effort: 520 tusks, extracted from 260 rotting walrus heads, “had the same value as 780 cows or 60 tons of fish.”*

McGovern also believes economic change, not climate change, killed the colony in the fourteenth century. Ivory belonged to Europe's elite, “prestige-good” economy, but around 1250 CE Europe's merchants began shifting from prestige goods to staple goods, like food and wool. Prices for ivory fell, and then plummeted when the Black Death (1346-50) killed off the Greenlanders' customers. Perhaps the Norse colony might have recovered later, but the Little Ice Age made Disko Bay increasingly inaccessible to small craft. Between 1364 and 1409 the surviving Norse abandoned their settlements as unprofitable, and left Greenland to the people who had actually come there to settle permanently: the Inuit.


* I've not been able to find current equivalents for these, but during the second half of the eighteenth century, colonial American merchants charged 15-20 GBP per ton of fish. (James Lydon, "Fish and Flour for Gold," Program in Early American Economy and Society, Library Co. of Philadelphia [2008], p. 79.)


(Above image, of Disko Bay, courtesy of Algkalv and Wikimedia Commons.)