It was the Spaniards who gave the world the notion that an aristocrat’s blood is not red but blue. The Spanish nobility started taking shape around the ninth century in classic military fashion, occupying land as warriors on horseback. They were to continue the process for more than five hundred years, clawing back sections of the peninsula from its Moorish occupiers, and a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin—proof that his birth had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy—Robert Lacey, Aristocrats
The historical Spanish obsession with the purity of blood evolved into an elaborate caste system which reached its apogee with the colonization of South America and the subsequent intermingling of settlers with both South American Indians and imported African slaves, all of whose mixed offspring needed a separate classification, of course.
It was an intricate system—designed to pit sections of society against each other and play on the subsequent fear of overthrow by the lower classes, so that Spain could continue to exert its top-down control. But it also signified the relative social importance of the caste members, usually in a pejorative sense, meaning that only certain rights, occupations, and institutions were open to them.
If you had been born in Spain, then you automatically qualified as a member of the elite. If you had been born in South America, but your bloodline was “pure” then you were accorded privileged status, but of the second order, and the most influential posts were out of reach. However, if your ancestors had the temerity to dally with the Indians or blacks, then a complicated algorithm was brought to bear. Continue reading
For the chronicler, the charm of history lies in the fact that—if only he waits a sufficient time before setting down his tale—he can always trace the fall of an empire to the loss of a horseshoe nail. Hermann B. Deutsch, “The Incredible Yanqui.”
It’s difficult to subscribe to any grand theories of history when examining the historical record. If you zoom back enough, events can appear to have some kind of order, some kind of logical cause-and-effect.
However, when you zoom in, it’s akin to witnessing Brownian motion through a microscope. Chaos seems to rule. While we are—on some level at least—rational beings, we often pursue an irrational course of action. Chance and chaos have played too large a role in the events of history for any grand theory to neatly explain anything.
We can, however, follow a chain of events back to its source. And often, the fall of an empire can indeed be traced to the loss of a horseshoe nail, given the requisite distance and perspective. The events described in the (fantastic) book from which the above quote is taken—The Incredible Yanqui by Hermann Deutsch—are a case in point.
Deutsche’s narrative non-fiction account concerns the life of a man who was extremely well-known one hundred years ago, but who has since been forgotten. Lee Christmas, a Louisiana native, was at the beginning of what he hoped would be a long career working the railroad when he fell asleep, drunk, at the throttle and crashed straight into an oncoming locomotive. Continue reading
If you walk around Potosí today, it’s hard to believe that it was once the center of the New World: the largest and richest city in the Americas. There are plenty of signs of faded grandeur; the city is filled with beautiful, but crumbling, colonial buildings.
Most travelers to Bolivia bypass the city. After touring the Salt Plains to the south, most head on to the lights of La Paz, planning to tour Lake Titicaca, cycle the world’s most dangerous road, or move on to Cuzco and Machu Picchu.
Others take a less-traveled path into Chile and the Atacama Desert then travel up to Ica, the condors of the Colca Canyon, and the mysterious Nazca Lines. Those coming from the north tend to skip Potosí altogether. This, however, is a mistake.
Its primary tourist attraction is the old silver mine. While it’s not much to look at – from the outside at least – this mine once provided a huge portion of the Spanish Crown’s revenue.
In the 1540s, the first Spanish explorers described a “thumb of silver” sticking out from the Altiplano. Mount Potosí was soon renamed El Cerro Rico, in honor of a huge outcropping of silver ore which ran down one side of the mountain, hinting at the vast riches which lay beneath. Continue reading
The Peruvian Navy took a chance in 1861. It ordered two huge iron gunboats—the Yavarí and the Yapura—for patrolling Lake Titicaca, which at 3,838 meters is the world’s highest navigable lake.
‘Navigable’ is often added as there are smaller, higher lakes elsewhere in the Andes, but these are more isolated and lack the requisite depth for larger ships.
But that’s not the case for the 100-mile long Lake Titicaca, the largest fresh-water body on the South American continent proper* and the mythical cradle of the Inca civilization. It was here that the Sun was born and the first Inca descended from the heavens to create the Inca Empire.
But protecting this magnificent lake with modern ships was no simple matter. There were no ship-building facilities and one of the world’s largest mountain ranges, the Andes, lay in-between the Pacific Ocean port of Arica—where the boats were to be received piecemeal from England—and the lake which they were supposed to patrol. Continue reading
Through a curious accident of history, Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in all of South America. The ethnic mix is very different too, largely down to the legacy of slavery.
An estimated 6 million African slaves were “imported” into Brazil between the 1500s and the 1800s. One consequence of this was that the colonists were vastly outnumbered.
Brazil’s inhospitable geography (a vast, barren interior surrounded by impenetrable jungle), meant settlements hugged the coastline. When a slave escaped, the first thing they did was head inland.
The harsh Brazilian interior, known as the sertão, became home to scattered runaway communities known as quilombos. The word itself derives from the Kimbundu word kilombo – Angolan tribes who organized themselves into defensive communities to resist slavers – and the tradition crossed the Atlantic with those taken.
But the quilombos didn’t just consist of escaped slaves and their free-born children, they also sheltered Brazilian Indians, oppressed Portuguese, army deserters, fugitives, as well as Jews and Arabs escaping religious persecution by Catholic zealots. Continue reading
Don Juan O’Brien left Baltinglass in 1811 as plain old John O’Brien, earning his new moniker in Buenos Aires, not due to disproportionate amorous exploits, but from the city-dwellers propensity to localise everyone’s name, making even an Irishman from Wicklow sound exotic.
Emigration was common in Ireland; some left to find work, some to escape a criminal charge, and some to avoid the terror of deportation to Australia. Many left to escape religious persecution, others to raise an army, hoping to return and free their native land. But O’Brien left Ireland at the age of twenty-five to plough a different furrow.
He was born into a family of farmers and shopkeepers, relatively well-off for Catholics who had to endure the savagery of the Penal Laws. His father passed away when he was just sixteen, bequeathing him some commercial interests as well as a pair of fine horses, but these steeds were to be O’Brien’s downfall: he lost everything to his unbridled passion for racing, forcing him to mortgage his home – and ask his brothers to do likewise – to keep out of the Debtor’s Prison.
O’Brien decided to try his luck in London, where he first heard of the independence struggle in South America. It captured the imagination of his romantic soul. Returning immediately to bid farewell to the remainder of his family, he secured passage on a Portuguese vessel bound for Rio de Janeiro, his friends providing him with letters of introduction. Continue reading
The South American wars of independence are barely known outside its borders: a bloody, twelve year conflict – spanning the entire continent. The might of the Spanish Empire was on one side and a group of poorly armed rebels, mercenaries, and escaped slaves on the other.
Simón Bolívar led the insurrection in the North, liberating what is now Venezuela, Columbia, and Ecuador while dealing with a few ambushes, jungle crossings, man-eating swamps, and civil wars along the way.
The lesser known José de San Martín deserted the Spanish Army and raised the flag of rebellion in Argentina. He scaled the Andes and took Santiago in a daring assault, then launched an attack on Lima by sea with the help of a disgraced British sea captain who was secretly angling to place Napoleon on the thrown of a unified South America. Continue reading
Well, hello there. Some of you may be familiar with my other blog Let’s Get Digital, some may not. It’s all good; this place is going to be very different as it’s an outlet for an altogether different obsession: South America.
It’s hard to imagine what I thought of South America before I visited there, but I’m sure it was the standard stereotypes of violent druglords, corrupt regimes, and hedonistic locals.
While those things hold true – to a very limited extent – there is also so much more to the continent, and one of the most fascinating aspects of South America is its history.
From swashbuckling heroes to comic-book villains, South American history reads like an old-school adventure story and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the stories I collected on two separate trips around the continent.
I first went to South America in 2005. I only intended staying for a couple of months before continuing on to New Zealand. However, within a few weeks, I knew I wasn’t going to leave until I ran out of money.
I managed to stretch it out for nine months, and by then I was fully addicted. Even though I traveled to some interesting and exotic places in subsequent years, South America never strayed from the forefront my mind; it gets under your skin.
Returning was an inevitability, and I was able to spend another nine months there in 2009. Although that time I had I good excuse: research. But we’ll talk more about that later.