Sunday Salon: California – Laws of the Indies

I’california (1)m probably going to spend much of today finishing up a stack of history tests that need grading, but I hope to find some time for reading as well.

I’m enjoying the first round of my pre-retirement education in local history, Kevin Starr’s book California.  Chapter two, Laws of the Indies, is about the early days of Spanish colonization, particularly the 160 plus years that passed between the arrival of early Spanish explorers and the first significant settlements  Why did so much time pass before the Spanish began a serious effort to colonize Alta California?

It’s an interesting story of conflict between church and state as well as struggles for supremacy between orders of the church.  The Jesuits, who arrived with the first Spanish explorers, insisted on having a strong say in colonization.  They sought to both convert and protect the native populations of the Americas.  To this end, they established missions in Baja California, keeping the Spanish military and potential Spanish colonists away from the native people.  It really sounds like the Jesuits were trying to establish a utopia, unaware that the natives almost had one already in place.

The Spanish military was eventually able to force the Jesuits out in favor of the Franciscans who moved into Alta California right away, establishing what would become a chain of 21 missions throughout the state, each a days walk from the other.  Settlements were still very small and very few.  There was a movement to attract settlers by offering retired army personnel land grants, but there were no takers.  Just very isolated missions, some with only a single Franciscan to run the place.

What surprised me about this chapter was this struggle to control California between the Jesuits, the Franciscans and the Spanish Military.  The Spanish needed a safe harbor for ships travelling between Mexico and the Philippines, but the Jesuits had authority to prevent settlements beyond their own.  The Franciscans’s focus on conversion over preservation made them ideal partners for the Spanish government.

All parties involved were still in something of a crusader mindset.  Much of  early Spanish and Portugese exploration was at least partially motivated by the desire to crush Islam and expand the church’s reach.  We forget how closely tied Spanish exploration was to the Counter Reformation– the Age of Exploration closely overlaps the Reformation.   We’d do well to remember how tightly the two movements were linked.

This crusading, counter-reformation mindset meant the Franciscans, along with most of the Spanish (probably most of Europe as well) viewed non-Christians as less than fully human.  To convert to Christianity was to become a reasoning adult in the minds of many Europeans.  (This mindset is not all that far from the way many religious people and athiests view each other today.)  The end result of this mind-set was devastating for the natives of California.  

I thought I’d end today with a mission based fruit crate label from my collection. There was a mission San Fernando, but it does not look like the mission pictured here.  This illustration was used by many different growers.  I’m guessing the moon is supposed to make you think of lemons.  Note both the airplane and the automobile in the picture.  California viewing its past as quaint and picturesque, while embracing the technology of the future.