Saturday, November 27, 2021

September 29, 1526 - Settling of San Miguel de Gualdape

This post was inspired by Mike McIlvain and first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

 After many failed colonization attempts, it was the Spanish magistrate and explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón who was to found the first European settlement in the continental United States, and the third in North America north of Mexico.

A wealthy sugar planter of Santo Domingo, he had obtained permission from the king and queen of Spain with the specific instructions that they build friendly relationships with any indigenous people they encountered. In this endeavour, he had been strongly supported by an abducted indigene who had been baptized as Francisco de Chicora. His over-enthusiastic descriptions were personally motivated by a desire to secure a return passage. Yet, the shocking truth was that all of the indigenous people on Hispaniola were dead and the Spaniards had abducted others and imported enslaved Africans for labour. An apocalypse of biblical proportions had arrived in the Americas, but fortunately the direction of history was set to head in the opposite direction.

As the government functionary,
Ayllón's ultimate success, and the legacy of the colony, was largely due to the active involvement of two Dominican friars, Antonio de Montesinos and Antonio de Cervantes. They were only brought along as auxiliaries to minister to both the settlers and the natives. But their role in the shaping of the North American east would be monumental. And fatefully it was de Montesinos, the man who famously declared "I am the voice of Christ in the desert of this island," who inspired then-soldier Bartolome de las Casas to become that champion of the oppressed native slaves. Between them these men of faith would transform Spanish conduct in the Americas.

As settlement got underway, the colonists constructed houses and a church and established the institutions of government there. But the settlers faced immense problems including disease, the loss of a good deal of their stores with the sinking of their flagship Capitana, and the natives' initial unwillingness to trade. Several tribes were rightfully aggressive, attacking in retribution for slavers who had patrolled the coast and captured many relatives. Fortunately for the settlers, the Waccamaw River was a powerful river teaming with fish. Encouraged by the friars to adapt, the settlers only survived a harsh winter through fishing.

During the difficult early days of the settlement de Montesinos used his faith to resolve intense conflicts. This large mixed group included the Spanish nobles, mutinous sailors, enslaved Africans, converted natives like de Chicora, and the other Indians who were loathe to communicate with their new neighbors. The Indians had been brought along as interpreters and guides and had attempted to desert at Winyah Bay, a fearful outcome which would have imperiled the whole enterprise.

To survive they had to unite and integrate, taking difficult out-of-character decisions to resolve the power struggles in the group and stay alive as a unit. They successfully fought off a mysterious epidemic and somehow survived into the new year when the weather improved and it was possible to begin planting. Under the wise stewardship of Ayllón and de Montesinos, the settlement began to thrive and re-establish contact with Santo Domingo. Their doctrines had taken root and continued to spread throughout the region as the Spanish slowly took control of the entire Southeastern region.

Author's Note:

In reality, the colony lasted about four months before it succumbed to disease, starvation, and a hostile Indian population. The surviving colonists agreed it was time to evacuate the colony and return to Hispanola. By the end of October they were boarding their ships, and by mid-November all the settlers had left San Miguel de Gualdape. Of the 600 people who started the expedition in July, only about 150 returned home alive. However, Ayllón's account of the region inspired a number of later attempts by the Spanish and French governments to colonize the southeastern United States. De Montesinos was murdered in Venezuela in 1645 for his ideas on protecting native rights.

Provine's Addendum:

The work of de Montesinos had begun in 1511 with a sermon condemning enslaving natives, challenging masters, "Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day?" His ideals proved unpopular, which resulted in being returned to Spain, where he was later attached to Ayllón's colonial project. When Ayllón fell ill, de Montesinos became the colony's de facto leader, and his notions of equality under God became instituted during a mutiny in which the black slaves fought back against the rebellion. In return, de Montesinos emancipated the slaves and directed them to work, along with everyone else in the colony, toward the common good. The fairytale of "Stone Soup" in which a traveler to a starving village began boiling a stone in a large pot, calling it soup and offering a bowl to anyone who had something to add, became de Montesinos's perspective. A suggestion to boil water for medicinal tea resulted in the plague slowing down, allowing men to fish and gather to survive the winter.

San Miguel de Gualdape became a curious facet of the New World. Unlike later "pirate" havens like Tortuga and Madagascar's Libertatia, the colony remained under the authority of the Crown despite its egalitarian population. Political turmoil in Spain at first left the colony to its own, and soon it became a fascinating economic experiment to Charles V. Early economists examined it as a departure from mercantilism where large capital and cheap labor were expected for business ventures. Instead, the working individuals prompted a strong middle class while maintaining common rights and building good relations with the nearby Guale tribes. Outbreaks of disease among the natives prompted mission work and brought attention of the most forward thinkers in the medical world.

As San Miguel thrived, Bartolome de las Casas was instrumental in bringing de Montesinos's policies to Mexico. Economic incubators for the middle class flourished while restrictions on slavery reduced the power of the smaller upper class to create economic strongholds with no room for competition. Mexico and San Miguel became magnets for new generations of colonists who looked to build from their own hands' work rather than get-rich-quick adventurers or plantation-masters. Economic ideals also spread along the trade routes through native regions, who soon adopted principles of agriculture and manufacturing that could adapt to their lands while exporting garments and New World crops such as tobacco.

By the late eighteenth century, North America's coast was a closely knit economic system from the Yucatan to the Mississippi and Atlantic Coast as far as Canada. Despite the clear differences in the peoples with beliefs and nationalities including Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Swedish, African, and Native, the sense of commonality continued from de Montesinos's preaching. Struggles with European affairs prompted a collective revolution, establishing the extensive United States of Northern America, an economic and military confederation with its capital at San Miguel.

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