Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Castilian Character

Fatalism, heroic ideals, indifference and contempt for others' thoughts and ideas, and religious devotion to the point of fanaticism would be the simplest way to define the Castilian character.  However, character does not form in and of itself but is a result of the combination of one's environment and the events that occur in one's life.  The Castilian character formed in just this way.

The Iberian Peninsula is an area surrounded by water and mountains, effectively isolating the people from the ideas and customs of the rest of the world.  Inland, the varied topography served to isolate the Iberians from each other as well, creating localism but making it difficult to unite groups in a common cause.

The land itself, most of which is poor soil, with few ports, and a harsh climate made wanderers of the people.  Whether searching for fresh pasture land or the hope of a better life in a far-away land, these people developed a character which is self-sufficient, hardy, determined, and adventurous.  All of these characteristics would contribute to create the conquistadors and set them on the journey to the New World.

As an American it is hard to visualize over 2000 years of rule by at least seven conquering hordes; for the Iberian Peninsula, it was a way of life.  Perhaps as hundreds of years would go by the Iberians began to relax and feel this time would be the last.  It wasn't.  An endless supply of conquerors seemed to stream across the borders of the Peninsula for centuries.  Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthiginians, Romans, Vandals, Visigoths, and Moslems came; each leaving their mark on the land and its people.    

The Romans, with their focus on cities and law, effected a great change on the people.  They brought the Christian religion and with it rigid orthodoxy and religious zeal.  The Roman changed even the language of the Iberian Peninsula;  Spanish is a corruption of Latin.  In order to break the ties of people to places, the Romans would move them from one place to another.  Thus, the country was unified by law, language, and forced colonization.  These concepts would show up centuries later in the Spanish conquest and colonization of New Spain and would gradually forge a new country.

With the Moslems came new habits and customs, such as the siesta.  Schools, the arts, and classical learning were introduced.  The use of marble, tiles, bright colors and designs in architecture changed the face of the country when introduced in conjunction with mosques, palaces, and fountains. It would take centuries but this architecture was transplanted to the new world with only slight and gradual modification.

All people grow tired of being conquered and the Spanish were no different but to have a re-conquest there must be an army.  It is possible the poor could envision a better life under the rule of their own people; however, the motives of the nobility, Church, and King to regain their wealth must always lie under the surface.  The discovery of what was thought to be the body of St. James gave the Christian remnants the motivation they needed.  God was with them and with the battle cry of Santiago, the re-conquest began in earnest.  With each successive victory their numbers would grow until the Moslem invaders were pushed back across the sea.

The Church was a unifying factor in the re-conquest but the iron hand of Castile and Aragon in the latter part added nationalism to religious zeal.  The Inquisition served to mop up any remaining dissenters.   Centuries of Moslem rule was over.  The Jews with their religion and wealth were gone.  Spain had purged its nation and church and set herself on a course for economic ruin.  

After 500 years of war with the Moslems, there is certainly good reason for the Spaniard to have acquired a religious devotion and a love for military lifestyle.  His belief in his own courage, strength, and virility was reinforced.  No longer would he allow other nations to make the rules for him.  Never would he grub in the dirt or barter in the market place.  As a soldier, for God and King, he would live and die as he chose, conquering the heretic.

Soldiers, government officials, merchants, clerics and settlers sailed to New Spain.  They set out to christianize the pagan peoples they met there, as well as take their land.  To the Indian the armored conquistador must have appeared as a god who was half man, half beast.  He saw a god with light skin, a body which reflected the sun, and an ability to run like the wind.  These gods carried rods which thundered, smoked, and killed.  By various methods the Indian would learn that these weren't gods but mortals. It would be too late. The Indians' own fatalism would do them in; their myths foretold destruction and it came.

As for the Spanish view of the Indian, it varied from person to person and time to time.  Columbus thought they were gentle people who would be eager to be Christianized and serve the monarchy.  They eventually were all these things, but the Spanish reputation was acquired in getting them to that point.      The island Indians were considered little more than animals.  While Indians on the mainland were slightly more civilized, the demand for a labor force ensured that the colonist would remain blind to the humanity of the Indians.  Only with the arrival of clerics concerned with the plight of these people did they acknowledge the fact that these were human beings, deserving humane treatment.  Even with this knowledge the Indian was most often mistreated.

The discovery of the New World brought new vistas to Spaniards.  Novels which told of knights, maidens, exotic lands, strange people, and hidden wealth were popular and enticed the adventurous conquistadors to explore and conquer.  They were after all valiant men; they had vanquished their enemies. Whatever fate awaited them in this new land was unimportant compared to the possible wealth and glory.  Some came to seek gold, some glory.  They all came to conquer and claim the land for their own, no matter what the risk.  It could be said they were being true to their Roman heritage.  The motto for the conquistadors could have been written by Caesar: I came, I saw, I conquered.  They did. 


Davies, Nigel  The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico.  Penguin Books:  London, England:  1983, 247-253.

Fagg, John.  Latin American History.  The Macmillian Company:  London:  1969,

Gibson, Charles.  Spain in America.  Harper Torch Books:  New York:  1967, 1-159.

Haring, C.H.  The Spanish Empire in America.  Oxford University Press:  New York: 1947, 3-41.

Herring, Hubert.  A History of Latin America: From the Beginning to the Present.  Knoph:  New York:  1968, 64-203.

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