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: 2 : Pearls and a Political Ecology of Empire, 1498–1541 The hum of news and excitement buzzed through the port towns of southern Spain and Portugal in the waning years of the fifteenth century as ships, sailors, and the tales and treasure they carried sailed into Iberian harbors. It was not until Columbus’s third crossing into the unfamiliar Caribbean archipelago that he encountered pearls. On this 1498 voyage, as he and his crew wended their way along the South American coastline through the Gulf of Paria, the admiral made contact with pearl-­wearing Indians (likely Guayquerí from neighboring islands). A shared appreciation for the jewel presumably facilitated communication: in contrast to New World commodities such as chocolate and tobacco, pearls’ luminescence and their sensual associations with fertility and the mysterious and generative power of the sea linked indigenous American and European approaches to the jewel.1 Upon the mariners’ return to Spain in the wake of this encounter, word of the region’s rich oyster beds spread quickly. Scattershot settlement and plunder began and rapidly increased along theVenezuelan coastline, focused largelyon the trade in pearls, without generating majorcrown intervention or any sustained set of administrative privileges. In these early haphazard years 1. On tobacco and chocolate, see Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca, N.Y., 2008). On pearls in the Americas and indigenous conceptions of them, see Nicholas J. Saunders, “Biographies of Brilliance: Pearls, Transformations of Matter and Being, c. AD 1492,” World Archaeology, XXXI (1999), 243–257. Despite the commonalities of European and indigenous views of pearls, however, pearls were not exempted from the European instinct to dismiss indigenous ability to assess worth. Columbus wrote of his encounter with native peoples off the coast of Venezuela, “There wasn’t anyone on board who knew gold from pyrite or pearl from chrysoberyl” (ibid., 243). Ann Marie Mester, The Pearl Divers of Los Frailes: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Exploration of Sumptuary Good Trade and Cosmology in the North and Central Andes (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-­ Champaign, 1990), provides an overview of the role of light worship in American indigenous societies. { 32 } Pearls and a Political Ecology of Empire of raiding and encounters, confronted by chaotic novelty and unprecedented challenges of all types, the Spanish crown struggled to make sense of this New World, seeking to impose administrative order upon it without a clear blueprint of how to do so. Embedded in global Iberian merchant networks, populated by indigenous peoples from the circum-­ Caribbean as well as Africans and Europeans of all origins, the teeming waters and contested territories of this corner of the evolving Atlantic world would provide enduring early lessons in the importance of intricate ecosystems that bound the natural world to local practice and to imperial coffers. Over the course of the first four decades of the sixteenth century, the inhabitants of the coast would work together in an often brutal and coerced fashion to produce extraordinary pearl wealth. In doing so, they put forth their vision of an American political economy, one that had a living ecology at its heart. In the pearl fisheries, the vocabulary of imperial administration evolved in dialogue with practices on the ground, as subjects from three continents labored under wildly varying conditions to build lives on land based on riches from the sea. De facto C a r i b b e a n S e a G u l f o f M e x i c o A t l a n t i c O c e a n P a c i f i c O c e a n Yucatan Peninsula Cuba Hispaniola Jamaica The Bahamas Puerto Rico The Pearl Coast Area of Detail Florida Santa Marta A t l a n t i c O c e a n Hispaniola Hispaniola Puerto Puerto Rico Caribbean Sea Punto de Araya Cubagua Coche Venezuela Margarita Cumana 0 200 400 miles 0 200 400 kilometers Map 2.The Pearl Coast in the Greater Caribbean. Drawn by Gerry Krieg Pearls and a Political Ecology of Empire { 33 } practices of wealth generation and management informed emerging de jure approaches to imperial control over the region’s resources. A “Pearl Coast” Political Economy As the Spanish crown and its servants struggled to assimilate the import of recentlyencountered lands in the Americas and their riches, pearls gave form and vocabulary to this evolving corner of a new imperial geography...


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