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: 3 : “Even the Black Women Wear Strands of Pearls” Assessing the Worth of Subjects and Objects in a New Era, 1540–1600 Cubagua’s 1541 destruction shifted but did not end pearl fishing along the Venezuelan littoral. The tsunami that brought a dramatic end to the Pearl Coast’s most lucrative years also coincided with the dawn of a new era of Spanish imperial control, one in which the reins of overseas empire began to be more tightly (if still imperfectly) held by the crown. In the aftermath of Cubagua’s devastation, settlements moved down the coast and to the larger island of Margarita, and pearl fishing continued to draw private and royal investors.1 In the decades that followed, the pearl fisheries continued to be the site of conversations about wealth creation. The crown, seeking to draw this corner of the colonial world closer to the imperial administration, took an approach to the fisheries’ governance that combined concessions to and rejection of the political economy advanced by the fisheries in the previous decades. Meanwhile , the conquests and profits of Tierra Firme (the American mainland, in particular the major silver deposits found at Potosí in upper Peru in 1545 and Zacatecas in New Spain in 1547) soon eclipsed the profits drawn from the Caribbean’s underwater mines and turned attention away from the Caribbean islands.The immense riches and challenges produced by this new stage of colonization drew the American mainland into the heart of the empire’s domestic identity in a way that had not occurred previously. Even as the crown tightened the mechanisms in place for governing the human and natural wealth of its domains, the Pearl Coast remained a thorn in the crown’s side 1. The continual refining of the crown’s approach to the administration of the New World was further illustrated midcentury by Charles V’s decision to found an archive in Valladolid to house the records generated by the imperial enterprise. Ralph Bauer, The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Modernity (Cambridge , 2003), 26, discusses the founding of the archive at Simancas. The archive was completed by Philip II in 1559. Assessing the Worth of Subjects and Objects { 79 } because of its continually evolving and violent labor regime, its quicksilver product—pearls—and the challenging relations that developed among the settlements’ free and unfree inhabitants. The most explicit contemporary reflections on the pearl fisheries’ early history and their significance came from within the Spanish empire itself, penned by royal chroniclers who considered the nature of this early experiment with wealth generation and management. Throughout the sixteenth century and beyond, chroniclers and natural historians exercised enormous influence in shaping Europe’s understanding of the Atlantic explorations— of the physical nature of this new land and of the metaphorical nature of distinct parties’ claims to control over it. In the context of the Counter-­ Reformation and Spain’s continuing quest for religious orthodoxy, these critical reflections on the early pearl fisheries threatened to provide fuel for Spain’s enemies and drew censorship. In 1556, the crown passed a law ordering that all books touching upon the history of the Indies must first be seen and approved by the Council of the Indies before publication. This order came too late for Bartolomé de Las Casas’s Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, however, which appeared in Seville in 1552 and Antwerp in 1579. The Short Account provided Spain’s Protestant enemies with an invaluable critique of Spain’s imperial misdeeds.2 2. Official chronicles reflected a long-­ standing tradition of narrative construction of authority, and these lengthy histories represented a far more refined and practiced idiom of reportage than the uneven, imperfect archival record of personal disputes and fiscal battles preserved by the incipient overseas bureaucracy. As decades passed, however, the crown feared the possible political and religious backlash of unfavorable accounts more than ever, particularly as the debate between Las Casas and Ginés de Sepúlveda unfolded in Valladolid in 1550–1551. For a discussion of the Spanish crown’s anxiety about the circulation of information related to the Indies, see Richard L. Kagan, Clio and the Crown: The Politics of History in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Baltimore, 2009), 110, 156– 160, 172; and Kagan, “History,” in Evonne Levy and Kenneth Mills, eds., Lexikon of the Hispanic Baroque: Transatlantic Exchange and Transformation (Austin,Tex., 2013), 150– 152. Juan Pimentel calls these chronicles some of “the classical products of Iberian...


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