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A Nation upon the Ocean Sea: Portugal’s Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492 – 1640 (review)

From: University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 78, Number 1, Winter 2009
pp. 234-235 | 10.1353/utq.0.0404

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An account of the public burning of Manuel Bautista Perez, patron of the Portuguese merchant community in Lima, provides a climactic episode in this compact but impressive contribution to the maturing field of Atlantic history. Accused by the Inquisition of being a Jew, Bautista Perez denied the charge until tortured, retracted a confession delivered under duress, then failed in an attempt at suicide. His refusal to plead guilty made him one of the few to be executed following the 1639 auto-da-fé that punished dozens of Lima’s merchant elite. Many scholars of the Inquisition have concluded that Bautista Perez and others like him told the truth, victims of a campaign by religious and civil authorities whose real objective was to seize their substantial wealth. Studnicki-Gizbert corroborates this perspective, situating the fate of these individuals within a broad context, noting that these prosecutions began in a coordinated wave in Portugal and Brazil, then moved on to Madrid, Lima, Cartagena, Mexico City, and Seville. The author commits himself to the premise that the traditional scholarly preoccupation with separate empires, colonies, and nation-states obscures the realities of a maritime world that could not be contained within neat political boundaries. His study demonstrates the advantages of focusing instead on the circulation of peoples, goods, capital, information, and even repressive practices around the ports and other urban centres that knit this world together.

Studnicki-Gizbert crafts a fascinating, elegantly narrated history of the fluorescence and destruction of the ‘Portuguese Nation.’ Contemporaries used this term to refer to a far-flung but cohesive diaspora of thousands of migrant traders, mariners, their families, and their auxiliaries, who began dispersing, some by choice, others by force, as Portugal opened sea routes in the fifteenth century. By the time Spain absorbed Portugal during the period of the Iberian Union (1580–1640), these migrants resided in every major city with connections to Atlantic trade, including Lima, Cartagena, Mexico City, and Salvador da Bahia in the Americas; Seville, Rouen, and Amsterdam in Europe; and Luanda and other slave ports in Africa. Their history can be reconstructed in fine detail, finer perhaps than other diasporic communities of this period, which included the Basques, Genoese, Bretons, and Huguenots. Indeed, one of the author’s major contributions is to demonstrate how such peoples remained connected, whether in the realm of commerce, familial relations, or communal identity, despite the great distances that separated individuals from one another. The richness of this study derives in no small part from the zeal of the Inquisition’s bureaucrats, the archivists of the nation’s business and personal correspondence. For merchants, commercial success depended on ‘the dedicated writing of letters’ to keep pace with evolving markets; for inquisitors, these letters offered evidence of individual and collective heresy. Although over half of those who comprised the nation were New Christians (conversos or marranos), far fewer likely retained their Jewish identity. Only a tiny minority, disproportionately composed of the most successful merchants, suffered the Inquisition’s condemnation. Mariners, artisans, labourers, and servants were largely left alone. If faith rather than fortunes had been at stake, one would expect a more egalitarian assault.

Pioneers in both the horizontal and vertical integration of trade, financiers to the Crown, the Portuguese merchants dwelling in Spain and Spanish America reached the height of their wealth and power at precisely the point at which the empire came under siege from the Dutch, the English, and other contenders for American commodities and African slaves. The nation’s very success proved its greatest misfortune. The author debunks a tenacious myth, originating in coeval anti-Semitic tracts, that the merchants collaborated with these enemies of the Habsburgs. To the contrary, they strove to prove their fealty and recommended prescient if unheeded solutions to Spain’s seventeenth-century fiscal crisis. Nevertheless, the Inquisition and the monarchy turned to scapegoats whose fortunes could be confiscated for an immediate if short-lived remedy. ‘The net result,’ the author observes, ‘was the splitting up of not only the broader circum-Atlantic unity of the Nation but also of the various strands of its history...



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