- The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez: The True Adventures of a Spanish American with 17th-Century Pirates ed. by Fabio López Lázaro
Popular imagination tends to place pirates, particularly during the “Golden Age” of Caribbean piracy of the late seventeenth to the early eighteenth centuries, into one of two categories. Romantic inclinations portray pirates as either filthy, violent criminals thirsty for blood and hungry for treasure, or as seagoing Robin Hoods who challenged authority for its own sake and only stole from those tainted with the stench of corruption, greed, and evil. As with most historical actors, however, pirates represent a far more diverse and complicated group than prepackaged stereotypes let on. Over the past decade, historians such as David Cordingly and Marcus Rediker have begun to take a closer, more serious look at piracy and its multiple meanings as both symbols and historical actors whose activities had global origins and ramifications. Historian Fabio López Lázaro has recently contributed to our understanding piracy in a global context through his edited translation of The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez.
Originally printed in Mexico City in 1690, scholars have usually considered the book a work of fiction produced by Mexico City’s royal cartographer Don Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora. Recently, however, historians have pieced together evidence from across the globe to show that The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez, while certainly embellished by the author and publisher, represent actual events. In the first half of the book, Lázaro constructs an argument that The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez represents not only a true tale of adventure and suffering among seventeenth-century pirates, but also an artifact of state-sponsored political propaganda. According to Lázaro, Alonso Ramírez was captured by English pirates while commanding a trading vessel for Spain in the Philippines. While in their company, the pirates tortured and humiliated Ramírez and the surviving members of his crew. In this sense, the narrative parallels the style found in captive narratives like Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, where European religious and cultural superiority are reinforced by contrasting them to “savage” indigenous societies. Whereas most captive narratives are situated among indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, in The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez, the savage “other” are Protestant English pirates. Ramírez’s tale also differs from other captive narratives in that at some point Ramírez transformed from captive to pirate. For reasons that remain unclear and [End Page 216] unexplained, Ramírez’s captives gave him a ship loaded with valuable cargo and sent him on his way. These circumstances became difficult to explain as Ramírez arrived in the Caribbean, where his vessel ran aground and he found himself in the hands of Spanish officials in New Spain. Although circumstantial evidence would suggest that Ramírez was a pirate, his tale of capture by cruel English pirates presented an opportunity for officials in New Spain to enrich themselves, garner support for Spain’s colonial endeavors in the Americas and Asia, and encourage a global “Spanish” identity.
Lázaro’s argument is largely convincing, and he does an excellent job showing how the Spanish Crown’s subjects in Asia, the Americas, and Europe constituted a larger, global Spanish identity as diverse people lived, worked, and socialized together in the truly transnational environment found aboard Spanish vessels in the late seventeenth century. Using Ramírez’s story, Lázaro illustrates how the Spanish empire did not consist of an Asian empire, an American empire, and a European empire connected solely by a royal sovereign. Rather, the empire was a contiguous entity united by maritime activities that ensured a continuous and seamless flow of goods, people, and information. Lázaro shows his readers the global connections fostered by Spain’s vast maritime empire and illustrates the complicated matter of legitimacy and illegality at sea in part by...