The Old World and the New, 1492 – 1650 by J. H. Elliott

The English historian J. H. Elliott is an expert on the history of Spain. His subject in this short book is the effect of the discovery of the New World on Europe, especially the Spanish. Yet he is hesitant to identify causal relationships, tending to identify historical correlations instead, e.g. between the amount of gold and silver taken from the Western Hemisphere to Spain and rising prices in Europe.

The book begins with Columbus discovering North America and ends with the collapse of the Spanish Empire. Between those events, the Spanish viewed the New World as a source of gold and silver and as an opportunity to spread civilization, especially Catholicism. There were  intellectual consequences, but most of the impact was economic and political. Harvesting 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver (plus any that wasn’t officially reported) helped Spain become the most powerful nation in the world.

This development wasn’t lost on the other European powers. In Elliott’s words: “Overseas possessions came to be seen as essential adjuncts of Europe, enhancing the military and economic power of its rival nation-states”.

Considering that Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was founded in 1607, and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, it isn’t surprising that the English play a small role in this story. What surprised me was how much history was being made in the New World by the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch before the English began to colonize North America.

Not everyone in Europe thought the discovery of the New World was a blessing. There were Spaniards who criticized the treatment of Spain’s new subjects and believed Spain would be better off economically and morally without importing all that precious metal.

The French essayist Montaigne also had something to say: “So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so many infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world turned topsy-turvy, ruined and defaced for the traffic of pearls and pepper”.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell spent six months during the Spanish Civil War fighting for the loyalist or republican side against the fascists led by Francisco Franco. The fascists, representing the church and most of the military, were attempting to replace the left-wing government that had previously replaced the monarchy. Orwell, along with various socialists, communists and anarchists, fought in support of the existing government, known as the Second Spanish Republic.

The action in the book takes place in the Catalonia region of Spain, in and around Barcelona. Orwell describes trench warfare at the front and street fighting in Barcelona. The trench warfare against the fascists was a miserable experience, distinguished by cold, hunger and filth. Orwell saw relatively little action, although he did participate in one major attack and was later wounded by a sniper. 

The street fighting, unfortunately, was between the communists and the anarchists, who were supposed to be allies against the fascists. The communists took control of the government and then violently suppressed the anarchists and trade unionists, throwing people like Orwell into jail or executing them. Orwell and his wife avoided being captured and returned safely to England, where Orwell wrote this book while the war in Spain continued.

Orwell tries to explain the relationships between the various left-wing factions in Spain, but it is very difficult to keep track of who is who and which group is represented by which acronym (CNT, POUM, UGT, etc.).  He does make clear, however, how journalists misrepresented the situation in Spain, and how the communists in particular used propaganda, as well as violence, to temporarily achieve power. His descriptions of incompetent or disreputable journalism do not seem peculiar to Communism, however, or to the Spanish Civil War: “It is impossible to read through reports in the Communist press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice”.

The book ends with Orwell safely back home, but glad that he went to Spain, and worrying that his countrymen “are sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”. German invaded Poland a year later.  (11/13/11)