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Cervantes and Empire by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Cervantes and Empire

"Numantia" (1880-1881), a 335 x 500 cm oil on canvas by Alejo Vera y Estaca (1834-1923), located in Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

For some time now we have been suffering under a general academic climate of hostility towards European and Western cultural legacies. In Spain, however, the ‘Black Legend’ that darkens its overseas presence is older than this present academic environment, and has served—and continues to serve—both a geopolitical and domestic function. 

Foreign propaganda against a country can work to disrupt its ambitions, including its efforts to cultivate commercial ties. Indeed, Latin American disunity may, in part, be the result of a blanket rejection of its imperial legacy. Such propaganda can also be taken up by political factions within that region, in order to justify radical reform, promoting the idea that its traditional institutions are perverse and need to be purged. 

Reactions against the Black Legend’s enduring prevalence include works such as Pedro Insua’s 1492, Elvira Roca Barea’s Imperiofobia, and Marcelo Gullo’s Madre Patria (“Motherland”). The work of these and other academics is in many respects laudable, but not above criticism, as they tend to identify the “ontology” of a country, so to speak, with its empire. Here, I will be exploring ideas developed in previous essays, trying to push back against too one-sided a defence of historic empires and approaching the imperial idea in terms of its responsibility to preserve local realities as well as creating new ones. 

Those who defend the imperial legacy may find it difficult to reconcile with the persistence of indigenismo (‘indigenism/nativism,’ though some thinkers, like the Bolivian Pedro Portugal, prefer the term ‘indianismo,’ as do traditionalists who hearken back to the Spanish empire’s ‘Indian Republics,’ albeit for very different reasons). Indigenismo is the celebration of the pre-European past in the Americas and elsewhere as a basis for contemporary political articulation. This difficulty can go so far as to lead some to prefer a homogenous ‘Hispanic’ identity to the pluralistic reality of Spanish imperial history. 

We may criticise so-called indigenista movements for being literary-romantic in form and origin, lacking historical rigour (as they usually do, although, to be fair, some versions of this ideology are simply choosing to focus on a particular historical experience); we may object that they get in the way of progress and interfere with the project of recovering the imperial past for modern purposes. However, if our criticism goes too far, we risk ignoring the degree to which our own identity also partly draws on such currents. To the extent that any hearkening back to the Spanish empire must treat Spain as its starting point, for example, we will end up deconstructing its foundation if we reject these romantic instincts wholesale. 

In this regard, we may turn our attention to Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, although this most famous of his works is not the most relevant for our purposes. It is in the Siege of Numantia that he provides a pseudo-critique of Rome and an ambiguous celebration of the barbarian past, which he presents as the first Spain. By appealing to pre-Roman Iberians in constructing a national myth, Cervantes is following the 6th/7th century St. Isidore of Seville and the 13th century King Alfonso X, who did likewise. He sees this barbarian past encapsulated in Numantia, a Celto-Iberian city that fought against its conquerors to the point of preferring collective suicide to accepting dishonourable terms (incidentally, Cervantes’ repeated violation of Church prohibition against artistic depictions of suicide deserves more attention). But for the author of Don Quixote, the indigenous, in this case Iberian, does not contradict the imperial. He does not reject Latin order, nor does he omit faults from his portrayal of the Numantines. 

To begin with, we read that, if it were not for Roman excess, Numantia would not have opted for insurrection. She could have remained a happy subject, never stepping out of the Roman fold. This reminds us of Tacitus, who portrayed British and Germanic barbarian resistance positively, without, however, opposing the imperial principle, and of Polybius, who did the same for native Iberians. As a Numantine declares to Scipio Africanus the Younger (my translation): 

Numantia, of which I am a citizen, illustrious general, sends me … to request your friendship. It was a stubborn and cruel persistence over many years that caused Numantia’s troubles, as well as your own. Our city would never have departed from the law and privileges given her by the Roman Senate if not for the torpid command and outrages committed by one consul after another. With unjust statutes and avarice, these did put so heavy a yoke on our necks that we were left with no choice but to drive them off. (Day One, Siege of Numantia).

It is true that, ultimately, the native resisters, who opt for collective suicide, are shown in a more positive light than the Romans, who reject both the barbarians’ offer of friendship and of open war, preferring to lay siege instead, a less honourable style of warfare. And yet, for its part, Numantia (Numancia in Spanish) is often rhymed with arrogancia, “arrogance.” Where the civilised vice is avarice, then, the savage one is arrogance. Avarice is the sin of a civilization that, as Plato wrote of Atlantis, fails to bear its prosperity with moderation, and it is by indulging in this fault that Rome drove Numantia to rebellion. But, for their part, the Iberian savages act rashly. Indeed, the Numantines even practise cannibalism at one point, albeit out of necessity (this may well be an allusion to the news arriving from the Americas at the time, concerning anthropophagus tribes). 

Avarice and arrogance lead to tragedy, but like Tacitus or Polybius, Cervantes seems to pine for a Roman Empire that might have been more lenient with, and allowed itself to be more influenced by, its subjects. And yet the past is not lost, for Cervantes goes on to speak of his homeland as the return of old Numantia. There is, therefore, a sense of mirrored vices and dual-protagonism, and surely the resurrected Numantia, which is Spain, who Cervantes presents as an actual character and lionises at the end of the work, is also heir to the imperial ideal of Rome. 

Developing this theme of mirrored vices, in his last novel, The Works of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Septentrional History (Persiles for short), the Castilian author describes the savage inhabitants of an isolated northern European island as possessed by a longing for world empire. Many of their traits, including human sacrifice, are based on the Americas. Specifically, Cervantes seems to have drawn from the work of the Incan historian Garcilaso de la Vega in detailing these bloody rites. Yet their quest to bring about a global hegemon seems rather to be a European artefact:

Despite its American customs, the Barbarian Island of Persiles is located in the northern lands of Europe, in the Baltic Sea, near the current island of Gotland … There is a passage in the Royal Commentaries where the Inca Garcilaso paints some rivals of the Incas, the Chancas, who lived to ‘the north of Cuzco’. The Chancas had been ‘persuaded by the demons, their gods’ to make human sacrifices, a situation very similar to that reported in Persiles … Who are these barbarians from Cervantes? Are they American or European? Or a mix of both?

Here, de Armas Wilson describes this duality as a subversion, or rather an expansion, of the category of “barbarian.” It is a double criticism of sacrificial savagery and expansionist civilization. We may add that both human sacrifice and the desire for ultimate hegemony are cases of the literalisation of spiritual principles, the immanentization of transcendent mysteries (echoing Eric Voegelin). De Armas Wilson continues:

It could be said that by literary means—less direct, more allegorical—Cervantes approaches that group of visionary Spaniards who generated an internal criticism of their own empire…But the criticism of the Spanish empire seems ambiguous in Cervantes. The barbarian…corresponds to the imperial dream of a world conqueror, be it European or American. Cervantes’ strategy is the total subversion of the European-barbarian duality.

The point is that Cervantes does not construct the foreign ‘native’ in such a way as to suggest his whole social existence prior to empire was perverse, which would justify its complete abrogation by imperial institutions. Indeed, such a wholesale rejection of indigenous American cultural forms would really only become prominent under the aegis of Jacobin liberalism in some of the newly independent American republics. 

By granting the legitimacy of local forms, even when they engage in violent resistance against empire, without thereby rejecting empire, Cervantes provides a basis for the the twin struggles of the imperial metropolis to retain its national character and not have this confounded with its overseas dominion (as Novalis warns) and of the conquered people to retain its identity in the face of homogenising trends (including technological differential and, at times, abusive elites). However, this is not all. In Cervantes we find a basis for the mestizo to understand himself as heir to a synthesis of two cultures, or to a development thereof—not as the son of one legitimate and one illegitimate identity, but as the bearer of his own, without the stigma of being either alienated native or imperfect coloniser. 

Concerning the justification for empire, in Persiles, human sacrifice is the accomplice of the drive for a global state. The two appear in the same people, and it is by sacrifice—namely the extraction of the victim’s heart—and cannibalism, that this people believes some strange alchemy will cause the world-ruler to be born among them. Their location near Gotland makes them sympathetic and quasi-Spanish, as this is the homeland of the Visigoths, whose monarchy over Spain Cervantes praises. 

Indeed, any criticism of the barbarian island lands both upon the alien and the intimate. The fact that “the scandal of the Indian,” as Columbus called human sacrifice, and the desire to produce an all-encompassing monarch coincide in one place, makes Cervantes’ barbarian island an image of the entire world and its dialectics, a negative coincidentia oppositorum, more chimerical monster, cruel codependency, than superposition and reconciliation, although we can hardly fail to intuit the potential for the latter.

It was human sacrifice that justified conquest and its global aspiration. Therefore, this aspiration risks being complicit with that which it condemns. Cervantes does not reject conquest nor does he fail to condemn the bloody rites it arrested. He may even have been planning a fictionalised tribute to Hernán Cortés. Yet he does criticise world hegemony as a proper end for that conquest. 

In order not to be secretly allied with what we condemn, we must imagine a world order that does not require prior moral horrors to justify itself. A world order that is good in itself. Such an exercise of the imagination is a deeply Christian exercise. Even if such an order happens to come about by fighting against real, prior outrages, it will succeed in finally erasing these by structuring itself according to a clear vision of the good and human flourishing, rather than seeking legitimacy through past evils that it must continuously remember and react to. 

Again, the above provides a contrast, as well as a critique, of how certain prominent authors are going about fighting the Black Legend—however valuable their work may otherwise be. I have chosen to focus on Cervantes because his voice must be granted an authority few can match when discussing what is normative in Spanish history and identity, just as Shakespeare enjoys a permanent, if not univocal, prerogative over the English national character. 

We began by pointing out how an overly negative approach to a country’s history (and specifically its imperial past) can serve to disrupt its geopolitical ambitions and internal stability. There is a tendency in those reacting against this to over-identify the national with the imperial, championing the latter. In Cervantes, however, we find a robust national mythos that refuses to hubristically identify nation with empire, or to justify an imperial effacing of local particularity. This actually reflects the positive legacy of empire (especially of a quasi-medieval one, like Spain’s) and provides a wider vision within which to reconcile ‘Hispanic’ to ‘native’ identity in the Americas—in general, imperial institutions to indigenous identities—or transnational to national imperatives.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.