Colonial Peru, the Caste System, and the “Purity” of Blood

David GaughranBackground, Historical Fiction, History, Latin America5 Comments

It was the Spaniards who gave the world the notion that an aristocrat’s blood is not red but blue. The Spanish nobility started taking shape around the ninth century in classic military fashion, occupying land as warriors on horseback. They were to continue the process for more than five hundred years, clawing back sections of the peninsula from its Moorish occupiers, and a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin—proof that his birth had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy
—Robert Lacey, Aristocrats

The historical Spanish obsession with the purity of blood evolved into an elaborate caste system which reached its apogee with the colonization of South America and the subsequent intermingling of settlers with both South American Indians and imported African slaves, all of whose mixed offspring needed a separate classification, of course.

It was an intricate system—designed to pit sections of society against each other and play on the subsequent fear of overthrow by the lower classes, so that Spain could continue to exert its top-down control. But it also signified the relative social importance of the caste members, usually in a pejorative sense, meaning that only certain rights, occupations, and institutions were open to them.

If you had been born in Spain, then you automatically qualified as a member of the elite. If you had been born in South America, but your bloodline was “pure” then you were accorded privileged status, but of the second order, and the most influential posts were out of reach. However, if your ancestors had the temerity to dally with the Indians or blacks, then a complicated algorithm was brought to bear.

The four primary groups were the peninsulares (Spanish-born whites), followed by the criollos(who were also white, and of Spanish descent, but who had been born in South America), the indios (a catch-all term for any member or descendant of the various indigenous groups of South America), and the negros (black Africans or their descendants, usually slaves or freed slaves).

This however is a simplification, and the colonial authorities were anything but simplistic in their discrimination. Being more fluid than labels suggest, the various castes intermingled—a situation exacerbated by the gender imbalance of Spanish settlers—causing the colonial administration a huge headache. It was solved with a simple bureaucratic sleight of hand: classification based on the “purity” of blood.

Mestizo was the label given to products of the union of a Spaniard and an Indian. Those who were half-black and half-Spanish, were mulattos. Children to Indian and black parents were zambos, and the intellect of Galileo couldn’t save them from a lifetime of drudgery.

Spain attempted to regulate intermarriage, but with little success. To improve the prospects of their children, mestizos and mulattos often attempted to “purify” their bloodlines by marrying someone whiter than themselves, hoping to flush out the “bad” blood.

The result of all these rigorously calculated ruttings was a population with varying elements of the genetic smorgasbord of South America and beyond. Fortunately, the impressive Spanish bureaucracy had a system of classification to reflect the varying fractions of “good” and “bad” blood in each person, and allotted them their role in society accordingly, labeling them castizoscholos, coyotes, pardos, moriscos, chinos, cambujos, lobos, ladinos, or bozales, among many other sub-classifications which varied from place-to-place, and over time.

As seen in the painting at the top, artists traveled to the New World to capture this elaborate system of castes, and the descriptions attached to the paintings revealed the racial biases of the time. For example, a cambujo was the label given to the offspring of a lobo and an india, who were described in an 18th century painting as “slow, lazy, and cumbersome.”

Caste membership didn’t simply determine what occupation you could hold, but also whether you could bear arms, attend university, or even the clothes you were allowed wear.

This intricate system was most clearly visible in colonial Peru. Even by the time the independence wars spread its shores in 1820, Peru was still a feudal society—in racial and social terms at least.

Indios slaved in the mines, and negros toiled in the low-lying coastal farms which fed the country. The peninsulares held all the positions of power and influence. The criollos acted as their subordinates, or often made up the professional and business classes. And the mestizos were the working class in the towns and cities, doing all the menial jobs in proximity to the whites that the elite felt they couldn’t “trust” indios and negros with.

Aside from racial prejudice, that “lack of trust” was based—at least partly—on fear, which Spain was keen to exploit to keep the various castes and sub-castes in their allotted place.

The educated criollos had a lot to gain from an independent Peru: the highest positions of authority would be open to them, and they could benefit handsomely from the liberalization of trade, which Madrid had monopolized.

However, Spain knew that the best way to control a populous country like Peru was by setting sections of society against themselves. Out of one million souls, the whites barely numbered one hundred and fifty thousand. And since the successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 they had even more reason to be afraid. For them, a free Peru could mean death.

Spain relentlessly exploited this fear to suppress the liberal ideals which had been gaining popularity since the revolutions in France and the United States. And it was a successful strategy, until Napoleon seized the Spanish throne, Madrid lost its grip on the colonies, and an age of revolution was born.

While independence for Peru and the rest of Spanish America saw the abolition of both slavery and the caste system, colonial racial ideology took a little longer to dissipate.

As for the labels, they live on and many are still in use today—although mostly stripped of their pejorative connotations.

The Banana Wars

David GaughranBackground, Books, Historical Fiction, History, Latin America0 Comments

mercenaryThis post first appeared on the Historical Fiction E-books blog.

Events in Latin America have always hit the headlines in the US but its history isn’t particularly well known. Even when a figure grips the national consciousness for an extended period, they are subsequently forgotten. Lee Christmas was a star of the Sunday supplements from the start of the 20th century until the outbreak of World War I, but few recall him today. And he was the most memorable out of all the hired guns toppling Central American governments.

I knew straight away that I wanted to write a novel about this extraordinary man and working on Mercenary was an adventure in itself. There was a rich tapestry for a historical novelist to work with: the economic growth (and increased inequality) of the Gilded Age, the rapid development of the railroads, and the boom in both industrialization and immigration. But what fascinated me the most was the dawn of American imperialism.

With the Civil War ended and Reconstruction underway, the US turned its attention further south. Not just militarily, but economically too. Oil prospectors flocked to Mexico. Banana companies expanded throughout Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Roosevelt become the first sitting President to leave the US when visiting the Panama Canal. At the same time, American banks used their increasing political power to advance their interests throughout Central America, often putting local governments on the hook for loans they could never repay. Of course, where the dollar went, troops followed.

Before I started researching Mercenary, I had quite simplistic ideas about American intervention in Central America. I had vague notions about the era of Gunboat Diplomacy and Banana Republics. And I assumed much of the instability was down to US meddling or outright invasions. But the truth was more nuanced.

For example, Honduras suffered through countless revolutions, but it often wasn’t directAmerican involvement causing this. The government of the day would grant concessions to one banana company over another, and then the rival operation would engineer a revolution to put someone more “friendly” in power. Elections were often a farce where the incumbent president would annul the vote on some spurious pretext, or simply rip up the constitution so that he (it was always a man) could serve another term.

That said, the American government didn’t have particularly clean hands either. Major General Smedley Butler famously stated that “war is a racket.” In a blistering speech delivered towards the end of his career he said the following:

“I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street.

The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916.”

All of that was true, and this was coming from the most decorated war hero of the era. But much of the fighting in Central America was not conducted by regular soldiers. Instead it was mercenaries, hired guns, and soldiers of fortune. At times the Marine Corps was intervening to prevent these private armies from putting their man in power, or to protect the growing American populations in the banana exporting towns dotted all along the Caribbean coast.

It is these men which really drew my interest, in particular a Louisiana native by the name of Lee Christmas. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lee didn’t have any formal military training, nor was he on the run. He didn’t turn up in Central America seeking fame and fortune, and he wasn’t attracted by the wars that continually broke out along the isthmus. The truth was more prosaic: he couldn’t get a job.

Trade with the region was, as you might expect, quite lop-sided. When those banana steamers unloaded their cargo in New Orleans they usually had few goods to transport in the other direction. Banana companies helped defray their costs by taking paying passengers heading to Guatemala or Honduras.

There were prospectors, adventurers, expatriates, and mercenaries. And then there were people like Lee Christmas who got on board with no real plan. He didn’t even know where the boat was headed!

And within twenty years he became one of the most powerful men in Central America.

Mercenary is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo, and in paperback too.