German Conquistadors in Venezuela
The Welsers' Colony, Racialized Capitalism, and Cultural Memory
This fascinating study traces sixteenth-century German colonialism in Venezuela through the lens of racialized capitalism and the subsequent memorialization of the period through to the twentieth century.
Giovanna Montenegro investigates one of the strangest and often-ignored episodes in the conquest and colonization of the Americas––the governance of the Province of Venezuela by the Welsers, a German banking family from Augsburg, in the sixteenth century. Using a comparative and interdisciplinary approach, the book chronicles the Welsers’ business expansion beyond banking to colonization and the slave trade in the Spanish Indies and the eventual failure of the colony. Montenegro follows the money that financed the Habsburg empire, tackling a multifaceted, multilingual corpus of primary documents. She examines numerous legal documents, from contracts granting colonization and slave trade rights (capitulaciones, asientos) to complex financial transactions (interests, exchange rates). She also analyzes maps, literary texts, and various chronicles and poems of the period. The book examines a history of violence perpetrated upon enslaved Indigenous and African people, but it is also the story of how different generations across the Atlantic, up to Nazi Germany in the twentieth century, have remembered and recalled this Welser period of governance in Venezuela to serve other social and political purposes. Montenegro positions her research in relation to current critical discussion on inequality, slavery, White supremacy, and neoconservative nationalist movements in contemporary Latin America and Germany. German Conquistadors in Venezuela is a stimulating read. The book will appeal to Latin Americanists, Germanists, early modernists, and scholars and students interested in postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and memory studies.
List of Figures
PART I: The Welsers: A History of their Merchant and Racialized Capitalism
1. The Merchant Capitalism of the Welsers: Colonization, Commerce, Commodities, and Imperial Credit
2. The Welsers’ Racialized Merchant Capitalism in Venezuela: Early Modern Slavery
PART II: Narrative and Cartographic Representations of the Welsers in Venezuela (16th-18th centuries)
3. Nikolaus Federmann’s Indianische Historia: Failed Gifts and Translation as Strategies of the Welser Conquest of Venezuela
4. Blood and Soil:Welser Venezuela Between Cartography and Genealogy
5. “Foreign Governance:” The Welser Colony Remembered in Latin-American Colonial Literature (16th-18th Centuries)
PART III: Cultural Memory of the Welser Colony in Germany and Latin America (19th-21st Centuries)
6. The Ghost of Welser Venezuela in German Cultural Memory
7. The Venezuelan View of German Conquest: Post-Independence Literature and History
Epilogue: Restitution and Commemoration-Debates in Germany Today
“German Conquistadors in Venezuela offers a new and exciting comparative approach and a long chronological sweep, which permits a nuanced consideration of how the story of the Welsers resonates in historical narratives on both sides of the Atlantic.” —Karen Stolley, author of Domesticating Empire
“A well-written, multidisciplinary addition to transatlantic history by asking not how the Welser experiment failed but how this failure shaped and reshaped cultural and national identities for centuries.” —Hispanic American Historical Review
"A fine portrayal of the Welser era in Venezuela and a convincing interpretation of its many uses in very different contexts." —Colonial Latin American Review
The “Cannibal law” passed in Spain in 1503 distinguished good Indians from bad ones depending on whether or not they practiced cannibalism, although colonizers would label any indigenous people who resisted as cannibals to legitimate their subjugation as slaves. This “Cannibal Law” is an example of how race came into play in the colonial-merchant capitalist system. Colonial administrators were invested in a racialization of indigenous, and later, black bodies who could be used as cheap labor. Moreover, their land could be confiscated. Bodies could be labeled dangerous, animalistic, and part of a nature, including land, that needed to be managed in an appropriate manner. Europeans, procured “excess resources from the environment to export for an external market and the creation of a commodity.” According to John Richards, the allocations of land to Spanish settlers under the encomienda system in Hispaniola had settlers obtaining land rights and property rights over Taíno chieftains and their people located within or adjacent to their grants. The Taínos were to serve the land settlers by mining, planting their family plots known as conucos, or by employment in their personal service. Of course, the Taínos on Hispaniola became nearly extinct as they succumbed to smallpox and forced labor. In 1508, there were about 60,000 Tainos left on Hispaniola. Slave raids had continued in the Antilles to replenish the ever-dwindling number of Taínos who worked the gold mines of Hispaniola and royal permits issued for slave raids in the lesser Antilles of Curaçao, Aruba, Trinidad and Tobago began enslaving supposedly “Cannibal” Caribs. The coast of Venezuela, especially the eastern coast close to the sites of pearl exploitation of Cubagua, became known as the site of natural resource and labor exploitation. Despite the fact the Crown did not directly authorize the trade of indigenous peoples from this area, the direct exploitation of pearl fisheries gave rise to the indigenous slave trade.
Nevertheless, in the 1530s the enslavement of unruly natives became a controversial subject, even if Indians were “proven” cannibals. In fact, the shift to categorizing indigenous peoples who resisted conquest from “cannibal” to “rebellious” would become an important bureaucratic legal tool for the Welsers as the Crown re-drafted protocols concerning indigenous slavery within Venezuela. Charles and his wife, Queen Isabella of Portugal (referred to here as Empress), debated with Spaniards whether those natives who resisted Spanish rule could be taken prisoner. For example, on 25 January 1531 the Empress, from afar, handled the affair of a Cacique (indigenous leader) who had been taken with 200 of his people to the Island of Cubagua by Spanish slave traders there. She demanded that the Cubagua governors punish those who initiated the enslavement of peaceful Indians and the lynching of one Indian. While her cedulario to those responsible referenced justice, she also referred to practical concerns, stating, “Many times [Cubaguan slave traders] go over to incite the coast and those Indians that are peaceful and in our service turn to war. They are then enslaved, killed and much trouble is caused in the disservice of God, us, and the destruction of the land…. From here on no person will go to incite the Indians and not make problems in [the coast of the province of Venezuela].” However, on the same day the Empress also wrote a cedulario addressed to the governor that specifies that the “royal fifth” of the slaves’ value captured in the entradas should be paid to the crown: “As such, I order you to pay to our officials, without any excuse, the ‘fifth’ of the slaves [value] that until now have belonged to us and been taken.” Whatever qualms Empress Isabella may have had about the enslavement of non-rebellious Indians, the monarchs expected to profit from their sale. Hence while she was presenting herself as a monarch that was concerned about the Indians and could appease their defenders such as Friar Antonio de Montesinos in Hispaniola, she sought a hard-line rule against the traffickers and demanded money from the illegal trade. This polemical period between the decree of the Laws of Burgos (1512) and the New Laws (1542), which saw the powerful petitions from Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas to the Crown, was characterized by official inconsistencies regarding the treatment of the Crown’s indigenous subjects.
1530 was the year when the indigenous slave trade in the Indies should have experienced a respite. The Cedulario Real from August 2 1530 remains one of the most controversial in reference to the Province of Venezuela. Written by Empress Isabella while Charles was absent from Spain for a few years, it condemns the native slave trade and the depopulation of the Venezuelan province. It treats the question of Spaniards’ enslavement of Indians and supports the policy of the Catholic Kings, who “with good reason” thought to enslave those Indians who refused to follow the Catholic faith. It notes that the conquistadors’ greed and disservice to God had led them to take Indians prisoner regardless of their refusal to convert to Christianity, leading to chaos in human trafficking. The Empress’s cedulario concludes:
However, considering the great and intolerable damages that have been made in the disservice of God, our Lord, that continue every day due to the chaotic greed of the conquistadors and others who have procured to make war and capture the said Indians unjustly and immoderately, they have enslaved, bought and had many of the said Indians [as prisoners] who really are not.