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#157: Review of old novel on the Spanish period in Hispaniola
THE CROSS AND THE SWORD. By Manuel de Jesus Galvan. Translated from
the Spanish by Robert Graves. English edition 1954 from 1882 Spanish
original. (Spanish original was entitle ENRIQUILLO) Bloomington: Indiana
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
The standard story of the Spanish in Hispaniola is short, sad and
gruesome. They arrived in the person of Christopher Columbus on December
6, 1492, returned on the second voyage seeking gold, eventually settled
the southeastern part of the island and either wiped out, or nearly wiped
out the entire Taino/Arawak Indian population. That demise is
accompanied by great brutality of treatment as well as the spread of
Manuel Galvan presents us with a fictionalized account that is much
richer than the standard historical account in human relations, the mix
of good and bad people in both the Spanish and Indian populations, as
well as others who are both decent and not so decent by turns. A very
human picture. On the other hand, it is clear that Galvan wanted to be
as historically accurate as he could, and the text of the novel is
sprinkled with 168 footnotes documenting and enriching the historical
story. I can't recall every reading an historical novel with as many
The novel is widely regarded as a classic of Dominican fiction and art.
While I intend to celebrate this novel as a "must read" in order to
understand the early Spanish period of Hispaniola, I will also argue that
as a "classic" it is highly overrated. If the Dominican Republic hasn't
produced greater literature than this novel, then the state of the
written arts in the Dominican Republic is in serious trouble.
The basic story ranges from about 1502 until about 1525. Despite his
attention to details of historical sources, Galvan is surprisingly
uninterested in dates. The novel opens under the governorship of Ovando,
but mainly takes places under the leadership of Diego Columbus, son of
Christopher. But what is this basic story? Well, this is part of the
difficulty of the organization of the novel.
The original Spanish title is "Enriquillo." As such it is misnamed. One
line of the plot is the rise of the Taino/Arawak cacique Enriquillo. We
follow him from his early days as a pre-teen, through his "Spanish
period" in which he is schooled in Spanish ways and religion, to his
final break and leadership of a native uprising which for some 13 years
provides a measure of successful resistance on the part of the Indians.
Initially the book might seem aptly named. However, translator Robert
Graves comes closer to the sense of the novel with his English title,
"The Cross and the Sword." Arguably the strongest thread of the novel
is not Enriquillo's but the Spanish brutality, the intervention of the
Catholic Church, the rising willingness of the native Americans to
revolt, and the ultimate uprising and success of Enriquillo's movement.
However, this uprising only occupies the very last part of the novel. On
the other hand what dominates the whole is the story of Bartolome de las
Casas, the Defender of the Indians, as he is often called, both in the
novel and in general history.
So what is this novel about? What dominates? Is it the general story of
the Spanish and the Indians on Hispaniola in this period? Is it the
story of Bartoleme de las Casas? Is it really the story of Enriquillo,
as Galvan's original title suggests? The problem with the organization
of the novel is that it can't seem to make up its mind which of these it
is and it is, rather chaotically, all of them at once, to the detriment
of any sense of total harmony as a work of art and fiction.
The first story, that of the Spanish and the Indians, is a straight
forward tale of brutality, tempered by a sense that some of the Spanish
were decent people with either poor insight into what was happening, or
decent instincts overcome by the greed of gain. It is the story of a
people so oppressed that they are finally driven to take the risk of
resistance when all evidence would suggest they will be defeated and pay
a great price for their resistance.
The story of Enriquillo is a 40 or 50 page tale of a great Taino/Arawak
leader, but with the ironic ambivalence, not seemingly noted by Galvan,
that his skills in thinking and strategy came from the Spanish education
and upbringing he has received.
The story of las Casas is more familiar, but for those not as familiar
with it, in brief, it is the story of a young man, Bartolome de las
Casas, sailor with Columbus on his second voyage, who eventually settles
on Hispaniola and becomes the overseer of some Indians. His general
sympathy for the Indians grows and he comes to see that they are being
horribly treated by the Spanish and threatened with extinction as a
people. He begins to support them, eventually becomes the most important
voice of his time in their defense, earning him the historical nickname
as "Defender of the Indians." Along the way he became a Roman Catholic
priest, a member of the Dominican order and eventually a bishop of the
In this particular novel las Casas is given a provocative
characterization of a very decent human being, a man in great struggle,
wining victories, suffering terrible defeats, empowered by his sense of
justice and driven by his faith in God.
Despite the weakness of unity in the novel, Galvan tells a gripping
story, rich in imagined detail of the everydayness of this drama that is
intellectually compelling and emotionally convincing. I think anyone who
reads his vision of this vague and misty past will come away thinking
that Galvan must have much of it right. It is especially useful in our
time of gross oversimplification of history into the good and the bad. I
compare the rich and ambiguous story of individuals, fitted into the
general historical picture, and compare it with the recent move to vilify
all Spaniards, and Columbus in particular, as some sort of reifications
of evil itself during the recent 500 year anniversary of the
"discovery." I much prefer Galvan's more human story that the inhuman
strawman figures of the recent period.
Nonetheless, I suspect Galvan's portrait, especially of de las Casas.
Galvan sees him as a saint and a great man. Of course he looks at this
story with two and a half centuries of historical sediment in the view of
las Casas. Like him, I also regard las Casas as one of the model figures
of decency in human history, a bold hero of fighting the injustices of
his time at great danger and effort to his own life. While Galvan is at
pains to present his story as history lightly fictionalized, as witnessed
by his 168 footnotes, I am deeply troubled that nearly every source for
his portrait of las Casas comes from las Casas' own writings. I get the
sense that Galvan is a critical mind in most aspects of early Hispaniolan
history, but rather generous and uncritical in his picture of las Casas.
That doesn't mean he didn't get it right. He may well have. I just
would have been more convinced if footnote after footnote to the las
Casas portrait wasn't again and again, a book of las Casas.
I quibble about the book's status as art and the status of a literary
classic. I quibble about a perhaps idealized and generous view of the
person of Bartolome de las Casas. I quibble with the book's sense of a
whole. All defensible criticisms I think, but small change nonetheless.
My quarrels are more with the book as art than history.
I have read nothing yet which has so enriched my sense of this period.
The Spanish were imperial invaders, taking over the lands of people they
regarded as distinctly lesser beings than themselves, both because of
their color and origins, and their religious practices. Yet we see a
Spanish populace who can't help but FEEL their own neat and pat ideology
be challenged by the basic humanness of some of the Indians with whom
they come into daily contact. We see a people somewhat conflicted, yet
acting, in general, toward a way of life that reinforces the Spanish
ideology and in the process, enriches their own material lives.
Galvan's The Cross and the Sword is a very old book, about 125 years
now. Yet I strongly recommend that if you haven't read it you might well
want to put it on your list of books to get to, and squeeze it in. It's
not a very quick read. It is fictionalized history, but it moves slowly
and with unclear time lines. If you follow the path of the 168 footnotes
you will again be slowed down. But this mixture of fiction and history
has a richness of both history and the insight in the basic humanness of
the participants to reward the reader with a more humanly textured sense
of this period of distant but shaping history of Hispaniola.