Trujillo, Spain, July 25, 1434: The Feast of Saint James

The Pizarro family left their house in the Callera de los Matires at noon. It was but a short walk down a slippery stone path to the Puerta de Santiago. Through it appeared the squat tower of the Church of Santiago where they would attend mass on this, the birthday of Saint James.

One of the most amazing feats of arms in the annals of humankind had its genesis here in this small mountain village in landlocked Extremadura. None of the Pizarro family had seen the sea; their dusty mountain village, Trujillo, had no maritime tradition. Yet the name of Trujillo would soon be stamped upon the length and breadth of the Americas. A son of Trujillo, Francisco Pizarro, would conquer a mighty Inca empire, triumphing over a civilization of 20 million people with a band of 180 comrades.

Extremadura, birthplace of the conquistadores, is a land is of unspeakable beauty and savage cruelty. In spring, it is carpeted with flowers. In summer, wolves trail dying sheep as they plod wearily along Mesta trails in search of pasture. The land’s infinite horizons are fringed by mountaintops that are rose pink at dawn, deep velvet by nightfall. At midday, the cracked, red earth vibrates with heat, sending wild pigs scurrying for shelter beneath the olive trees.

In Extremadura, one sees the last vestiges of Roman Spain—remnants of the forest of arbutus, cork, and holm oaks that once covered the whole of the peninsula. The prehistoric dehesa is still practiced—thinning forests and scrub by a method of slash and burn. In the everlasting cobalt sky, vultures and imperial eagles wheel, searching for lizards and snakes slithering across the baking sand. Barren rock covers a third of the land. Now and then, chalk-white villages appear splattered on the mountainside, as if thrown by a giant hand.

The name Extremadura was coined as a term of disparagement. Extremadura was synonymous with stupidity, backwardness, and barrenness. It suggests a land that has been abandoned—a subject of farce. In the Spanish version of the British comedy series Fawlty Towers, Manuel, the idiotic waiter, hails from Extremadura. When Cervantes wanted to create a fool, he, too, chose one from Extremadura.

Today, Extremadura is a thriving, proud, independent region. Like all the regions of Spain, it has its own president and government; it is virtually a nation. In the north, Las Hurdes, the mountains, close in to form one of the most fascinating “lost” regions of Europe, the subject of Luis Buñuel’s melancholy film Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land without bread). Adjacent to Las Hurdes is La Vera, rich in grapes, cherries, and pears.

Extremadura’s history has been determined by its neighbors. To the west lies Portugal, to the north Castile, to the south Andalusia. From each direction, conquering armies have trampled Extremaduran soil, beginning in Carthaginian times right up to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. For two thousand years Extremadura peasants have endured armies of strangers occupying their fields, stealing their cattle, raping their women, burning their houses and crops.

Yet this ravaged land was the birthplace of the conquistadores, who conquered the mighty Inca, Maya, and Aztec empires. Extremadurans colonized America from Florida to Tierra del Fuego. Today, the Extremaduran names Trujillo, Guadelupe, and Medellín are found the length and breadth of the Americas, a testament to the courage of those poor, brave, devout men of long ago.

The contrast in 1434 between the wealth of China, or of the great civilizations of the Americas, and the poverty of Extremadura could hardly be greater. As the Inca emperor Viracocha was leading his people into the main square of Cusco on Midsummer’s Day 1434, he was adorned in gold and jade jewelry, dressed in clothes of exotic vicuña wool. In Extremadura, Francisco Pizarro’s grandfather was attending mass dressed in his poor best. None of the people whose grandchildren would set off to conquer the New World was aware that the Americas existed. Even more extraordinary, almost all of Extramadura’s conquistadores came from the most barren part of the region, within a sixty-mile radius of Mérida.

Francisco Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana were born in Trujillo, Hernán Cortés in Medellín, Pedro de Valdivia in Villanueva de la Serena, Vasco Núñez de Balboa and Hernando de Soto in Jerez de los Caballeros. In short, the first colonizers of Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, and Chile came from the same small arid pocket of land.

Still more astonishing is the number of conquistadores from a single, small mountain village: Trujillo, Hernando de Alarcón, the first European to map California; Nuño de Chávez, founder of Santa Cruz in Bolivia; Diego Garciá de Paredes, founder of Trujillo in Peru; Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Cortés’s companion in his conquest of Mexico; Friar Jerónimo de Loaisa, the first archbishop of Lima; Friar Vicente de Valverde, bishop of Cusco; Inez Munoz, the first married woman to settle in Lima; and Francisco de Orellana, discoverer of the Amazon, all lived within a few blocks of the Pizarro family in Trujillo. Did a fairy godmother wave a magic wand on that dusty hillside from whence so many conquistadores came?

I explored Extremadura and Andalusia over many decades seeking an answer to this riddle. Then one cold spring evening, as a dank gray mist settled over the Meseta Central, I came across Nuñez de Balboa’s house on a side street of Jerez de los Caballeros. Balboa’s bedroom is covered in weeds, devoid of furniture save for a rickety old bed. His family was obviously desperately poor. What gave this illiterate young boy the confidence to sail across thousands of miles of storm-tossed ocean, then to hack his way across almost impenetrable tropical jungle, to discover the Pacific? Then I recalled Pizarro’s home, also in a mountain village, also little more than a cowshed, the furniture little more than planks of wood. Did poverty drive the conquistadores’ quest?

I decided there and then to explore the birthplaces of Extremadura’s most famous sons, starting in the north at Trujillo and working southward through Villanueva de la Serena, Medellín, Mérida, Zafra, and Jerez de los Caballeros. (A visitor who wishes to follow my journey can comfortably do so by car in one day.) I discovered three factors common to all the great conquistadores. Pizarro, Orellana, Balboa, and de Soto were poor; not one of the conquistadore leaders came from the twenty-six great families of Spain. Not only were they poor, but their poverty arose from social injustice.

The Reconquista of Spain from the Muslims had been led by Castile. Extremadura in 1434 was Castile’s frontier province. To the south lay Andalusia, the last bastion of the Moors. After the Reconquista, the land the Extremadurans had captured from the Moors was given to Castilian knights. The foot soldiers of Extremadura who had fought so bravely got nothing.

Extremadura had many inhabitants, yet the land belonged to a few Castilian families. In 1434, Castile stretched from the Pyrenees to the Portuguese border in the west, from the coast of Galicia in the north to the Moorish kingdom of Granada in the south. It was said that all this land belonged to eleven families. The duchess of Albuquerque could travel from the Pyrenees to Portugal without leaving her property. As late as 1931, Andalusia belonged to only seventeen families. A few had everything; millions had nothing.

Spain through the centuries has been a class-ridden society. From the fourteenth century, the statute book determined classes and assigned their specific members. The titled class—dukes, marchises, counts, and viscounts—owned the land, controlled tens of thousands of people, and had astonishing power over the government. They lived in castles, aping or surpassing the lifestyle of monarchs. In The Noble Spaniard, by Somerset Maugham, a gentleman says, “I can keep my hat on in the presence of the king.” It may seem a joke, but members of the twenty-six noble families of Spain were entitled to do so by law.

The injustice of class was encapsulated in a brilliant play, The Mayor of Zalamea, by Spain’s greatest dramatist, Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Zalamea, in western Extremadura, is a village used by Catholic monarchs as a staging post for their armies en route to Portugal, the Spanish army, consisting of rude private soldiers and officers of minor nobility—hidalgos. The mayor is a man of substance and prestige, but he is a peasant. He realizes the army will regard him as a pushover—the key to the girls of the town. The heroine is the most beautiful girl, most at risk, the daughter of an honest, God-fearing farmer named Pedro Crespo. He keeps her hidden in his house. The captain of the army bangs on the door and demands his beautiful daughter. Pedro Crespo refuses, saying “she is my daughter, we are an honourable family, she has her honour and her soul.”

But the captain maintains that only hidalgos have honor. He pursues the girl into the woods and rapes her, asserting his droit de seigneur.

The Mesta

With that cruel understanding of the Spanish class system, let us revisit the Pizarros. As they walked to mass on that sultry July morning they would have seen in the haze beneath Trujillo a plain stretching to eternity. In the fifteenth century, vast flocks of sheep would have been migrating southward across that plain to their winter pastures. The right of pasturage was another of the spoils that accrued to nobility. After the Castilian nobles seized the huge Moorish estates, they turned them over to sheep ranching. Around 1300, when the Reconquista was practically over, merino sheep were introduced to Spain from North Africa. The kings of Castile then formed the Mesta, an organization to promote sheep farming and wool production, which was dominated by the wealthy families who had seized the land.

The Mesta grew very powerful. For centuries, its iron hand tied the land to sheep grazing, stifling agricultural innovation. Wealth flowed northward and the wretched Extremadurans received little. Over the centuries, impoverishment at the hands of Castile drove peasants to the towns. Even today, an Extremaduran quarter exists in Madrid, where shops, bars, and cafés are full of immigrant families. The harshness of their life is caught in the lilting song La Vendimia (The grape harvest):

As the carts trundle the roads

They sing the song of autumn

And the vines sing the sad song without their leaves

The boys make off in carts followed by the wind

The leaves sing sad songs.

The haunting music is repeated in the Hota Extremeña a dance much like the flamenco, heavily influenced by Islamic music.

Class-based injustices were inescapable for poor families like the Pizarros. The Arch of Santiago through which the family walked to mass was owned by the de Chaves family, Castilians who had led the attack that liberated Trujillo from the Moors in 1232. They controlled who passed through it and shut out those who failed to pay their tolls. The family owned an imposing palace that overlooked—and dwarfed—the Pizarro home. In Jerez de los Caballeros, Nuñez de Balboa’s hovel was similarly dwarfed by the palaces of the Rianzuela, de Logroño, and Bullon families—all Castilians.

The Virgin Mary’s and Saint James’s Role in the Reconquista

Despite grinding poverty and inequality, faith seemed to give the conquistadores the courage to overcome any enemy. The conquistadores were marked above all by their faith in the Virgin Mary. She is said to have appeared in the clouds above Trujillo during the battle to capture the town. Today her statue stands high above the Pizarro home, easily visible on the walk to church.

Religious life centred on the Virgin Mary. The coat of arms of the Very Noble and Very Loyal City of Trujillo consists of an image of Our Lady of Victory on a silver background. The Virgin was intimately engaged in the Reconquista, frequently appearing to assist soldiers in their hour of peril. Likewise, the spiritual heart of the Reconquista was the shrine of the Virgin Mary at the monastery of Guadelupe, on the southeast slope of the mountains of that name. The cult of the Virgin originated there.

After the Reconquista, a period of stagnation began. Castile’s expansion had come to a halt. The appearance of the Virgin in Guadalupe gave renewed vitality, a new identity, and focus to people’s spiritual endeavors. The conquistadores adopted the Guadalupe Virgin as their protector. In South America her image is everywhere. The Caribbean island where the Portuguese landed in the 1440s was named after the monastery.

The kings of Castile made pilgrimages to Guadalupe, building a hospederia to educate the children. Great explorers came to seek the Virgin’s assistance before setting off. Columbus received his permission to sail while at Guadalupe. Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, spent nine days in retreat there, praying before the miraculous image of the Madonna. He later dedicated the greatest pilgrimage shrine in America to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

After the Virgin, the cult of Saint James was another powerful influence on the conquistadores, reaching its apotheosis in the Order of Santiago (Sant Jago = Saint James). In 1434, the order in effect ruled Extremadura as a state within a state.

It had all started with the Reconquista. Islamic armies overran Spain in A.D. 711 after having been invited by squabbling Visigoth princes. It took them seven years to advance to the Pyrenees. It took the Christians seven hundred to expel them. The Reconquista of Spain was tied to Saint James at every step.

The discovery of his body on the Field of Stars in Santiago de Compostela in 889 was the beginning. The news spread rapidly across northern Spain. The whole Christian world wanted to safeguard the apostle’s remains and keep the infidels at bay. During this first wave of the Reconquista, the Christian armies were, in effect, followers of local warlords whose principal aim was to enrich themselves at the expense of the Moors. The most powerful warlord, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1040–1099) is the quintessential Castilian hero. His nickname, El Cid (the Lord), was given by the Moors. He would fight anyone—provided he foresaw a profit. A devout Catholic, a devoted husband, and the ideal Castilian knight, El Cid has come to represent the essence of Castilian chivalry and courage.

By 1410, the Moors had been pushed south as far as Antequera, which fell to the Christian army led by the order in that year. By 1434, they were pinned into an enclave bordered by La Línea de la Concepción, Ronda, Antequera, Martos, and Huesca. South of that line, in a pocket shielded by the Sierra Nevada, the Arabs farmed sheep and paid tribute to Castilian overlords.

From Veves, where the order had its headquarters, to the Sierra Nevada, which was the frontier between Christian and Islamic lands, the order held sway. Legacies of that era are evident everywhere—in churches of Santiago from Cáceres in the north to Antequera in the south, fortresses of Santiago from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the west to Jaén in the east. There are hospitals of Santiago in Zafra and Mérida and seminaries in Caldera de León and Zafra. Virtually every town has its Calle de Santiago.

In 1410, the medieval line of kings of Aragon came to an end when Martin V died without heirs. Civil war loomed. By the Compromise of Caspe in 1412 Ferdinand of Antequera, a member of a junior branch of the Trastamara dynasty, the royal house of Castile, became king of Aragon.

In England, King John married for the second time. His bride, Isabella of Portugal, bore a daughter, also called Isabella. She would eventually defy her advisers and marry Ferdinand of Aragon, putting the seal on a united Spain, one that had been unified for all practical purposes by the Compromise of Caspe.

A unified Spain possessed the prime ingredients for launching voyages of discovery—the Extremadurans. They had the example of their forebear, El Cid, who had achieved his victories over insuperable odds by virtue of superhuman will and courage. And they had the daily reality of no bread.

Save for Cortés, every one of the famous conquistadores we have mentioned came from a poor family; not a single illustrious Castilian family took part in their voyages of exploration. It is no coincidence the conquistadores were intensely legalistic. They negotiated with the monarchy in advance, with the division of spoils spelt out in detail.

For once, Extremadurans could keep the spoils. At home, Extremaduran hidalgos struggled to obtain food for their children. Overseas, conquest, land, and wealth afforded them a purchase on nobility. Embarking on voyages of exploration, the conquistadores could hope for three separate rewards—spiritual salvation for waging war against the infidels, material gain in the form of vast tracts of land and wealth, and, once they returned home, fama, gloria, knighthoods, and castles to brighten their twilight years.

The awesome dangers and difficulties the conquistadores faced in exploration must have seemed little different from those they had already encountered in the Reconquista. Provided that they exhibited the same extreme courage as their forebears, they could overcome any obstacle, secure in their faith that the Virgin Mary and Saint James would protect them. In the end, victory would be theirs.

Besides, by 1434, Islam had been squeezed into the southern tip of Spain between the Sierra Nevada and the sea. North of the mountains, there were no lands left to reconquer. For six hundred years, their ancestors had been waging battle; fighting was in their blood.

The hardships of the tierra sin pan explain their urge to leave Extremadura but not how the conquistadores overcame their homeland’s lack of maritime tradition. That was remedied by the union of Castile with Aragon after the Compromise of Caspe. Having pushed Islam out of Spain, Castile was busy absorbing the immense estates it had recently acquired.

Aragon, on the other hand, had completed her part of the Reconquista two centuries before Castile and used the interim to create a maritime empire. By 1434, she had two centuries of valuable experience. Aragon possessed ships that could sail the world and cartographers who had begun to map the Atlantic and Africa. Her savants knew the earth was round and that the Americas existed across the Atlantic. Despite this, Aragon was weak; she would be the junior partner doing what Castile required of her.

The conquistadores had the example of the Portuguese before them. In 1415, Henry the Navigator had taken the colossal gamble of invading Africa, the home of Islam. By 1421, Madeira had been populated, on the way to becoming a thriving Portuguese colony. Henry’s ships had set sail for the Americas—the Portuguese knew the earth was round, that the seas did not tumble off the earth, that India and the East could be reached by rounding Africa.

And what could the conquistadores expect to find when they reached the fabled Americas, land of Amazons? In an age of romantic literature, their dreams were no doubt fired by the epics such as The Amadis of Gaul. Nubile, sex-mad women awaited them in marble palaces. Handmaidens would wash their feet and clothe them in golden gowns. White rubies and green emeralds the size of pigeon eggs would be theirs for the taking. Small wonder Pizarro had such an easy time selecting two hundred comrades from among the many who answered his call that blistering summer’s morning outside Trujillo’s Church of Santiago.

Fortune favors the brave. The conquistadores found three desperately weakened empires in the Americas. The Aztecs had become psychopaths—cannibals who ate their fellow tribes in Mexico. Cortés was welcomed with open arms as millions of Mexicans supported his invasion. In Central America, the same ghastly cult had poisoned the Maya. Weakened by civil war, they too offered only token resistance. In South America, the “mummy cult” of the Incas had reached its inevitable conclusion.

With nowhere to expand, the Incas had taken to fighting one another. They had no iron. An army of padded dolls awaited Pizarro. By a series of amazing coincidences, each empire succumbed to fatal weakness at the very moment the conquistadores landed. The three fruit trees had ripened simultaneously, each without thorns. The conquistadores plucked the fruit.

Our quest to rediscover the world of Zheng He’s era ends at San Lúcar de Barrameda, on the estuary of the Guadalquivir. This powerful, melancholy river symbolizes the change from Old World to New. Once the grand highway that joined Córdoba, the magnificent capital of Islamic Spain, to the rest of the Islamic world in the East, the river became the link between Seville, capital of New Spain, and her New World colonies in the West.

If the Guadalquivir could speak, she might wearily agree that so extraordinary were the events of Zheng He’s era that it seems God had grown tired of his creation and decided to try something new.

The last word goes to Omar Khayyám (circa 1074).

Those who in ancient ages came

And those that live in later days

Depart on their successive ways:

For all the journey is the same.

This Kingdom of the Earth and Sky

Remains eternally for none:

We too must go, as they have gone,

And others follow by-and-by.

Our long journey of exploration into the medieval world is over. Like our predecessors, we now commend ourselves to God’s keeping.

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