By Manuel de Jesus Galvan. Translated from the Spanish by Robert Graves. English edition 1954 from 1882 Spanish original. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Reviewed by Bob Corbett
July 1999

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 European diseases.

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 footnotes!

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 Indies.

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.


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