Mar 092018

Today is the birthday (1454) of Amerigo Vespucci, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus who also explored the New World by ship, and first demonstrated in about 1502 that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to people of the Old World. Because of his exploration and cartography, the continent he explored (actually 2 continents) was named for him. The Latin version of Amerigo is Americus (masculine). The Latin feminine is America. Why continents are feminine in Romance languages is just one of the mysteries of linguistics you will have to sort out on your own. My pet peeve is more basic. As a native Argentino, I am as American as any Chilean, Bolivian, Mexican, or Canadian, and I resent citizens of the United States of America commandeering “American” and “America” for their nation only when they ought to apply to all peoples and nations of both continents. I doubt Vespucci would have approved. In many languages there are words for citizens of the U.S. that do not confuse the country with the continents. Estadounidense is used in most South American Spanish dialects, for example. English ought to be able to come up with something.

Vespucci was born and raised in Florence, the third son of Ser Nastagio (Anastasio) Vespucci, a Florentine notary, and Lisabetta Mini. His paternal grandfather also bore the name Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci was educated by his uncle, Fra Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, a Dominican friar of the monastery of San Marco in Florence. While his elder brothers were sent to the University of Pisa to pursue scholarly careers, Amerigo Vespucci embraced a mercantile life, and was hired as a clerk by the Florentine commercial house of Medici, headed by Lorenzo de’ Medici. Vespucci acquired the favor and protection of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici who became the head of the business after the elder Lorenzo’s death in 1492. In March 1492, the Medici dispatched the 38-year-old Vespucci and Donato Niccolini as confidential agents to look into the Medici branch office in Cádiz, whose managers and dealings were under suspicion.

In April 1495, by the intrigues of Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the Crown of Castile broke their monopoly deal with Christopher Columbus and began handing out licenses to other navigators for the West Indies. Just around this time (1495–96), Vespucci was engaged as the executor of Giannotto Berardi, an Italian merchant who had recently died in Seville. Vespucci organized the fulfillment of Berardi’s outstanding contract with the Castilian crown to provide twelve vessels for the Indies. After these were delivered, Vespucci continued as a provision contractor for Indies expeditions, and is known to have secured beef supplies for at least one (if not two) of Columbus’ voyages.

At the invitation of king Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci participated as observer in several voyages that explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502. On the first of these voyages he was aboard the ship that discovered that South America extended much further south than previously thought. The expeditions became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to Vespucci were published between 1502 and 1504. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map on which he named the new continent America after Vespucci. In an accompanying book, Waldseemüller published one of the Vespucci accounts, which led to criticism that Vespucci was trying to upset Christopher Columbus’ glory. However, the rediscovery in the 18th century of other letters by Vespucci has led to the view that the early published accounts, notably the Soderini Letter, could be fabrications, not by Vespucci, but by others.

In 1508, the position of chief of navigation of Spain (piloto mayor de Indias) was created for Vespucci, with the responsibility of planning navigation for voyages to the Indies. Two letters attributed to Vespucci were published during his lifetime. Mundus Novus (New World) was a Latin translation of a lost Italian letter sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. It describes a voyage to South America in 1501–1502. Mundus Novus was published in late 1502 or early 1503 and soon reprinted and distributed in numerous European countries. Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi (Letter of Amerigo Vespucci concerning the isles newly discovered on his four voyages), also known as Lettera al Soderini or just Lettera, was a letter in Italian addressed to Piero Soderini. Printed in 1504 or 1505, it claimed to be an account of four voyages to the Americas made by Vespucci between 1497 and 1504. A Latin translation was published by Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 in Cosmographiae Introductio, a book on cosmography and geography, as Quattuor Americi Vespucij navigationes (Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci).

Vespucci’s real historical importance may well rest more in his letters than in his discoveries. From these letters, the European public learned about the newly discovered continents of the Americas for the first time within a few years of their publication. There is ongoing debate concerning the actual authorship of the letters and their veracity. It is possible that the first and fourth voyages are fabricated, but the second and third are certain.

First voyage

A letter published in 1504 purports to be an account by Vespucci, written to Soderini, of a lengthy visit to the New World, leaving Spain in May 1497 and returning in October 1498. However, some modern scholars have doubted that this voyage took place, and consider this letter a forgery. Whoever did write the letter makes several observations of native customs, including use of hammocks and sweat lodges.

Second voyage

About 1499–1500, Vespucci joined an expedition in the service of Spain, with Alonso de Ojeda (or Hojeda) as the fleet commander. The intention was to sail around the southern end of the African mainland into the Indian Ocean. After hitting land at the coast of what is now Guyana, the two seem to have separated. Vespucci sailed southward, discovering the mouth of the Amazon River and reaching 6°S before turning around and seeing Trinidad and the Orinoco River, and returning to Spain by way of Hispaniola. The letter, to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, claims that Vespucci determined his longitude celestially on August 23, 1499, while on this voyage. However, that claim may be fraudulent.

Third voyage

The last certain voyage of Vespucci was led by Gonçalo Coelho in 1501–1502 in the service of Portugal. Departing from Lisbon, the fleet sailed first to Cape Verde where they met two of Pedro Álvares Cabral’s ships returning from India. In a letter from Cape Verde, Vespucci says that he hopes to visit the same lands that Álvares Cabral had explored, suggesting that the intention is to sail west to Asia, as on the 1499–1500 voyage. On reaching the coast of Brazil, they sailed south along the coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro’s bay. If his own account is to be believed, he reached the latitude of Patagonia before turning back, although this also seems doubtful, since his account does not mention the broad estuary of the Río de la Plata, which he must have seen if he had sailed that far south. Portuguese maps of South America, created after the voyage of Coelho and Vespucci, do not show any land south of present-day Cananéia at 25° S, so this may represent the southernmost extent of their voyages.

After the first half of the expedition, Vespucci mapped Alpha and Beta Centauri, as well as the constellation Crux, the Southern Cross, and the Coalsack Nebula. Although these stars had been known to the ancient Greeks, gradual precession had lowered them below the European horizon so that they had been forgotten. On his return to Lisbon, Vespucci wrote in a letter that the land masses they explored were much larger than anticipated and different from the Asia described by Ptolemy or Marco Polo and therefore, must be a New World, that is, a previously unknown fourth continent, after Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Fourth voyage

Vespucci’s fourth voyage was another expedition for the Portuguese crown down the eastern coast of Brazil, that set out in May 1503 and returned to Portugal in June 1504. Like his alleged first voyage, Vespucci’s last voyage in 1503–1504 is also disputed to have taken place. The only source of information for the last voyage is the Letter to Soderini, but as several modern scholars dispute Vespucci’s authorship of the letter to Soderini, it is also sometimes doubted whether Vespucci undertook this trip. However, Portuguese documents do confirm a voyage to Brazil was undertaken in 1503–04 by the captain Gonçalo Coelho, very likely the same captain of the 1501 mapping expedition (Vespucci’s third voyage), and so it is quite possible that Vespucci went on board this one as well. However, it is not independently confirmed Vespucci was aboard and there are some difficulties in the reported dates and details.

The letters caused controversy after Vespucci’s death, especially among the supporters of Columbus who believed Columbus’ priority for the discovery of America was being undermined, and seriously damaged Vespucci’s reputation. Not long after his return to Spain, Vespucci became a Spanish citizen. On March 22, 1508 he was made the pilot major of Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon in honor of his discoveries. Vespucci also ran a school for navigators in the Spanish House of Trade, based in Seville. He died on February 22, 1512 at his home in Seville.

In honor of Vespucci here are 2 segments from the 16th century Tuscan cookbook, L’Arte Et Prudenza D’Un Maestro Cuoco (The Art and Craft of a Master Cook). A full facsimile of the original can be found here:

The first recipe to be used for pasta is unusual in that it uses both rosewater and sugar. The second is a fairly standard recipe for pasta in brodo although you may have trouble making a broth from hare or crane. The recipe for making the noodles shows that nothing much has changed in 500 years.

Per fare tortelletti con la polpa di cappone

[…] uno sfoglio di pasta alquanto sottile, fatto di fior di farina, acqua di rose, sale, butiro, zuccaro, & acqua tepida […]

To prepare tortelletti with capon flesh

[…] a rather thin sheet of dough is made of flour, rosewater, salt, butter, sugar and warm water […]

Per far minestra di tagliatelli

Impastinosi due libre di fior di farina con tre uoua, & acqua tepida, & mescolisi bene sopra una tavola per lo spatio d’un quarto d’hora, & dapoi stendasi sottilmente con il bastone, & lascisi alquanto risciugare il sfoglio, & rimondinosi con lo sperone le parti piu grosse, che son gli orlicci, & quando sarà asciutto però non troppo, perche crepe rebbe, spoluerizzisi di fior di farina con il fetaccio, accioche non si attacchi, piglisi poi il bastone della pasta, & comincisi da un capo, & riuolgasi tutto lo sfoglio sopra il bastone leggiermente, cauisi il bastone, e taglisi lo sfoglio cosi riuolto per lo trauerso con un coltello largo sottile, e tagliati che saranno, slarghinosi, & lassinosi alquanto rasciugare, & asciutti che saranno, fettaccisi fuora per lo criuello il farinaccio, & facciasene minestra con brodo grasso di carne, o con latte, & butiro, & cotti che saranno, seruanosi caldi con cascio, zuccaro, & cannella, & uolendone far lasagne taglisi la pasta sul bastone per lungo, & compartasi la detta pasta in due parti parimente per lungo, e taglisi in quadretti, & faccianosi  cuocere in brodo di lepre, ouero di grua, o d’altra carna, o latte, & seruanosi calde con cascio, zuccaro, & cannella.

To prepare a thick soup of tagliatelle

Work two pounds of flour, three eggs and warm water into a dough, kneading it on a table for a quarter of an hour. Roll it out thin with a rolling pin and let the sheet of dough dry a little. Trim away the irregular parts, the fringes, with a rolling wheel. When it has dried, though not too much because it would break up, sprinkle it with flour through a sieve so it will not stick. Then take the rolling pin and, beginning at one end, wrap the whole sheet loosely on it. Remove the rolling pin and cut the rolled-up dough crosswise with a broad, thin knife. When they are cut open them [the noodles] out. Let them dry out a little and, when they are dry, filter off the excess flour through a sieve. Make up a soup of them with a fat meat broth, or milk and butter. When they are cooked, serve them hot with cheese, sugar and cinnamon. If you want to make lasagna of them, cut the dough lengthwise on the pin, and likewise divide it lengthwise in two, and cut that into little squares. Cook them in the broth of a hare, a crane or some other meat, or in milk. Serve them hot with cheese, sugar and cinnamon.

Apr 222017

Today is the birthday of Isabella I (Ysabel I) of Castile (1451 – 1504). She married Ferdinand II of Aragon and their marriage became the basis for the political unification of Spain under their grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After a struggle to claim her right to the throne, she reorganized the governmental system, brought the crime rate to the lowest it had been in years, and unburdened the kingdom of the enormous debt her brother had left behind. Her reforms and those she made with Ferdinand had an influence that extended well beyond the borders of their united kingdoms. Isabella and Ferdinand are well known for completing the Reconquista, ordering the conversion or exile of their Muslim and Jewish subjects under the legendary Spanish Inquisition, and for supporting and financing Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage that led to the colonization of huge parts of the New World and to the establishment of Spain as the first global power which dominated Europe and much of the world for more than a century. The phrase “the sun never sets on the empire” was coined to describe the Spanish empire under Isabella’s great-grandson, Felipe II, and inherited only much later by the British.

With many celebrated (larger than life) historical figures such as Napoleon, Genghis Khan, etc. I always ask my students the deathless question: “(Fill in the blank); ‘Good Thing’ or ‘Bad Thing’?” I’m stealing from 1066 And All That, of course, and on the surface it’s a silly question. History is not black and white. I’m asking them to give considered answers in the vein of, “On the one hand . . . . on the other hand . . .” Well what about Isabella? Good Thing or Bad Thing? Your answer probably depends on your ethnic origins. If you’re Hispanic you’ll probably lean in favor of Good Thing, if you’re Jewish, Indigenous American, or Moorish – not so much. The thing is that Isabella is a towering figure in world history. She was not only tough minded, independent, and politically astute, she was also the progenitor of numerous monarchs and dynasties.

The most famous living descendants of Isabella I (and Ferdinand II) are probably the current European monarchs. First of all, the Kings of Spain are descended from their union, with their current major dynastic heir being King Felipe VI of Spain. However, it is also the case that all the other monarchs currently reigning in Europe – King Albert II of Belgium, Grand-Duke Henri of Luxembourg, Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K., Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Harald V of Norway, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands – descend in some way or another from Isabella and Ferdinand. This is also true of the Sovereign Princes of Europe: Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein. That’s leaving a pretty significant mark.

From the point of view of English history, Isabella’s daughter, Katherine, was first married to Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, and then, when he died, was remarried to his second son Henry who became Henry VIII. Henry’s divorce from Katherine was, of course, the immediate cause of the English Reformation, and the ascent of their daughter, Mary I, Isabella’s granddaughter, the precipitating event leading to the bloody Counter-Reformation in England. Mary married Isabella’s great-grandson Felipe II (Mary’s first cousin once removed) but they had no children, hence that bloodline vanished. It’s always struck me as a tad ethnocentric (or xenophobic) of English history text books that Felipe is rarely acknowledged as an ACTUAL king of England. Admittedly he was king by marriage, and his reign lasted only whilst Mary was alive. But he was king – not royal consort, like Victoria’s Albert, or royal hanger-on like the current Greek guy. He was genuinely king of England (jure uxoris), and tried to make the title stick after Mary’s death by launching the famous Armada which came to a well-known miserable end. The current Elizabeth II is descended from Isabella via a different bloodline. And . . . just to muddy the waters further, Isabella was a direct descendant of the kings of England (including king John) via John of Gaunt. Not much hybrid vigor in the bloodlines in those days.

Isabella was first betrothed to Ferdinand at the age of 6, but subsequent complex royal machinations scotched that deal as she was offered around to numerous princes until, as an adult and heir presumptive, she got a (wobbly) agreement from her brother, Henry, king of Castile at the time, that she would not be forced to marry against her will.  In 1468 after Isabella refused a marriage proposal from Alfonso V of Portugal (backed by brother Henry), Isabella made a secret promise to marry her cousin and very first betrothed, Ferdinand of Aragon. On 18 October 1469, the formal betrothal took place. Because Isabella and Ferdinand were second cousins, they stood within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity and the marriage would not be legal unless a dispensation from the Pope was obtained. With the help of the Valencian cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (later Alexander VI), Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with a supposed papal bull by Pius II (who had actually died in 1464), authorizing Ferdinand to marry within the third degree of consanguinity, making their marriage legal. Afraid of opposition, Isabella eloped from the court of Henry with the excuse of visiting her brother Alfonso’s tomb in Ávila. Ferdinand, on the other hand, crossed Castile in secret disguised as a servant. They were married immediately upon reuniting, on 19 October 1469, in the Palacio de los Vivero in the city of Valladolid. It was both a successful union politically, and, by all accounts, a happy one – although one never really knows about such things. I’d (modestly) characterize the marriage as an uncharacteristically (for the time) equal partnership. It’s vital to remember that this was an era of very powerful female rulers in a patriarchal world. Many men found this out to their peril.

You can catch up on Isabella’s numerous achievements in standard histories.  How about her personality? Here we must be careful not to be anachronistic. For starters, Isabella was short but stocky with a very fair complexion, and had a hair color that was between strawberry-blonde and auburn. Some portraits, however, show her as a brunette. Her daughters, Joanna and Catherine, were thought to resemble her the most. Isabella maintained an austere, temperate lifestyle, and her devotion to Catholicism was the hallmark of her life. In spite of her political hostility towards the Muslims in Andalusia, she developed a taste for Moorish decor and style.

Her contemporaries were more or less unanimous concerning her temperament. Andrés Bernáldez said, “She was an endeavored woman, very powerful, very prudent, wise, very honest, chaste, devout, discreet, truthful, clear, without deceit. Who could count the excellences of this very Catholic and happy Queen, always very worthy of praises.” Hernando del Pulgar wrote, “She was very inclined to justice, so much so that she was reputed to follow more the path of rigor than that of mercy, and did so to remedy the great corruption of crimes that she found in the kingdom when she succeeded to the throne.” This is a telling quote. Obviously she was not an advocate of “the quality of mercy.” This point is echoed in the writings of     Lucio Marineo Sículo: “[The royal knight Alvaro Yáñez de Lugo] was condemned to be beheaded, although he offered forty thousand ducados for the war against the Moors to the court so that these monies spare his life. This matter was discussed with the queen, and there were some who told her to pardon him, since these funds for the war were better than the death of that man, and her highness should take them. But the queen, preferring justice to cash, very prudently refused them; and although she could have confiscated all his goods, which were many, she did not take any of them to avoid any note of greed, or that it be thought that she had not wished to pardon him in order to have his goods; instead, she gave them all to the children of the aforesaid knight.” There you go !!! Justice trumps mercy (even fiscal pragmatics). Quite the stalwart woman.

Here’s a recipe from a 15th century Catalan cookbook, Libre Del Coch by Mestre Robert. I know I’m being a bit free and easy with my regional recipe idea here. If I were an idiot I could claim that Catalonia is part of Spain these days, as is Castile and Aragon, and, therefore, this is an old “Spanish” recipe. I’m not that stupid. But Isabella’s marriage did lead to the unification of Spain, and when I look over historic recipes I see a great deal of overlap from region to region, not least because European royalty moved all over the place when they married and took their cooks and culinary ideas with them. At the aristocratic level, the household cuisines showed a great deal of homogeneity, with variations due in large part to the availability of ingredients. This recipe is for a casserole/stew of meat (probably lamb or mutton) with oranges. Bitter oranges were brought to Spain from China by the Moors and were (and are) prolific throughout Iberia. They are a common flavoring ingredient.  This kind of recipe is ancestral to a host of Spanish meat casseroles.

Naturally the recipe is completely vague as to quantity of ingredients, and even as to their precise nature. What do you make of “totes salses fines” for example? Fine herbs/spices? I’m thinking pepper, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, allspice – the usual suspects. Medieval linguistic skills are not my strong suit to begin with, let alone interpreting vague instructions in the dialect (that seems to drift between Old French and Old Spanish). Agresta was a type of verjuice (unripe grape or apple juice) used as a strong acidifier (you’ll note that the recipe suggests vinegar as an alternative), intensified further by the orange juice. I’ve given translating a go. My translation is extremely loose partly because I don’t recognize all the vocabulary, and partly for ease of reading.

Casola de Carn

Pren la carn e talla-la menut a troços axf com una nou. E çoffregiràs-la ab bona grassa de carnsalada. E quant sia ben çoffredida, met hi de bon brou e vaja a coure en una casola. Emet-hi de totes salses fines e çaffra e un poch de such de toronge o agresta, de manera que coga molt bé, fins a tant que la carn se commence a desfer e que y romanga solament hun poch de brou, pendràs tres o quatre ous debatuts ab such de toronges o agresta. E met-ho dins en la cassola. E quant ton senyor se volrà aseure en taula, dona-li quatre o sinch voltes girades, e tantost se espessirà. E quant sia bé espès, leva-u del foch e fes escudelles e damunt cada una met-hi canyella.

Emperò alters són qui no.y volen metre ous ni salsa sinó sola canyella e girofle. E coguen en la carn, com dit he damunt.

E met-hi vinagre, perquè tinga sabor. E per lo semblant molts fan açò que us dire, que tota la carn posen en una peça farcida de canyella e girofle sencer y en lo brou ben picades les salses, emperò far a girar adés adés, perquèno coga més d’una part que d’altra e axf no.y cal metre sinó girofle e canyella, emperò com dit he de bona manera.

Meat Casserole

Cut the meat into pieces the size of a nut and fry it in pork fat. When it is well fried put in some good broth and set it to cook in a casserole. Add all the fine flavorings and saffron and a little orange juice or agresta, and cook well until the meat begins to fall apart and only a small amount of broth remains. Add three or four eggs beaten with orange juice or agresta. When your master is ready at table, turn the meat four or five times to let the sauce thicken. When it is thick, take it from the fire and serve it in bowls, sprinkled with a little cinnamon on each.

There are some people who do not add eggs, or spices except cinnamon and cloves. The meat is cooked as stated above.

They add vinegar, for the flavor. It appears that many people do it in the following manner: the meat is left whole stuffed with cinnamon and cloves, and with the other spices in the broth. The meat has to be turned from time to time so that it doesn’t cook more in one part than in any other. You can leave out the cloves and cinnamon, as long as you follow the other directions correctly.

Have fun. When I get round to experimenting with this recipe I’ll do it in a big covered skillet on the stove top rather than in a casserole, because I have more control that way. Besides, even the word “casserole” gives me nightmares because as a teenager my mother used to make a week’s worth of casseroles on Sundays, because she got home late from work and did not have time to cook in the evenings, and my father, who was an excellent cook, never lifted a finger. I was just learning at that stage and might have contributed something if I had known what I was doing, and did not feel the constant need to play the indolent adolescent. No matter what went into each casserole they all came out the same – and all tasting a bit burnt from being in the oven too long. Scalded and burnt dish rag is about how I would describe the taste. Admittedly oven versus stove top is a tough call. Oven braising works well enough if you know what you are doing.

Nov 192016

Piña Colada

On this date in 1493, on his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus landed on the island now called Puerto Rico, naming it San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist).


The first settlement, Caparra, was not founded until August 1508 (by Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant under Columbus).  November 19 is now a federal holiday on Puerto Rico called Día del Descubrimiento (Discovery Day). For Hispanic peoples the word “discovery” is apt enough, but it’s worth me stating again that it was a discovery for Europeans only. Indigenous peoples already knew it was there !! The word “discovery” is deeply ethnocentric. Unfortunately there are no longer any indigenous peoples left on Puerto Rico to protest, as there are elsewhere in the Americas. The deep irony is that the once proud and haughty slave-owning Spanish conquistadors in the Caribbean and the southeast and southwest of the U.S. have now become an exploited minority. What goes around, comes around. I suggest that white men pay attention.

Ponce de León had been the leader of the Higuey massacre on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In 1502 the newly appointed governor, Nicolás de Ovando, arrived in Hispaniola. The Spanish Crown expected Ovando to bring order to a colony in disarray. Ovando interpreted this as authorizing subjugation of the native Taínos. Thus, Ovando authorized the Jaragua Massacre in November 1503. In 1504, when Tainos overran a small Spanish garrison in Higüey on the island’s eastern side, Ovando assigned Ponce de León to crush the rebellion about which friar Bartolomé de las Casas attempted to notify Spanish authorities. Ovando rewarded Ponce de León by appointing him frontier governor of the newly conquered province, then named Higüey also. Ponce de León received a substantial land grant which authorized sufficient Indian slave labor to farm his new estate.


Ponce de León prospered in this new role. He found a ready market for his farm produce and livestock at nearby Boca de Yuma where Spanish ships stocked supplies before the long voyage back to Spain. In 1505 Ovando authorized Ponce de León to establish a new town in Higüey, which he named Salvaleón. In 1508 King Ferdinand (Queen Isabella having opposed the exploitation of natives but dying in 1504) authorized Ponce de León to conquer the remaining Taínos and exploit them in gold mining.

As provincial governor, Ponce de León had occasion to meet with the Taínos who visited his province from neighboring San Juan (Puerto Rico) which had not, as yet, been colonized by the Spanish. They told him stories of a fertile land with much gold to be found in the many rivers. Inspired by the possibility of riches, Ponce de León requested and received permission from Ovando to explore the island. His first reconnaissance of the island is usually dated to 1508 but there is evidence that he had made a previous exploration as early as 1506. This earlier trip was done quietly because the Spanish crown had commissioned Vicente Yáñez Pinzón to settle the island in 1505. Pinzón did not fulfill his commission and it expired in 1507, leaving the way clear for Ponce de León.


His earlier exploration had confirmed the presence of gold and gave him a good understanding of the geography of the island. In 1508, Ferdinand II of Aragon gave permission to Ponce de León for the first official expedition to the island. This expedition, consisting of about 50 men in one ship, left Hispaniola on July 12, 1508 and eventually anchored in San Juan Bay, near today’s city of San Juan. Ponce de León searched inland until he found a suitable site about two miles from the bay. Here he erected a storehouse and a fortified house, creating the first settlement in Puerto Rico, Caparra. Although a few crops were planted, they spent most of their time and energy searching for gold. By early 1509 Ponce de León decided to return to Hispaniola. His expedition had collected a good quantity of gold but was running low on food and supplies.


The expedition was deemed a great success and Ovando appointed Ponce de León governor of San Juan Bautista. This appointment was later confirmed by Ferdinand II on August 14, 1509. He was instructed to extend the settlement of the island and continue mining for gold. He returned to the island, bringing with him his wife and children. Ponce de León parceled out the native Taínos amongst himself and other settlers using a system of forced labor known as the repartimiento system, under which natives were distributed to Spanish officials to be used as slave labor. On December 27, 1512, under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, Ferdinand II of Aragon issued the Burgos’ Laws, which modified the repartimiento into a system called encomiendas, aimed at ending the exploitation. The laws prohibited the use of any form of punishment toward the indigenous people, regulated their work hours, pay, hygiene, and care, and ordered them to be catechized.


In 1511, the Taínos revolted against the Spanish. Cacique (chief) Urayoán, as ordered by Agüeybaná II, had his warriors drown the Spanish soldier Diego Salcedo to determine whether the Spaniards were immortal. After drowning Salcedo, they kept watch over his body for three days to confirm his death and then revolted. The revolt was easily crushed by Ponce de León and within a few decades much of the native population had been decimated by disease, violence, and a high rate of suicide. As a result, Taíno culture, language, and traditions were generally destroyed, and were claimed to have “vanished” 50 years after Christopher Columbus arrived.

The Roman Catholic Church, realizing the opportunity to expand its influence, also participated in colonizing the island. On August 8, 1511, Pope Julius II established three dioceses in the New World, one in Puerto Rico and two on the island of Hispaniola under the archbishop of Seville. The Canon of Salamanca, Alonso Manso, was appointed bishop of the Puerto Rican diocese. On September 26, 1512, before his arrival on the island, the first school of advanced studies was established by the bishop.[13] Taking possession in 1513, he became the first bishop to arrive in the Americas. Puerto Rico would also become the first ecclesiastical headquarters in the New World during the reign of Pope Leo X and the general headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in the New World.

As part of the colonization process, African slaves were brought to the island in 1513. Following the decline of the Taíno population, more slaves were brought to Puerto Rico; however, the number of slaves on the island paled in comparison to those in neighboring islands. Also, early in the colonization of Puerto Rico, attempts were made to wrest control of Puerto Rico from Spain. The Caribs, a raiding ethic group of the Caribbean, attacked Spanish settlements along the banks of the Daguao and Macao rivers in 1514 and again in 1521 but each time they were easily repelled by the superior Spanish firepower. The rest, as they say, is history.

The other European powers realized the potential of Puerto Rico and attempted to wrestle control of it from Spain for centuries. Successes were small and varied in intensity, but ultimately Spain retained control until the late 19th century. In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a member of the Navy War Board and leading U.S. strategic thinker, wrote The Influence of Sea Power upon History in which he argued for the creation of a large and powerful navy modeled after the British Royal Navy. Part of his strategy called for the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean. These would serve as coaling and naval stations, as well as strategic points of defense after construction of a canal in the Panama Isthmus. Since 1894, the Naval War College had been formulating plans for war with Spain and by 1896, the Office of Naval Intelligence had prepared a plan which included military operations in Puerto Rican waters.


On March 10, 1898, Dr. Julio J. Henna and Robert H. Todd, leaders of the Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, began to correspond with United States President William McKinley and the United States Senate in hopes that they would consider including Puerto Rico in the intervention planned for Cuba. Henna and Todd also provided the US government with information about the Spanish military presence on the island. On April 24, Spanish Minister of Defense Segismundo Bermejo sent instructions to Spanish Admiral Cervera to proceed with his fleet from Cape Verde to the Caribbean, Cuba and Puerto Rico. In May, Lt. Henry H. Whitney of the United States Fourth Artillery was sent to Puerto Rico on a reconnaissance mission. He provided maps and information on the Spanish military forces to the US government that would be useful for an invasion.


The Spanish–American War broke out in late April 1898. The US strategy was to seize Spanish colonies in the Atlantic—Puerto Rico and Cuba—and their possessions in the Pacific—the Philippines and Guam. On May 10, Spanish forces at Fort San Cristóbal under the command of Capt. Ángel Rivero Méndez in San Juan exchanged fire with the USS Yale under the command of Capt. William C. Wise. Two days later, on May 12, a squadron of 12 US ships commanded by Rear Admiral William T. Sampson bombarded installations at San Juan. On June 25, the USS Yosemite blocked San Juan harbor. On July 18, General Nelson A. Miles, commander of US forces, received orders to sail for Puerto Rico and to land his troops. On July 21, a convoy with nine transports and 3,300 soldiers, escorted by USS Massachusetts, sailed for Puerto Rico from Guantánamo. General Nelson Miles landed unopposed at Guánica, located in the southern coast of the island, on July 25, 1898, with the first contingent of American troops. Opposition was met in the southern and central regions of the island but by the end of August the island was under United States control.


On August 12, peace protocols were signed in Washington and Spanish Commissions met in San Juan on September 9 to discuss the details of the withdrawal of Spanish troops and the cession of the island to the United States. On October 1, an initial meeting was held in Paris to draft the Peace Treaty and on December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed (ratified by the US Senate February 6, 1899). Spain renounced all claim to Cuba, ceded Guam and Puerto Rico and its dependent islets to the United States, and transferred sovereignty over the Philippines to the United States and in turn was paid $20,000,000 ($570 million in 2016 dollars) by the U.S. General John R. Brooke became the first United States military governor of the island. Henceforth Puerto Rico was under U.S. control and now one of the simmering issues is whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state (or 52nd if Washington D.C. gets statehood).

Puerto Rican cuisine has been influenced by an array of cultures including the Taino, Spanish, and West African, in earlier times, and the United States more recently. Puerto Rican cuisine shares a lot in common with other Caribbean and Latin American cuisines, but, of course, is distinctive and has found its way to the United States and beyond following emigrants. Locals call their cuisine cocina criolla. By the end of the 19th century, before U.S. control, traditional Puerto Rican cuisine was well established. El Cocinero Puertorriqueño, the island’s first cookbook, was published in 1849. The piña colada originated in Puerto Rico in the 19th century is now the national drink.

One distinctive sauce from Puerto Rico is mojito isleño which most likely originated in Salinas nicknamed “La Cuna del Mojito Isleño (the cradle of mojito isleño). It is used primarily over fish and shellfish, but can be used with meat or pasta if you want. It is similar to the sauce used in Italy for spaghetti alla puttanesca.


Mojito Isleño


½ cup olive oil
2 green bell peppers, seeded, trimmed and chopped
2 onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, washed and chopped
salt and pepper
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes
hot sauce (optional)
½ cup chopped pimento-stuffed green olives


Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, pour in oil and sauté the bell pepper and onion until soft but not browned. Add the garlic and cilantro, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook five minutes over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute.

Add the crushed tomatoes and simmer for about 10 minutes. You can add hot sauce to taste if you wish.

Add the olives, stir to combine and remove from the heat.

You can use the sauce warm over fish, meat, or pasta, or chilled as a dip.

Yield: 8 servings for main dishes.

Oct 122015


In most countries in the Americas, today used to be some version of “Columbus Day” because it was the date in 1492 that Rodrigo de Triana, lookout on the Pinta in Columbus’ flotilla, sighted land in the New World. Now, in almost of all of Latin America, and a few cities in the U.S. the name of the day has been changed to reflect the cultural realities of the arrival of Columbus in the New World. The negative view of Columbus has several strands. First, it is now obvious that his arrival was not good news for the indigenous populations which were enslaved and/or killed wholesale. Second, it is abundantly clear nowadays that Columbus was not some dreamy eyed-adventurer, but a cold, calculating profiteer.

Though Christopher Columbus came to be considered the “discoverer of America” in U.S. and European popular culture, his true historical legacy is more nuanced. America was first discovered by its indigenous population, and Columbus was not even the first European to reach its shores as he was preceded by the Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows. But the lasting significance of Columbus’ voyages outshone that of his Viking predecessors, because he managed to bring word of the continent back to Europe. By bringing the continent to the forefront of Western attention, Columbus initiated the enduring relationship between the Earth’s two major landmasses and their inhabitants. It was not that Columbus was the first, but he was the first to stay.

Historians have traditionally argued that Columbus remained convinced to the very end that his journeys had been along the east coast of Asia, but recently they have started to question this view. His journals from the third voyage call the “land of Paria” a “hitherto unknown continent.” On the other hand, his other writings continued to claim that he had reached Asia, such as a 1502 letter to Pope Alexander VI where he asserted that Cuba was the east coast of Asia. He also rationalized that the new continent of South America was the “Earthly Paradise” that was located “at the end of the Orient”.


Columbus is often attributed with refuting a prevalent belief in a flat Earth. However, this legacy is a popular misconception. To the contrary, the spherical shape of the earth had been known to scholars since antiquity, and was common knowledge among sailors. Coincidentally, the oldest surviving globe of the earth, the Erdapfel, was made in 1492 just before Columbus’ return to Europe. As such it contains no sign of the Americas and yet demonstrates the common belief in a spherical Earth.

The scholar Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed to America in the years following Columbus’ first voyage, was the first to actively speculate that the land was not part of Asia but in fact constituted some wholly new continent previously unknown to Eurasians. His travel journals, published 1502–04, convinced German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller to reach the same conclusion, and in 1507—a year after Columbus’ death—Waldseemüller published a world map calling the new continent America from Vespucci’s Latinized name “Americus”. According to Paul Lunde, “The preoccupation of European courts with the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the East partly explains their relative lack of interest in Columbus’ discoveries in the West.”


Historically, the British had downplayed Columbus and emphasized the role of the Venetian John Cabot as a pioneer explorer, but for the emerging United States, Cabot made for a poor national hero. Veneration of Columbus in America dates back to colonial times. The name Columbia for “America” first appeared in a 1738 weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament. The use of Columbus as a founding figure of New World nations and the use of the word “Columbia”, or simply the name “Columbus”, spread rapidly after the American Revolution. Columbus’ name was given to the federal capital of the United States (District of Columbia), the capital cities of two U.S. states (Ohio and South Carolina), and the Columbia River. Outside the United States the name was used in 1819 for the Gran Colombia, a precursor of the modern Republic of Colombia. Numerous cities, towns, counties, streets, and plazas (called Plaza Colón or Plaza de Colón throughout Latin America and Spain) have been named after him. A candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church in 1866, celebration of Columbus’ legacy perhaps reached a zenith in 1892 with the 400th anniversary of his first arrival in the Americas. Monuments to Columbus like the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and Columbus Circle in New York City were erected throughout the United States and Latin America extolling him.


More recent views of Columbus have tended to be much more critical. The combined effects of Columbus’ forced labor regime, war, and slaughter resulted in the near-total eradication (98%) of the native Taino of Hispaniola. De las Casas records that when he first came to Hispaniola in 1508, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….” The native Taino people of the island were systematically enslaved via the encomienda system implemented by Columbus, which resembled a feudal system in Medieval Europe.


Disease played a significant role in the destruction of the natives; however there is no record of any massive smallpox epidemic in the Antilles until 25 years after the arrival of Columbus; rather, the natives’ numbers declined due to extreme overwork, other diseases, and a loss of will to live after the destruction of their culture by the invaders. When the first pandemic finally struck in 1519 it wiped out much of the remaining native population. According to the historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes by 1548, 56 years after Columbus landed, fewer than five hundred Taino were left on the island.

Columbus’ treatment of the Hispaniola natives was even worse; his soldiers raped, killed, and enslaved with impunity at every landing. When Columbus fell ill in 1495, soldiers were reported to have gone on a rampage, slaughtering 50,000 natives. Upon his recovery, Columbus organized his troops’ efforts, forming a squadron of several hundred heavily armed men and more than twenty attack dogs. The men tore across the land, killing thousands of sick and unarmed natives. Soldiers would use their captives for sword practice, attempting to decapitate them or cut them in half with a single blow.


The historian Howard Zinn writes that Columbus spearheaded a massive slave trade; in 1495 his men captured in a single raid 1500 Arawak men, women, and children. When he shipped five hundred of the slaves to Spain, 40% died en route. Historian James W. Loewen asserts that “Columbus not only sent the first slaves across the Atlantic, he probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual… other nations rushed to emulate Columbus.” When slaves held in captivity began to die at high rates, Columbus switched to a different system of forced labor: he ordered all natives over the age of thirteen to collect a specified amount (one hawk’s bell full) of gold powder every three months. Natives who brought the amount were given a copper token to hang around their necks, and those found without tokens had their hands amputated and were left to bleed to death.

The Arawaks attempted to fight back against Columbus’s men but lacked their armor, guns, swords, and horses. When taken prisoner, they were hanged or burned to death. Desperation led to mass suicides and infanticide among the natives. In just two years under Columbus’ governorship more than half of the 250,000 Arawaks in Haiti were dead. The main cause for the depopulation was disease followed by other causes such as warfare and harsh enslavement.

There is evidence that the men of the first voyage also brought syphilis from the New World to Europe.[120] Many of the crew members who served on this voyage later joined the army of King Charles VIII in his invasion of Italy in 1495. After the victory, Charles’ largely mercenary army returned to their respective homes, thereby spreading “the Great Pox” across Europe and triggering the deaths of more than five million people.


Two years ago on this date I celebrated Día de la Raza in this blog. You can find the post here: Here is an excerpt:

The most common name for the date in Spanish is Día de la Raza. The day under this name was first celebrated in Argentina in 1917 (since changed to Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural), Venezuela and Colombia in 1921, Chile in 1922, and Mexico in 1928. The day was also celebrated under this title in Spain until 1957, when it was changed to the Día de la Hispanidad, and in Venezuela until 2002, when it was changed to the Día de la Resistencia Indígena. In Uruguay it is called Día de las Américas. Originally conceived of as a celebration of Hispanic influence in the Americas, as evidenced by the complementary celebrations in Spain and Latin America, Día de la Raza has come to be seen by many nations and individuals in Latin America as a counter to Columbus Day; a celebration of the resistance against the arrival of Europeans to the Americas by indigenous peoples. In the U.S. Día de la Raza has served as a time of mobilization for pan-ethnic Hispano activists, particularly in the 1960s.

Argentina’s name, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural, attempts to be balanced, mirroring, in part the United Nations’ decision to name the day Spanish Language Day. This title still salutes the colonists over the indigenous peoples, but it downplays Columbus in favor of promoting a sense of multiculturalism. This passage is taken from a UNESCO site:

Las Naciones Unidas celebran el Día del idioma español. El objetivo es promocionar y apoyar aquellas iniciativas que promuevan el plurilingüismo y multiculturalismo así como crear conciencia entre los funcionarios, de la historia, la cultura, el desarrollo y el uso del español como idioma oficial. La decisión de celebrar los Días de los idiomas fue aprobada por el Departamento de Información Pública de las Naciones Unidas en la víspera del Día Internacional de la Lengua Materna, celebrado anualmente el 21 de febrero por iniciativa de la UNESCO. Esta es una oportunidad para poner de relieve la importancia del idioma español dentro de la organización para la consecución de sus objetivos y la difusión de su labor a un público más amplio.

So, although the U.N. specifically honors Spanish on this date, the underlying message is that every culture and every language should be celebrated.

There is no doubt that the cultigens of the New World – potatoes, tomatoes, squash, pole beans etc. – transformed world cuisine. None is more important to me than the chile pepper which now exists in hundreds of varieties. Chile peppers have been a part of the human diet in the Americas since at least 7500 BCE. The most recent research shows that chiles were domesticated more than 6000 years ago in Mexico, in the region that extends across southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca to southeastern Veracruz, and were one of the first self-pollinating crops cultivated in Mexico, Central and parts of South America.


Peru is still a center of diversification of chiles where varieties of all five domesticates were introduced, grown and consumed in pre-Colombian times. Bolivia is, however, where most diversity of wild Capsicum peppers are consumed. Bolivians distinguish two basic forms: ulupicas, species with small round fruits including C. eximium, C. cardenasii, C. eshbaughii, and C. caballeroi landraces; and arivivis with small elongated fruits including C. baccatum var. baccatum and C. chacoense varieties.

Christopher Columbus was one of the first Europeans to encounter them (in the Caribbean), and called them “peppers” because they, like black and white pepper of the Piper genus known in Europe, have a spicy hot taste unlike other foodstuffs. Upon their introduction into Europe, chiles were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. Christian monks experimented with the culinary potential of chile and discovered that their pungency offered a substitute for black peppercorns, which at the time were so costly that they were used as legal currency in some countries.

Chiles were cultivated around the globe after Columbus. Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies in 1493, brought the first chiles to Spain and first wrote about their medicinal effects in 1494. The spread of chiles to Asia was most likely a natural consequence of its introduction to Portuguese traders (Lisbon was a common port of call for Spanish ships sailing to and from the Americas) who, aware of its trade value, would have likely promoted its commerce in the Asian spice trade routes then dominated by Portuguese and Arab traders. It was introduced in India by the Portuguese towards the end of 15th century. Today chiles are an integral part of many Asian cuisines.

The chile pepper features heavily in the cuisine of the Goan region of India, which was the site of a Portuguese colony (e.g., vindaloo, an Indian interpretation of a Portuguese dish). The name “vindaloo” is derived from the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d’alhos, a dish of meat (usually pork) marinated in wine and garlic. The Portuguese dish was modified by the substitution of vinegar (usually palm vinegar) for the red wine and the addition of red Kashmiri chile peppers with additional spices to evolve into vindaloo. Nowadays, the Anglo-Indian version of a vindaloo is marinated in vinegar, sugar, fresh ginger, and spices overnight, then cooked with the addition of further spices.


I’m partial to vindaloo and used to make it all of the time. Since living in Argentina and China I have not been able to get all the necessary spices but here’s a decent recipe from memory. Spices can be varied according to taste. You do not have to overwhelm the dish with chiles, but it should be hot.

Pork Vindaloo


2 lbs fatty pork, cubed

16 dried Kashmiri chile peppers, stemmed and seeded
1 inch piece cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon white vinegar
salt to taste

1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 onions, chopped
10 cloves garlic, minced, or more to taste
2 inch piece fresh ginger root, minced
2 green chile peppers, seeded and cut into strips
1/4 cup white vinegar


Put the paste ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend to a smooth paste. In a mixing bowl thoroughly mix the paste and pork, then place the mixture in a plastic bag, expel all the air, seal, and refrigerate overnight.

Next day heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté the onions until they are golden. Add the pork mixture and continue to sauté until the meat takes on color. Cover with water or light stock plus the vinegar and bring to a simmer. Add the garlic, ginger, and chiles and simmer partly covered for about an hour, or until the pork is tender. The sauce should reduce somewhat but still be plentiful.

Serve with plain boiled basmati rice, flat breads, and chutneys.