Something new about Alonso de Contreras and the Moorish tragedy

There was nothing, really, that led me to that book. I’d rather say that it chose me to some extent. It is so different from all I’ve always known and loved : my Protestant roots, my Cartesianism, due to my long studies, my passion, as a Spanish lover, for the 1927 generation (Lorca, Dali, and Bunuel about whom I wrote my master) and the Latin American literature Boom of the 60’s. It all began as a joke between my friend and colleague Jean-Francois and I. Jean-Francois, who always had a passion for military History, offered me the book, Memoirs from the Captain Alonso de Contreras, in 1994. It was a kind of game between us to try and sort out the truth from the lies in this 80 pages manuscript that had been published only in 1900, more than 260 years after its first publication. I must say here that I was extremely disappointed in both the French and Spanish editions by the very few explanations or maps, the many mistakes in places names, and even on the date of Contreras’ death, generally situated in 1641, when many evidence shows he returned to Spain after several years in Mexico, in 1645. Not even to mention the ridiculous theory that consider him as a converted Jewish, when 2 comprehensive investigations from the Inquisition and the Maltese Knights proved him a pure Catholic. Why then, would I spend years on this obscure part of History, marked by the weight of Catholic Church on Society and the many poor (20% of people), generally overlooked as is the Black Legend in Spanish History? The reasons are quite complex, and it is part of this exercise here for me to try and figure them out. Obviously the Algeria war echoed in me in the Moorish expulsion decided by King of Spain in 1609. Being from a Protestant background, the many prosecutions undertaken by the Catholic Church in the Cevennes have marked me. I was also fascinated by the extraordinary life of this Captain : more than 45 years in the Spanish Army, navigating to every boundary of the Gigantic Spanish Empire. Therefore this will to sort out the truth from the lies in this bigger than life memoirs. I only applied the text analysis technic : scrutinize every clue, allusion, inconsistency, until finding out the archaeological remains of it. Always sure that a secret was there, only waiting for someone to reveal it in broad daylight. A crime novel in the 17 th Century : a) First meeting with the inhabitants in Hornachos : what is Contreras really saying? According to his memoirs, Contreras stays for 1 night only in Hornachos, in a house close to a fountain. Nevertheless he is able to recognize this house 5 years later, when the police take him there. He also spends 3 days exploring Estremadura, but he still remembers the names of the towns more than 30 years later when writing his memoirs. He also finds out a place with hidden weapons but has to keep silence on this matter, following an Officer’s command. Who can this Officer be? Actually, we will see that there were at least 3 or 4 Officers in reality… So many mysteries, so many lies! How is it possible to remember more than 30 years later, the name of places you spent 3 travelling to? Especially for someone that has spent his lifetime travelling. What has happened in Hornachos where everyone, but for the Church Minister, was Moorish between Contreras’ visit in 1603, and the deportation of nearly all the inhabitants in 1609? What was the company led by Contreras really looking for, with so many contradictory orders? The most surprising one being: “leave all the weapons there and never mention this discovery”. Clearly enough, this is a trap for the Moorish decided by this Officer. And to discover a place where weapons are hidden would be enough to look for Contreras at the other end of Spain more than 5 years later? Nothing holds in those pages… One explanation could be: Contreras is sent to Hornachos to watch out the Moorish. Even if they are all converted to Catholicism, they are suspected to stay Muslim and to prepare to act as a 5th column if the Turkish Empire invades Spain. Moreover, as they are entitled to wear weapons, the inhabitants of Hornachos frighten the whole neighborhood, even if the Holy Inquisition was never able to establish the danger. b) The role played by the Inquisition in Llerena : Contreras was given orders in Llerena, which was, by chance, the main Inquisition center in Estremadura. Now let’s take a closer look to that “Officer”…he first appears p.75 where he seems to be supervising the Company’s departure for Portugal, then p.79. It must be a different person since he is able to arrive in the middle of night. Moreover this officer comes with 2 policemen (this was a habit for the Inquisition, when a soldier wouldn’t need policemen to accompany him). In page 80, Contreras refuses “out of respect” to name the Officer: is this respect or fear? When he doesn’t hide how much he hates him. Finally in page 82 “they immediately called for the Officer that flew there” how quick is this civil servant when the scene is now in Caceres… It is quite clear a that the Inquisition is behind what happens in Hornachos, even if Contreras never mentions it. He only finds out by the Crime Secretary that an investigation was undertaken about his family, in order to find out if there were any Jewish or Muslim among them. If this had been the case, he would have been hanged (p.114). There was nothing backwards in the Inquisition, contrarily of the Middle-Age Reputation given by the Black Legend. Fernando de los Rios, in 1920, compares it to the USSR, being a “Church State”, like USSR was a “Party State”, following the tradition of Byzantine Caesarism. I confess I spent many nights wondering what was behind the hidden weapons to explain how a young Captain nearly lost his life, and most of the population was deported in Morroco. This is why I invented an Inquisition Officer. Yet, in Llerena archives, published by Fermin Mayorga, it is mentioned that Alexandre de Posada came to Hornachos, to racket the Moorish for his palace in Llerena. If he was the one to prosecute Contreras, then reality is better than fiction! c) Julio Fernandez Nieva’s thesis : In the symposium « the Moorish and their time », held in Montpellier, in 1980, he gives a lot of explanations about the role played by Hornachos’ inhabitants since Charles V, when they fought against the other Muslims, and Granada’s war. What were them if not harkies? They did get the same tragic fate in 17th Century Spain as when the French Government didn’t know what to do with this people at the end of Algeria war. In 1530 they had the right to become Civil Servants, sharing their offices with “Old Christians”; in 1590 Philip the 2nd confirms their right to carry weapons. But their situation will be undermined by many slanders, especially by the Church Minister in Hornachos. Always the same accusations: rejection of Christianity, assassinations, crime, false currency, oil poisoning, conspiracy in a cave close to the City…all the classic traits for a scapegoat repeated ad nauseam by all the historians, even the French ones that seem to have forgotten about Descartes’s Methodological Doubt! Let’s think it over: why would the inhabitants secretly meet in a cave, if they rule the City? Why would they hide weapons if they have a Royal privilege to carry them? Why would they bury their Dead in a garden? To me it is quite obvious that Contreras stayed a lot longer than for 1 night, maybe up to 2 years in Hornachos. The whole book is based on dissimulation of some facts that he can’t publish. Was he considered too close to the Moorish? Was he involved in some weapon trafficking? We will never know with certainty, we can only assume some things from the “Speech about my life”. 5 years later, Contreras has become a hermit at the other end of the Country. “They imagined that I was the Moorish King”. We can assume that it wasn’t so long after the facts. There are time distortions in the book like when he says his Mum hadn’t heard of him for 16 years. Whatever, 5 years seem a really long time to find out where is hiding a Captain that spent 1 night in a City, where the inhabitants were hiding weapon, when they were entitled to carry them. It really lacks likelihood. Cherry on top, what is the name of the sheriff that arrests him? Contreras calls him Llerena. Or is it one inquisitor coming from Llerena, with another lapsus that would have interested Dr Freud? 2) The Moorish tragedy: a) 2 nd meeting in Hornachos: the role played by the “Alcalde de Casa y Corte”: Who is Gregorio de Lopez Madera that suddenly breaks in to be in charge of Contreras? He is no simple judge but one of the highest Civil Servants of the Realm. He is in charge of the investigation in Hornachos, since the Inquisition doesn’t seem to want to investigate, according to Fernandez Nieva. His investigation is really thorough (he will hear Contreras twice, one of those using torture) and will have a terrible consequence: 6 public figures are immediately hanged, 172 inhabitants are sent to the galley, the rest of the people deported to Morocco (after considering initially sending them to the North of Spain so they can mix with Old Christians). Gregorio Lopez Madera will accompany himself the 2,500 deported on the road to Seville. He will act as brutally in other places until 1613. In 1602 he had written a book in which, using false relics discovered in Granada, he tried to demonstrate the Spanish was an older language than Latin, therefore pure from any “pollution” by other language such as Latin, Goth and, of course, Arabic. Contreras plays naïve in his memoirs and says that he doesn’t know why six men have been hanged. We can only assume he knows more than he says…He is nevertheless sent to jail for 4 days, uncovered as a false hermit, sent to prison again, then to Hornachos where he identifies the house close to the fountain where he had spent one night only five years ago. Lopez Madera puts him under torture, lucky not for too long as he didn’t believe him to be part of the “Moorish Conspiracy”, and placed under surveillance in Madrid. How can Contreras finally come back to his normal life, we will never know… b) 3d meeting : the Moorish rebellion in Valencia : 1 night he escapes from Madrid to Alicante, and then heads north. In 22 lines only, he delivers a great testimony of one of the worst tragedies In Spanish history, still not really well-known. On September 22, 1609, the King decides that all the Moorish are to be expelled from Spain. The process will last until 1614. A rebellion starts, close to Valencia. Contreras will be in the army that fights against this rebellion. Did he try to be popular again when he joined in this fight? c) 4 th meeting : Sale-Rabat or the new Hornachos? Contreras offers to the duke of Medina Sidonia to try and force the blockade that is isolating the fortress “Presidio de la Mamora” close to Sale in Morocco. Some barbarian pirates allied to the Dutch prevent anyone from bringing food or any kind of help to this fort. Contreras manages to pass the blockade, only to make the most unexpected encounter: Muslim Pirates, dressed differently, speaking good Spanish and drinking lots of wine (!) ask for negotiations. Only to offer to put an end to the blockade and sell all the goods they need for the fort. Coincidence seems too good to be true! How would he not know, when applying for this dangerous mission, that those pirates are Moorish from Hornachos? Those pirates will originate the wealth of Rabat city, built in front of Sale, on the other bank of the river. The 2 cities never went along well: Sale, more conservative, disliked those Euopeanized Moorish that drank wine and loved music from Andalucia. We know now that the pirates offered on several occasions (in 1619, 1632, and 1637) to give up their new city in exchange for the right to return to Hornachos. Once again, Contreras is more than understating what he knows… 3) A long writing process: a) the genesis of Speech about my life : After more than 3 centuries of complete oblivion, his memoirs come to a certain interest for a few decades in the 20th century. But people seem only to focus on his military success, creating a kind of Spanish D’Artagnan. Nevertheless, it seems important to me to understand the writing process, using the critic method. How could an obscure soldier that finished School when he turned 11 years old, that probably never read a book in his life, begin to write being in his fifties, a kind of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s confessions? What technics can use this autodidact, what documentation can support his writing more than 30 years spent everywhere but for Asia? First we note the importance of his service records that helped any soldier coming back from a mission, to use what he had been doing when applying for another position. In Contreras’ case, there are some authentic documents dated 1623, 1627, 1633 and 1645 (with a complete gap between 1603 and 1610 corresponding of the Hornachos’ episode). Another explanation is his friendship with the famous theatre author Lope de Vega that welcomes him for several months in 1625 in his home. He seemed to enjoy hearing of his military exploits. For a long time it was thought that Lope de Vega dedicated his play El rey sin reino to Contreras. This helped him when he was living in Rome to become captain in the Ambassador’s guard. Finally, I think that being tortured by the Inquisition led him to confess, years after, with synchronic and diachronic shiftings, as in a dream. b) Evolution in the writing : Contreras’s style is dry and extremely different from the baroque style, using lots of metaphors, that was popular at the time. 1- The first part of his Memoirs from his departure from Spain until his coming back from Sicily is heroic, following Lope de Vega’s dream to write a big military epic poem. Even if it accumulates facts, it is interesting in what it reveals of the day to day of soldiers ‘life: the extreme violence, the relationship with prostitutes, the earning and spending of enormous amounts of money. This part ends up in 1631 when Contreras is in favor with the Conde de Monterrey, art lover that owns more than 250 Master paintings. 2- When he comes back to Spain, action is set on a few tragic episodes, like the one in Hornachos, even if it’s only alluded to. Contreras appears more alone, not always surrounded with young soldiers as in part 1. A tragic love story, the torture, the temptation to become an hermit make the book different from the classic style and is less favored by the readers at the time. 3- A never-ending manuscript: the last years are quite tedious: from 1626 to 1633 the Embassy in Rome where he can say nothing of his secret missions, the escape on via Toledo in Naples, his conflicts with the vice king of Naples and the one of Sicily, are nothing exciting compared to the first years. Is it because he doesn’t know how to write or he doesn’t know how to finish his novel? On October, 11, 1632, his dream comes true. He is made Knight of the Maltese order. He spends 11 days writing the main part of his manuscript. On June, 20, 1632, he is made Captain of 500 soldiers (an elite body in the army). February, 4, 1633 in Palermo: flash back about his life in Rome and Naples, just before fleeing the vice-king that wanted him to become a pirate again. In 1634? Problems accumulate. He tries to get in favor with the Marques de Santa Cruz that gives him another position. 1645? The last pages seem to be written by another person and are added more than 10 years after the rest of the manuscript, when he comes back from Mexico. The end of the manuscript is more like a diary. In the end, the text is deeply baroque, in its original meaning of irregular pearl, balancing between an epic middle-age story, a picaresque novel of the Spanish golden age, and a modern diary. It’s a big rupture that Contreras creates in the Spanish literature. Maria- Antonia Dominguez Flores, in her philological thesis published in 2007, highlights for the first time the importance of Speech about my life. Not only does Contreras reveals the foundations of his society (surveillance, provocation and repression of the Moorish, like happened during the Algeria War), not only does he make us travel in the Gigantic Spanish Empire (on horseback from Madrid to Brussels, from Cambrai to Rome, from Vera Cruz to Acapulco, on a boat from Thessalonica to the Moroccan coast, from Seville to Malta, or from Cadiz to La Havana). But he also pictures a big picaresque fresco of the Spanish society for over 50 years. Meeting with the highest personalities, ministers, even the king Felipe IV, but also picaros and prostitutes. From a palace to the jail or the hermitage, the reader could believe this character to be invented by a literature genius. But you can find evidence of all the facts in the archives! Picarism isn’t really present in French literature, probably because it is too realistic for the classicism. There are a few exceptions with Panurge in Rabelais or Jacques le fataliste from Diderot, an amazing variation about Don Quichotte. But certainly Picarism gives us the best of Spanish literature with Cervantes or Quevedo, and the best paintings with Velasquez, Ribera and Murillo. It also gives the best of movies with Bunuel, which Olvidados that borrows so much to Lazarillo de Tormes. The same process appears with Fellini’s Satiricon: if the basis is of course Petrone, Fellini expresses all the Latin indosincresis. The “lost link” concept used by Goytisolo to underline the vigorous Andalucian character of Francisco Delicado, in the novel lost for 3 centuries (just the same as Speech about my life) appears particularly interesting. Here there are some embryonic novels, that were forgotten or lost, but remain nevertheless essential to understand the evolution in the literature figures the step, or the rupture between two aesthetics. Let’s just dream together for a little while: What a splendid novel Contreras could have written if… He had liked to read. He had learnt literary technics. He had shared the great culture of the writers and aristocrats he knew. From outsiders sometimes springs the greatest novelty: what if Contreras was the missing link between the picaresque novel from the Golden Age, and the modern Latin-American novel? Indeed only three centuries of fierce censorship led by the Inquisition can explain the strength of the boom in Spanish language literature in the Sixties.

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