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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Junipero Serra

California's Founding Father

Steven W. Hackel

Hill and Wang




The man whom Californians know as Father Serra came from Mallorca, an island whose rich and complex history shaped his life and character and gave him direction and identity through all of his days. The largest island in a chain known as the Baleares and equidistant from the coasts of Spain and Africa, Mallorca was for thousands of years a center of trade and thus a place where diverse peoples came into contact with one another. Economically, religiously, and culturally, it was deeply integrated into a larger Mediterranean and European world, yet it did not share the region's characteristic and salutary lushness. For most of its history, and in particular between Serra's birth in 1713 and his departure for Mexico in 1749, Mallorca was in fact an arid and unforgiving land, one stalked by disease and famine and surrounded by enemies both real and imaginary. Rival imperial powers desired Mallorca for its strategic location; conquest and religious conflict marked the island and remade its peoples. Mallorcans alternated between a wary embrace of others and violent attempts to convert, enslave, or expel those with different beliefs and customs. But because of the island's small size and history of famine, Mallorcans also came to look longingly beyond their shores, first across the Mediterranean Sea for material sustenance and then across the Atlantic Ocean for spiritual fulfillment. It is no coincidence that Junípero Serra, an ardent, crusading, and hardened Franciscan missionary, came from Mallorca.
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Mallorcan summers are warm, and its winters are cool. Summer days stretch to nearly fifteen hours, and winter days bring just over nine hours of light. A dusting of winter snow in the mountains is not uncommon in the northwest and southeast, but it rarely snows on the agricultural plain that stretches between the ranges. In general, precipitation is light. Summer is characterized by drought, and there are no rivers that flow throughout the year. As a result agriculture is precarious: the island has more often than not failed to produce enough food for its inhabitants. Since Mallorca is relatively small, only about fourteen hundred square miles, a man on horseback or foot could traverse the island in a matter of days. Mallorca's best natural harbor, now known as Palma, is in the southwest, away from the mountains and just to the west of the agricultural plain.
Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been living on Mallorca for more than seven thousand years.1 A turning point in the island's early history came in 123 B.C.E. when Rome conquered the Talaiotic peoples of the Balearic Islands; later, through the Roman Empire, Christianity came to Mallorca. By the beginning of the fifth century C.E., if not earlier, it was the island's dominant religion.2 Soon after, the Vandals and then the Byzantine emperor Justinian conquered the island. The Byzantines would abandon the Balearics in 624, and for centuries thereafter both African Muslims and European Christians raided the islands. African Muslims had taken most of the Iberian Peninsula by 711, but it was not until 902 that they arrived on Mallorca, introducing not only Islam but also windmills and waterwheels turned by animals, improving irrigation and agriculture, and in other ways helping the island prosper.3
Given the island's importance in Mediterranean trade and the growing European commerce with Africa in the Middle Ages, rival European kingdoms desired to retake the island from the Muslims.4 In 1229, Catalan troops led by the Catholic king of Aragon, James I (1208–1276), "the Conqueror," captured Medina Mayurqa, as Palma, Mallorca's best natural harbor, was then known.5 As king of Mallorca, James I distributed land to his followers and transported Christian religious orders and mendicant priests to Mallorca. Both the Dominicans and the Franciscans arrived in the 1230s. In 1238, Franciscans received land in Palma to build a convent, but construction of the influential Convento de San Francisco did not begin until 1281.6 By the middle of the fourteenth century, the convent had more than sixty Franciscans.7
Upon his death in 1276, James I divided his kingdom between his two sons, James II of Mallorca (1243–1311) and Peter III, "the Great" (1239–1285). Almost two decades of political unrest ensued. After swearing his allegiance to his brother's son who had become king of Aragon, James II began to carve out a separate existence for the kingdom of Mallorca. He created a standard currency, imposed taxes on Catalan merchants, and formally recognized the governing bodies of the small agricultural communities across the island, ushering in a period of economic expansion. Because of the island's location as a mercantile entrepôt, many Mallorcans made their living as sailors, pilots, fishermen, merchants, shipwrights, and hired hands. Palma soon rivaled Barcelona as a major port, especially after the pope granted Mallorcan merchants the special privilege to trade with non-Catholics in Africa, as long as they traded for food, something that was necessary given that the island was nearly always threatened by famine.8 As early as 1280, Mallorcan ships had sailed for London loaded with commodities, among the most important of which was wool. And Mallorcans, in particular Jews, cultivated a profitable and busy trade with North Africa.9 Mallorcan culture flourished during this period as well; Palma's Jewish cartographers, for instance, created some of the most important and widely used atlases of the Middle Ages.
Owing to the influence of the colorful, brilliant, and ascetic Franciscan tertiary Ramon Llull (1232–c. 1315), Mallorca in these years became a center of Catholicism and a breeding ground for Catholic missionaries.10 After a series of religious visions, Llull committed himself to three pursuits: converting the "unbelievers"; writing a book, the "best in the world, against the errors of the unbelievers"; and encouraging the pope, kings, and "Christian princes" to support monasteries in which missionaries would learn the languages of the "unbelievers." Llull espoused the belief that all non-Catholics—by which he meant primarily Jews and Muslims—could be converted, not by war, but by reason.11 He traveled to Africa to preach and learned Arabic so that he could do so in the local tongue. He established a missionary college in the hills above Palma, where he trained followers, and Mallorca became a launching point for Catholic missionaries bound for Africa, the Holy Land, or the Canary Islands, off Africa's Atlantic coast.12 Soon destroyed by slave traders, the Canary Island missions nevertheless helped to set a pattern of Mallorcan Franciscan missionaries venturing far from their home island.13 Llull himself died in 1315 or 1316, most likely in Mallorca, although some have suggested that he died in Tunis at the hands of Muslims who repudiated his teachings, or on a ship sailing back to his homeland. His bones were interred in the sacristy and then the pulpit of the church of the Convento de San Francisco in Palma.14
Mallorcan independence came to an end in 1343 when Peter IV of Aragon, "the Ceremonious" (1319–1387), conquered the island to protect Barcelona's supremacy.15 The attempt of James III of Mallorca (1315–1349) to liberate the island in 1349 failed, not least because the Black Death had struck the year before, thinning the ranks of his supporters.16 The island remained under the Crown of Aragon's firm control and was governed from the mainland.17 Yet the cultural and economic achievements of its period of independence—and its political subjugation at the hands of outsiders—would long remain central to Mallorcan identity.
Loss of its independence coupled with the Black Death made the Middle Ages one of the darkest periods in Mallorca's history. As a center of trade, the island was especially vulnerable to contagious epidemics, and the plague continued to strike, carrying off twenty thousand souls on the island in 1481 alone.18 Not until 1573 did the island's population top sixty thousand for the first time since 1329.19 The plague also straitened Mallorca's foreign trade; as a result, the island underwent an economic transformation, turning to the production of textiles and wool,20 and so becoming ever more dependent on imported grains.21
The combined pressures of plague, famine, and economic decline threw much of Spain, including Mallorca, into turmoil, leading many to blame the Jews among them for their hardships; a wave of anti-Jewish violence had begun earlier in Seville, and it soon swept the island. The Jewish quarter of Palma was sacked in August 1391 by a mob of some seven thousand Catholic assailants, who massacred three hundred Jews.22 In the following months, five hundred Jews converted to Catholicism. Catholic religious authorities forced the mass conversion of many of the island's remaining Jews in 1435.23 Public displays of Islam had already largely been rooted out of the island, and now Mallorca became among the first Spanish regions in which the open practice of Judaism disappeared.24 In Mallorca some fifteen hundred conversos (Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism) lived apart from Catholics in Palma.25
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By the late fifteenth century, with the plague having largely finished its deadly work on the Iberian Peninsula, the kingdom of Castile was ascendant. In 1478 it conquered the Canary Islands, and then in 1492 it took Granada, the last Muslim kingdom on the peninsula, sent Columbus on his voyage across the Atlantic, and expelled from its territories all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Mallorca, however, was still part of the Crown of Aragon, which remained largely separate from imperial Spain even after the houses of Castile and Aragon were joined through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469 and later during Spain's unification under a single Hapsburg monarch in the early sixteenth century.26
The persistent inability of the Mallorcan economy to feed the island's residents was exacerbated by the Little Ice Age, a drop in temperatures that devastated agricultural production across much of Europe between 1550 and 1700.27 In these years of recurrent famine, Mallorcans devoted themselves to agriculture but still had to import grains from Sardinia, Naples, Genoa, North Africa, and Castile.28 The island plunged into debt.29 As one astute observer noted in 1632, "It is certain, that if the scarcity of Corn did not oblige them sometimes to send Money out of the Countrey, this Kingdom would be one of the richest in Europe."30 The majority of the people of the countryside saw their own economic condition worsen, and more became renters or simply field hands. Meanwhile, a long period of discrimination against Mallorcan Muslims, many of whom were enslaved, culminated in 1609, when King Philip III forced all Moriscos—Muslims converted to Catholicism—to leave Spain for Muslim North Africa.31
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In the seventeenth century, Spain's trade with American colonies fell off, as did the influx of treasure from the New World, and plague once again reared its head. In 1600, Spain's population was around 8.5 million; a century later it had been reduced to approximately 7.5 million.32 All told, over the course of the seventeenth century, more than 1.25 million people died from the disease in Spain; another 500,000 immigrated to the Americas.33 In Mallorca, more than 20,000, or 25 percent of the population, died in the epidemic of 1652 alone.34 In one of the island's towns, Inca, about 40 percent of the population perished.35 As the population declined, the burden of taxation on survivors only seemed to increase. Making matters worse, across Spain agricultural production plummeted. In the Mallorcan countryside, the dire economic situation spawned peasant unrest and banditry. Adding to the island's woes were the periodic attacks on coastal towns by Muslim, Turkish, and even French raiders.36
The only stable institution in Mallorca across these centuries was the Catholic Church. Mallorca had over three hundred parish priests and hundreds more clergymen who served in the religious orders.37 The great wealth of the Church was conspicuous amid Spain's general economic malaise. For adult males the priesthood was a common career choice. Outside the priesthood, formal education and literacy were unusual. On Mallorca basic education was limited and overseen by the Church.
One of the principal responsibilities of Mallorcan priests was to teach young children the catechism. Every Sunday and throughout Lent and days of obligation, the rector would ring the church bell to call children to church for instruction. The catechism would be taught and recited in Mallorquí, the Mallorcan variety of the Catalan language, or in Latin, not Castilian. And most likely the children would have been instructed in a very basic catechism, either the Doctrina Christiana of Padre Diego de Ledesma or a translation of the Ripalda Catechism.38
In Mallorca, the ritual calendar of the Catholic Church structured village and family life. There were more than one hundred additional Catholic feast days, not including Sundays. Church attendance was expected, if not mandated, on Sundays, and all adults were required to go to confession and receive Communion at least once a year, usually during Lent, when some adults fasted and others abstained from eating meat and all foods prepared with eggs or milk.39 Church leaders considered many Mallorcans to be lax in their faith and observances, and so welcomed itinerant missionaries who periodically crisscrossed the island trying to reinvigorate the spiritual lives of the laity.40 Typically, these missions were composed of small groups of traveling friars who spent twenty to thirty days in one of the island's small communities trying to shore up villagers' faith.41
During the seventeenth century, as the Hapsburg monarchs struggled to rule Spain in the shadow of the glories of an earlier age, Mallorca felt the pains of Spanish imperial decline. Mallorcans were repeatedly called upon to help defray the costs of lodging troops on their island, and many young Mallorcan men were pressed into military service.42 Once again, hardship and uncertainty spurred fears about insidious Jewish activity on the island. In 1677 the Inquisition arrested 237 conversos, accusing them of cryptojudaism.43 Most were given jail sentences of two years or so. A decade later, though, when a group of those previously punished prepared to flee to Holland, and one Raphael Cortés de Alfonso reported to a Jesuit priest that he suspected his cousin and others of "observing the Law of Moses," a cycle of devastating denunciations unfolded. Hundreds were arrested and accused of faking their conversions. In 1691—merely one generation before Junípero Serra's birth—the Inquisition found forty-five men and women guilty of practicing cryptojudaism. Five who had already died or fled were burned in effigy. The remaining condemned were publicly ridiculed in central Palma and then paraded to the outskirts of town, where more than thirty thousand people—a huge proportion of the island's population—thronged to watch the executions. Thirty-seven were strangled and then burned. Three, who refused to renounce their religious beliefs, were set on fire alive.44 The Jewish community in Palma never fully recovered, and the persecutions became an important part of the island's culture, bringing religious intolerance ever closer to the center of Mallorcan identity.45
Despite having to support Hapsburg troops, Mallorca remained relatively free from imperial oversight—until, that is, the victory of the Bourbons over the Hapsburgs in the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714).46 By 1710 it was clear that the Bourbon monarch Philip would prevail and consolidate his control over Spain. In 1714 the Bourbons took Barcelona; only Mallorca remained loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV. To defend itself against the inevitable Bourbon invasion, Palma improved its defenses, raised taxes to pay for an army, and enlisted men from the countryside in the army. But when Philip's massive fleet disembarked on the island in June 1715, Mallorcans' resolve evaporated.47 A Franco-Spanish force of twenty-two thousand easily overran the island's Austrian garrison of one thousand men, and Mallorca once again had a new imperial overlord.48
Philip fashioned his Spanish realm after the blueprint devised by the French king Louis XIV, which meant that Mallorca was reminded of its status as a subject land.49 The Bourbon king introduced a host of changes that collectively altered the relations between ordinary Mallorcans and the imperial capital.50 The Bourbons published a series of regulations in Mallorca known as the Decrets de Nova Planta on November 28, 1715, two years after Junípero Serra's birth. These laws disassembled the previous institutional system based on local political self-determination and replaced it with one in which power emanated from Castile. Among many other repressive measures, the island was forced to support a standing imperial army.51 The Bourbons governed Mallorca as if it were a colony: the island had no meaningful political autonomy and found its culture and language under official attack. Political power resided in the hands of non-Mallorcans, and laws mandated that court cases and official documents be presented in Castilian, not Catalan or Mallorquí.
Mallorcans of Serra's generation thus grew up with a healthy suspicion of state authority and a proud sense of Mallorca's distinct culture and history, but also an understanding of the island's constraints. They knew that Mallorca's limitations would not allow a true and lasting separation from the rest of the Mediterranean or the emerging transatlantic world and that Mallorcan survival had for centuries depended upon foods produced in distant lands. For many, this translated into a firm allegiance to the Catholic Church, the only institution that at times met their spiritual and material needs. This Mallorcan worldview would only solidify during a series of devastating crises during the first half of the eighteenth century.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven W. Hackel