The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez

[ Latin American Studies ]

The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez

The True Adventures of a Spanish American with 17th-Century Pirates

By Fabio López Lázaro

A critical translation and commentary on a work long regarded as Latin America's first novel, which proves that this famous tale of piracy is actually a historical account that sheds new light on Spain's worldwide struggle against the ambitions of France and other European powers.

2011

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In 1690, a dramatic account of piracy was published in Mexico City. The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez described the incredible adventures of a poor Spanish American carpenter who was taken captive by British pirates near the Philippines and forced to work for them for two years. After circumnavigating the world, he was freed and managed to return to Mexico, where the Spanish viceroy commissioned the well-known Mexican scholar Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora to write down Ramírez's account as part of an imperial propaganda campaign against pirates.

The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez has long been regarded as a work of fiction—in fact, as Latin America's first novel—but Fabio López Lázaro makes a convincing case that the book is a historical account of real events, albeit full of distortions and lies. Using contemporary published accounts, as well as newly discovered documents from Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, and Dutch archives, he proves that Ramírez voyaged with one of the most famous pirates of all time, William Dampier. López Lázaro's critical translation of The Misfortunes provides the only extensive Spanish eyewitness account of pirates during the period in world history (1650–1750) when they became key agents of the European powers jockeying for international political and economic dominance. An extensive introduction places The Misfortunes within the worldwide struggle that Spain, England, and Holland waged against the ambitious Louis XIV of France, which some historians consider to be the first world war.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • A Note on the Translation
  • Introductory Study
    • Chapter 1. Introduction
    • Chapter 2. The Viceroy, the Carpenter, and the Pirate
    • Chapter 3. Siamese Treasure, Mexican Merchants, and the Law
    • Chapter 4. Conclusions
  • The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez: A Critical Translation
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Truth is stranger than Fiction, but that is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

In 1690, during the heyday of piracy, when attacks terrorized the Spanish empire from the Caribbean to the Philippine Islands, a little book entitled The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez was published in Mexico City. The book described how the second most powerful imperial official, the viceroy of New Spain, met a man by the name of Ramírez in Mexico City in the spring of that year. Ramírez, a poor Spanish American carpenter from Puerto Rico, created a dramatic impression: his face, chest, and hand had been severely scarred by a gunpowder explosion, and he had lost all his hair. But the story that Ramírez told his sophisticated audience was even more remarkable. After being taken captive by English pirates near the Philippine Islands three years earlier, Ramírez and his twenty-five Asian and American companions had been forced to work as slaves aboard the pirate ship. Having witnessed how the buccaneers repeatedly pillaged southeast Asian ships and cities without mercy, the nine men ended up circumnavigating the world in the pirates' company until they were freed off the coast of Brazil. Ramírez said that he had managed to steer a frigate which the pirates had given them across the Caribbean to Mexico but was shipwrecked on the dangerous reefs lining the eastern coastline of Yucatan. He now appeared on April 4, 1690, before Viceroy Gaspar de la Cerda Sandoval Silva y Mendoza in Mexico City, the Count of Galve and New Spain's highest judge, because local Yucatan officials suspected he was a smuggler or, even worse, a pirate.

Not surprisingly, given Ramírez's improbable story, most scholars have maintained that Misfortunes must be a piece of fictional writing. They have overwhelmingly attributed the extravagant depiction of events to the literary skills, scientific knowledge, and political agenda of Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, the king's cosmographer in Mexico City. According to the book itself, he was commissioned by the viceroy to write it. Sigüenza is one of the greatest cultural talents of the Spanish-speaking Americas in the early modern period (along with the protofeminist poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz). The importance of Misfortunes as one of colonial Latin America's great literary achievements has earned it the status of the first Latin American novel.

Nevertheless, some scholars have not agreed with this assessment, positing that many of the events and people described in the book must be historic. Ramírez's real-life existence, though unproven, has been maintained by literary scholars like Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, Cayetano Coll y Toste, Concha Meléndez, Josefina Rivera de Alvarez, and Manuel Alvarez Nazario. Others, like Willebaldo Bazarte Cerdán and David Lagmanovich, have believed that the lack of historical evidence tilts the balance in favor of Sigüenza's creative imagination. Many readers, like Raúl Castagnino and Enrique Anderson Imbert, have preferred to sit on the fence, arguing to various degrees that Misfortunes contains a mix of fictional and historic elements attributable to Sigüenza's pen. Lucrecio Pérez Blanco, for example, theorizes that Sigüenza, as an arbitrista (protonationalist lobbyist), wrote the book as a critique of the imperial government's lack of attention to America's woes and a defense of Latin American identity and needs against Old World arrogance and ineptitude. At the other end of the interpretive spectrum, Francisco Vidargas points out that Sigüenza always preferred historical or "objective" accounts to fiction. Most recently, Estelle Irizarry has cast doubt on Sigüenza's input by proving statistically that the language used in Misfortunes does not match that of any other works by Sigüenza. But only a few investigators, like James Cummins, Alan Soons, and Antonio Lorente Medina, have gone to the effort of substantiating that many of the people mentioned in Misfortunes did in fact exist.

Based on European, Asian, and American archival documents, the present study proves incontrovertibly that Ramírez existed and that his narrative is not a novel but a historical account, though full of distortions and lies. We can now state that Ramírez was a real person and that his story in Misfortunes is corroborated by solid evidence. For example, the dramatic meeting between the Count of Galve, still fresh from Spain on his new appointment, and the wounded pirate captive did in fact take place in the spring of 1690, although this was not the first news of Ramírez's shipwreck that the viceroy received.

On January 27, 1690, Galve reported the important news in a letter to his brother in Madrid, the Duke of Infantado, the right-hand man of King Carlos II (r. 1665–1700):

My dear brother, friend, and lord: attached to this letter you will find a copy of the one I have just written to His Majesty, giving him an account of the [latest] voyage of the Windward Fleet . . . with notice of the news of the pirate Lorencillo's armaments and supplies . . . , to which I add another remarkable and strange piece of news, consisting of the loss of a Manila vessel on the shores of the Province of Campeche, toward its southern reaches. It carried three Chinese, a Spaniard, who is a native of Puerto Rico island and acted as captain, another Spaniard born in Puebla de los Angeles, and a black boy [negrillo].

Galve's letter then related the essential narrative that was repeated in the Sigüenza text, published five months later (in July), with certain important details:

The declaration which this captain has made relates that, as captain of a royal ship in Manila with a crew of twenty-five men, he was taken prize on those coasts by two English vessels. After leaving most of his captured crew on the coast, these pirates took the rest of his men with them, eight in all.

Galve's letter told how the "pirates continued their corsairing [corso] among those islands, taking many prizes from the Portuguese, setting course for the coasts of Bengal [Indian Ocean], until they arrived on the Island of San Lorenzo [Madagascar]." The English pirates then took the eight Spaniards with them around the Cape of Good Hope, crossing the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil, "where they set free the aforementioned vessel, giving them an English waggoner [sea chart] to steer by so that they might from there sail for Puerto Rico, toward which they [the Spaniards] set off" across the Caribbean.

Galve's confidential letter suggests that at that point he did not suspect Ramírez was lying: "Finding pirate ships in all these locations, they were forced to head out to deeper waters; fleeing from land but finding themselves short of supplies, they resolved" to head for whatever inhabited island they might be able to reach. "When they had adopted this plan, a sudden storm arose which threw them on the coasts of Campeche, where the vessel was lost." Forty days of wandering on the beaches left the castaways ill; two died. By good fortune a beachcomber found the despondent and lost sailors and notified the local Spanish officials, who ordered that they be brought to the town of "Tixhobuc [Tijosuco?]." "Divine Providence saved these lives," Galve rhapsodized, "releasing them from such a long and unprecedented voyage and from so many successive dangers; I have consequently ordered that the Captain be brought to this court to inform me in greater detail of his ship's course."

The basic January narrative of the shipwrecked captain's experiences matches the plot of Sigüenza's text of Misfortunes, printed in June, but Alonso Ramírez was not mentioned by name in any archival document until the viceroy sent a second letter to his brother about the shipwrecked Puerto Rican on July 1, 1690. In it Galve announced that he had commissioned the publication of Ramírez's narrative in the following terms:

My dear brother, friend, and lord: attached to this letter you will find twenty [printed] relations of the voyage which Alonso Ramírez, a native of Puerto Rico, made from the Philippine Islands to the Province of Campeche, where he lost his way. Having ordered that he be brought to this Court [Mexico City], I then commanded that a declaration relating his course and the misfortunes he suffered in such an unheard of and unprecedented navigation be taken down in writing; the strangeness and incredible nature of his story prompts me to send it to Your Excellency. I have had it published so that many copies can be forwarded to You in the eventuality that You should desire to distribute it amongst our friends, for I have only remitted it to the Marquis of Vélez. All of which I now submit for Your information, whose Excellent person I hope God will preserve for many years, as I truly wish He will; Mexico, July 1, 1690. I place myself, Your brother and greatest friend, at Your Excellent Lordship's feet.

It is thus clear that the viceroy commissioned Sigüenza to write down Ramírez's account. Chapter 2 explains why the viceroy felt that it was a useful piece of propaganda in the concerted campaign against pirates and the enemies of the monarchy of Spain which the Marquis of Vélez, Spain's chief minister in charge of American and naval affairs, was organizing in 1690. He chose to ignore the many improbabilities in Ramírez's account, such as the oddity that Ramírez had never tried to land in Puerto Rico even though his course through the Caribbean took him quite close to the island, because the story could be useful.

The archival evidence also demonstrates that the famous English pirate and naturalist William Dampier was in fact the man who took Ramírez captive near the Philippine Islands in 1687. This is not incidental to understanding Galve's patronage of Ramírez. The English identity of Ramírez's captors interested Galve because it confirmed what he and his brother, the king of Spain's close advisor, feared most during the opening years of the global war (1688–1697) against King Louis XIV of France. They were afraid that Spain's new ally, England, was not to be trusted, that English greed would lead English politicians, like pirates, to seize American islands from the French but refuse to give them back to their rightful owner, Spain.

My analysis also strongly suggests something which neither Sigüenza nor the viceroy apparently realized or expressed: at some point in his supposedly forced cruise with the British pirates through Asian, Indian, and African waters, Ramírez joined them, probably early on. Chapter 2 presents radically new evidence that proves Ramírez consorted with two separate pirate crews. Chapter 3 examines the evidence concerning the odd frigate which, unbelievably, Ramírez said the pirates gave him and which, more unbelievably, the Count of Galve accepted as Ramírez's by law. The fast frigate might be salvageable; moreover, it was full of valuable Asian (most notably, Siamese) treasure, some of it quite useful for Galve's military projects against buccaneers and the French. An analysis of Galve's letters and Spanish law governing the distribution of shipwrecks points to the cargo in Ramírez's fast frigate as the ultimate reason for Galve's patronage. Piracy attracted commoners like the carpenter Ramírez into its ranks; but in the right context the proceeds of piracy could also attract the highest officials, dedicated administrators like Galve who were willing to turn a blind eye when valuable cargo could be used to defend empire. The legal implications of Galve's patronage reveal the very sinews of power.

Misfortunes thus acquires tremendous historical importance in addition to its proven significance as one of colonial Latin America's unique cultural texts. It provides deep insights into the cultural, legal, and maritime history of the most important early modern empire, linking the working-class world of Ramírez to the high diplomatic circles in which Galve and his colleagues schemed. The historicity of the book increases its value as a source for the study of colonial Latin America within world history. Read in the context of Spanish America's struggle against French, English, and Dutch pirates, interlopers, and invaders, Misfortunes constitutes the only extensive eyewitness account of maritime predation written by a member of the society most victimized by pirates between 1630 and 1730: the subjects of the king of Spain around the world. In a similar vein, the book also deserves to be read beyond the Hispanic world for its intertextual insights into the workings of legal and illegal maritime trade networks. Because Ramírez voyaged with Dampier, one of the most famous English pirates of all time, their accounts can no longer be read separately. Ramírez's book offers important new insights into pirate history as well as regional histories. English scholars, for example, will find that their views of Dampier's activities need to be revised. Ramírez's account corroborates Dampier's description of one of the first European recorded visits to Australia in A New Voyage round the World.

Political historians will realize that Misfortunes also contributes to our understanding of the evolution of international law. Its publication fits Ethan Nadelmann's contention that the criminalization of piracy by the concerted efforts of Spain, England, and Holland in the late 1600s was the first major step forward in the establishment of "global prohibition regimes." This slow process accelerated in the 1680s as former colonial rivals began to collaborate (after the modern international diplomatic system really got underway with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) to prosecute economically deleterious and morally repugnant activities like maritime predation. The repeated horrors perpetrated by English pirates, as narrated by Ramírez, are material evidence of the growing consensus of moral activism, based on "religious faith . . . humanitarianism, universalism," and "compassion," which ultimately led to Western European colonial prohibition regimes. The Anglophobia of Misfortunes, on the other hand, also demonstrates how tortured was the path to this diplomatic consensus.

Thus this study attempts to avoid isolating Latin American colonial history by placing it firmly within Pacific, Asian, and European networks of contact and exchange and transoceanic communities of solidarity and power. Kenneth Banks has argued rightly that, contrary to popular images, capitalist enterprises and missionaries' efforts did not function "as a finely tuned machine whose parts always worked together smoothly and efficiently in response to the dictates of the chief engineer." Early modern "absolute" states as complex as the monarchy of Spain possessed an equally "fragmented voice." The machinations of politicians and businessmen, like those of Dauril Alden's preachers, were foiled by "time and distance." But we would be well advised to read Ramírez's adventures in their historic context, not just to hear the voices of such imperializing disjunctures but also to capture the voices of solidarity within the fragmented world of the Spanish monarchy.

The empire was as ethnically diverse as Ramírez's African, Filipino, Chinese, and American crew. What kept this network of territories together for so long? What bridged the oceans separating the galaxy of colonial cities and provinces which a seventeenth-century Spanish political philosopher called the world's first example of a "portable Europe"? A fully historical contextualization of Misfortunes will clarify the processes which bound the empire together in the late seventeenth century, at a time when historians have traditionally maintained that the empire was in decline and the bonds were the weakest. These territories were linked by elite structures of linguistic, economic, legal, and religious administration. For a brief moment the public acceptance of Ramírez's account as truthful constituted a denunciation of pirates, foreigners, and non-Catholics for endangering and terrorizing the multiethnic solidarity which characterized the early modern entity that we call the Spanish empire, more a federation of states loyal to one king than a monolithic nation. The common purpose of Ramírez's companions, however fragmented and self-interested their interests may have been in reality, served the romanticized vision of their sufferings as described emblematically in Misfortunes. The civilian fear of pirate attacks on their Catholic world was shared by all levels of a highly hierarchical society, as varied as Ramírez's crew, and reinforced the elite superstructures of worldwide monarchy.

The second half of the seventeenth century perhaps witnessed the apogee of these unifying processes, notwithstanding colonial consciousness of European negative racial and cultural stereotypes about non-Europeans. Christopher Storrs has recently critiqued the thesis that Spain's empire was in decline in the second half of the seventeenth century, arguing convincingly for the "Resilience of the Spanish Monarchy," demographically, economically, and even militarily. The story of the interaction of Ramírez and Galve in 1690 supports his theory that skillful management and an expanding imperial enfranchisement of local peoples, not English or Dutch help, sustained this "resilience" between 1665 and 1700. "Spain saw off most of its enemies, above all in the Caribbean and north Africa, without outside help," as Storrs believes, precisely because of Madrid's administrative flexibility in perennially negotiating with elites and commoners around the world. Although Spain's fortunes seemed to be at a particularly low ebb in military matters, recent research has provided a more balanced, archivally based understanding of a relatively efficient and successful Spanish navy. For example, it may have lagged behind other navies in artillery carriage design and usage in the early 1600s, but Spanish ships held their own in firepower despite reverses. The successes of fleets flying Spanish flags during the reign of Carlos II have been seriously underappreciated. Ramírez's habitat was amphibious: the world's first truly global—and largest—territorial-cum-maritime composite monarchy.

The full story of Ramírez's Misfortunes should include an examination of how it catered to locals' sense of self and place. Beleaguered by pirate attacks but increasingly involved in administration, local elites were at the zenith of their power. From the perspective of the periphery, Madrid's evident inability to exert authority over its colonial subjects in this period, which led Mark Burkholder to pick 1687 as the low point of the Spanish colonial process, can be seen as these elites' greatest moment of investment in the machinery of empire. Financial reforms in the 1680s broke all precedents by creating public budgets: Galve himself, as we shall see, championed accountability and transparency. As Madrid's constant supervision seemed to diminish, local elites in America "came into their own," writes John Lynch, reaping the rewards of shouldering empire. Between 1674 and 1700 four supreme court judges, eighteen provincial governors, twenty-six important city mayors, and fifty-six royal inspectors (corregidores) in America were "creoles" (Europeans born outside of Europe), Alfred Crosby's famous "Neo-europeans"—an unprecedented number. Moreover, Bartolomé Yun Casalilla's analysis of finances has revealed the degree to which this newfound American aristocratic confidence in a remarkably Euro-American empire connotes "a much less subordinate relation between the colonial elites" and the metropolis. Americans had a mature society by 1690, legitimately proud of their nineteen universities, sophisticated urban life, profitable economics, and established Catholic religious and social traditions. Their currency was the world's currency. They lived in states whose ancient Pre-Columbian roots were increasingly praised by their intellectuals; and these states were kingdoms, not plantations. As John Elliott has recently pointed out, it was the English, French, and Dutch settlers in outlying posts like New England and the lesser Antilles who were the poor cousins in comparison to Spanish Americans.

The research of Julián Ruiz Rivera and Manuela Cristina García Bernal alerts us to the way Spanish subjects' transoceanic networks were working toward economic revival and institutionalized solidarity.

In the 1660s registered Spanish merchants dominating Spanish commercial networks connecting Europe, America, and Asia began to pay fixed annual amounts, calculated regionally, as a subvention for the naval protection which the crown provided to their fleets (budgeted for the crown's contribution at 150,000 ducats): Andalusian merchants paid 170,000 ducats, Peruvian ones 90,000, New Spaniards 30,000, and New Granadans 30,000. The growing participation in empire by regional mercantile elites belies premature theories of economic or manufacturing decline. Between 1650 and 1700 most legally registered merchantmen on the Europe–New World routes had been built in Spanish yards, 37.2 percent in Spain and 27 percent in Spanish America (versus 35.4 percent in foreign shipyards). By the late 1600s established shipping families with both commercial and aristocratic credentials had one foot in Europe and one in America. Their interests culminated in the creation of a Commerce Committee (Junta de Comercio) in 1679 which aimed to slow down the deindustrialization of their local economies, as a service-oriented monarchy with a problem of bullion-draining consumerism became excessively dependent on offshoring manufacturing and production. It was only natural, then, that successful inhabitants of Mexico and Peru saw these recent arrivals in the New World as dangerous, heretical foreigners wanting in on a good thing. Galve's strategic use of the carpenter's story in 1690 appealed precisely to that mind-set.

At lower social levels Galve could rely on what we must, for lack of a better phrase, term Hispanic solidarity, based on the increasing sense among the population at large that all the king's subjects suffered from pirates and enemies. European-born soldiers stood together with American militias made up of whites, mestizos, blacks, and mulattos in defending Veracruz (in 1683) as well as the towns and villages of Yucatan. The sense of urgency was shared across oceanic boundaries as well. The humble priest Cristóbal de Muros, who met Ramírez in Yucatan in 1690, had made a donation the previous year expressly for the global fight against pirates from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. In 1691 Cubans loaned the cash-strapped governor money to finish building forts. Commoners were encouraged by elites in this patriotism: the president of the Santo Domingo Supreme Court, a man with painful experience of buccaneer attacks, praised sailors and soldiers serving the monarchy with the Roman poet Horace's oft-used phrase "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (It is sweet and right to die for one's homeland). The English were astonished at this level of interracial and ethnic collaboration. One English governor in the Leeward Islands east of Puerto Rico ranted in 1689 against the incomprehensible Spaniards, "a dastardly and mongrel herd of mulattos, mustees and other spurious mixtures, [who] are now certainly become the very scum of mankind."

We should not exaggerate or romanticize this multicultural collaboration or believe that commoners' loyalty to the empire was anywhere near universal. Galve himself was disgusted with the pervasive corruption of colonial administrators, churchmen, and businessmen. Additionally he was frustrated by popular uncooperativeness and aware of the seriousness of Spain's military challenges. Two years later, on June 8, 1692, the viceroy would face an ethnically charged riot in Mexico City caused by escalating food prices which destroyed part of his palace and the city archives. Sigüenza, who saved the archive, acrimoniously blamed the "plebes": "Indians, blacks," the racially mixed "creoles," and low-class Spaniards.4 Equally prejudiced posters appeared on the palace walls shortly thereafter, lambasting Galve and his ministers for hiding in the Franciscan convent while the citizenry ran amuck: "Apartments to rent for native Cocks and Castilian Chickens."

The point is to consider how Galve saw in Ramírez's Misfortunes a catalyst for widespread governmental as well as popular support of the monarchy among creoles and Americans in general who shared a keenly developed sense of identity within a world of rival dynastic states. Like Sigüenza and Galve, Ramírez claimed to be a great Spanish patriot in the sense of a broad, transoceanic, early modern Hispanic patriotism. The historical significance of this phenomenon is becoming clear through the research of Alejandro Cañeque, Tamar Herzog, and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra. It was not a limited "European" identity, or even a Euro-American one, but rather a global identity co-terminal with the boundaries of the monarchy. Pirates and heretics were its antithetical "Other." Misfortunes appealed to this identity and made a modest but not unnoteworthy contribution to its construction.

Fabio López Lázaro is Associate Professor of History at Santa Clara University. He is the author of Crime in Early Bourbon Madrid (1700–1808): An Analysis of the Royal Judicial Court's Casebook. His research publications focus on legal and maritime history between 1300 and 1800 and on the interaction between Western European empires and the Americas, Asia, and the Islamic World.

"A historically fascinating and well-researched book ... López Lázaro restores The Misfortunes of Alonso Ramírez to the realm of history and thus contributes to broaden considerably its significance as a late seventeenth-century document ... This is an important contribution to the field of colonial history. It reverses established assumptions; it challenges the status quo and offers new plausible interpretations of [The Misfortunes]." ---ASUNCIóN LAVRIN, Professor Emerita of History, Arizona State University