LUIS DE CARVAJAL
The Origins of Nuevo Reino de León
“In 1579 the Spanish Crown handed Luis de Carvajal a remarkable boon: the authority to invade, colonize, and govern the future New Kingdom of León. The next year, Carvajal and his followers landed on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, and in the following year began their military campaigns in the interior. Had their plans come to fruition, Carvajal and his descendents would have ruled over a kingdom encompassing much of today’s U.S.-Mexico border states. But events turned out otherwise: in 1591 Carvajal died, not a celebrated conqueror, but a disconsolate prisoner.
“This dramatic tale is enough to commend a biography on Carvajal to most readers. There is, however, far more at stake in retelling his story. Carvajal set the initial conditions of interaction between Europeans and many indigenous groups on Mexico’s northeastern frontier, with important long-term consequences for the region. The tragic end of his life and enterprises also belongs to a broader family drama and cultural conflict. The Carvajals were a large and successful network of Jewish converses systematically targeted by the Inquisition in the years following Luis’s captivity and death. Consequently, Samuel Temkin’s book is one that matters for multiple audiences: students of Latin America, the Borderlands, and early modern Spain, as well as those interested in the Inquisition and Jewish Diaspora.
“Luis de Carvajal is an admiring biography, and Temkin’s principal objective is to refute both contemporary and modern criticisms of his subject. He does so first by presenting a rich account of Carvajal’s early service to the Crown, thus answering accusations that he secured his command by graft rather than merit. Later chapters explain the contents of the royal charters, disputes surrounding them, and the charges that led to his arrest. This is a substantial documentary history, and one that discusses its sources in minute detail. The appendixes include Carvajal’s original grant and a helpful table of information on the colonizing families.
“The element of this book most likely to court controversy is its attempt to exonerate Carvajal from charges of mistreating Indians. Temkin views Carvajal as an exceptional ethical figure in an era of widespread cruelty. This is a minority opinion among historians, and one that may be difficult for readers to accept. Temkin is aware that Carvajal brought forty African slaves on his expeditions, that his family was involved in the slave trade, and that he captured great numbers of Indians in the interior. Earlier scholarship on the region by Eugenio del Hoyo, Israel Cavazos Garza, and Silvo Zavala has documented the widespread use of just-war claims to conceal slaving expeditions. Most students of the region and period view Spanish descriptions of Indian rebellion, and subsequent sentences of penal servitude, as thin legal fictions concealing the northern slave trade. Yet, Temkin is resolute in his defense of Carvajal, taking his reports of Indian rebellions and his accounts of punitive expeditions at face value, and ascribing most consequent moral transgressions to the conduct of Carvajal’s undisciplined subordinates.”
--Sean F. McEnroe, Southern Oregon University, New Mexico Historical Review
“Luis de Carvajal won a royal capitulation in 1579 to colonize a vast, ill-defined territory to the north of Tampico in New Spain that was christened Nuevo Reino de León. Carvajal’s activities in the area between 1580 and 1586 triggered bitter jurisdictional conflicts with established authorities, who accused Carvajal of illegally enslaving indigenous peoples. They also successfully denounced him to the Inquisition for covering up the Judaic practices of his sister and her children. The image of Carvajal as a heretic enslaver subsequently dominated the writings of both colonial Mexican authors and modern historians.
“Samuel Temkin achieves more than his goal of providing a balanced assessment of Luis de Carvajal as a conqueror of the colonial Mexican Northeast. The larger theme is the adventures of a Jewish converso (New Christian) in a politically dangerous Iberian trans-Atlantic world. Temkin reconstructs Carvajal’s biography from widely dispersed documents in Spanish, Portuguese, and Mexican archives. The book’s three parts cover, respectively, the first 30 years of Carvajal’s life in Portugal, Spain, and Cape Verde to 1567; his early career as a royal official and colonizer in northeastern Mexico from 1567 to 1579; and his travails as the governor of the Nuevo Reino de León from 1579 to his death in 1591. Temkin interweaves the life of Carvajal and the character of his times to illuminate both.
“Carvajal’s early life illustrates the ability of conversos to navigate the dangerous political environment shaped by forced conversion, second-class citizenship, and vulnerability to persecution. His family was part of a transnational converso community in Spain and Portugal whose members moved back and forth across the border with the fluctuations in the campaigns of persecution on both sides. Drawing heavily on political and economic networks, Carvajal was an experienced Atlantic sea merchant in European wheat and African slaves by the time he made his way to New Spain as a venture capitalist.
“Conversos and crypto-Jews gained Catholic respectability and material wealth by masking their lineages and practices to create their own opportunities for advancement, even in service to the crown and at times to the Church. One of Carvajal’s brothers became a Jesuit monk and another died as a man of arms in New Spain. Carvajal was raised as a Catholic in the home of a Spanish noble and passed as an elite member of an old Spanish Christian family. On his first known voyage across the Atlantic, he circumvented immigration authorities by joining the fleet in the Canary Islands with his own ship. He built a 12-year record of royal service as an alcalde ordinario in Tampico, where he pacified rebellious natives and discovered overland routes to link various locations in the North. Carvajal parlayed his service into the royal capitulation of the future Nuevo Reino de León. The costly risk of colonizing a peripheral territory may explain why the king exempted his colonists from the requirement to document their purity of blood.
“Carvajal’s career highlights the combined roles of political leveraging, military force, religious ideology, and capital investment in colonization by conquest. It is clear that Carvajal spearheaded a transatlantic family enterprise when he sought his fortune in New Spain. A successful frontier kingdom would create a region of refuge and profit for conversos. He bought ships, heavy weapons, African slaves, and political appointments. He financed expeditions of discovery and campaigns of pacification. His rewards from both the king and viceroy included the exploitation of natives through encomienda and slavery. The king allowed him to transport merchandise and African slaves without paying taxes. His governorship was transferable to one heir. The budding empire was brought down by native rebellions at two geographical extremes, in the north and the south; the refusal of existing authorities to vacate their jurisdictions; and the legal attacks of enemies that ended with Carvajal’s conviction for heresy. He died waiting to go into exile.”
--José Cuello, Wayne State University, The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Latin American History