Research Seminar Review: Dr. Julia McClure’s ‘Poverty on the Move in the Spanish Empire’

Written by Carissa Chew

On 17 October, the Global and Transnational Group and Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies jointly welcomed Dr. Julia McClure from the University of Glasgow to present her latest research on ‘Poverty on the Move in the Spanish Empire’, a project that McClure framed as part of a broader challenge to the invisibility of poverty in the historiography of global history. In this seminar, McClure discussed ‘poverty’ as a socially constructed category in both Spain and the Americas in the early modern period, exploring its various social, cultural, economic, and legal definitions and functions as well as the importance of the related discourse on ‘charity’.

    Global history is a field that has often explored transnational interconnections by tracing conspicuous consumption and material exchanges across the globe. For example, McClure noted that the existence of a ‘web of Spanish silver’ from Europe to America to China is seen as indicative of Spain’s emergence as the world’s ‘first global empire’. Given this preoccupation with material commodities and macro-economics, global history has come to overlook those groups who lacked money and resources — the poor. Although the poor seem to represent ‘the historiographical antithesis to global history’ in this regard, McClure insisted that it is necessary for global historians to recover and re-centre the history of the poor, who in fact formed ‘the essential fabric of [the Spanish Empire’s] connectivities’. Ultimately, McClure proposed that in re-framing the Spanish poor as important actors in the process of world-making — as opposed to portraying them as victims who lacked agency and were caught up in larger processes such as indentured labour — we can begin to recover a bottom-up narrative of the Spanish Empire.

    Contrary to popular perception, the Spanish conquest of the Americas did not simply lead to an influx of wealth into Europe, but in fact resulted in increased inequality within Spain. In light of this problem of heightening economic disparity, the Spanish state attempted to rid themselves of poor populations by exporting them to the colonies. In the popular elite imagination, the poor were an undesirable, loathsome group who were not welcome on the Spanish mainland. In 1525, the Ypres Scheme of Poor Relief described ‘beggars everywhere. . . living at their pleasure without any labour, in sloth and idleness, like drones’, before ultimately concluding that ‘beggars should be banished from the realm’. In 1526, Juan Luis Vives concurred that ‘tremendous honour adheres in the state in which no beggar is seen’. To encourage the lower echelons of Spanish society to traverse the Atlantic Ocean, the voyage from Spain to New Spain was portrayed as a journey from poverty to riches. Moreover, when this promise of social mobility was not enough, the poor were bribed to leave the country.

    Those poor people who remained in Spain continued to face discrimination throughout the sixteenth century. In particular, they faced heightened oppression under Charles V (1516-1556), whose ‘poor laws’ banned begging without a license. According to this new legislation, offenders would be punished by galley service: first offenders faced four years; second-time offenders eight years; and third-time offenders faced a lifetime of service. McClure noted that it is difficult to determine the prosecution rates of these laws, but what this shows is that the poor were now being conceived of as a potential labour source. This is reinforced by the fact that in 1539 it was made compulsory for all male Romani between 20 and 30 years old to complete two years of service in the galleys. The galley industry soon came to be dominated by poor people, since those with wealth could use their resources to bargain for exile as a preferred punishment. Being forced into this nomadic way of life led to further oppression when galley slaves returned to society, however, since they were often refused licenses for begging and hence found it even more difficult to escape their vagrant lifestyles. When it comes to the poor in Spain, McClure added, we also witness the rise of biopolitics in this era with bodies of the poor, conceived of as inferior and contagious, becoming the subject of social policy.

    Moreover, few of those poor Spaniards who relocated to the colonies experienced the upward social mobility or the wealth they were promised. Some of the conquistadors and colonists did find fortune in the Americas, but McClure remarked that oppression generally followed the poor Spaniards across the Atlantic. The poor in the colonies legally had certain rights, for example, the legal system had an obligation to offer free resources to the poor. However, in reality, anybody could claim to be poor to access these resources, and they were not allocated to those most in need. McClure gave the example that a widow could avoid paying taxes on her slaves because she claimed to be ‘poor’. The presence of poverty among the Spaniards in the colonies was in fact conceived as a dangerous threat to the colonial social hierarchy, which was based on ideas of caste identity. Spanish colonists were anxious about the influence that the behaviour of poor Spaniards would have on the American Indian and black African populations. McClure explained that at the Archivo General de la Nación de México, there is extensive documentation regarding lawsuit cases against vagrancy, including petitions to different authorities stating that poor Spaniards were shameful as well as demands that they should be hidden from sight because they had a subversive influence on the American Indians. Moreover, given labour shortages in the colonies due to the Spanish not having a secure systematic supply of slave labour from Africa, poor people were also viewed as a potential economic resource in this context. The Franciscans, for example, would justify their appropriation of the poor as economic resources using the discourse of ‘charity’. Oppression was often labelled as ‘charity’, and McClure remarked that the language of charity became important in the justification of empire more broadly.

    In the colonial setting, we are faced with the overarching question surrounding the ways in which poverty interacted with race. McClure explained that she is still trying to grapple with the ways in which concepts of poverty were mapped onto an increasingly racialised colonial society. In some instances, we see that the Spanish classified the American Indians as ‘poor’ by labelling them as personas miserables. We also see that indigenous languages were sometimes referred to as ‘poor languages’ and that Franciscans wrote ‘poor bibles’ for the American Indians. But at the same time the American Indians could not access the rights promised to the poor in the colonies, since they had to appeal under the category of indos rather than that of the pobre (‘poor’). We see that poverty was a principle of governance used to order the world, yet the role that discourse on poverty played becomes even more complicated when we consider that it was not often used in regard to the condition of African slaves. McClure explained that in Spanish legal discourse slavery was distinguished from poverty, and that by excluding slaves from the category of the poor links to the wider project of dehumanizing slaves. Discourse on poverty, therefore, was also about defining the boundaries of the human.

Image: The “Realé” Returning to Port, anon., c.1694.

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