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5. Roam, if you want to

"Sailing south, we'd bought African blue finches in the market in Beira. We had a little ritual: under my Dad's supervision, we'd release them from the cages once offshore. But, for some reason, by the time we arrived in Lourenço Marques, we hadn't got around to it.

 

"Once docked and ashore, things were tense. Drunk soldiers—years later I was told they were Cuban military—were frolicking in fountains; drunk, wet and boisterous. Rather than head for the restaurant café my parents usually favoured, a few treats were hurriedly bought and we headed back to the ship. I wanted to stay: I thought the Cuban guys were having fun and kept pulling back in their direction.

"In the end my mother had the ace up her sleeve. 'The finches will die if we don't release them soon,' she said. Having fully internalised my responsibilities where animal stewardship was concerned, I duly complied in heading back to the docks with them."

The perils of travel

Starting in the 18th century, the Celtic-Catholic impetus rapidly fragmented. Catholicism, even where still shared, no longer promised to fulfil the purpose of securing transcultural political power, neither in Europe nor in distant colonies. Similarly, the Celtic impetus dissolved into more short-term, local self-interests. While Celtic heritage was later revived in the 19th century, it was no longer part of a larger Catholic-Celtic impetus and axis, but linked to specific drives towards modern, nationalistic nationhood.

 

Diasporas are one of the key reasons for this. Whatever the aspirations various monarchs approved or had in mind—licensing or directly funding colonisation—fragmentation followed. Fairly soon after the proliferation of distant European colonies, certain tendencies became notable. 

 

The first is that those persecuted or marginalised in their home countries saw these colonies as a potential means of escape. Jews fleeing the Inquisition to Mexico or English religious dissenters heading to the Americas, the colonies promised freedom from persecution and prosecution. Some colonies were even founded by groups specifically seeking to escape the laws and religious policies of their homelands, effectively leaving as outcasts from their European homelands.

 

As these colonies grew and new conflicts, economic collapses or waves of oppression and persecution arose in Europe, so too did increasing numbers of those peoples of Celtic-Gaelic identity head far from home. For example, successive waves of Scots and Irish headed for the Americas and, later, Australia, Africa, Asia and New Zealand or to even more obscure island locations such as the Falkland Islands. Numerous islands, from those in the Southern Atlantic to the Caribbean, changed colonial “ownership” during the 18th and 19th centuries, in some cases, a number of times. Scots and Irish settlers were often amongst the first to head to these once seized from France or Spain.

 

The other general tendency is that, once a long way from “home” in places where land and resources might seem endless and up for the taking, settlers began almost immediately to question the power structures of the countries from which they had arrived. This is not only limited to colonial settlers of Irish, English or Scottish descent, but settlers in almost every colony settled by those of European origin.

 

New Spain—Mexico—is a good case in point. The first rebellion to free Mexico from the rule of the Spanish crown happened merely one generation after conquest, led by the son of Hernan Cortés himself. The irony is that the personality at the centre of this conspiracy was not Cortés’ eldest son, Martín Cortés el Mestizo born to La Malinche (aka doña Marina) Cortés’ indigenous interpreter and concubine. Rather it was his legitimate second son of entirely Spanish blood, Martín Cortés (yep, guess they were short on inspiration for names…), 2nd Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca, his son by his second wife, the Spanish noblewoman Doña Juana de Zúñiga. 


This rebellion failed and unleashed a reign of terror in New Spain that saw hundreds of those involved in the plot to declare the official Cortés heir declared king of New Spain executed. Martín, however, escaped beheading and was put on a ship bound for Spain to plead his case before the king for his role in the so-called "Encomenderos Conspiracy".

 

But, the Spanish crown, in a wily move recognising just how tenuous its grip actually was on these distant new territories did not proceed as the judge Alonso de Muñoz, sent from Spain to deal with the treasonous plot recommended. Rather, Muñoz himself was thrown into prison upon his return to Spain while the two treasonous half-brothers—almost certainly complicit in the plot—were pardoned. Martín Cortés (the heir) ended his dissipated days in Madrid, facilitated by his immense wealth, on 13 August 1589, the 68th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, while his half-brother with the same name (the kinda spare) returned to Mexico to take up his role in playing out the new game of New Spain and lived a long and convoluted life beyond the scope of this tract.

 

In Mexico and Peru, as elsewhere, such as in the British and French American colonies for example, the respective monarchies of the colonising state promoted trustworthy members of the elite—often nobles without prospects or gentlemen soldiers—to keep colonists in check. It’s open to debate as to whether their unjust rule, often never conveying honest reports of the harsh life in many of these fledgling settlements back to the courts that had vested them with their privileges, was entirely responsible for subsequent revolutions and bids for independence. Some historians argue that it was an inevitability regardless of how tolerant the rulers in the colonials’ countries of origin were or were not. Some aspects of human behaviour suggest that possession is nine tenths of the law. After all, who could the kings and queens of Europe send to repossess vast untamed regions so far from their traditional infrastructures of control?

 

Nonetheless, Spanish and Irish Catholics ending up in the Americas found themselves in very different societies. In New Spain many colonials, particularly those tracing their families back to the original conquest, were afforded privileges of European Spanish society in addition to those under a complex new caste system governing slaves and offspring of intermarriage; the doctrine of limpieza de sangre (blood purity), a doctrine of what today we might only understand as "ethnic cleansing" that had already played out on the Iberian Peninsula following the Reconquista now unleashed on new continents.

 

The Catholic church, with the full backing of the Spanish crown, was there from the outset, both to convert “natives” and to keep heresy among Spaniards in check. Huge cathedrals in the incoming Baroque style could be erected in record time, benefitting from slave and cheap indentured labour.

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"Barbara 'Bobbly Bags' was the first woman communications officer—they were known as "sparks" back then because maritime communications still depended on old-school radio—to be appointed to the SAF Marine line, whose board members included Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris. The line served all major African ports, transporting its cargos to Europe, Canada, Asia and the USA.

"Barbara was appointed at the start of the 70s and I was very young when I sailed with her as a little kid. What I do remember wondering was whether it was shittier for her to deal with the snide and bitchy comments of the mariners' wives who simply thought it wrong for a woman to actually be working on the ship or the sexism of her fellow male officers. 

"Either way, both my uncle and Dad thought she was a good idea. On occasion both of them got irritated with the catty remarks about how Barbara 'joined the boys' to get her hair cut when the barber came on board...

"My enduring memory of Barbara Bee was walking around Barcelona with her. She knew that I had taken a shine to her and it was very kind of her to take a mouthy kid with her exploring the city when she would, no doubt, have had a lot more fun on her own."

"When I was a little kid I got this acute attack of tonsillitis in Savannah, Georgia the day before we were due to sail for Cape Town.

"My mother had made friends with the nurse at the paediatrician's practice—no idea how—and we got an urgent appointment, in the morning. We were due to sail that evening. 

"The nurse—I'd be lying if I said I could remember her name—was this very beautiful, voluptuous African-American woman who spoke in a gorgeous drawl all dressed in a crisp, starched white nurse's uniform. Imagine Hattie McDaniel playing Nurse Ratched.

"She had just returned from her honeymoon. First, she said it to my mother: 'We went to Niagara on our honeymoon and what did it do? It just rained, rained, rained the whole time.'

"She repeated the story, verbatim to the next two patients who arrived. By the time the fourth arrived, knowing it by heart now, I sang along to the 'rained, rained, rained, the whole time' bit. She looked at me in astonishment. My mother, who'd been chatting with her between her declamations to new arrivals was horrified. The nurse burst out laughing, slapping her thighs, eventually saying, 'Your boy is never gonna lead the choir, but he picks up quick.'

I got a lollipop and antibiotics. No one died on the voyage across the Atlantic."

I left my heart in San Francisco

By contrast, the Irish, especially when settling in easterly parts of Canada where they were more or less isolated, homogenous communities, had their spiritual needs attended by a very different type of Catholicism; generally lone immigrant priests without influence in the corridors of power of the Vatican. Or, later, when the Irish flooded to New York, inhabiting the slums where arriving cultures lived cheek by jowl and vied for power, just like the Italian, Portuguese or Polish immigrants, they did not see their Catholicism as something shared. 

 

Rather, each of these communities lived in a kind of self-imposed isolationism, competing for space, resources and power. If the actual power classes—the Wasps and old Dutch families of New York—pushed these newcomers into ghettos, then they, in turn, opted to keep their sections of these ghettos separate. Though a Catholic religious identity was central to a number of these immigrant communities in growing urban centres, they seldom worshipped in the same churches. 

 

So much of this is now commodified and the stuff of “received terms”, especially through mass media such as film and TV series. Yet, it wasn’t really until the 1970s—following the achievements of the Civil Rights movement and sadly ironic given the traditional racism of some enclaves signing up to the new nomenclature—that double-barrelled terms for American identity became normative; Italian-American, Irish-American, African-American, etc. Whether the role of Russian Jews or Italian immigrants in the consolidation of organised crime in the USA or the stronghold of the Irish in the NYPD—or organised crime, depending on which film you watch—billions of people around the globe now understand these narratives with surprising complexity and nuance, in part because of cinematic auteurs arising from the descendant generations of these very communities.

 

The bit we don’t talk about so much is the situation of the Spanish. Of course, for the last couple of decades, the reach of American mass media has placed the issue of Hispanic culture much more centrally, all too often in reductionist terms that presents Latino culture in polar terms that contrast the plight of "worthy migrants" against that of wicked Mexican drug cartels gaining ground in the USA.

 

Yet, here’s where we circle back to something almost akin to Noam Chomsky’s notions of “hardwiring language”. For example, received editorial English usage in the USA favours the term “Latin America”, while in Europe we still speak of “South America” or "Central America". We could simply view this as an innocuous difference. Or, we could see intentionality: in promoting the term “Latin America”, some argue, American media with vested interests is eager to create a sense of continental difference between the USA and Mexico, to metaphorically push its neighbour down across the isthmus to South America; to make it “other”. However, not only is Mexico located on the continent of North America, but, as a colonised region, it was up and running long before what we now commonly call “America”. 

 

The evidence for this argument does not start with opinions elaborated on social media in very recent decades. Again, we have to look to the 19th century. We could get drawn into the under discussed (in popular media at least) shifts in territorial aspirations and achievements—arguably a seldom explored yet hugely significant phenomenon in the history of North America; power shifts between the burgeoning United States and Mexico. But, for the purposes of True North, we need to get a little more specific.

 

Here, it’s the changing fates of the United States and Mexico as it impacted on urban centres that is the most relevant. The reality is that so much of the confluence of Catholic—yet competing—cultures in North America played out in vast landscapes where they would often never reach a denouement until much more recently; cattle ranches that reached until the horizon or arid landscapes into which only the intrepid would tread and where few would challenge their rights to claim land save for largely nomadic indigenous people who could be driven away or simply massacred. 

 

There are, however exceptions, notable by both absence and presence. In the case of the latter, San Francisco is the most significant. In the later part of the 18th century, San Francisco, like various other places in Las Californias, was settled by the Spanish. Squabbling and in-fighting in the Spanish bureaucracy saw its focus and management change over time, most significantly becoming a settlement managed under the Spanish "mission" system, essentially coming under the jurisdiction of the Catholic church. Nonetheless, it ended up with a significant fort—the original Presidio—as well as bringing other Spanish know-how to what is today Northern California, such as viniculture, well suited to its Mediterranean climate. 

 

Less than a century later, it was seized by the United States during the Mexican-American War, fortuitously a mere few years before the prospectors arrived in their thousands from around the world—the so-called Forty-Niners—eager to get rich in the California Gold Rush. The sleepy backwater was rapidly transformed into the premier American urban centre on the Pacific coast, soon connected by railway across the sprawling young nation and to Asia and Russia by sea.

 

This rapid development was not particularly unusual during the 19th century—think about Manaus in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon with its opera house built on the wealth of the rubber trade—but it was unusual for an American city of the period to have such a notable Spanish footprint on its history, least of all one that ended up with such a strategic position in the century that followed.

 

Conversely, in the 19th century Spanish immigrants never really gained a strong foothold in the traditional gateway to the American Dream, NYC—why would they? Rather, they crossed the Atlantic towards far older hubs connected with Spain, operating in the Spanish language and with Spanish social etiquette. No, this isn’t a judgement, but merely an observation. So why is it even significant? 

 

Its significance lies in how it illustrates the fragmentation of the old Catholic-Celtic impetus and axis during the 19th century; separations that were geographic but also in terms of the human tendency to seize the opportunities offered by low hanging fruit. Where there had once been a shared sense of purpose between the Spanish and Catholic-Celtic peoples of the North centuries earlier, the 19th century cemented an era of direct competition, an era of no longer being comrades bonded through the "One True Faith", but even potential enemies.

The fork in the path

In 1888, just over a decade after celebrating its maturation as a recognised sovereign nation state with the first centenary celebrations, the United States passed its first immigration bills into law. Under these laws, the Chinese were explicitly prevented from immigrating to the United States. From then onwards, there would follow an irregular slew of laws regarding immigration, defining who was welcome in the “Land of the Free”, built on immigration, and who was not. Like elsewhere, then and ever since, the level of legislative xenophobia and racism roughly correlated to the economic health of the nation and the convenient scapegoats blamed for hard times. 

 

By the 1920s, the new quota systems for immigrants to the USA followed racist ideologies created by European colonialism. In the young nation of the United States, with its unique mythologies of "the Indian Wars", it could be even more extreme. For example, Eugenics received a far larger popular welcome without critique in the USA than it did in Europe, backed by "great Americans". No, the focus of this discussion is not naming and shaming—research it if you want to know the details.

 

The result is that, in the first three decades of the 20th century, American legislation went so far as to reflect the widely held popular beliefs that “Eastern European Jews” and “Southern Europeans” were less desirable than those from Northern Europe (though not the Jews from northern climes; Poland, Russia or the Baltic) in actual immigration legislation or, more specifically, the quotas aligned with it. The Spanish were out. Except, of course, for the rich and titled...

Probably the biggest elephant in the room was how the USA managed—or more accurately, didn't manage—any kind of cohesive policy on the lingering fallout of the Mexican-American War. While cities like San Francisco, safely in Northern California, had been rapidly assimilated into the bigger story of bustling, new American cities, the arbitrary borders resulting from the conflict were largely unresolved. There is a popular saying that went something along the lines that, "Mexicans didn't cross the border, the border crossed Mexicans." Even today the impact of the period can be felt in places such as El Paso, Texas where, Ciudad Juárez, just on the other side of the current border, is actually part of an earlier, organic conurbation that spanned the borders resulting from the Mexican-American War.

 

It would be comforting to say that those old allies in the Catholic-Celtic impetus and axis stood behind their Spanish brethren. They did not. Seizing their opportunity to “pass” among the power classes in a way seldom allowed in their own original homelands, they threw their lot in with those calling the shots in America. The Irish really did take over the NYPD. And, the Scots who could not make it big in America headed for their Protestant empire's stronghold of Canada. 

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"It costs a lot of money to look this cheap." - Dolly Parton

What the voice remembers

There were naturally new and interesting hybrids. One such example is what is now called Appalachian culture. From early European settlers to successive waves of Scots and Irish who had failed to find fame and fortune in the Eastern Seaboard ports of arrival, these Scottish and Irish immigrants had to navigate a new coexistence with the other significant influx: the Germans. And, though Protestantism was something that united many of these settlers, many of whom came from Protestant regions of Scotland and Northern Ireland, we also know from primary source materials that Catholic Scottish and Irish immigrants, beyond the beady eye of the Church of Rome, were happy to adjust to the creeds of Protestant beliefs if it promised their offspring a legacy nothing back in Europe could: the ownership of land and autonomy. 

Visual culture in the European senses of the notion had little place in these rough new mountain settlements where pragmatism and survival were everything. So it's not by chance that the material culture of such settlements either had a practical function—knitting, quilting or weaving skills carried by women settlers—or made use of readily available materials such as carvings whittled from wood or bone. Separated from their cultures of origin and closer to native peoples and a new nature, the few whose impetus to paint or draw, using whatever materials they could find, seemed naive and technically untrained by later observers, leading to the somewhat derisive classification as "folk art". Above all, these displaced cultures of Celtic origins returned to those art forms that had always been central: music, poetry and literature.


Today we often associate Appalachian culture with Kentucky, perhaps because of the great descendant auteur voices such as Dolly Parton who have demanded that we reconsider the cultural value of Appalachian music, and rightly so. Dating back to the Jacobite risings and Catholic resistance in Ireland, Celtic culture has often focussed on poetry, storytelling and music, these ephemeral art forms being less easy for the authorities to prosecute or stamp out. In the new mountain landscapes of America, the chance of persecution might be reduced, but so too was the obvious social function of art forms such as painting or the opportunities to use the sea for its age-old function of trade. However, remote communities could still embrace their remembered cultures through communal art forms such as music, even if they had nothing except voices to contribute. 

 

At the risk of getting sidetracked into waxing lyrical about those other two great Scottish-Irish settler treasures brought to the Appalachians—fiddles and whisk(e)y—we must cycle back to the Spanish connection. 

 

Notwithstanding more recent associations, the Appalachian mountain range actually stretches all the way from North Carolina in the south, roughly aligned to the Eastern Seaboard, all the way to Canada in the north. The mountain range takes its name from the documentations of the Spanish Narváez expedition of 1528 that set out exploring northern Florida. The name Apalachee from that expedition, taken from an encountered Native American village near present-day Tallahassee, Florida, is one of the oldest European place names in the United States and came into common usage partly due to subsequent Spanish cartographic expeditions into the North American interior in the latter half of the 16th century. 

 

Despite the frequent interconnections, the North American urban centres of the 19th century created a seemingly irreversible fragmentation of the Catholic-Celtic impetus and axis once born of the North and Irish Seas. Irish, Scottish and Welsh settlers in the “New World” threw their lot in with ideologies used to justify racism; to make racist doctrines tenable to the masses by creating a false cognitive congruence that would later be deployed by the Nazis. In the burgeoning dominant discourses of American identity in the late 19th century and early 20th century, partly fuelled by US territorial ambitions on the North American continent, the Spanish, once compadres, their culture previously a shining beacon to which to aspire, were relegated to a second-class status by Celt immigrants.

 

We have felt the reverberations of this crass betrayal ever since then, whether in the Los Angeles “zoot suit riots” of the 1940s or in the anger of Californian chulo culture much more recently, even if it has not necessarily been aware of the historic specifics of how Spanish-speaking North American people were thrown under the bus. But, just as the Catholic-Celts once did, they understand all too well that it happened. Too bloody right. 

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