May 15, 2015

Junipero Serra and the Spanish Colonization of California

Eleven members of the History Book Club met on Wednesday evening, May 13th, to discuss Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven W. Hackel. One member present had also read Junipero Serra, pioneer colonist of California by Agnes Repplier, first published in 1933. The meeting was held as usual at the Kensington Row Bookshop. (The bookshop has copies of the book available for purchase; contact them by email or phone: 301-949-9416 )

Earlier in the evening, BBC America's news program had aired a segment about the controversy over Serra. The Catholic Church is planning to canonize him during Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the United States; it would be the first time that the canonization ceremony has ever been performed in the USA. However, others -- notably native American groups -- are protesting on the grounds that the California missions he founded were the sites of injustices to their Indian converts, high death rates among the Indians, and the destruction of Indian cultures.

Tuesday the Pew Research Center released its most recent survey data on the changing U.S. religious landscape. The study showed a significant increase in portion of respondents that identified themselves as unaffiliated, with corresponding decreases in Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants -- all since 2007. It was noted that the change is largely due to the major change of religious affiliation of young adults. We noted that these results move the United States closer to Western Europe in religious affiliation, while Africa, Asia and Latin America are showing increases in affiliation to major religions. The findings again lent interest to the biography of Junipero Serra and the Spanish evangelical movement in the 18th century that appears to have been successful in recruiting large numbers of American Indians to the Catholic religion.

The book was chosen to complement club readings on colonization of the eastern United States with a book on the very different experience in California. The east was colonized by the English, notably by English members of religious groups that traced their founding to the Reformation; the Puritans, Quakers and other early colonists were at odds with the English government and its official state religion. (See the club's discussion of The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch.) On the other hand, California was colonized first by Franciscan missionaries deeply influenced by the Counter-Reformation; the Catholic Church was at the time the state religion of Spain and its colonies. The Franciscans were eventually replaced by secular parish priests when Enlightenment thought became more influential in Spanish and Mexican government. Thus the colonial history of California was quite different than that of New England, the mid-Atlantic states or the southern states.

Junipero Serra
Father Junipero Serra (November 24, 1713 – August 28, 1784) was born as Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer to a family of humble means.
  • Hackel's book begins with Serra's early life in Mallorca. There he was given at age 16 to the Franciscan order to educate, became a Franciscan friar, was ordained a priest, and became a professor of philosophy training others. He took the name Junipero on formally becoming a Franciscan friar to honor of Fra Junipero, one of the first members of the Franciscan order and a direct follower of St. Francis. 
  • The second portion of the book deals with his time in what is now Mexico after he had volunteered to become a missionary; again he was placed as a teacher, he successfully held meetings at which he spoke to large numbers of Catholics to encourage strengthening and renewal of their faith, and eventually became a missionary to the Indians in the Sierra Gorda region. 
  • The final portion of the book focuses on Serra's work in Baja California as the Franciscan's sought to replace the Dominicans in the missions there, and on his most famous work starting nine of the 21 Spanish missions in Alta California (now the state of California).
The club members' discussion was quite animated. Several of the members present felt strongly that Serra should not be honored by canonization since he had used coercive force on the Indians; he had certainly beaten Indians and used soldiers to capture Indians who had left the missions in order to return them to the control of the missionaries. Another position in opposition to his being made a saint was that he was the formal representative of the Spanish government that saw the Indians as inferior and was guilty of cultural imperialism -- positions and attitudes he presumably shared. On the other hand, it was argued that his life was devoted to the Church and what the Church still regards as good works, and that he has been widely regarded as a saint ever since his death; miracles attributed to him have been certified by the Catholic Church hierarchy.

The Treaty of Paris Ended the War in North America in 1763. Source of Map

The Creation of the California Missions as an Instrument of State

Author Hackel states that it was the Spanish government that decided to colonize Alta California, and it did so largely to hold the territory for the Spanish crown. The government feared that other imperial powers might seek to colonize the region were the Spanish not to do so -- notably the Russians who had colonized Alaska and were trading for furs down the west coast of North America. It was noted that the British Hudson Bay company did in fact move into the West Coast in the early 19th century, as did the Russians and the Americans (at Astoria, the trading post established by John Jacob Astor's firm).

The first Spanish colonization began in 1770 and was conducted by soldiers and missionaries. The Franciscan missionaries were to convert California Indians to the state religion (Catholicism) and establish missions where communities of Indians would settle. The soldiers were to establish military posts, especially to protect San Diego Bay and Monterey Bay. Soldiers were also to protect the missions. It was noted that the Spanish state (through its colony of New Spain) paid the missionaries and provided supplies to the missions -- after all the church was part of the state and the creation of the missions was a governmental as well as a religious operation.

Santa Barbara Mission Church and Building as they exist today.
We noted that eventually the Spanish brought settlers to Alta California via the Anza Trail, which paralleled what eventually became the U.S.-Mexico border, and which eventually was used by the Fremont Expedition and American settlers of California. These first non-military, non-missionary settlers established pueblos in the San Francisco area, helping to secure the San Francisco Bay for the Spanish. (Soldiers were given bonuses if they married Indian women, thus presumably leading to another group of colonial settlers.)

Trying to Understand Serra in Historical Context

There was an effort by our club members to understand Father Serra in his own terms, He was a Spanish, Franciscan priest of the 18th century. He had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (to his superiors in the Church); these vows were part of his order's dedication to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. In Serra's time, such self sacrifice by people in religious orders was seen as highly meritorious, an indication of dedication to God.

One club member suggested that Serra would have believed that only people in a state of grace would live in heaven for eternity, and that active participation in the sacraments of the Catholic religion was the only way to assure that one would be in such a state at the time of one's death. Serra would have believed that pagan Indians of California broke many commandments -- they worshiped false gods. had multiple spouses without the sacrament of marriage, they stole, and they killed. As such they would be condemned to eternal damnation. Only through conversion to Catholicism could they have a chance for eternal bliss in heaven. Moreover, were they to leave the Catholic Church and return to their earlier beliefs and practices, they would be damned. Indeed. He would have believed that only through a complete cultural change, such as would be achieved by a convert leaving his/her Indian village and joining the mission community could his/her salvation be made likely. Of course, the change would be accompanied by living in a farming community, not a hunting/gathering tribe.

Statue of Father Junipero Serra in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall
It was also also pointed out that he was known to beat Indians who he perceived to have fallen into sin. It was suggested that such corporal punishment was common at the time, seen as comparable to the ways that parents disciplined their children. Indeed, Serra was thought to flagellate himself and to beat his breast with stones for religious purposes. When Indian converts left the mission community, sometimes soldiers were sent to bring them back. This was probably seen as assuring that they would not backslide, and would remain in the fold of their new religion.

It was noted that Serra and his fellow missionaries did not colonize Alta California to make money, to gain wealth, or even to gain power. Their purpose was more selfless. On the other hand, the missionaries presumably believed that they could gain much favor in the eyes of God (and the Church) by converting large numbers of Indians, teaching them about the Catholic religion, Confirming them as knowledgeable adult Catholics, and bringing them to live in the mission communities.

Serra personally in his years as president of the Alta California Franciscan mission community baptized thousands of children, instructed thousands of Indians in the Catholic religion, and confirmed an estimated 6000 people.  The missions he founded and the chain of missions that was extended after his death (in 1784) in the model he created baptized, instructed and confirmed many more. It was noted that there was some similarity to the way the Spanish colonized Texas, although in Texas they ran into the more warlike Comanche and Apache Indians (rather that the relatively peaceful California Indians). (The club read The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen in 2011).

What Can We Infer About Serra As a Person?

A member of the group read a passage from An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver Sacks which suggested that Junipero Serra may have been a high functioning autistic person. Sacks in turn was actually quoting from a book by Uta Frith called Autism: Explaining the Enigma. The passage suggested that some people with autism behave in so other-worldly a fashion that they may have been seen as saintly (especially in the past before autism was discovered and described in the medical literature).
There may be some misunderstanding here. Junipero Serra took the name Junipero to honor a Junipero who was a follower of St. Francis of Assisi. That earlier Junipero has been thought to be autistic by some observers, and was a model of autism considered by  Uta Firth. He has been confused with Junipero Serra in at least one scientific paper. It seems unlikely that Father Junipero Serra was autistic.
It is difficult to understand a person from a different country who lived in a different century. We may make some assumptions:
  • Father Junipero Serra was probably academically gifted since he was selected from among seminarians to teach, and eventually became a professor of Philosophy. Moreover, at least a couple of his students followed him to the New World and worked with him for many years.
  • He probably became a gifted speaker on religious topics. One member said she was very impressed by the description of the arguments he had made in one of the missions to current Catholics (pages 48 and 49 of the book). He was asked to lead such missions to strengthen the beliefs of Catholic lay people several times.
  • He was apparently able to teach Indians, often via translators, which implies a different skill -- one of cross-cultural communication.
  • He was apparently able to accept the responsibilities of his vow of obedience to church superiors (even when he disagreed with what he was told to do).
  • On the other hand, he could differ strongly and publicly with civil authorities. Indeed, he was often very effective in defending his positions against civil society officials, especially when the disagreement affected the missions, the missionary efforts, or ecclesiastical matters. Hackel describes his quickly produced memo to the Viceroy of New Spain, written when Serra had gone to Mexico City to protest a local civil official's rulings, as very clear, logical and effective.
  • He seems to have had considerable leadership ability, regularly being chosen as a leader among the Franciscans. He seems to have gained the respect and affection of his subordinate Franciscans and the laity while leading the growth of the missions in California.
  • A member described his moral strength, demonstrated for example through his constant travel for years even while suffering from a very badly swollen and ulcerated leg.
  • He seems to have had little difficulty in living simply according to his vows of poverty. (He ate little, and that of what was available, dressed poorly, lived in the simplest of shelters, slept on a bed of boards, etc.)
It was noted that Confirmation in the Catholic Church is a sacrament, often administered to teenagers, that recognizes that they person receiving the sacrament has achieved a mature understanding of the tenants of the religion. (Father Serra was given special permission to perform the sacrament, which is normally administered by a bishop.) This was likened to Bar Mitzva in the Jewish religion,

This led to a question as to whether there were different levels of knowledge of church theology to be found in different groups in the Catholic Church, One answer was that there is a catechism used in the instruction of children, with age appropriate lessons, usually leading to adequate mastery for confirmation at about the age of puberty. From time to time the catechism is updated. However, others may have a far more sophisticated understanding of Catholic theology. A member mentioned a Jesuit priest friend of his who after receiving a PhD in Mathematical Logic at Cambridge University had continued to Louvain University in Belgium for a post doctoral degree in theology; he had a far more mature understanding of Catholic theology than the average lay person.

Serra's Impact on the Indians

It seems clear that Indian cultures in California were destroyed and Indian populations were decimated. It was suggested during our meeting that the loss of culture and death toll were much worse under the Mexican government than under the Spanish government it replaced in 1821, and were still worse after the Gold Rush of 1849 under the American government.

How great was the destruction under Serra? It was suggested that his missions in his lifetime were able to reach only a small portion of the Indians living in California (estimated at 300,000 at the time of his arrival). We wondered how much damage had been done by European diseases introduced by the previous landings on the California coast, how much was introduced by communication from other Indian tribes, and how much by the Franciscan missions. We did not have an answer. (It seems hard to believe that the decimation of the native American population of California by European diseases could have been averted by replacing Junipero Serra or even by not creating the mission network in the 18th century; that destruction seems to have happened almost everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, albeit earlier in some places and later in others.)
A reference states: "Of the 80,000 Native Americans baptized by the end of the mission era in the 1830s, according to the Los Angeles Times, some 60,000 had died, including 25,000 children under 10 years old." Hackel indicates that many of the baptisms were of children, and child mortality would presumably have been high in the Indian population even before the missions came to California. Still, the population density would probably have been higher in the mission communities than in the tribal communities living by hunting and gathering, and thus the transmission of lethal communicable diseases might have been higher in the missions. One doubts that Serra could have foreseen such an eventual result from his missionary efforts.
During the meeting, one member mentioned that he did not trust the high number of graves in mission church yards as an indicator of especially high mortality in the missions. We don't know the size of the population from which burials were drawn. In any case,  mortality rates were very high in the 18th century -- life expectancy was only 47 years in the USA in 1900. (It was mentioned that Father Serra may have lived as long as he did because he did not seek medical care; it is likely that doctors would have done more harm than good in the 18th century.) The member, citing Irish experience, noted that many people may have been buried in mission graveyards after the missions were closed, as Catholics sought burial in "holy ground". Another mentioned that statistics in Alta California were all probably doubtful in the 18th century.

The group seemed to agree that however high the mortality was in Serra's day, it was probably worse in the 19th century under the Mexican government, and almost surely later as people flooded into California after the discover of Gold and under the American administration.

One club member compared the cultural impact on the California Indians to that on the Africans who were brought to America as slaves. In both cases, Europeans deprecated the culture and even the humanity of the people. He noted an example in which the Ambassador of a South American country called the people living in his country with their native culture "savages". The self-assumed superiority of Europeans who set out to conquer and change Africans and native Americans was galling. Another member noted that cultures change, and that it is not the change so much as the way that it is imposed from outside that is so disturbing.

Spanish Colonial Chart of Racial Classifications in the Americas
A member mentioned the complex classifications that the Spanish used for social stratification in the American colonies, suggesting that class discrimination was confounded with racial discrimination. It was further mentioned that one of the factors leading to revolution against Spain was the discrimination against Criollos (whites born in the colonies) and the preference for whites born in Spain in appointments to governmental positions A member mentioned that he had been able to inspect church records in Indian towns in Mexico and Bolivia going back hundreds of years, and they only seemed to use a few classifications: white, Indian, African, mestizo (white and Indian). mulato (white and African) and zambo (all three genetic heritages).

A member had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in a group most of whose members worked with Indians in South America. He noted how unsuccessful most of the group members had been in helping those Indians to a better life. Six out of some 40 of the group went home in less than two years with nervous breakdowns; he attributed this to their high motivation and their lack of success in improving matters. It was suggested that the Catholic Church, with a centuries long time scale, may have been more successful because it takes a long time to affect economic development, especially in populations experiencing economic discrimination. The former Peace Corps Volunteer mentioned that the most successful volunteer in his group had in fact worked with a Catholic priest who had been helping a community for decades; that successful volunteer replaced the priest in his development projects when the priest became sick. The point of this discussion (which may not have been clear) is that Junipero Serra perhaps should not be too seriously criticized for failing to find a way to greatly improve the lives of California Indians in the relatively short time he worked with them; development is difficult and people continue to make serious errors in development efforts even today.

It was mentioned that there were some 30,000 members of mission communities when the missions were secularized in the 1820s. By that time the missions had large herds of cattle and were producing a lot of food; indeed the secularization of the missions was likened to the expropriation of the monasteries in England under Henry VIII in that both were strongly motivated by greed. In any case, apparently the members of the mission communities wanted the missions to remain and wanted their communities to continue to enjoy the support of the church and government.

We got into a discussion of slavery in the Spanish colonies. While Indians had been made slaves soon after Columbus, the Spanish King was convinced by church officials to outlaw Indian slavery. However, slavery by Africans and descendants of Africans remained legal in Latin America until the 19th century. It was suggested that Indians were still being enslaved and sold in the British colonies of North America after that process had been outlawed by the Spanish. It was also suggested that the Spanish categorized Europeans as superior to Native Americans, and Native Americans as superior to Africans -- explaining why Africans continued to be enslaved but not Indians.

Should Serra be Canonized?

This topic generated considerable discussion. One member held strongly that since Serra used force to coerce compliance by Indians, whatever the legitimacy might have been in his time, that is not legitimate today and should not be given the apparent support of the Catholic Church by canonization of Junipero Serra.

In a similar vein, another member said that the cultural imperialism of the Spanish overlords was so far from acceptable today that Serra should not be honored.

An alternative view was that Father Serra exemplified fidelity to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that are still used in parts of that Catholic Church today. The Church continues to be evangelical, and Father Serra appears to have sacrificed much to serve as a missionary, and seems to have been successful in starting missions and leading mission development; he converted thousands. Thus his career seems to have exemplified things that the Church then valued and values still.

It was noted that in his time the people around him venerated his saintly ways. Some of his students followed him into the new world missions and venerated him for a lifetime. He was chosen to teach seminarians, to give lectures to help the faithful renew their faith, and to lead lead missions and missionary communities. At his death. people around him thought him saintly and divided his possessions so as to have relics of Father Serra to cherish. Since he died, people have prayed for his intercession and miracles have been attributed to those prayers after close scrutiny by skeptical church officials. These are all things suggesting that he be canonized.

Final Comments

The group that met was composed of people from many religions, with few Catholics among us. The most active and knowledgeable Catholic among our regular discussion participants could not attend, so the arguments in support of Serra may not have been as well presented as they might have been. Still, the differences in opinion about this seminal figure in California history were aired and discussed.

The discussion did illuminate California colonial history and allowed the members of the club who are already relatively familiar with East Coast history so recognize differences. Those differences are still important as the regional cultures have evolved until today.

The discussion also focused on important issues of cultural imperialism and social and economic development.

Generally, the group seemed to find the book easy to read and interesting. It was certainly topical in a way that history books seldom are. Moreover, the book related to a long term interest the club members have shown in the history of Native Americans.

Here are some posts by one of our members on his blog: