Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Los Indianos

When I was a little boy I wondered why Indians, the ones from India, had the same name as the ones we cowboys didn't care for; the ones with tomahawks and feathers in their headdress. I thought it very confusing having two lots of people with the same name.

So when Colón, that's Columbus to us, persuaded the Spanish Royals to bankroll his expedition he told them he reckoned he could get to the spice rich East Indies by sailing West; the wrong way around the, newly appreciated not to be flat, Earth. Spices meant big money. If Colón were right underwriting his three boats would be a shrewd move for the Spanish Crown. So, when on 12th October 1492, Colón bumped into an island in the Bahamas, he thought he'd got to the Indies. He referred to the locals as Indians and the name stuck.

Thanks to Columbus lots of Spanish adventurers followed his route and went in search of their fortunes. Because of them Spain developed a huge empire and, even when the United States kicked the Spanish out of their last toeholds in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, the link between Spain and South and Central America remained strong.

Spain has a history of people emigrating. Hordes of young Spanish men and women headed off for Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela and Mexico to seek their fortunes, particularly those from communities with an Atlantic coastline. Sometimes they went simply for the adventure. Often they left to escape the grinding poverty at home and, in some cases, they went to join other members of their family who had found overseas success. For many Spaniards emigrating, making it big, was a dream rather than a possibility. The Americas were a favourite destination. Into the 19th Century much of South and Central America was Spanish soil, still Spain, and, even as the countries gained independence there was still a shared language. Of course many of the emigrants failed, they left Spain poor and stayed poor in their new homes. They never raised the money for the return ticket and the chance to tell their tale. On the other hand many of those who did prosper, eventually, headed back for Spain. And guess what the collective name for these returnees was? Quite right, they too were Indians, well Indianos which isn't quite the same.

In general this emigration was a phenomenon of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indianos often became important figures in business and in society. It was these men, and they were nearly all men, who would pay for improvements in their re-found communities by building, schools, hospitals and town halls. The casinos were theirs. They piped in water and introduced electric light. These were the men who bought noble family titles and bought up and restored old palaces or built flash new houses that mixed American and local styles. These Indian Houses, Casas de Indianos. can be seen all over Spain though the majority are in the provinces that provided most emigrants. Nearly all of these houses have palm trees in the garden as a symbol of their owners overseas adventure. 

And how was it that there was so much money to be made? The answer lies in slaving. Many of these men either dealt directly in slaves or bought them to work their land. Gaudi, for instance, the famous Catalan architect of the Sagrada Familia, was sponsored by Eusebi Güell. of Parc Guell fame. Eusebi's dad was an Indiano and almost certainly made his money from slaving.

Choosing sides – cowboys or Indians – isn't quite so straightforward as it once was.

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