Briefly Reviewed: October 2019
Account of the Martyrs in the Provinces of La Florida
By Luis Jerónimo de Oré. Edited and translated by Raquel Chang-Rodríguez and Nancy Vogeley
Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
Review Author: Dolores Fischer
First published in Spain in 1619, this work by a Peruvian of Spanish descent, Luis Jerónimo de Oré (1546 -1630), a Franciscan priest, bishop, and theologian, follows the exploration and development of La Florida by the Spanish military and missionaries. The earliest Spanish explorers gave the name La Florida to what is now a large section of the U.S.: Florida and the land north to Virginia and west to the Mississippi. The history of the area is little known, having been ignored or barely examined by most historians.
Fr. Oré was a criollo, a person born in the New World of upper-class Spanish parents. His excellent theological education in Peru, his dedication to helping the indigenous peoples of the New World, his ability with languages, and his administrative skills brought him to prominence in the Church, and he rose to the rank of bishop. He traveled to Spain and Italy, making friends and contacts there. His reputation was of the first order.
This historical work, forgotten in archives at the University of Notre Dame, was discovered by Raquel Chang-Rodríguez, professor of Spanish at the City University of New York. She edited and published the account in its original form in Spanish in 2014. Eager to present the book to English-speaking readers, she enlisted the help of Nancy Vogeley, professor emerita of Spanish at the University of San Francisco. Together they prepared the introduction and the translation, which is an interesting, at times exciting, and readable story that relates Spanish military activities, Franciscan interactions with the indigenous peoples, the effects of Spanish government oversight, the clash of cultures, and the amazing linguistic achievements of the missionaries. The introduction discusses the effects of the decisions of the Council of Trent on the Church’s sponsorship of the mission, as well as Fr. Oré’s life and the difficult situations the missionaries faced in La Florida.
Fr. Oré describes the friars’ seemingly endless obstacles: pagan practices and beliefs making conversions rare, encounters with English and French forces and colonizers who were entering territories Spain had claimed for itself, the difficulties presented by the Spanish government’s favoring military solutions to the pacification of the region, and shortages of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These descriptions create for the reader an appreciation of the hardships the Franciscans suffered and the world in which they survived.
However, the narration, although also full of detail of the region’s forbidding geography and political and economic rivalries, mainly focuses on Catholic missionary work. Fr. Oré details the lives of pioneer Franciscan priests who were dedicated to God and the spreading of His Word. These are the “martyrs” of the title, referring to those who may or may not have been killed. Martyrdom is discussed in depth in the introduction, as is its application to contemporary circumstances.
Some missionaries managed to survive nature’s hardships, starvation, the Spanish government’s lack of support, and Indian torture, massacres, and hatred exacerbated by the Spanish military. Jesuit missionaries, who preceded the Franciscans in the area, had withdrawn. But because of the trickery of Spanish soldiers with the natives, a deep hatred and mistrust of Europeans remained. For example, the military had invited some Indians on their ship and carried them off to Cuba to work in gold mines, creating hostility from Indians who had initially welcomed strangers. Subsequently, the Indians invited some Spanish military to a feast and massacred them all. Oré offers no opinion of either of these awful events.
Fr. Oré obviously wrote for Franciscan officials in Spain, suggesting that the missionaries were worthy of sainthood for their sacrifices. The book’s introduction discusses the challenges the missionaries in La Florida posed to theologians in defining and evaluating missionary work at a time when the Church was responding to new challenges in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
Oré, although born in the New World, was educated as a European and was a member of a second generation of Spanish administrators who understood the complexities of organizing the Church’s presence after her initial contact with an indigenous people. Thus, he was sensitive to the cultural varieties of the Indians in the hemisphere and did not denigrate the Floridians as barbarians. He realized how unlike the civilized indigenous peoples he knew in Peru and in his bishopric in Chile they were; they were also deserving of the Church’s attention but demanded different treatment. His writings present a case for deeper understanding of the missions by European government and Church hierarchies.
Fr. Oré published his history approximately 45 years after the actual events, using writings of actual participants. The history reads like an ancient epic poem replete with great heroism and the overcoming of impossible impediments. It is an incredible tale of adventures, filled with horrors, duplicity, and sometimes amazing outcomes. But primarily it is a tale of heroism, sparked by intense religious faith and dedication to God, while simultaneously showing the weaknesses of all the participants — the indigenous peoples, the Spanish military, the missionaries, the Catholic Church, and the Spanish government.
Fr. Oré generally succeeds in presenting this history in an unbiased fashion, not judging or blaming the missionaries, the indigenous peoples, or the military for their actions, be they admirable or not. He criticizes the Spanish government for not supplying the money or goods they had promised, but otherwise he concentrates on clear presentations of the facts.
Well organized, clearly presented, and enhanced by the excellent translation into English, Account of the Martyrs in the Provinces of La Florida offers rare insight into the actions, motivations, and thinking of the early conquering and colonial forces. Its introduction seeks to illuminate even more the colonial movement — its philosophy and religious beliefs, the political situation of the period, and the social pressures that formed, directed, and moved the incredible deeds that helped shape the New World.
©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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