The Renunciationby Edgardo Rodriguez Julia, Andrew Hurley (Translator)
Presented as a series of lectures interspersed with letters and other documents, this historical novel by one of Puerto Rico's most acclaimed contemporary novelists chronicles a pre-arranged marriage plotted to pacify the slave population and to save Puerto Rico from a rebellion. Intense and masterfully structured, the story of the eighteenth-century hero Baltasar Montañez also provides a rich insight into issues of class and race in colonial Puerto Rico.
- Westview Press
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- 5.29(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.65(d)
Read an Excerpt
In Chapters X and XI of my book A History and Guide to San Juan, I included a brief biographical sketch of the fascinating and distinguished figure Baltasar Montanez. Tonight I would like to return--upon the invitation of this learned institution, and at the flattering request of my dear friend Eduardo Martinez Archilla, secretary of the Section on Historical Studies--to a consideration of that enigmatic hero of eighteenth-century Puerto Rico who has such profound historical significance for us today. For although Baltasar Montanez is indeed an enigma, and as such makes a claim upon our attention, our historical conscience, and our investigations, I believe that when we more fully understand this figure that passes across our history like some ominous dark cloud, he will have much to say to us, from the distance of centuries, about our common human condition.
I have said that Baltasar Montanez is a figure of profound historical significance, but before I plunge into the murky waters of that far-off eighteenth century of our land, I must make clear what I mean by that assertion:
Baltasar Montanez did not alter history or bring about profound change in it. If we compare him with his father, Ramon Montanez--that courageous leader of the Negro uprising of 1734--the life of the son can hardly be considered significant at all; his light hardly shines outside that minor history that Unamuno called "intrahistory." Why, then, do I speak of the historical significance of this man?
Baltasar is less important to History itself, with a capital H, than to the understanding of what the French call la condition humaine. It should not surprise us that the great poet of the human condition, our own Alejandro Julia Marin, took Baltasar as the inspiration for his finest prose poems. Baltasar Montanez is, then, on the one hand a mere small historical fact, yet he stands as testimony to the darkest, most obscure, most veiled aspects of human nature. He is both history with a profound human meaning and dimension, and an eloquent witness to ourselves. I do not mean to suggest by this that there are historical figures without that particular human meaning and dimension; far from it--I believe that if we have any notion at all of what has generally been called human nature, it is because History, like a mirror, holds up to us, for our contemplation, an image of ourselves. But I do wish to emphasize that in History we sometimes find figures of rather insignificant-appearing stature who yet have great human dimensions and to suggest to you that those figures conspire as much as the larger ones--sometimes, perhaps, even more effectively--to forge or confirm that image that we have of ourselves. Baltasar Montanez is one of those figures. His place, his niche, lies somewhere between History with a capital H and intrahistory, between the noisiness of the great historical event and the whisper of lives that have gone untold. His place lies in that twilight the German Romantic poet Kleisthoffen called the "equivocal region of myth and legend." For the historian, that is the most difficult region to explore, for it requires the science of research, but also the magic of imagination.
* * *
Baltasar Montanez's first renunciation took place on the afternoon of June 1, 1753, the day of his marriage to Josefina Prats, the daughter of don Tomas Prats, the secretary of state. What was it that Baltasar renounced? In the first place, he renounced his own race, his own people. A black man, after all, was marrying the daughter of the island's highest colonial dignitary. That meant that this declasse, this upstart, this intruder would have to renounce his blackness, the culture of the shanties--which was a mixture of all the many ancient cultures of the west coast of Africa that had been transplanted to the New World--and adopt the social, cultural, and religious forms of the white upper-crust "society" of colonial Puerto Rico of the eighteenth century.
He also renounced his father's memory, and the revolutionary struggle that Ramon Montanez, captain and standard-bearer of the first and fiercest Negro uprising of that convulsed century, had fought and died for. In fact, as I made clear in my previous article on Baltasar, the marriage between the son of the rebel general (for So Ramon Montanez would have been called had his struggle been "on the right side") and the daughter of the secretary of state was intended specifically to have a calming effect on the revolutionary energies that that general had so bravely unleashed. The marriage was intended to offer up a sort of fairy-tale figure which would tranquilize, which would sedate, which would dope, black indignation. Baltasar Montanez would create in the black population the false illusion of freedom and social mobility. The intention was to slow or stop the revolutionary impulse by setting up the figure of a popular hero who would reconcile the two opposed classes. Baltasar Montanez became a traitor to his father's cause, for he allowed himself to be used to confuse his people, to relieve social stresses, which had they continued would have meant either the abolition of slavery or the overthrow of the colonial government. The hero of the celebrations of the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul in 1753, the winner and survivor of those literally breakneck horse races down the steep, narrow cobblestone streets of colonial San Juan, was now rebelling against his own father's ashes.
The colonial authorities did everything in their power, and they had a great deal of power, to spin an aura of myth and magic around Baltasar. They not only erected a monument on the site of the miracle attributed to his person, they attempted to make of him a charismatic figure who could gain the confidence of his people. The portrait of Baltasar painted try Juan Espinosa in 1754 shows a handsome young black man dressed in the viceregal uniform of the Order of Calatrava and bearing the gold sword of the inquisitorial Order of the Indies. So within a year the humble cane cutter had been transformed into a high-ranking colonial official, doubly endowed with the trappings of his destined office: the vestments of those who had fought and conquered the Moor in that other noble Christian crusade and the sword of those who had tamed the savage Caliban of the Caribbean. There can be no doubt today, I believe, that the incident of the horse plunging over the wall at the bottom of Cristo Street during the races of the 1753 fiestas was not a miracle, but only a "miracle," in ironic quotation marks--a staged miracle, that is, and one staged precisely in order to capture the popular imagination. In support of this assertion, I ask you to consider a dispatch from Bishop Jose Larra--that eminence grise of eighteenth-century island politics--to Secretary of State don Tomas Prats:
And Your Excellency will cry Save him! Save him, Santo Cristo de la Salud! and with that cry to our Savior who raised Lazarus from the dead and made the blind to see and the lame to walk, the hearts of those in the streets will be inflamed with pious emotion, and the cry of Miracle! will be heard from some voice in the crowd, and all of this ad majorem Dei gloriam. The rider--who shall have received orders from the council to that effect--will pull up his mount, a magnificent animal according to the testimony of the grooms and hostlers of my stables, at the very verge of the precipice. All of this will produce a great confusion, and the happiness of the good parishioners whom I am honored to lead along the path to eternal salvation will attribute to the Divine hand that which in truth has human cause. It is essential to plant in the people's hearts a pious reverence for this miracle which by men has been manifested, yet which is justified by God our Heavenly Father as ministering to the tranquility and peace of His beloved children.
Although the top of this dispatch is somewhat mutilated and the bishop's first words lost, the drift is clear: as the young rider begins to come dangerously close to the wall at the bottom of the street and the horse threatens to plunge over the precipice to its, and its rider's, death, Secretary of State Prats will cry out for a miracle; when the horse, under the skilled hand of Baltasar, stops inches from the wall, someone in the crowd--a person in the pay of the bishop--will cry out the word Miracle! Thus the first part of the legend, the myth of the heroic Baltasar touched by miracle, will begin to take shape.
Let me call your attention to Bishop Larra's reference to those "orders from the council" received by Baltasar. This confirms our suspicion not only that Baltasar knew about the plot from the outset, but that the "miracle" associated with him was staged with his consent and collaboration. It is important to stress this point because in some of his later writings Baltasar will speak about the miracle as though fully convinced of its divine nature.
After his marriage to Josefina Prats, the handsome young hero paid a visit or visits to the colonies of Negroes that had established themselves on the sugar cane plantations of the north coast. Like some Prometheus intending to steal fire from the colonial gods, he announced that his presence in the Fortress of Santa Catalina, the Palace of State, promised great good for his people. Thus the traitor to the revolution set in motion by Ramon Montanez attempted to create an image of himself as benefactor, a man who would lighten the Negroes' yoke of slavery. In other words, this entire maneuver was an attempt to put into practice what today we would call a policy of reform. The entire charade was directed by Bishop Larra, and was aimed at calming the aroused spirit of the black population of the island. Baltasar was Larra's puppet, an emancipated slave who was gestating--behind the careful disguise that always characterized him--the betrayal and oppression of his own people.
Bishop Larra's secretary speaks of the dark hopes for Baltasar in his Cronica de lo sucedido bajo el obispado del may insigne y santisimo su Excelencia Don Jose Larra de Villaespesa, or "Chronicle of the Events which Occurred During the Rule of the Most Distinguished and Holy Bishop his Excellency don Jose Larra de Villaespesa":
Of great benefit for the good health of the civil government of this city has been the most holy marriage contracted between Baltasar Montanez and dona Josefina Prats. Since the moment the most reverend Bishop Larra blessed this union under the holy sacrament of matrimony, calm has returned to the shepherd's most beloved flock. The primitive and idolatrous band of Negroes that had attempted to violate all that is beloved by Nature and sanctioned by God our Heavenly Father has now entered into the jaws to which its own condition had consigned it. This humble scribe now so briefly and crudely describing these scenes has witnessed with his own eyes how the man named Baltasar Montanez has carried himself with great signs of respect through the populations most convulsed by the erstwhile Luciferian rebellions. The rabble bows down before this puppet, this most plausible hero, and imagines that it sees in him its hopes for realizing its anomalous and diabolic desire to break its chains, and thereby violate the law set down by the God of Heaven. This man named Baltasar plays to utmost perfection the role of peacemaker between the two races that inhabit this small and beautiful island, and is restoring to firm foundations the hegemony of Christianity over heresy. This man has given some proof of his gifts for statecraft, and this I am able to declare because he encourages the heretical, wicked hopes of freedom in the Negroes while at the same time holding firmly in check their concupiscent impulses, proclaiming himself a prefiguration of the realization of their dreams and the worthy guarantor of those aspirations. With skilled and expert deceit he diverts diabolic violence with futile hopes, while he keeps a firm rein on the stampeding horse that is his race. Although I fear he is not a man who can long leave our prudence free of misgivings, his never-relinquished mask in his dealings with the mob of his people is certain to reap for his own low self all the pleasures that power has to offer, and that fact sets us in the very advantageous position of making an agreement between his profit and our own natural and privileged condition. His well-maintained pose as emancipator suits him, but also suits--by reason of the natural order, not subtle political intrigue--our own divinely sanctified Monarchy.
Bishop Larra's secretary points out the sweet political fruits harvested with the marriage of Baltasar and Josefina. And indeed, the revolutionary impulses of the blacks were checked by that social and political fantasy conceived by Bishop Larra. The marriage acted as a kind of narcotic on the black population of the island, drugging the conscience as well as the consciousness of the slaves. The attempt to remove the necessity of revolution was apparently successful; the Negro masses were hoodwinked by the illusion of freedom. The calming effect had been achieved.
But let us go back a few steps and delve a little deeper into the circumstances that surrounded that curious marriage. In the first place, sufficient documentary evidence is in our possession to prove that in fact Secretary of State Prats refused to allow his daughter to be sacrificed to such an end, and refused with even more horror to give his permission for his child to be thrown to this black Moloch. Since my previous article, I have discovered evidence of a bitter exchange of letters between Bishop Larra and Secretary Prats. Prats's refusal led to his arrest and imprisonment, but he was not actually removed from office until after the wedding. With one exception, all the chronicles of the time report Prats's presence at his daughter's wedding. Yet when we look into the matter a bit further we begin to suspect that Secretary Prats was, at the hour of his daughter's nuptials, under house arrest. That June 1 of the year 1753 hides a secret behind the frenzied music of the celebrating Negroes and the complications of colonial protocol: the kidnapping and sequestration of the entire Prats family. Larra's collaborator in the Cristo Street miracle refused to offer the hand and the virginity of his beautiful daughter as the means of achieving the political ends that Bishop Larra sought, the calming of the black populace. Thus, tonight I am reconsidering the opinions which I expressed in my History and Guide to San Juan. There, I pointed to Secretary Prats as the author, so to speak, of the marriage. Today I wish to correct that assessment of the incident to establish, in the light of my latest findings, that Bishop Larra was in fact the genius behind the plan.
Yet this does not explain why I subscribed to such a mistaken idea of the historical circumstances for so long. Let us see why I might have: The document that led me to uphold the mistaken thesis is the bombastically titled Cronica oficial de los muy dignos Secretarios del Obispo Don Jose Larra en torno al muy apoteosico matrimonio de Don Baltasar Montanez y Dona Josefina Prats, or "The Official Report Prepared by the Most Worthy Secretaries to Bishop don Jose Larra in Order to Chronicle the Magnificent Wedding of don Baltasar Montanez to dona Josefina Prats." Who were these most worthy secretaries? One of them was named don Ramon Garcia Oviedo, but in keeping with the customs of the time, he used the somewhat imposing pseudonym John of Golgotha. The other, don Alonso Bustamante y Morales, received the curious "purificante," or "purifying appellation," as these pseudonyms were called, of Brother of the Skull. The first time I read the reports that these two men had written of the nuptials, I overlooked one extremely significant detail. In one of the chronicles, to call it by the name they themselves gave their reports, specifically the chronicle of don Alonso Bustamante y Morales, there is a long list of the dignitaries present at the wedding. Striking for its absence--and I now see that I was almost infinitely dull witted in not noticing this from the beginning--is the name of Secretary of State Prats. According to the handwritten manuscript now in the collection of the Carnegie Library in San Juan, this chronicle was written on June 10, 1753. On July 22 of that same year another report, or chronicle, was written, this time by don Ramon Garcia Oviedo. In this latter report there is an almost obsessive insistence on Prats's presence on what was designated the "nuptial balcony of La Fortaleza," the governor's palace. The good spirits and broad smile of the secretary are mentioned, and much is made of his fatherly pride. Perhaps, though, this chronicle should speak for itself:
And on the balcony there also could be seen lending distinction to the event with his most dignified and erect mien, the most excellent Secretary of State Prats, and this brilliant island luminary followed every detail of the ceremony with all the remarkable satisfaction of the proud and happy father who knows that he has led his beloved child always down the paths of righteousness and holiness. There he stood in all the excellence of his person, smiling and in sober yet splendid elegance, and all this raised to the supreme heights of splendorous magnificence in covering his handsome person with the extremely rich and impressive uniform of the Order of St. Jerome of the Colonies. Brightest jewel of island authority! There he shed his light on all the generations to come! This great gentleman of the Indies!
The first time I examined these documents, as I say, the first report I read was this one I have just quoted to you--a report, I remind you, written six weeks after the wedding. So when I read the document dated June 10, that is, the document which had been written only a few days after the event, probably with the intention of publication in the Island Gazette, I overlooked, clumsy researcher that I am, its omission of the name of Secretary of State Prats. Considerable time passed before I went back, this time equipped, metaphorically at least, with a magnifying glass, to examine the documents again. And what to my amazement did I discover? In addition to the omission I have already mentioned in the chronicle of June 10, the main text of the July 22 document also did not contain any mention of the Secretary of State--Prats's presence was detailed in marginalia, later additions to the report. It was from these marginalia that I took the lines I have just quoted to you.
But surprise followed upon surprise. The handwriting of the marginalia is completely different from the handwriting of the text. It is obvious, then, that the marginalia were not written by don Ramon Garcia Oviedo. To put it less than elegantly, something was fishy here.
I returned to the chronicle written by don Alonso Bustamante, which was the first report written on the wedding. Dated June 10, as I have said, it stands in closest proximity to the event. Though don Alonso was probably well aware of Prats' fate, he seems to have tried to gloss over the thorny matter by simply omitting any reference to the father of the bride. It is clear that Bishop Larra was beside himself when he read this first report. Its omission of Prats's name is tantamount to an accusatory finger. (If I was not struck by the absence of any mention of Prats it was because I had first read the altered report of July 22.) Bishop Larra immediately wrote the following note to the person who was to make the alteration to the second chronicle:
It is with singular surprise that we have become aware of the noxious effect to the health of the body politic that may be entailed by the formal report on that state wedding which has been a subject dear to our recent concern. The reason for this is that in the chronicle submitted as testimony of the event by the Brother of the Skull, one cannot but note the absence of all mention of Secretary of State Prats. I acknowledge my own unpardonable distraction from the necessities of governance in not issuing clear and particular orders regarding such a serious matter; but at any rate, the person guilty for the omission from the record shall be justly punished, since as an officer of the Crown he should clearly have been more sensible of the grave necessities of the Crown in such a tender matter. The only consolation which at this late date we may offer ourselves is that our own private secretary and consular scribe for all episcopal protocols, the most excellent don Ramon Garcia Oviedo, has begun a new report on that eminent event. And in this latest chronicle, the white lie--which by Divine will may be the only remedy for this most serious breach--shall be equivalent to the truth, for such a white lie is the only recourse which may maintain us in conditions of peace, and peace is the only end sought by God the all-merciful....
To whom was this note sent? No document supports the assertion that I am about to make, but I believe that the letter was sent to Baltasar Montanez. We must note that Bishop Larra acknowledges his responsibility for the omission, in effect apologizing, and promises that the chronicler will be chastened, at the least. It would only be before Baltasar Montanez, as the foundation stone of Larra's proslavery and procolonial policies, that the terrible and powerful Bishop Larra would have eaten such mock humble pie.
But my magnifying glass continued to bring out details and to clear up mysteries: I was in fact able to attribute to Baltasar Montanez the marginalia added to Oviedo's chronicle. The handwriting of these additions corresponds to that found on several of Baltasar's manuscripts, which I have in my possession. The style is Baltasar's: verbose, rhetorical, slightly pompous, the result of a perhaps overrapid cultural assimilation. We should recall in this regard that Baltasar was a man of very little learning before he married dona Josefina. His great intelligence--one might almost call it true genius--allowed him to acquire, within a very few years, tremendous culture, but this legacy, untried by the slow fire of years of tempering, was in truth a pathetic caricature of erudition. Baltasar parodied, unwittingly of course, the hyperbolic style of the Spanish intellectuals of the eighteenth century. That style which Helfeld has called "the twilight of the baroque" became, in the uncertain hands of Baltasar, an exaggeration of an exaggeration. Of course it is not simply the rococo style that makes his prose so remarkable and distinctive; we also see prefigured in the marginalia the hysterical style of Baltasar's Cronica de la muy ingeniosa concepcion de una arquitectura militar que consiste en la disposicion de la Naturaleza en un paisaje mortal ("A Chronicle of a Most Ingenious Plan for a Military Architecture Consisting of the Disposition of Nature in a Mortal Landscape"), which I will discuss in my second and third lectures. Of course it is not strictly speaking the hysteria of a visionary that we see in the marginalia: such exclamatory glorification no doubt springs from resentment at the spectacle of this "brightest jewel of island authority" who refused to see his daughter married to a black man. Fury at the absence of his father-in-law from the wedding, outrage and resentment stemming from the humiliating falsification of Prats's presence at the nuptials, reach their culmination in these violent, pain-filled words: "There he shed his light on all the generations to come! This great gentleman of the Indies!"
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