PBS’s Special on Spain’s Colonization of Florida Sidelines Real History for Politics

COMMENTARY American Founders

PBS’s Special on Spain’s Colonization of Florida Sidelines Real History for Politics

Jan 10th, 2018 5 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Mike Gonzalez

Senior Fellow, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.
Spanish conquistadors in 1565 founded St. Augustine in Florida, the first European settlement in North America. iStock

Teachers often ignore the Spanish colonization of Florida. That’s too bad. Taught correctly, it could instill patriotism in many Americans. But that’s not what PBS did when it finally brought this history to “viewers like you.” It presented instead a tendentious, revisionist version intended only to depict America as racist and oppressive.

Indeed, “Secrets of Spanish Florida,” a documentary PBS stations showed between Christmas and New Year and part of the “Secrets of the Dead” series produced by WNET in New York, proved little more than another exercise in hijacking history. It’s one more sign we can’t trust taxpayer-funded PBS even when it occasionally tries its hand at its original remit: educating audiences. The broadcaster has fully signed up to the cultural Marxist presentation of history as an eternal struggle between society’s privileged and its victims.

Always Displacing the Founding Fathers

In this reading, the Spanish conquistadors who in 1565 founded St. Augustine in Florida, the first European settlement in North America, become members of the victims group. How can PBS do that? Because the conquistadors can be presented as a preferred alternative to the apparently awful reality we have had instead for the past 453 years.

Apparently they, and not the Pilgrims or the 1776 generation, were the real American Founding Fathers. As historian Jane Landers asserts in the documentary, “If you really wanted to look at the founding fathers, you’d look a lot earlier, and you’d look south.”

It’s a point the documentary drives home again and again. Don Alvaro Armada Barcaiztegui, the Count of Guemes, can justifiably take pride in being descended from the lead conquistador, or Adelantado, Pedro Menendez de Aviles. But the Spanish nobleman incorrectly boasts, “Pedro Menendez and the people who went with him—they are really the fathers of the United States, the true fathers of the United States.”

Nor is the narrator right when he states, “It’s just as much a part of American history as George Washington crossing the Delaware, or Paul Revere’s ride.” It doesn’t take long to realize the documentary-makers are clumsily pressing the conquistadors into service as an allegory for today’s immigrants from Latin America. The narrator asks early on: “How does it change our thinking about race and immigration in this country to know what really happened?”

But we didn’t get what really happened, just agitprop—as when the narrator tells us: “The artifacts that have been discovered throughout the city reveal that the population in America’s first colony more closely resembles the diversity of America’s population today, not the Anglo version that’s been depicted in textbooks.”

Whitewashing the Spaniards to Smirch Americans

This denigrated “Anglo version” of history ignores nuances, such as the fact that “under Spain the slaves had souls, under the British they were just savages,” as professor Rosalyn Howard put it. If we were taught this more, the professor says, the United States would have been better off, perhaps because it would more resemble Latin America. Howard makes this point clear when she states, “If we took that as the beginning, I think we would have a very different picture of the United States.”

But “diversity” was probably not uppermost on the minds of people who had just expelled all Muslim and Jews from their land. They were here to convert Indians to Catholicism, become fabulously wealthy, and, when the occasion presented itself, massacre Protestants.

Indeed, at one particular series of encounters with French “Lutheran heretics” in 1565, Spaniards under Menendez slaughtered some 350 prisoners who refused to give up Protestantism. Only 14 who did declare their allegiance to Roman Catholicism were spared. The documentary does note this little bloodletting, but then excuses it.

“It was a very calculated choice,” said the late historian Michael Gannon. “He did not have the food that would be required to feed them. He did not have arms sufficient to guard them. These hordes of Frenchmen could overwhelm his forces at almost any time. So, he made a calculated decision—either kill these people or be killed by them.”

This is fair enough. Just don’t try this rationalization to explain away the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee. Little wonder, either way, that soon enough British Protestant colonists from South Carolina to Boston saw the Catholic colony in Florida as a threat.

A more straight-forward telling would explain that the early Spanish presence in Florida continued in the New World the Catholic-Protestant rivalry tearing up Europe at the time. The last of the original 13 colonies, Georgia, was founded partly as a buffer state between the British colonists in the Carolinas and the Spanish in Florida. Catholics were forbidden from setting foot in early Savannah.

There’s Lots of Wonderful History to Be Told

Through both my Cuban-born great-great-grandmothers, I happen to be descended from two governors of Florida, a cousin of Menendez who was treasurer in the 1570s, and other adventurers with wonderful names such as Bartolomé López de Gaviria y Paniagua and Andres Amador de Don Diego. That makes Menendez and his followers kin, but not Founding Fathers, which is different.

No matter what distortions PBS tries, the Spanish colonial effort in Florida simply didn’t inform the Declaration, the Federalist papers, the Constitution, the Civil War, or the civil rights movement. Florida’s cultural contours today may be influenced by the colonial period, but a much better case can be made for the descendants of Juan de Oñate and his followers. He crossed the Rio Grande in 1598 and established the Spanish presence in the Southwest, whose impact strongly dominates the culture, cuisine, etc., of many of those states to this day.

Rather than seeking fodder for “might have beens” or rival alternative models to the United States, this history could be used to provide many Americans of Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican ancestry a sense of their continuity and contribution to the making of this great nation.

Many Americans walking around Miami, San Antonio, and Hartford today ignore that their ancestors took part in taking Baton Rouge and Pensacola from the British in 1779 and 1781, when Spain was allied with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. (The religious rivalry didn’t extend to the fledgling nation.) The late professor Granville Hough of California State at Fullerton has a partial list of these patriots here.

“Secrets” mentions such heroics in passing at the very end, but to emphasize, as archaeologist Margo Stringfield puts it, that the Spanish army was “multicultural in its makeup, multiethnic.”

Later in 1781, when George Washington was running out of funds before the Battle of Yorktown, the citizens of Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and especially Cuba raisedhundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes selling family jewels, to send to his army. Juan de Miralles, the Havana merchant who acted as a go-between, was a personal friend of Washington’s, and died at his official residence.

This history would indeed enrich the sense of ownership of our country’s destiny for many Americans. But instilling pride in the America that is, not the one liberals wish it to be, is apparently not part of PBS’s mission.

This piece originally appeared in The Federalist