When California Belonged to Spain
By Dr. Syed Amir
Bethesda , MD


California , the most populous state in the US, has a string of archeological and religious sites, called Missions that are scattered along the scenic Pacific coast and attract a large number of curious tourists from around the world. These remote outposts were established between 1770 and 1830 by Spanish priests when California was part of the Spanish Empire.  Barely two-and-half centuries old, they are, nevertheless, among the oldest historical sites in North America and representative specimens of Spanish architecture of the period.

California was discovered by Spanish explorers in the mid-sixteenth century and declared part of the expanding Spanish Empire in the New World. It was governed from the Spanish territory of Mexico, named New Spain, to the South.  The region, however, remained largely neglected until the Spanish Government became concerned about the potential encroachment of Russians from the North, and incursions of  British pirate ships from the ocean to the west.

The twenty outposts built along the coast were to serve a dual purpose. In addition to deterring any potential intrusion by other ambitious powers, the missions were charged by King Carlos III of Spain with the task of converting Native Indians to Catholic faith, to "civilize" them and educate them in the ways of the Spaniards. They were established some thirty miles apart along the coast so as to enable a traveler to cover the distance between two missions in one day, and be able to find food and shelter at the end.  Available evidence suggests that Spanish priests, although highly dedicated to their ecclesiastical mission, could never fully achieve their goal of converting very many native people, despite application of persuasion, coercion and in some cases material temptation.

The Spanish colonial rule over California in some form lasted for nearly three centuries. However, it started to unravel when, in 1810, Mexico rebelled against the Spanish Empire, culminating in its independence in 1821. With the realization of Mexican independence, suzerainty over California shifted from Spain to Mexico. Less committed to proselytization of the native population, the Mexico Government promptly secularized the California missions, withdrew Government support and disbanded the missionary structure. A few years later, in 1848, California was annexed by the US Government following the Mexican defeat in the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848. Subsequently, President Abraham Lincoln returned the missions to the authority of Catholic Church, one of his last acts before his assassination.

For many years, I have been interested in the history of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire in America, and, in particular, the history of California missions. Only recently,  I finally had the opportunity to visit some of these sites, spending nearly two weeks driving along the California coast, exploring some of the missions, from San Diego in the South to Santa Barbara in the North.  For a student of history, these sites offer a fascinating window into a bygone era when the native Indian population still dominated California and the west.

The missions retain some of their mystique, and I was surprised to find how meticulously they are being maintained, and how carefully the original structures were restored. The Spanish had selected scenic locations for their outposts, often not far from the ocean. Today, these missions, even after more than two centuries, continue to have active, functional churches where regular service is conducted on Sundays and other religious holidays. All of them have beautiful gardens on the premise that were in full blossom in the warm California spring when I visited. The lush gardens with tropical and subtropical plants and gushing fountains are reminiscent of those found in Muslim Andalusia in Spain, which should have been familiar to the Spaniards. Furthermore, Moorish architectural influence is evident in some of the buildings.

The southernmost mission in San Diego, just north of the border with Mexico, was the first church established in California in 1769, and has a fascinating history. Many members of the expedition sent from Mexico to construct it perished at sea, while many others were afflicted with scurvy, then a common disease. Even for survivors life was not easy.  Attempts to convert the Indians to Catholicism caused much resentment. Six years after its establishment, the mission was burnt down in the middle of night by an angry mob of Indians, who rebelled against the stringent rules and regulations imposed by the priests.  They killed the chief Catholic cleric. The mission, however, was subsequently rebuilt and the missionary work resumed. Today, it attracts, besides tourists, archeologists and students. The day I visited mission San Diego, it was hosting a bus load of school kids who were there to receive a lesson in California history, while nearby excavation work was in progress to extract any odd artifacts that might shed light on the life at the mission two centuries ago.

While artifacts might yield additional information, it is already evident that the priests had to survive in cramped quarters under primitive conditions, with ordinary amenities of life, such as water or fuel, not readily accessible. These hardships aside, they exercised much influence on the daily lives of the small community they served. The missions were self-contained units, situated amidst sparsely populated land, and had to produce their own food, fruits, vegetables, grains, and raise crops and cattle vital for survival. Diseases were never far away, and consequently the life span of the settlers was short, as evidenced from the sights of ubiquitous cemeteries and gravestones at the missions.

Of all the ones I visited, I found the Mission San Juan Capistrano, built around 1776, most imposing. It is especially known for its tragic history. California is riven by active geological fault lines and earthquakes of varying intensities strike frequently.  In 1812, the mission was devastated by a tremendous earthquake just when the service was about to start. The quake demolished its bell tower, causing grave damage to the church building and killing some 40 worshippers. The structure of the ruined church still stands as it was left after the earthquake. In the cool summer evenings, the mission offers a variety of entertainments, including music concerts, in its spacious courtyard.

It is easy to conclude today that the Spanish colonialists did not succeed in fulfilling their objectives, transforming Native Americans into Spaniards. However, in other arenas, the interaction was more fruitful. The Europeans introduced a variety of fruits seeds, among them grapes, oranges, peaches and figs and livestock, horses, pigs, and cattle. Unfortunately, they also brought deadly diseases, including measles and smallpox, against which the native population had no natural resistance and was decimated as a result.

In the late 19 th century, the sun finally set on the vast Spanish empire; however, the legacy it left behind - the language, culture, religion and architecture - endures to this day.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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