When the Imperial Baroque State Is Not Sufficiently Baroque

In 1550, there was a mountain as big and as rich as Potosi in the Caribbean. It was a mountain made of pearls and discarded oyster shells. In a beautifully crafted book, Molly Warsh describes the spectacular production of pearls in three regions of Venezuela: Cubagua, Margarita and the Pearl Coast. [1]


Every year throughout the sixteenth century, the Spanish crown received an average of 1,000 pounds of pearls as tax, corresponding to the monarch’s quinto, a fifth of all production (90). Yet crown accountants never registered 80% of the pearls actually produced (53). Smugglers transported them in the seams of sleeves and coats, or swallowed them. The tiny islands off the coast of Venezuela could have just as well been silver mountains, like Potosi. The oyster reefs of Cubagua and Margarita produced 25 tons of pearls a year.

Drawing heavily on the monumental scholarship of Enrique Otte (who reconstructed every detail of this pearl economy) and using pearls as both case study and metaphor, Warsh explores the very nature of the early-modern imperial state.[2] Her argument: the monarchy helplessly sought to regulate production, value, and circulation of pearls, but slaves, towns, merchants, pirates, and its own bureaucracies outmaneuvered the crown at every turn.

Like Potosi, Cubagua and Margarita quickly became violently cosmopolitan. By the time a tsunami wiped out the island in 1541, Cubagua had thousands of Amerindian slaves from every region of the Indies working as divers and servants of pearl crews; there were also hundreds of Africans, moriscos, and Greek slaves (47).


Black slaves without overseers, 1586, Drake MS. Morgan Library.

The traffic of Amerindian slaves in the early Caribbean provided labor for gold mines and sugar plantations; it also fed the growing demand for pearl divers. The Bahamas was not only hit by hurricanes: 30,000 sixteenth-century Lucayos were captured on the island and moved to places like the Pearl Coast (39).


Battle in insulae cannibal, In Caspar Plautius, Nova Typis / Transacta Navigatio, Novi Orbis Indiæ Occidentalis, Linz, 1621.

Yet these slaves were not helpless. Many swallowed the pearls and freed themselves through self-purchase after recovering pearls in their own shit. Spanish grandees in European courts trafficked pearls that were worth each 30 ducados (12,000 maravedis) (120), a fortune about the value of one enslaved African woman and her son (49). The most valuable pearls received the name of caconas, a name whose significance entirely escapes Warsh. The best pearls came from the shit (caca) of slaves.

To standardize value on mountains of pearls was simply impossible, for pearls were not stamped by machines but were the product of living organism, each idiosyncratic, each unique. Warsh describes crown efforts to standardize pearl types to regulate the quinto, assigning fixed value through taxonomy and nomenclature. There were pearls that fit a type and could be gathered in groups of standardized valuation (elencos) and those that could not (berruecas) (129).


Berrueca pearl, Perla de Guatemala, AGI, MP, Ingenios y muestras, 139.

Warsh draws on the names of the latter to define the early-modern state as a baroque mismatch of failed top-down efforts to regulate bottom-up individual initiatives. The state sought to transform individuals into elencos; yet individuals remained stubbornly berruecos. Pirates, smugglers, and slaves took pearls to gain upward mobility. Elite courtiers themselves trafficked pearls outside the supervision of crown bureaucracies.

Warsh argues that the tension between top-down rules and bottom-up vernacular actions manifested repeatedly in debates over ecological exhaustion of oysters beds in Cubagua and Margarita. The crown sought larger loads of pearl collection (and thus revenue) by favoring European entrepreneurs who patented dredges (66).


Pedro Ledesma, Pesca de Perlas y busqueda de galeones, 1623, folio 13 N. 146, Museo Naval.

Dredges, in particular, promised large pearl harvests, but also the possible destruction of oceanic ecosystems. Warsh maintains that locals resisted the European entrepreneurs because the former understood that the over-harvesting of oyster reefs would destroy oyster fisheries. Local towns aggressively lobbied to block crown initiatives to introduce new European technologies. Communities of slave crews and their overseers espoused greater ecological sensibilities than absentee monarchs and foreign imperial entrepreneurs.

For all the brilliance in the writing and analysis, Warsh’s model of top-down imperial imposition and bottom-up vernacular resistance has deep flaws. She herself admits that the crown favored the patenting of dredges to harvest pearls because friars like Bartolomé de las Casas restlessly petitioned to mitigate the violence against indigenous slaves. Dredges would eliminate the need for enslaved divers. The crown responded to these petitions by approving the patents and introducing dozens of new laws. Yet the crown also responded to the petitions of locals. The vernacular vs imperial split is a fiction. The so-called vernacular cabildos of Cubagua and Margarita were as well-healed as Charles V’s Italian pals. Locals pursued new legislation through petitioning with as much success as did the Fugger and the Welser.

The push and pull of petitioning created new laws. Warsh uses Otte’s cedularios throughout as she identifies the changing legislation. After a lifetime of research in archives in Spain, the Venezuelan scholar compiled hundreds if not thousands of pearl-fishery related royal decrees.[3] Why are there so many decrees, enough to occupy two thick volumes for Cubagua and another for Margarita, for two tiny islands?

Take for example the case of Margarita’s coat of arms: It has three Afro-Indian divers paddling on a canoe flanked by two saints; a queen;s crown stands on top with a hanging pearl (sicut Margarita preciosa: precious like Margarita, a reference to the Virgin Mary). Warsh argues that the design of the coat of arms is not Margarita’s. The crown issued it, top-down. It reflected a monarchy’s desire to hover over the divers to oversee pearl production (102).


Escudo de Armas de Margarita.

Yet this is misleading. Every coat-of-arms was designed by the petitioner, not the crown. There are hundreds of these petitions and private designs at the archive of the Duque de Alva in Madrid. María Castañeda de la Paz and Hans Ronskamp have studied dozens of these petitions by sixteenth-century Nahua and Tarascan indigenous elites, comparing them to the final royal decrees housed in a different archive.[4] Their findings are striking. The crown only slightly modified two. The rest are simply exact copies of those in petitions. The so-called imperial edicts thus reflect local vernacular voices. The state was indeed baroque, but largely because each edict was unique and unclassifiable. The law was the result of idiosyncratic pleading and lobbying, a negotiation of sorts and as productive as Otte’s cedularios.

[1] Molly A.Warsh. American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700. (Williamsburg, Va.: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Pp. xviii, 275. Cloth $39.95.

[2] Enrique Otte. Las Perlas del Caribe: Nueva Cadiz de Cubagua (Caracas: Fundacion John Boulton. 1977).

[3] Cedulario de la monarquía española relativo a la Isla de Cubagua (1523–1550), 2 v (Caracas, 1961); Cedularios de la monarquía española de Margarita, Nueva Andalucía y y Caracas, 1553–1604, 2 v (Caracas, 1967).

[4] María Castañeda de la Paz y Hans Roskamp (eds.) Los escudos de armas indígenas: de la Colonia al México Independiente (Coedición: Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México/El Colegio de Michoacán: 2013).

The text of this post has been published in the Reviews section of Renaissance Quarterly, 73, 4 (Winter, 2020):1410-12 under the title, "American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700.

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