Sunday, August 16, 2015

Extremaduran Explorers

I'm reading Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. The protagonist is an American working with leftist guerrillas in Castile, around the town of Ávila, during the Spanish Civil War. He had spent some time doing the same in Extremadura. At one point his Castilian associates start talking about his accent in Spanish. He asks them what sort of accent it resembles the most. They say "Extremaduran".

Being a language nerd of course I had to run to the Wikipedia to read up on the Extremaduran accent. And that was very interesting. But while clicking around Extremadura-related wikis I noticed something even more interesting: a wildly disproportionate share of Spanish explorers and conquistadors hailed from there. The Notable People/Explorers subsection mentions Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Hernando de Soto, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Francisco de Orellana, Pedro de Valdivia and Sebastián Vizcaíno. The first two are figures of world-historical importance. Several of the others are also extremely notable. Yet modern Extremadura has about 2.3% of Spain's population. And it's land-locked. 

I thought "maybe I'm overestimating the importance of Pizarro, Cortes, De Soto and Balboa." So I did a quick little experiment by Googling for a "list of top explorers."

This site lists 30 explorers. 4 of them were Spaniards and 3 of those were from Extremadura. This site lists 21 people. 5 of them were Spaniards, 3 of those were Extremeños. This site lists 51 people 8 of whom were Spaniards. 3 of those were Extremeños.

Why Extremadura? Maybe because it borders Portugal. On the per capita basis Portugal did more than any other country during the Age of Discovery. It's easy to attribute that to its maritime location on the western edge of Europe. Yet other regions facing the same edge weren't prominent in the Age of Discovery at all - Gascogne, Brittany, Ireland. Maybe there was something in the Portuguese national character that made people more willing to risk their lives in this particular way. At least more than their neighbors. And maybe this sort of personality type extended some way into Spain. 

I'm just guessing here. I'm sure that Spaniards have lots of stereotypes about the typical personality types of the people of their various regions. I just don't know much about those. I guess Andalusians are considered somewhat more uncouth than the others? Catalans are probably more core-European, more like the French. I remember Gallegos being described as stubborn and independent-minded. Franco was a Gallego, as was Fidel Castro's father.   

More boring explanations are possible too. Some kind of royal tax incentive that disproportionately affected Extremadura? Climate change? The latter is now used to explain everything that's ever happened, the way class struggle was used under Communism. Even if 95% of that is BS, it's still got to explain some things. A drought for example could have forced Extremaduran hidalgos to seek employment in something other than the management of agrarian estates. That's 100% unfounded speculation though. And I'm more drawn towards the national character possibility. 

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