Customer Reviews: Life in a California Mission: Monterey in 1786
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on September 7, 2005
I have to admit that I started reading this book because it was my daughter's assignment in a college history class. We were on a long driving trip and I told her to read out loud figuring it would be better than surfing the radio for a decent station. It soon became very interesting and the radio was forgotten.

LIFE IN A CALIFORNIA MISSION is divided into two sections. The first is a very long introduction written by Malcolm Margolin (about 50 pages). Margolin discusses what it was like for the California Indians.

The second part of the book was my favorite. This is ten days worth of journal accounts of what everyday life for California Indians entailed. In 1786 two French ships arrived. On one of those ships was Jean Francois de la Perouse who wrote these journals.

Perouse describes how the padres of the missions used the Indians for all labor. The men did physical labor, while the women spent most of the day processing grain (maize) for their food. Women were also responsible for cleaning. Even in 1786 there were monetary caste systems in place. The wealthier Indians wore otter skins for clothing, while the poorer people wore cloth. The interesting thing was there was no animosity from the poorer Indians, as they were treated fairly by their own tribe. The problems came when the padres and soldiers treated them differently.

Perouse goes into detail as to punishment of the Indians. If one disobeyed the padre he or she was either put in stocks, manacles or whipped, depending on the severity of his crime in the padre's estimation. Also, the Indians were expected to become Christians and denounce their own beliefs. If this did not happen, they were severely punished.

Throughout the journals Perouse compared California and it's inhabitants to Chile. Interestingly, he was very prejudiced against California and it was very obvious in his writings.

Many facts were discovered in these pages that I had not heard of before. Facts such as how the padres kept the Indians under such tight control. They would lock up the daughters at night saying it was for their own protection, all the while knowing that the families would not leave their children. The treatment of the Indians by the Spanish soldiers was atrocious and included raping the women and children, and beating the men who tried to intervene. Diseases were also discussed. Before the Spanish soldiers and other explorers arrived, there were very few diseases in California. After their arrival, many new illnesses appeared, with small pox being prevalent. Small pox was spread so easily - through the trade of skins and other items - the small pox germs contaminated anything touched by the infected person, and those that came into contact with that item became infected.

The main thing I realized was how depressed the Indians became. They were basically slaves and had no recourse. They had welcomed the settlers to their land and then were treated so horribly. I personally didn't realize how the padres of the California Missions treated these people; I had thought they were peaceful, well-meaning men who helped not hurt the people under their protection. Boy was I wrong!

On a side note, Perouse also describes the land and wildlife of California in 1786. You can imagine the abundance of wildlife when he talks of sending 30,000 otter pelts to Europe. Wow!

Overall this book is incredible! What started off as a reading assignment soon became intriguing. You really get a first hand account of what life was like in California during the 18th century, and what the Indians endured. It may change your way of thinking once you read it, it did mine!
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on January 28, 2015
The product is effectively two booklets. The journal of Jean La Perouse is the smaller "half." The introduction by Malcolm Margolin is 50 of the book's 111 pages, plus an insert of 16 unnumbered pages of black and white photos of historical sketches. La Perouse's pages are also in larger font accompanied by interesting sketches and Margolin's extensive (small font) but informative footnotes.

The timing for my reading came on the heels of the Pope's announcement of the elevation to sainthood of Father Junipero Serra. This book was recommended by a colleague who described the material as an objective and firsthand account. La Perouse's segment is definitely an eyewitness account. It was mostly objective because La Perouse was a French count conducting a worldwide scientific expedition with two ships under his command for his homeland. The place is Monterey at the presidio and mission. The dates are September 12 through 22, 1786, two years after Serra died.

There are accounts of the mistreatment of the native California Indians (all ages and genders) such as imprisonment, enslavement, corporal punishment with whips and chains and restraints with shackles and stocks. Most of La Perouses's journal entries were factual accounts. He also presented the friars in a generally favorable light. The conflicted accounts display a hypocritical culture, some of which has carried on to contemporary religious culture. For example, a supposedly enlightened church would elevate to sainthood a man who violated basic human rights in the name of God and forced conversion of faith was the norm.
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....for the introduction alone, written by Malcolm Margolin, who discusses the actual life of California Indians in the Missions in 1786, the year two French ships brought Jean Francois de la Perouse to Monterey to see for himself what was going on. The book is largely his journal, and an honest one it is, European prejudices and all.
The routines, the manacles, the superstitious judgmentalism of the ruling padres are sketched here, as well as the mistreatment by Spanish soldiers, and hanging over all, the depression of a people who'd held their hand out in friendship and been conquered, systematized, and subjected to deicide by idealists who brought into their land what had never been there before: homelessness, poverty, hierarchy, and plaguelike illnesses that rippled outward around each Mission.
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on December 19, 2013
The history of Monterey's mission as told through the eyes of a French explorer is fascinating! The best part of this small book is the introduction in which the author does an amazing job setting the stage for the reader to understand the very complicated notion of European exploration in the wake of exploitation of the native peoples of California.
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on January 2, 2016
This is a book which everyone in California ought to read carefully. It is the best succinct volume I have found to date providing a factual, firsthand account of what life was like at a California mission.

The topic is mature and presented with academic rigor, but this is a page turner which is easy and fun to read, not a tough slog like many historical works can be. More than any other book I can recall, the introduction and other interpretive notes are at least as important and interesting as the source document itself, which is a set of journals by Jean François Galaup de La Pérouse who captained a goodwill expedition from France in the late 1700s.

The King of France went to extraordinary lengths to make this expedition happen. Its four year mission was to boldly go where no French had gone before, to explore what to France were strange, new lands, and to report on the activities of other European powers operating there. Monterey was just one of La Pérouse’s many stops. The expedition marked the first time non-Spanish vessels visited Spain’s California colonies.

Decades later, after the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush, Euro-Americans heading west to prospect and settle would discover the ruins of the California missions and fashion from them the myth of a romantic era when “peaceful, tonsored monks bestowed blessings upon the children of nature in an arcadian world of harmony and love.” (Pages 47-48.) The facts presented in La Pérouse’s “captain’s log” allow the reader to separate such fantasy imagery from reality. In 1786, for example, after sixteen years of operation, the mission at Carmel was mud and thatch, and Spain had yet to produce in California any of what we tend to regard as mission architecture today.

La Pérouse, whose purpose was neither to praise nor scorn, but to record and report observations, did an excellent job of describing a typical day in the life of the mission at Carmel. He concluded based upon copious details set forth in the book that the mission most closely resembled a late 18th century slave plantation. The book cites multiple sources of evidence indicating that the living conditions at the missions left the Indian residents traumatized and deeply depressed.

In his introduction, Malcolm Margolin explains some of the dynamics that may have motivated the creation of this system. He discusses how the monks came to enter missionary service and what motivated them, and how the particular personalities of the Father-Presidents and individual monks affected the way that the missions developed.

The book explains that with baptism, Indians at the missions lost their freedom. What the Franciscan monks demanded of the mission Indians far exceeded what was expected of European villagers, and corporal punishments were administered liberally for minor infractions. Mission residents were purposefully separated from their homelands and traditional economies. Inside the missions, Indians lost many family members, including many children, to overwork, injuries, and disease. They had very limited control over what they ate, when, or how much. The authorities did their best to drive their prior religious convictions and traditions out of them. Residents could not date, or court, or marry according to their desires or customs. They could not parent their children as they saw fit. They lost their health, and the vast majority died prematurely.

While such broad brush conclusions can be found elsewhere, this volume contains copious evidence to support them.

The Museum of Tolerance pulls few punches, but at the missions there are no whipping posts on display. As evidenced in the book, such tools as whips, chains, and stocks were employed regularly at the Carmel mission. These are not included in exhibits or even many discussions today because they are so at odds with the romantic myth of the missions that became prevalent after California became a U.S. state.

If you want to know the facts that this book contains, then, you will have to read it because I do not believe you will become exposed to the same information through visits to historical sites.

I highly recommend this concise scholarly work to you.
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on September 18, 2015
This is a useful English translation of the section of Lapérouse's report that dealt with his visit to the mission of San Carlos Borremeo in Monterrey. The notes are generally helpful, but fail to critique Lapérouse's evaluation of the mission and the missionaries.
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on December 1, 2014
Loved this book, it will drift you back into time with amazing ease!
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on November 17, 2014
good history of what happened in early American history.
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on July 15, 2013
This is an interesting book because it is written so early in the building of the Carmel Mission.
The author came in to Monterey on a ship and stayed for a long visit before he moved on
to other adventures. His writings were preserved by his foresight to give them to another
ship's master to bring back to America. On his onward voyage he and the ship he
sailed on were lost at sea. I ordered the book from Amazon.
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on December 2, 2013
Great book! It has a lot of material that would interest the reader. I would recommended this book to others.
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