The man whom Californians know as Father Serra came from Mallorca, an island whose rich and complex history shaped his life and character and gave him direction and identity through all of his days. The largest island in a chain known as the Baleares and equidistant from the coasts of Spain and Africa, Mallorca was for thousands of years a center of trade and thus a place where diverse peoples came into contact with one another. Economically, religiously, and culturally, it was deeply integrated into a larger Mediterranean and European world, yet it did not share the region’s characteristic and salutary lushness. For most of its history, and in particular between Serra’s birth in 1713 and his departure for Mexico in 1749, Mallorca was in fact an arid and unforgiving land, one stalked by disease and famine and surrounded by enemies both real and imaginary. Rival imperial powers desired Mallorca for its strategic location; conquest and religious conflict marked the island and remade its peoples. Mallorcans alternated between a wary embrace of others and violent attempts to convert, enslave, or expel those with different beliefs and customs. But because of the island’s small size and history of famine, Mallorcans also came to look longingly beyond their shores, first across the Mediterranean Sea for material sustenance and then across the Atlantic Ocean for spiritual fulfillment. It is no coincidence that Junípero Serra, an ardent, crusading, and hardened Franciscan missionary, came from Mallorca.
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Mallorcan summers are warm, and its winters are cool. Summer days stretch to nearly fifteen hours, and winter days bring just over nine hours of light. A dusting of winter snow in the mountains is not uncommon in the northwest and southeast, but it rarely snows on the agricultural plain that stretches between the ranges. In general, precipitation is light. Summer is characterized by drought, and there are no rivers that flow throughout the year. As a result agriculture is precarious: the island has more often than not failed to produce enough food for its inhabitants. Since Mallorca is relatively small, only about fourteen hundred square miles, a man on horseback or foot could traverse the island in a matter of days. Mallorca’s best natural harbor, now known as Palma, is in the southwest, away from the mountains and just to the west of the agricultural plain.
Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been living on Mallorca for more than seven thousand years.1 A turning point in the island’s early history came in 123 B.C.E. when Rome conquered the Talaiotic peoples of the Balearic Islands; later, through the Roman Empire, Christianity came to Mallorca. By the beginning of the fifth century C.E., if not earlier, it was the island’s dominant religion.2 Soon after, the Vandals and then the Byzantine emperor Justinian conquered the island. The Byzantines would abandon the Balearics in 624, and for centuries thereafter both African Muslims and European Christians raided the islands. African Muslims had taken most of the Iberian Peninsula by 711, but it was not until 902 that they arrived on Mallorca, introducing not only Islam but al
Part I: Mallorca
3. Becoming Junípero
4. Priest and Professor
Part II: Central Mexico
5. The Voyage So Far
6. The Sierra Gorda
7. Popular Missions and the Inquisition
Part III: California
8. “A Work So Holy”
9. Securing Alta California
10. Building a “Ladder” of Missions