Killam awards York history prof for poverty-to-power tale of famous Spaniard

History Professor Adrian Shubert is the first York prof in almost a decade to win a Killam Research Fellowship. Shubert was awarded the fellowship for his research on Baldomero Espartero, a Spaniard who went from poverty and obscurity to being offered the Spanish throne.

photo of professor Adrian Shubert

Professor Adrian Shubert

The Killam Research Fellowship will give York University $70,000 a year for two years to release Shubert from his teaching and administrative responsibilities so that he may follow his longtime interest in Espartero, which will culminate in a book-length biography, titled The General of Two Worlds: Baldomero Espartero, Empire, Nation and Liberalism in Spain and Latin America, to be published in Spanish and English.

“I’m writing a biography of this political and military figure in Spain who lives a very unusual and fascinating life and was involved in all the most important events of the first three quarters of the 19th century,” Shubert says. “Looking through the lens of one person’s life during this incredibly important and revolutionary phase of European history allows us to see from a new angle many of these incredible changes.”

Espartero was born in the middle of the French Revolution. He fought against Napoleon Bonaparte as a teenager, volunteered to go to Latin America to fight against Simón Bolívar and became a national hero during Spain’s civil war in the 1830s, says Shubert. He also served as regent and prime minister, with a five-year spell in exile in between.

“The other amazing thing is, in 1869, when he’s 76 years old, they ask him if he wants to be king, which is astonishing,” notes Shubert.

Wikimedia Commons image of Baldomero Espartero

Baldomero Espartero. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to international fame and fortune, Espartero was granted four noble titles in Spanish society, some of which were passed down the generations through his niece. Through one of these titles, Shubert tracked down the current holder, thanks to Spain’s guidebook to its nobility. Espartero’s living relatives in Madrid gave Shubert access to his personal archives, an invaluable source for writing a biography.

Thus far, reading through a handful of the 32 CDs worth of scanned private documents, Shubert has discovered the 600 letters Espartero wrote to his wife, Jacinta Martínez Sicilia de Santa Cruz, during the seven-year civil war. Jacinta was 18 years her husband’s junior and “clearly a powerful character,” he says.

“Here’s this man who is this incredible, valiant soldier. But he’s telling his wife everything. He’s telling her about politics, and she’s clearly giving him her opinions about politics, and he’s listening to her,” says Shubert. “In the 19th century, women weren’t supposed to have a voice in these matters ... but actually the fact that he talks to her in great detail about politics and she’s giving advice and sometimes he’s taking it is really quite amazing.”

Shubert, who likens receiving a Killam to winning the lottery, was surprised to be one of six awarded with the fellowship this year.

“It’s recognition of the ongoing importance of the humanities,” he says.

The Canada Council for the Arts administers the Killam Research Fellowship, which was founded alongside the Killam Prize with a donation from Dorothy J. Killam in memory of her husband, Izaak Walton Killam. The fellowship honours Canadian scholars with research in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences, engineering and interdisciplinary studies within these areas.