When Princeton resident Robert Ross decided to donate his priceless collection of medals and honors to his alma mater Princeton University, he wanted to be sure that the items would be seen and studied by more than a select handful of numismatic experts.
The exhibition “From a Thankful Nation: Latin American Medals and Orders from the Robert L. Ross Collection at Princeton University” displayed in the gallery just inside the door of the University’s Firestone Library in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections does just that.
An enthusiastic collector since he bought his first World War II medal at the age of 13, Mr. Ross has learned over the years that even the simplest of objects has a story to tell.
Take, for example, one tiny medal struck to commemorate the first battle fought in a river by steam ships iron clad for war, “the most technologically advanced warfare at the time,” said Mr. Ross. Or the touching tale associated with a somewhat dull looking metal wedding band created by the government of Paraguay as a token of gratitude to soldiers’ wives who had given up their gold wedding bands in support of the effort during The Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, considered one of the bloodiest of South American conflicts.
Little known characters from history also step into view, such as William Walker (1824-1860), the American adventurer from Nashville, who organized several private military expeditions into Latin America, intent on carving out his own English-speaking colony. Walker ruled the Republic of Nicaragua from 1856 until 1857 until he came to a bad end. Defeated by a coalition of Central American armies, he was executed by the government of Honduras in 1860.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) makes an appearance for his support of the Panama Canal. And there are Brazilian Air Force medals for service during World War II and orders of the Latin American Red Cross orders.
“Some of this history has yet to be written,” said Mr. Ross. For history buffs interested in Latin America and its evolution, the show is a magnet. Displayed chronologically, the exhibition relates a history that began in Europe around the time of the Crusades before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play out in Brazil, Haiti, and Mexico under the Emperor Maximilian.
Some of the medals and honors were struck to influence power, others to hold on to it, by heads of state eager to encourage and reward loyalty.
Besides plain coin-like medals there are jewel-encrusted and enameled star-bursts on elaborate silk ribbons and bows, the outward manifestations of bravery, self-sacrifice, and hope for freedom as well as self aggrandizement.
Commemorating the bicentennial of the beginning of the movements that would bring about independence in several Latin American countries, the exhibition features selections from Mr. Ross’s definitive collection.
A treasury of history and politics, the exhibition reveals much about the ambitious leaders who bestowed such honors, like the 20th century dictators Rafael Trujillo (1891 -1961), Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) and Fidel Castro.
“You can learn a lot about a leader by looking at the orders he created,” said Mr. Ross, pointing out that Trujillo’s was a personal dictatorship while Pinochet’s was a military junta. The former created four orders, one for each branch of the military, the army, navy, air, and the militarized police, in contrast with Castro. “In Cuba, you won’t find a street or city named for Fidel Castro. His isn’t a personal dictatorship like Trujillo’s,” said Mr. Ross.
“No modern Latin American country has done more to exploit the traditional medium of the awarded medal as a tool for promotion of its governing regime than Fidel Castro’s Cuba,” commented exhibition curator Alan M. Stahl, in reference to Cuba’s Order of Che Guevara. “Dozens of medals and orders have been created and distributed to recognize efforts on behalf of literacy and agriculture, as well as military and political actions. The Order of Che Guevara is especially emblematic in depicting one of the iconic martyrs of the Cuban Revolution to reward individuals ‘for exceptional military merit in the fight against imperialism and colonialism.’”
Latin America’s political independence is most commonly associated with Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), the Venezuelan revolutionary general who led republican armies to liberate Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru beginning in 1813. Venezuela awards an order named exclusively for him, The Order of the Liberator, which is traditionally worn by the Venezuelan president to symbolize sovereign power and comes in six grades, of which you can see the Collar, the Grand Cross, and the Officer grade on display.
As Mr. Ross led a small group through the exhibition recently, he enthusiastically shared his knowledge, relating stories as he went.
“The origin of these orders goes back to the 11th century in the Holy Land,” he said before going on to explain that an order is a confraternity approved by Papal decree, or “bull.” Besides hospital and military orders, religious/military orders were formed to fight Muslims during the Crusades. Today, many such orders have evolved to have humanitarian purposes, like the U.K.’s St. John’s Ambulance Service. Many were founded by kings, although The French Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon.
Also interesting are the indigenous adaptations such as Guatemala’s Order of the Quetzal, named after a beloved local bird. Given to nationals and foreigners for international, civic, scientific, literary, or artistic services of benefit to the nation, according to Mr. Stahl, “it is is one of the few Latin American medals to incorporate indigenous art motifs.”
Asked how he had kept his collection before he donated it to Princeton, Mr. Ross responded “nervously.” It’s easy to see why. While some are worth more in terms of historic interest than monetary value, others are masterful creations of precious metals and stones.
Purchased by Mr. Ross at auctions in Europe, the collection now has a safe home in the Firestone Library where it has been documented by a thoroughly researched and fully-illustrated 700 page catalogue with 969 color photographs, and is being made available for study. The catalogue can be purchased for $125 from the office of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
“From a Thankful Nation: Latin American Medals and Orders from the Robert L. Ross Collection at Princeton University” will be on display through August 3. Admission is free. For more information and gallery hours, call (609) 258-3184 or visit: http://library.princeton.edu/about/hours.