Jim Zackrison loves history and adventure tales

By Posted on Apr 19 2021 | By

I was standing in line at Walmart and the customer ahead of me had just paid for his order. Turning around, he looked at me quizzically and smiled. Intrigued, I caught up with him, introduced myself, and asked why the soft smile? He laughed and said he was trying to read the logo on my hat. “But now I see. It’s says the American Shakespeare Center.” I asked if I could call him later and learn a little more about his life. He agreed. 

Retired security analyst combines two passions into one Oxford degree

As a kid, Jim Zackrison grew up in various locales in Latin America. As the son of a Seventh Day Adventist minister, his cultural immersion ran so deep his mother eventually homeschooled him. “Mom took me out of the local schools to teach me English,” explained Zachrison.

His bilingual education created a love of history for the many countries where he lived, including Aruba, Curacao, Honduras, and Columbia.

One of the major draws for the adventure-seeking youth was the numerous old Spanish fortifications. They ranged in size from large fortresses to small outposts. When given an opportunity, he loved to crawl through the strongholds and explore their interiors.

By the time young adulthood arrived, he had returned to his birth state of California and began scoring educational degrees. First, a B.A. in history, followed by a master’s in history.

While waiting for his bride, Leila, to graduate from medical school, he earned a master’s in national securities studies. Since he was stuck in California, he opted to pursue a degree that might generate more lucrative employment.

And it did. His wife graduated and got an internship at Georgetown Hospital, and he landed a job as an analyst for Naval Intelligence in D.C. He spent 16 years there, gaining knowledge about modern-day smuggling.

“We lived in Falls Church back then and moved to Fauquier County three years ago.”

But his passion for history was unfilled by his employment. He tried to get the government to help him pursue a Ph.D. but to no avail. So, he retired and got accepted at Oxford University. “I paid for the education myself.”

But before he could graduate, he contracted Lyme disease and lost the better part of a productive decade to the disease. “Often, I was in bed 15 hours a day. I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for my physician wife,” Zackrison recalls.

When he recovered, he was reinstated at Oxford and began writing his thesis on a fort in Honduras since no English language history existed of it.  The history included stories on smuggling throughout the region. He successfully defended the thesis a year ago, and history and adventure coalesced into a doctorate.

Spanish smuggling
Spanish forts in the Americas were originally designed to protect the coastlines from English, Dutch, and French pirates who tried to steal anything of value from the Spaniards.

In the 1500s, the forts assumed the added responsibility of protecting Spain from smugglers who traded in tax-free goods, a benefit to sellers and buyers but not for the King who sought to control all forms of trade.

It was estimated half of the goods headed to the colonies were smuggled. Recent studies, however, show as much as 90 percent of the goods traveling through the formal trade system did not appear on manifests. Smuggling was a hugely lucrative business.

The smuggling cost the Spanish Empire so much money it was unable to meet its national objectives of becoming a superpower. The grand strategy to stop it is what his thesis centers on.

“What I found humorous was the level to which smuggling permeated society.”

Columbia produced a lot of gold, and Mexico a lot of silver. Both places also had chocolate. To support themselves, the missionaries would ship casks back to Spain that contained cocoa beans, making deals with local miners to include bars of gold and silver in the barrels.

The casks would be shipped at the King’s expense back to Spain, where agents opened them, removed the valuable cargo, and delivered it to secret buyers. The King was unknowingly picking up the tab for shipping the goods, and for failing to collect royalties or taxes on the contents.

Other examples abound on how society was regularly subverted to the benefit of the smugglers’ purse. Today, this circumvention of law would be clearly illegal, but it’s useful to recognize that Spain failed in many ways to support its colonies, thus creating the need for alternative systems of trade.

As an example, nuns lived in convents and did not work. Their calling was to pray for humanity. As a result, they would implore the wealthy class to make donations to their cause. One channel of support was from merchants who offered to build a new chapel, but with the caveat, it had to have a warehouse attached to it.

When smuggled goods passed through the merchants’ hands, they would store them in the convent warehouse. At the time, the church had its own legal system of ecclesiastical law making it exempt from civil law.

If the customs police were chasing a smuggler and he took refuge in a convent, they could not pursue him. Instead, they would have to file a petition to have a warrant issued, taking as much as a year. This provided ample time to secret the goods, and the smuggler, out of the convent and on to a ship headed to Spain.

Since the King was also making donations to convents, he was unwittingly supporting both the smuggling trade while losing tax revenues. Zackrison linked many of these tales into a historical fiction novel and would love to have it published.

“I cannot find anyone who can help me publish it. I am doing some academic writing, and getting that punished is pretty much a yes or no proposition. Fiction, not so much. It’s much harder.”

Let’s hope he prevails. A novel centered on a fascinating era and laced with improbable but true adventure stories could well be a best seller.


Categories : HAGARTY TALES