The Spanish Conquistadors And The First Genocide In Modern History (I)

The Portuguese and Spanish overseas voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries heralded a new era in global history. At the end of the 15th century, the main seafaring peoples of the globe have been separated not only by great expanses of the uncharted sea but as well as by continental landmasses whose shape and extent were unknown. In 1480, regular European shipping was going via the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic. In the course of some three centuries from 1480 to 1780 European seaborne explorers and conquerers connected together with the separate lands of maritime communication, and opened all seas, except in the areas of circumpolar ice, to European ships.

This long process of discovery started in the late 15th century with two series of voyages intended to find a sea passage to India and South Asia with the focal hope to establish direct trade for spices. One series based on Portugal soon reached its declared destinations sailing around Africa: the entrance to the Indian Ocean (in 1488), Malabar (in 1498), Malacca (1511), and the Moluccas (in 1512). However, the other series of voyages, based on Spain, sailing by western and south-western rout, was less successful in its immediate purpose, but on other hand more fruitful in incidental discovery. The Spaniards (Ch. Columbus) discovered West Indian islands (in 1492) and the Spanish Main (in 1498). Finally, the Spaniards in 1511 reached South-East Asia, but by a route that was too long and uncomfortable for commercial use. The Spaniards, nevertheless, accepted they found a New World but not Asian India by 1520 which got the name America. They immediately started to settle their discovered world, and for more than a hundred years kept it effectively an Iberian perspective.

The focal effect of combined voyages of Iberian Portuguese and Spaniards was to prove that all the oceans at least on the southern hemisphere have been connected into a single water mass and that the world was much bigger than accepted authorities had taught. For more than 100 years Portugal and Spain, by use of navy power or by a threat to do so, prevented other European nations from using the connecting passages, except for occasional raids. The Spaniards, like the Portuguese, became very quick to exploit their late 15th century discoveries. The settlement of Hispaniola was established in 1493 as a hope of finding gold and as a base for the trade with China, supposedly nearby. The soon discovery of the Main coast opened an opportunity for slaving and for getting pearls and gold by trade or simply plunder. In the New World of Americas, because of the considerable numbers of the Iberian Portuguese and Spanish who emigrated there during the 16th century, they had by the beginning of the 17th century occupied all the areas of the dense native population, had built impressive cities and towns, created an elaborate territorial administration centered in Lisbon and Madrid, systematically baptized the Native Americans into the Roman Catholicism, organized developed system of economic exploitation, and finally committed the first genocide in the modern history.    

Who are the Native Americans? 

The indigenous pre-1492 inhabitants of North, Central, and South Americas can be called as the native peoples of this part of the world – Native Americans, whom Christopher Columbus misnamed “Indians”. Their ancestors migrated to the Americas from Asia even possibly from Egypt and Scandinavia as the Viking homeland. Nevertheless, it is quite obvious that cultural differences between the descendants of these aboriginal peoples and modern/contemporary inhabitants of the Americas exist.

Mayan Temple pyramid of Kukulkan - Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
Mayan Temple pyramid of Kukulkan – Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

For example, today, it is estimated that there are around 2 million Native Americans in the USA of whom half live on reservations (in Europe they are called concentration camps). The average annual income of those US Native Americans is below the poverty level followed by the statistical fact that their rate of unemployment in the USA is the highest in the country. Some historians would claim that when North America have been discovered in 1492, some 1 million Native Americans lived at that time within the territory of what is present-day the USA. Those Native Americans have been historically scattered, and their genuine organizations were destroyed. There were many cases that early West European colonists married Native Americans that was usually explained by certain social and cultural factors. For instance, a Native American wife was teaching her fur trader husband the language and customs of the Indian tribe from which he bought furs. But in some early West European colonies like in New England, the women of Native American origins had little use in the business of trading and farming communities, and, therefore, intermarriage between the Westerners and the Indians was a rare case.

The Government of the newly proclaimed independent state of the USA, which started to exist with the adoption of the Constitution on September 17th, 1787, started its imperialistic relationship by considering the various Native American tribes as national entities and negotiating with them for land. In principle, there are a lot of crucial differences between a tribal culture of Native Americans on one side and the dominant West European on another. Over time, the majority of Native Americans have passed into mainstream culture. For those Native Americans who still live on Government’s reservations, painful progress is being made to gain greater control over and administration of their affairs.

Nevertheless, before the time of the West European conquest of the Americas soon after 1492, its indigenous peoples have been separated into 1000+ independent communities which have been belonging to a score or more of unrelated families of languages followed by a very variety of cultures. Their cultures have been stretching from the northern Stone Age hunters like the Eskimo to the highly- prosperous civilizations of Central America and the Andes in South America, where the Aztecs and Incas succeeded to build up a culture more than 1000 years old.

The Native Americans had, regardless of their common origin from Asia, achieved very different levels of civilizational developments up to 1492. The Apaches, for instance, continued a gathering existence, but agriculture became in use to the plains hunters of North America from the eastern regions of the continent, while some Caribbean groups already formed settled communities with a certain degree of political organization. Nevertheless, all of such cultures have been overshadowed by much more developed civilizations located in Central America and the central parts of the Andes range, where two powerful states of Aztecs and Incas followed by Maya civilization, have been at their peak development by around 1500.

The Aztecs 

The Aztecs have been aboriginal inhabitants dominant in present-day Mexico before the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century arrived. The Aztecs arrived from the north in the first half of the 13th century to the territory today known as Central Mexico and succeeded to create a great empire in the 15th century with the capital in Tenochtitlán that was founded in the early 14th century on a muddy island in Lake Texcoco. The swamps around the lake have been drained, artificial islands constructed to form gardens followed by the construction of the canals and causeways. At the end of the 14th century, the Aztec capital became the center of imperialistic policy against neighboring tribes. The political strategy of the Aztec imperialism was to ally with their strongest neighbors against smaller tribes, and after that to make war against their former allies. That was done, for instance, by Montezuma I and, therefore, by the second half of the 15th century, the Aztecs controlled the greater portions of Mexico and starting to occupy the Territory of the Maya civilization in Yucatán, where the people practice a simpler life. The great cities from the Classical time disappeared into the jungle. The Classical time in the history of Central America is the era of the Maya civilization (AD 250−900), the early Post-Classical time is the Toltec era (900−1325), and the late Post-Classical time is the Aztec era (1325 to the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century).

Aztec civilization
Pyramid of the Sun. The Teotihuacan pyramids are some of the largest of their kind in the Americas. Ancient Teotihuacanos constructed the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon in the year 100 C.E., centuries before the Aztec had arrived in Teotihuacan. These marvels still stand at an incredible height of around 65 meters (213 feet) and 43 meters (141 feet) respectively.

The Aztecs, on one hand, allowed the conquered people to maintain their religion, leaders, tradition, and customs, but on other hand, any failure to supply the central Government in Tenochtitlán with food and other annual tributes would bring fast reaction by the powerful Aztec army. Increasingly war was waged to ensure an adequate supply of captives for sacrifice to the focal Aztec god – Huitzilopochtli. The researchers fixed the figure of some 50.000 victims per year approaching the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century who had their still throbbing hearts pulled from their chests by Aztec priests.

The Aztec civilization regardless of its material wealth did not use the wheel or written language. However, its agriculture although simple regarding the technical equipment, has been both productive and intensive concerning the production of different crops (total population was around 12 million). The systematic material exploitation of the subordinated tribes by the Aztec central authorities explains the fact why the exploited subjects of the Aztec empire welcomed the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés, as a liberator from Aztec oppression when he landed in Mexico in 1519.

The Aztecs have been a warring people who slew captives as human sacrifices to their main god. The lifestyle of their aristocracy was comfortable and for the rulers luxurious. When the Spaniards under H. Cortés arrived in Mexico, they found a rich and developed Aztec civilization that built up vast pyramids, temples, and palaces.

The Incas

The pre-Columbian Inca people in Peru have been Empire-makers, with an imperial ideal which was much more coherent compared to that of the Aztecs in Mexico. According to the 16th-century historical sources, the Inca ruling dynasty was established around 1200 by Manco Capac. The real territorial expansion of the Inca state started in 1438 forming the Empire until 1525. The Incas imposed their culture, civilization, customs, socio-economic organization, and even to a certain degree their religion on conquered tribes as a consequence of their occupation of the territories in South Andes in the 15th century, having the Empire 350 km wide west to east and 3500 km long north to south, with the population of some 10 million people. However, the real origin of the Inca civilization is mysterious as a lack of historical sources. Nevertheless, at its widest extent, the Empire of Incas included present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, North Argentina, and North Chile with the capital in Cuzco. The rulers of the Inca Empire exerted rigid control over such huge territory employing a highly trained administrative apparatus, a state religion, a strong army, and a quite developed network of communications. Emperor Huayna Capac (since 1493) concentrated his imperial efforts in the north, where he founded the town of Quito (today in Ecuador) as the second capital of the Empire. Such a decision which was dictated by the need to decentralize the huge Empire became proven to be fatal as the death of Huayna Capac in 1525 provoked a harsh civil war between northern and southern parts of the Empire led by his sons just before the arrival of the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro who landed on the coast in 1532.

As a direct consequence of the fact that huge new lands have been occupied by the central authorities of the Empire of Inca, the movements of the people on the large-scale happened as thousands of loyal colonists moved to replace traditional settlers who have been transferred to more secure areas. It was established by the Inca civilization, an important network of paved roads and bridges which have been providing the means for fast movement of military troops if necessary. The divine emperor was living in great luxury in the capital of Cuzco, ruling the Empire by four members of his dynasty. Each of those four administrators has been responsible for ¼ of the territory of the Inca Empire (something similar was going on in the Roman Empire according to the reforms by Emperor Diocletian). These four nobles have been delegated authority to provincial rulers in a highly-stratified political structure. Nevertheless, the life of the common peoples was directed 1) to provide the taxis for both provincial and central authorities, 2) to maintain roads and bridges, and 3) periodically to serve in the army. In exchange, the peasants have been 1) guaranteed freedom from famine as the state possessed big food stores insured against bad harvests, and 2) assisted by the community in the cases of sickness and old age.

machu picchu
Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca citadel, located in the Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru, on a 2,430-metre (7,970 ft) mountain ridge. Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472)

The Inca agriculture was the focal economic branch with irrigation and terracing systems followed by well-developed architecture, metal-working, and art. Agriculture was based on systems of hillside terracing and included the agricultures of potato, quinoa, and maze. The farming included the guinea pig, the Incas used domestic dog, llama, and alpaca. The Incas used the calendar, a means of recording complex mathematical calculations, and using advanced surgical techniques. The Inca technology was of a high standard which included specialized factories and smaller work-shops which have been producing textiles, ceramics, and different products made of metal. Their religion was centralized and local gods have been respected but secondary to the Sun cult as the divine ancestor of the ruling dynasty and Viracocha – the God Creator. Inca’s architecture included accurately fitted stone buildings. However, regardless of such technical achievements, many local tribes collaborated with the Spanish conquistadors for the reason to eliminate Inca dominance. On one hand, the strictly social and political stratification system created by the Incas was quite enough strong to enable a small number of the Spanish conquerors to establish an empire founded on the exploitation of the Indian masses, but on other hand, it failed to provide the common Indian with the social benefits which had softened Inca rule.

The Conquistadors and their bands of soldiers

The arrival of the Roman Catholic Spanish conquistadors in the Americas after the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 was, nevertheless, an absolute disaster for the local peoples of the New World (Central and South Americas, and the Caribbean). It was obvious that America’s civilizations and their military and technical capabilities were no match for the conquistadors, whose amalgamation of the Roman Catholic ideological enthusiasm, thirstiness for material wealth, and superior technical warfare arms finally brought destruction and death to the local cultures and their peoples.

America’s indigenous peoples from Canada to Patagonia have been wrongly called by the Spaniards Indians, as Ch. Columbus initially was convinced that he had reached in 1492 a legendary land of India in Asia about which the Europeans basically knew nothing at that time. Among those Spanish conquistadors who followed Ch. Columbus the most famous and successful have been Hernan Cortes, who conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro González, who defeated the Inca Empire in Peru. Both of them as many others were simple adventurers who have been looking to become reach and get the status and positions by the royal decree, appointed by the Spanish court in Madrid to undertake their respective explorations and to lay down the foundations of both the Spanish exploitation of the new provinces in Americas and Roman Catholic baptizing of the conquered Indians. The Spanish conquistadors were accompanied by ordinary bands of soldiers (by the present-day term, the dogs of war) who have no been longer needed in Spain after the ending of the Reconquista in 1942 and expulsion from Spain of both the Muslims (the Kingdom of Granada in Andalusia) and the Jews. Of course, the bands of conquistadors were accompanied by the Roman Catholic priests on their missions to convert the American “infidels”.

To be continued

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