Saturday, October 20, 2012

Causes and processes of European conquests of the Americas explained

The conquest of the New World began when Columbus asked Spain to finance his trip across the Atlantic Ocean in order to open a trade route to Japan and China.  He also intended to Christianize the natives and enrich himself and the queen.   It was not a single event such as Columbus’ discovery but consisted of many events and decisions that lasted for about four hundred years.

Changes in technology within Europe provided them with large ships that could cross the ocean carrying many men.  The discovery of Brazilwood helped accelerated the development of ship building. The ability to fabricate steel provided them with weapons that were a force unmatched by the people in the Americas.  Among these weapons were spears, swords, and guns.

Another major cause of the conquest was the pathogens brought by the Europeans that the natives had no immunity from, basically smallpox and measles.  The Europeans were able to domesticate several animals to perform farm work.  Over the years this close relationship provided the Europeans with immunities to certain diseases.  However, in America there were virtually no domesticated animals and thus the natives did not have these immunities and were overcome with the European pathogens.

There forged steel swords were a large advantage since the natives had no similar weapons. The natives had not ever seen any structure as large as the European ships.  This gave the Europeans a godlike quality.

Initially Columbus came with three ships and 87 men.  But upon returning and relating his story of the gold he found the Spanish soon sent many more ships and men to recover the riches.

The crown devised an economic model whereby a conquistador was granted control over the native land and labor in order to extract the gold.  In return the crown imposed a tax on the extracted precious metals.  This was an economic model that worked well for everyone but the native population.

This action however was in conflict with the Church’s intent to Christianize the natives.  The friars claimed this relationship as exploitive of their potential converts.  The controversy leads to an ethical issue within Spain as to whether enslavement of New World natives was immoral.  This issue caused friar by de las Casas to write his famous book on ethics.  This argument leads to their decision on how to govern the colonies populated by the Spanish captives.

As the placer gold mines ran dry the Spanish went to the mainland and found much larger and more civilized societies.  This represented an opportunity for Spain to reap substantially larger rewards. 

Cortez and his over 500 men set out in the beginning of the sixteenth century to conquer a much larger Aztec civilization.  Their ability to do this was due primarily to:  disease, more Aztecs died of disease then were killed by the Spanish; the help of neighboring tribes who were rivals to the Aztecs; vastly superior arms; the passivity of the Aztecs warriors who were trained not to kill their rivals; and finally the use of an intermediary, the daughter of a local leader.

In addition to the Aztec civilization, the Spanish also conquered the Incas, who lived in the Andes Mountains and who population was larger than four million.  When Pizzaro arrived with only 500 soldiers the Incas were in the middle of a civil war.  Once again it was disease and overwhelming arms power that allow Pizzaro to become victorious over his more numerous opposition. 

The conquest of these peoples raised the issue of what form of government would be used to control the native people.   In general, a compromise between the conquerors and the conquered was used to maximize the chance of stability.  The stability was required to maximize the riches that they could extract from the colonies.

In North America the Spanish meet a different situation because it was much less populated and organized.  As a result the conquest was much less militant and much more cooperative.  Trading of beaver pelts was an example of diplomacy used.

With the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas Spain was in control of the New World.  This brought them two major rewards:  control over both the human and material riches of the area and a colony that would purchase Spanish products and would produce products for consumption in Europe.  This would change the balance of power between Europe and the rest of the World.

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