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