The Conquistadors Pursuit of God, Gold, and Glory. Steel, Savagery, Plague, and DOMESTICATED Animals: How Europeans Conquered the ancient civilizations of America and created a “New World.”. What we believe we know about history influences our interpretation of events.
The Conquistadors Pursuit of God, Gold, and Glory
Steel, Savagery, Plague, and DOMESTICATED Animals: How Europeans Conquered the ancient civilizations of America and created a “New World.”
What we believe we know about history influences our interpretation of events.
In 1519, when Cortez and his men entered the city of Tenochtitlan, they were encountering the largest urban center they had ever seen. Indeed, it was one of the largest anyone had ever seen. At the time, Tenochtitlan’s population was perhaps 300,000. At the time, London’s population was only about 90,000 – it was recovering from the plague’s destructive influence. Madrid, the capital of Spain had a marginally healthier population of 100,000. Nevertheless, Cortez and his men had never seen such a city, and must have been awestruck.
Only the Mayans, a civilization which once dominated and continues to influence the Yucatan Peninsula, were able to create a written language which was passed on from generation to generation. No North American tribes had any written language until the Cherokee invented their own alphabet to represent their language. The Aztecs and Incans – the most influential cultures of the region at the time of first contact – had no written language. This proved to be a major disadvantage for the indigenous people of the Americas.
The image of Native Americans on horseback is one which has been passed on in American history and American folklore since the establishment of the nation. But horses were a relatively new acquisition for Native American tribes in North America, and their influence only extended to the North during the first century of the European conquest. Indigenous people in North America were quick to adopt the horse, and tribes on the Great Plains were especially reliant upon it by the time Americans began encroaching on their territory during the 19th Century.
The notion that Christopher Columbus discovered anything at all is questionable enough… After all, the Americas were populated by tens of millions of indigenous people. He wasn’t even the first European to reach the Americas – that title almost certainly goes to Leif Ericson, the Viking explorer, seems to have established some sort of an outpost in Eastern Canada four or five hundred years before Columbus. For close to 500 years, however, Columbus was hailed as the discoverer of the continent, and the man who brought Christianity to a continent of people never exposed to the Gospels.
Although we know how this story came to an end, it doesn’t make the outcome any less improbable. Cortez had less than three hundred soldier with him as he entered the largest city in the New World. European soldiers always had certain advantages in terms of war animals, weaponry, and strategy, but none that could overcome such an overwhelming numeric disadvantage. But other factors were at work, as well.
The First Thanksgiving is usually taught to young students as a celebration between the Pilgrims and Indians. That Thanksgiving dinner did, in fact, take place; however, it wasn’t the first Thanksgiving in America by a longshot. Even in our own area, Jamestown resident had a Thanksgiving of sorts at least ten years before the Pilgrims. Remember that Jamestown was established in 1607. The first Thanksgiving in North America was probably in 1534, near St. Augustine, Florida. The oldest city in America is often excluded in history textbooks because it was a Spanish city.
Jamestown was a settlement established in order to make money. The colony was exclusively male when it was established, and no English women were allowed into the colony until 1619. A few Englishmen married Native American women in those years; however, for the most part, the colony was devoid of the female sex. This probably accounts for the terrible struggles the colony had during its first decade. New England colonies, which arguably dealt with a more severe climate, tended to be healthier and more successful due to the strength of the nuclear families in the region.
We know that Africans were brought into Jamestown in 1619. Whether or not these individuals were enslaved is less obvious, though. Remember that there was no slavery in England. Slavery in America was an invention of American colonists, and it was peculiar version of slavery historically. Slavery had been around for a long, long time. China, the Greeks, the Romans, and a plethora of African culture all practiced slavery. However, slavery in America came to mean something slightly different: race-based, hereditary slavery.
In 1619, none of the rules regarding slavery had been established. Indeed, most of the servants who came to Virginia signed four to seven year contracts. If they lived, they became freeholders. Based on the large population of free blacks in Virginia – on the Eastern Shore, and in Portsmouth and Norfolk by the 1700s – we may conclude that at least some of these individuals were liberated.
It is believed that over ten million indigenous people populated the continents of North and South America before the arrival of Columbus. Within 100 years, ninety percent of these people had died from disease. Virgin soil epidemics devastated the population of the Americas. With each new disease, perhaps ninety percent of the population was infected with a deadly pathogen. Of those infected, ninety percent might die. Four out of five people in a society might pass away from each disease which was introduced to the society. When wave after wave of these virgin soil epidemics came through, the nursing and medical professions in a culture collapsed, and chaos often ensued.
We tend to think of the gun as the decisive weapon which gave Europeans an advantage in their encounters with indigenous peoples of the Americas. However, the story is not that simple. Remember that “guns” were not the same weapons that they are today. The harquebus was an impressive weapon to the indigenous people of North America – as it was to the Spaniards. However, it was not always the most functional weapon. It had to be loaded and fired carefully, and it was frightfully inaccurate and time consuming to use. Not the ideal weapon for frantic exchanges in hand to hand combat. Far better for the Europeans: war animals like mastiffs and horses, steel swords, and armor.
Cultural Influence of the Vikings
Cultural influence of crusades
Simple geography played a role in motivating Spanish and Portuguese traders. At the Western periphery of Europe, Spain and Portugal were as far removed from the trade routes of the Ottoman Empire as any nations could be; accordingly, costs were high. Having recently removed Islamic peoples from the Iberian Peninsula, the nations sought to access markets in Africa and Asia by sea – thereby avoiding the treacherous land routes to Asia. A variety of factors encouraged them to improve their navigation:
Prospects of gold in Africa.
The desire to obtain goods at lower prices.
Improvements in art, mapping, navigation and shipbuilding.
Government encouragement by Henry “the Navigator” in Portugal.
Hopeful that they may have greater autonomy to trade in Africa, and then parley their success into a route to the “Indies,” Portuguese sailors were the first to seek a water route to Asia. Bartolomeu Dias was the first navigator to make his way to the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. A decade would pass before Vasco de Gama rounded the southern tip of the continent in order to make his way to India. Hence, the Portuguese were the first to find a water route to the Indies. But in 1492, Christopher Columbus had made an even greater discovery by sailing West to the Indies. Confident that the world was round (as most sailors were at this point in history) he sailed directly west and into the Americas, setting an ecological, environmental, economic, social, and cultural revolution into motion, the likes of which he could never have anticipated, controlled, or changed once it began.
Before the accidental discovery of the Americas by Columbus in 1492, American civilizations had already been established at Cahokia (central North American mound builders) present-day Mexico (the Aztecs and Mayans) and Peru (the Incan Empire).
Not only were these peoples advanced in their technological expertise, but also, they were enormous population centers.
It is believed that Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was a city of over 250,000 – larger than Madrid, Paris, and London.
The improbability that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez and his men could control such a vast population has led to the mischaracterization of the event historically. Neither military might nor deference alone allowed Cortez to gain the advantage. In fact, pathogens very likely played the largest role in his victorious assault on the Aztec civilization.
It may be best to view the “discovery” of North America as an environmental and ecological event. Historian Alfred Crosby has likened it to the crashing together of continental land masses. It was as though Europe, Africa, and Asia literally crashed into the Americas. Indeed, plants, animals, parasites, and diseases may have done more to subdue the continent under Europeans control than any actions on the part of explorers.
The Colombian Exchange
When European plants and animals were introduced to the New World, they established themselves as invader species and recreated the environment in the image of Europe. Domesticated animals in Europe - the horse, cow, pig, and sheep – had virtually no predators in the New World, and thrived. European vegetation was transplanted as well, often taking over ecosystems before European explorers had ever seen the territory. Most importantly, though, European diseases – smallpox, influenza, typhus, malaria, and bubonic plague, just to name a few – wreaked havoc upon Native American immune systems. Epidemics wipe out entire societies.
The Role of Domesticated Animals
Horses, cows, pigs, and sheep were critical to the success of European conquistadors in both the subjugation of foreign cultures and the establishment of colonial empires. Spanish explorers in the Caribbean often “seeded” islands with pigs and cattle – simply leaving the animals to root – so that when they returned there would be a supply of livestock. Since there were virtually no predatory animals in North America – or at least so few that they could not wipe out the invader species – the barnyard animals thrived. They also unwittingly spread two other European imports – the seeds of plant life and contagious diseases, which often spread from animals to humans. Other than dogs, chickens, and llamas, Native American communities had relatively few domestic animals.
The Role of Plants and Vegetation
The “exchange” which took place between the “Old World” and the “New World” was not a zero sum game, but it did have implications which effected the course of history. Among the foods which were acquired by Europeans were corn (maize), potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and manioc (cassava). These vegetables became important sources of caloric intake and nutrition for European populations – starvation foods. Many nations were able to improve their overall public health as a result, including Southeastern European nations and Ireland, where diminishing farmland had begun to cause major problems in terms of supporting a growing population in times of warfare and conflict.
The Role of Disease in the Columbian Exchange
Native Americans had lived in isolation from European and Asian civilizations for thousands of years, and accordingly, had not been exposed to the types of diseases which European nations had cultivated across centuries. One of the major reasons for infectious mutations was the exchange of viruses and bacteria between humans and animals – a common occurrence where humans and animals live in close proximity. Humans drank the milk of livestock animals, and exchanged contagious viruses and bacteria with animals unwittingly. Europeans, who had domesticated dozens of animals, were more frequently exposed to these mutations, and therefore developed superior immune systems to their American cousins. Native Americans, meanwhile would be subjected to waves of virgin soil epidemics in the 16th and 17th Centuries, decimating the population.
The Columbian Exchange, by Alfred Crosby
Dr. Alfred Crosby was the historian who first suggested that ecological determinism played a role in the “conquest” of Europe. His theories were dubbed “The Columbian Exchange,” and the popularity of his work has prompted greater discussion of the role of germs, seeds, and technology in the conquest of Europe. More recently, Dr. Jared Diamond’s work, Guns, Germs, and Steel has sought to explain the relatively easy conquest of Europe by Spanish, French, and English conquistadors by demonstrating the military superiority of fighting on horseback and the role that disease played in the conquest of empires.
Although Cortez brought with him less than three hundred men, his expedition was able to topple the government of an enormous empire in present day Mexico. This despite any formal military training or a particularly complicated strategy on his part. Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec Empire, had a population estimated at 250,000. It was much larger than Madrid, London, or even Paris in the year 1500. So how was Cortez able to take over the city?
Guns – the harquebus, which by today’s standards barely even qualifies as a gun at all, was used by the Spanish effectively.
Steel – the Toledo swords and metal armor worn by the Spanish gave them a huge advantage over their rivals.
Horses – even more critical was the advantage given to the Spanish by their ability to fight from on horseback. Other domesticated animals provided food and labor for the Spaniards, as well.
Disease – Smallpox, influenza, plague, typhoid, and a host of other diseases were unknown in the Americas, and the virgin soil epidemics which ensued wiped out up to 90% of the population of the American continents. The chaos which coincided with Spanish invasions was largely a result of societies in collapse, as pandemic disease and military attack coincided.
The Incan Empire was probably more sophisticated than the Aztecs, and certainly vast enough in scope and in power to subdue the small, patchwork army led by Francisco Pizarro which attempted to subject them in the 1530s. Atahualpa, “the Inca” who was believed to be a direct descendent of God by his people was supremely confident in his over 80,000 soldier ability to defend his empire.
Jared Diamond, author of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel estimates that as many as twenty million Native Americans inhabited North and South American prior to the arrival of Columbus and the Spaniards.
Of those, close to ninety-five percent were wiped out by smallpox and other epidemic diseases. Other historians propose that the number could easily have been much higher – perhaps as a many as one hundred million.
Virgin soil epidemics left the survivors of these plagues in patchwork societies – where social structure, medical traditions, and cultural values were breaking down – or at the very least enduring enormous transformations.
European explorers, moving into these regions during the years after these pandemics had taken their devastating toll, often did not even recognize the scale of the devastation. They had no knowledge of these societies prior to their collapse, and could not have known the extent of their empires or their cultural presence prior to the onset of these devastating diseases.
What European imperialists did in pursuit of gold, out of a desire to spread Christianity, and in the name of their nations, was largely an accident of biology and geography.
Advantages of the Europeans – Literacy and Writing. Most Native American cultures did not have any recorded history. Historians worked in the oral tradition, and while there were sophisticated methods of preserving history via beads, illustrations, or storytelling, there was no written account.
When Pizarro and his men met Atahualpa at Cajamarca, they were overwhelmingly outnumbered. Yet, he and his men won a convincing military victory. What factors allowed them to do so?
What cultural differences incensed the Spanish and caused them to resort to violent conflict instead of coexistence?
The role of disease – pathogens cultivated in Europe and transmitted unknowingly by Europeans to cultures that were unprepared biologically to handle them – was decisive in determining the outcome of the First Encounters between cultures. Smallpox was especially virulent.
In his book, Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History, a follow-up to The Columbian Exchange, Alfred Crosby proposes that horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and other domesticated animals – along with the seeds they carried in their fur and the germs they cultivated – did more to conquer the Americas than all of the great conquistadors of Spain or the imperialist explorers of Europe combined. Is this argument valid, or do the actions of human being have a greater impact upon history than the accidents of ecology, biology, and geography which Crosby and Diamond have identified in their work?