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Saturday, 15 July 2017

World History: The Aztecs

A piece of Aztec art
Throughout Mesoamerican history there has been a history of city states. The last time we looked at Mesoamerican history we focused particularly on the Maya and their height of power. Today we shall look at the most famous Mesoamerican civilization: the Aztecs. However, we do run into a bit of an issue here. The people referred to as Aztecs never actually called themselves Aztecs. The term 'Aztec' was first used in the nineteenth-century by Alexander von Humboldt to describe the largely Nahuatl speaking peoples of something called the Triple Alliance, (Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan). If 'Aztec' is used anywhere in this post it will be in reference to the peoples who lived in the Triple Alliance. Before we look at the Triple Alliance, however, we must first look at the culture of Mesoamerica as 'Aztec' culture bears a huge resemblance to other Mesoamerican cultures.

Introduction to Mesoamerican Cultures
The Temple of Kukulkan
The above photo is of El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulkan, which was a Mayan pyramid. Many other cultures in Mesoamerica, including the Triple Alliance, built pyramids. Winged serpents, human sacrifice, emphasis on the sun in religious worship and a unique approach to time, (among other things), are all present in the various cultures to have existed in pre-Spanish Mesoamerica. This can be easily explained as the many city states and empires either briefly coexisted or ousted the previous state creating cultural similarities throughout the centuries. Comparing this to other areas of the world we can see this in Europe since the time of the Greek states and Rome, and in China with the continued Chinese cultural pieces like the Mandate of Heaven. Although each culture had their own way of doing things it was similar to each other and is descended from the Olmecs who arose around 1500 BCE. These cultures co-opted ideas from one another. As we mentioned all these civilizations used human sacrifice; why this originated we do not know, (in early time and simultaneously with human sacrifice food was also offered for sacrifice), and historians have put forward several explanations why (population control? aiding political expansion? elite power maintenance?). However, cultures had different ways to do this. Initially the Maya in their sacrifices would cut their ruler or would decapitate someone but after interacting with the Triple Alliance they would start cutting out hearts. We will into more detail about 'Aztec' culture later but before we move on to the Triple Alliance's origins I briefly want to talk about Mesoamerican concept of time.

European, Islamic and most Asian calendars are based off of one linear object, mainly the sun, so experience time, as described by Kay Read and Jason Gonzalez, as 'beads on a rope'. Mesoamerican cultures including the Maya, Mexica, Toltecs etc. based their calendars off of many celestial objects which each had their own movements and paths. Read and Gonzalez describe this as them experiencing time as the rope instead of the beads. Fibers on the rope spin together overlapping at times and then not. The present moment contains many past and future moments so will pick of powers of specific years, deities and times from the past and future. By manipulating the bindings through ritual one could control the path of the future or even the past, (we shall talk about this soon). The Maya have legends of the Hero Twins which perfectly show this: they existed at the dawn of time and helped create the first beings but they were also newborn long after creation. Now with that explained we shall talk about the origin of the Triple Alliance.

The eagle from the origin story, now part of Mexico's flag
It's quite difficult to ascertain the origins of the Triple Alliance for several reasons. The first is that when the Spanish took over they proceeded to do a cultural genocide of Mesoamerica so many sources are now lost to us, and they later rewrote sources to make them sound not far from barbaric. The second reason is that many rulers rewrote history, Itzcoatl being a famous one to do this. As mentioned earlier the concept of time meant that in the present it was possible for someone to rewrite the past. Many rulers rewrote the past to suit the current situation, Itzoatl was king of Tenochtitlan who helped found the Triple Alliance and later there was a massive rewrite to help cope and understand the Spanish conquest. We have managed to piece together some idea of their origins through remaining sources and archaeological evidence. The people who founded, and made up, the 'Aztec Empire' come from the Uto-Aztecan language group which comprised of thirty languages of which Nahuatl was, (and still is), the largest. It is currently believed that a nomadic group of the Nahua people named the Chichimeca under the leadership of chief Xolotl settled in the Valley of Mexico in 1224. Here they founded Tenayuca. There other groups followed and were ruled by petty kings called tlahtoqueh. Eventually in 1250 the Mexica arrived in the Valley. One tradition states that they started for Mexico in 1111 bring led by their tribal deity Huitzilopochtli whose idol was carried by four priests called teomanaque. Official history states that they came from a place called 'Aztlan' and called themselves the 'Azteca' and on the march to the Valley Huitzilopchtli gave them the name 'Mexica'. On their journey Huitzilopchtli was supposedly born at the mythical Coatepec (Snake Mountain) where he became a sun god showing the Mesoamerican idea of time.

By the time that the Mexica had arrived in the Valley most of the fertile land had been taken by the established city states. As a result many had to act as mercenaries, quite fitting as Huitzilopchtli was a war god as well as a sun god, and were eventually made 'serfs' by the city of Colhuacan. In an attempt to 'civilize' them the Colhuacan king gave his daughter to the chief as a bride in 1323 but she was sacrificed, (and possibly flayed), in the hope that she would become a war goddess. Colhuacan then expelled them from the lands. A prophecy from Huitzilopchtli stated that the Mexica will have a sacred spot which would be marked by an eagle perching on a nopal cactus which they supposedly saw on Lake Texcoco where in 1325 they started building Tenochtitlan. Later by 1344 or 1345 the tribe split with one tribe founding Tenochtitlan and another going north to found Tlatelolco. 
Rear of the Teocalli Stone which depicts the eagle
Around 1367 the Mexica came into an alliance with the Tepanac kingdom of Atzcapotzalco who was ruled by Tezozomoc. For Tepanac protection the Mexica would send levies and fight for Tezozomoc. Here we begin to see a later trend in societies with a landed elite. The military commanders, tlatoani, and nobles, pipiltin, gained land through conquest and were rewarded land for fighting. The tlatoani were elected by a council of clan, calpulli, elders. Also it is important to note that the ruler of Tenochtitlan was elected by a council and not inherited father and son. However the son was always elected. One tlatoani of Tenochtitlan even married Tezozomoc's granddaughters. How did the 'Aztec' rise to power then? During a campaign to conquer Texcoco in 1426 Tezozomoc died and his son Maxtla took power after murdering a rival. Maxtla had the Tenochtitlan tlatoani assassinated and Itzcoatl was elected with the support of another tlatoani Motecuhzoma Ihuilcamina. As Tenochtitlan had grown in power they decided to oust Tepananc Atzcapotzalco rule. Tenochtitlan and Texcoco formed an alliance and joined with a dissident Tepananc city of Tlacopan. They managed to conquer Atzcapotzalco in 1428 forming the Triple Alliance, or as it is commonly called the Aztec Empire.

Artist portrayal of Tenochtitlan
When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments... on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream?... I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.
This is what Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote about Tenochtitlan in The Conquest of New Spain. At almost 14 square kilometers in size with a population over 200,000 Tenochtitlan dwarfed most cities in Europe at the same time. One of the most famous aspect of Triple Alliance cities was the chinampa district in most cities which Castillo refers to as 'cities and villages built in the water'. Chinampas were, (and are), 'floating gardens' as observers have described. In reality they are securely built up the shallow lakebed in fertile layers anchored by slender willows. The chinampas were organised in rectangles which were separated by small canals. They were so successful that they could generate seven harvests a year! Maize, beans, flowers, chili peppers, tomatoes, amaranth and squash were all grown on these chinampas. Quite remarkably many were made by reclaiming swamp land so it can help supply the cities. The cities were like the other Mesoamerican cities and the cities on the Incas in Peru in the fact that they were centers of trade. Each calpulli, about twenty in Tenochtitlan, had its own marketplace which Hernan Cortés estimated to be larger than Salamanca. Although this was an exaggeration the marketplace was certainly large with over 20,000 people a day trading there. Tlateloco had a similarly large marketplace having 25,000 there daily which rose to 40-50,000 on every fifth day when there was a special market. Markets were supplied via canoes. Bernal Diaz described some of the things seen at the market at Tlateloco:
Let us go and speak of those who sold beans and sage and other vegetables and herbs in another part, and to those who sold fowls, cocks with wattles, rabbits, hares, deer, mallards, young dogs and other things...the women who sold cooked food, dough and tripe in their own part of the market; then every sort of pottery made in a thousand different forms from great water jars to little jugs...I could wish that I had finished telling of all the things which are sold there, but they are so numerous and of such different quality and the great market place with its surrounding arcades was so crowded with people, that one would not have been able to see and inquire about it all in two days.
Moon Pyramid
The cities of the Triple Alliance were centered around public buildings, palaces and religious buildings. These normally included a Pyramid of the Moon, Pyramid of the Sun, and a Temple to Quetzalcoatl. A tlachtli ball court was often found. Tlachtli was the 'Aztec' ball game which was mix of soccer and basketball and would sometimes see the sacrifice of four war captives. In the center of the city was the royal palace safe from external attack.

Social Structure and Society
Like every state in history there was a rigid social structure. At the head of the three cities was the Huehuetlatoani who acted as a king of each city and one of these were chosen to be Huey tlatoani (Great Speaker) for the confederation. The Huey tlatoani was more concerned with external affairs of the confederation with a Chihuacoatl ruling the city itself. As Tenochtitlan was the most powerful of the three cities normally they became the Huey tlatoani. The Chihuacoatl was normally a close relative of the Huey tlatoani and would be the equivalent of a European prime minister or Islamic vizier. This position was essential as the tlatoani had to deal with constant external affairs. Unlike other empires the Triple Alliance had a tribute system which they exacted tribute from or warred against to get prisoners for sacrifice. Priests, tlamacazqui, were extremely important in society. A recurrent theme in Mesoamerican religions is world renewal and the tlamacazqui was expected to perform rituals in the city ensure the maintenance and renewal of human society. He, (it was always a he), was also expected to go an annual pilgrimage to a shrine on Mt Tlalco to perform the dry-season rites calling for rain and renewal. Castillo did not describe them positively but in his description we can see Orientalist discourse present:
They wore black cloaks like cassocks and long gowns reaching to their feet. Some had hoods like those worn by canons, and others had smaller hoods...Their hair was covered with blood, and so matted together that it could not be separated, and their ears were cut to pieces by way of penance. They stank like sulphur and they had another bad smell like carrion. They were the sons of chiefs and abstained from women. They fasted on certain days and what I saw them eat was the pith of seeds. The nails on their fingers were very long, and we heard it said that these priests were very pious and led good lives.
Children in Triple Alliance society were raised to respect elders and deities in a similar way to Chinese Confucianism. Childbirth was seen as being a major occasion with midwives shouting war cries and a ritual would take place. Male umbilical cords would be taken by a warrior to a battlefield to be buried as a female cord would be buried by the hearth (representing their places in society). The Codex Mendoza, (a history of Mexico and all its culture made by the Spanish for Charles V), showed the strict raising of children as well as harsh punishments for the worst rulebreakers (including be held over a fire of roasting chili peppers). Surprisingly for a 'pre-modern' society education was open for all classes and sexes. Commoners had the telpochcalli which taught moral/religious training, history, ritual dancing and singing, and public singing. Boys were taught military training while girls were taught to participate in religious cults for later life. Richer classes had the calmecac although smarter commoners could enter it. Although patriarchal Elizabeth Brumfiel has shown that male/female relations was largely gender complimentary. Men and women were seen as equally related in their respective families, could equally own or inherit property/assets, and held equal positions in the markets, schools and temples. Women in temples were linked to female deity cults. We shall now turn to religion.

A depiction of Quetzalcoatl
For time constraints we won't go into detail about 'Aztec' religion. One of the most important and well-known is Quetzalcoatl who is often portrayed as a feathered serpent. Throughout Mesoamerican cultures we see various feathered serpents including Kukulkan in Mayan religion. One story is that the there have been five ages, (the one which the Triple Alliance existed in was the Fifth Age), and Quetzalcoatl formed the Fifth Age. He sacrificed all the gods and then blew on the sun to make it move. Some stories even has him being a comic, trickster god although after the Conquest this side of him appears far less. As mentioned earlier the Mexica greatly honored Huitzilopochtli who was a sun and war god. In Tenochtitlan he shared the Temple Mayor in the center of the city with the rain god Tlaloc. According to Castillo as Huitzilopochtli wore a hummingbird helmet the Aztecs saw the conquistadors helmets resembling Huitzilopochtli's so assumed the Spanish were people like them. One aspect of Aztec religion seen most prominently in the media was sacrifice. Sacrifice was done at certain times of the year at very precise moments, (all Mesoamerican cultures were extremely accurate with their astronomy), and sacrifice was seen as giving gifts to the gods for food. Most of the sacrifices were food like amaranth cakes and the first corn tortillas were eaten at dawn as a sacrifice to the sun. Human sacrifice was also prevalent. Numbers of those sacrificed were embellished by conquistadors to justify their conquest. Only important figures such as warriors taken from tribute states were sacrificed in the temples as they were seen as the best to honor the gods.

The Fall
A depiction of the Fall of Tenochtitlan
The Triple Alliance fell in some of the bloodiest periods of European conquest of the Americas. In 1517 Hernandez de Cordoba arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula sailing from Cuba. There they fought several Maya formations. In 1519 Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors arrived searching for the famed gold of the Triple Alliance. Meanwhile, Motecuhzoma II of Tenochtitlan heard stories of new strange sailing ships and outlandish people on the coast. Cortés had brought with him 500 soldiers and 100 sailors who lacked gold, land or inheritance but did have the crusading spirit of a newly unified Spain. Since the sixteenth-century it has been said that Motecuhzoma believed that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl who had been prophesied to return in the year 1-reed (1519). However, Nigel Davies has highlighted that the original legend had been transformed into a prophesy and Susan Gillespie has argued that this story of Cortés being Quetzalcoatl was invented after the Conquest to make sense of the quick Spanish victory. It is likely that Motecuhzoma treated them as royal emissaries and their gifts were thus gifts for ambassadors and not for gods, (one such was a golden disc 'as large as a cartwheel' valued at 20,000 ducats). Inspired by the wealth in Mexico Cortés burnt his ships and decided to conquer the Triple Alliance. Using tributes which had borne the brunt of the Triple Alliance the Spanish to deprive the Aztecs of their forces and used them to fight their overlords. Cortés arrived back at Tenochtitlan where Motecuhzoma greeted them again and the Spanish, (and their local allies), eventually took him captive where he was killed. Fearing reprisal by the Mexica they fled but left behind the most destructive weapon of all: smallpox. We shall discuss the Great Dying in a future post but here 50% of Tenochtitlan's population died thanks to the horrific disease including the emperor himself. Meanwhile the Spanish made an alliance with the Texcocans, Tlaxcalans and other cities wanting to break free from Triple Alliance rule. Together they laid siege to Tenochtitlan and it fell in 1521. With the fall of Tenochtitlan years of subjugation for the indigenous peoples of Mexico began.

The Triple Alliance remains a key point in history. It was a unique civilization which showed a continuation of Mesoamerican culture while also representing something new. It represents how pervasive colonial thought is in our culture. We refer to them as a name invented by someone who lived centuries after they fell, today their religion is portrayed as being bathed in blood and human hearts based on the description from Spanish conquerors, and still a story that they were naive believing that Cortés was a god. Their fall shows the destructiveness of colonialism. Finally they also helped shape what Mexico wanted to be. Mexico itself is named after the Mexica people who ruled Tenochtitlan and currently Mexico City is built on Tenochtitlan. Mexico's flag even portrays the eagle eating a snake on the cactus which the Mexica supposedly saw. Although the colonialists tried to erase the memory of the Aztec Empire they remained to shape how Mexico tried to see itself.

Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-The Aztecs, third edition, by Richard F. Townsend
-Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, sixth edition, by Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz
-1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, second edition, by Charles C. Mann
-Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology by Kay Almere Read and Jason Gonzalez

For a list of other World History posts please see here. There's a Facebook page so you can keep updated and follow/message me on Twitter @LewisTwiby

Saturday, 8 July 2017

World History: Age of Exploration

The Waldseemüller Map, made 1507
The above photo is of the famous Waldseemüller Map made in 1513. It is important because in the year 1513 it is possibly the first map to not only show America but also have the name 'America', (named after Amerigo Vespucci), on it. Just twenty years earlier the first Europeans since the Vikings had landed on the American continent. Today we'll be looking at a period of time generally referred to as 'The Age of Exploration' or 'The Age of Discovery' which precipitated Europe's bloody conquest of the world. Today we shall be looking at the voyages of people to see exactly what they discovered if they discovered anything at all. Before we look at the voyages, however, we have to know what areas of the world knew about the rest.

What the World Knew
Marco Polo in China
When we looked at the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean we saw an interconnected world years before the likes of Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Christopher Columbus came onto the scene. The ones who easily knew the most were those in the Islamic world. Spanning both the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans this gave Muslim merchants the ability to trade across both bodies of water. By the 1300s Muslims had even established trading posts in China and mosques were even used as lighthouses for coastal cities occasionally. Perhaps the most well known Muslim traveler was Ibn Battuta who in the first half of the fourteenth-century traveled across all areas where Muslims lived. Over his life he left his home of Morocco traveling to the Arabian peninsula to India to Java to China and to Mali. India too was connected to this trade route. For centuries India had a faint knowledge of Europe with them sending a Buddhist mission to the Roman Empire, although it never reached Rome and only reached Egypt. India was well aware of China and would trade ivory with the Celestial Empire. China had a good knowledge of the world east of the Mediterranean through the Indian Ocean trade. By the time Columbus set off China had visited and reported Africa, Arabia and Anatolia. Europe lagged behind in this respect. Following the Crusades Europe's connection to the world beyond was via the Mediterranean trade controlled by either the Byzantines or Ottomans. In the 1330s, however, Spain and Portugal had already started heading west conquering and colonizing the Azores and Canary Islands. More famously was the travels of Marco Polo. Although there is a chance that Marco Polo never actually visited the court of the Mongols in China regardless it shows Europe's knowledge of China. Whether by visiting or by collating/embellishing records from other travelers Polo managed to somewhat accurately describe the Yuan court. Above is a painting of his visit to China; it also shows how Europeans viewed China before the onset of Orientalism and racism. The Chinese and Chinese cities are depicted in a European style.

One last group we shall look at is those who themselves were colonized. The Mesoamericans had either mapped in detail or had good knowledge of central America. They knew all of this region from the Isthmus of Panama up to northern Mexico, (although not as far as the current Mexican border along the Rio Grande). The Aztec system of government relied on exacting tribute from local kingdoms so naturally they knew Mesoamerica well. In the south the Incas had mapped and recorded the Andes in intimate detail. Incan roads were extremely good so communication along the Andes allowed the mountains to be mapped in detail. However, being in the Andes the Incas knew little of the lands east of the Andes but it is hard to be certain. In the Pacific the Polynesians knew a lot of the Pacific. The Polynesians had some of the best navigators in human history and from the Marshall Islands they had at least some knowledge of huge areas of the Pacific including Hawaii, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. Before we look at the famous explorers we shall first look at China which we briefly spoke of when we talked about the Ming.

Zheng He and the Ming
The giraffe taken by Zheng He
The first person who we shall look at is Zheng He. Starting in 1405 and ending in 1433 Zheng He went on a series of seven voyages during the reign of the Yongle emperor. These voyages went all across the Indian Ocean to Indonesia to Arabia to India to even East Africa using the largest fleet in human history until the First World War. Chinese sources have a habit of embellishing figures but in the 1960s the Ming shipyards were discovered outside of Nanjing confirming the immense size of the Ming ships. The first voyage even had a crew of 27,000. Why though did the Ming go on these voyages? Julia Lovell has put forward several theories of which two seem to be the real reason: power projection and to confirm the Yongle emperor's power domestically. Although the voyages sometimes had 30,000 soldiers on them and often intervened in local affairs like in a Sumatran civil war, but they never set out to conquer other lands. Similarly although they carried Chinese goods and goods from other lands trade was never their main goal. A long trend in Chinese history was for China to view itself as the main power in the world, (which for much of its history was accurate), and expected other states to deliver tribute to China. These voyages were part of this. Lovell, Rana Mitter and Craig Clunas have suggested that the Ming may have been aware of the growing power of the Timurid Empire in the west. These voyages were clearly done to project Chinese power. The massive fleets carrying thousands of Chinese soldiers and goods were to show this power. On one voyage they even kidnapped a Sri Lankan king who refused to acknowledge Chinese supremacy. The voyages were also done to project the power of the Yongle emperor. He had come to power by ousting his nephew so naturally he wanted to legitimize his rule. By bullying smaller states and bringing back luxury goods to give to the elite this was a good way to become legitimate. The voyages brought back animals and the one from Africa brought back a giraffe. This is important as giraffes resemble the qilin, a mythical unicorn like animal from Chinese mythology, which was said to only appear during the rule of righteous emperors. Naturally this was a huge propaganda boost for the Yongle emperor. It is important to note that after Yongle died the voyages barely lasted ten years after his death.

Who led these voyages? A eunuch called Zheng He led these voyages and his story reflects how these voyages worked. His father was a Muslim in the service of the Mongol court and Zheng was captured aged ten by the new rising Ming dynasty who made him a eunuch. Yongle was close to the eunuchs and came to power through them so he got his friend to lead the voyages. Zheng being a Muslim had connections to the Arabian peninsula so as a result the first voyage was to Arabia. As we have already seen the Islamic world had mapped out many areas which Zheng had followed. The Chinese fleets kept to the coast, just like other merchants, and never visited any areas which had not previously been recorded. Despite some recent claims Zheng never reached America as China had no records of the Americas. He never went east from Nanjing, only west. Can we call this period of time the Age of Discovery or Exploration if one of the greatest explorers never explored somewhere new or undiscovered?

Iberian Voyages
A statue of Bartolomeu Dias
The Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was in perfect position to start exploring and conquering the areas outside of Europe. We shall save the actual conquest of Asia, Africa and America for a future post as it deserves a post for itself. Long before the conquistadors set out to conquer and enslave in Mesoamerica and the Andes, before the mass enslavement of Africans to be sent to the Americas, and before the genocide of Native Americans Iberia had started to explore and colonize in the Atlantic. In 1415 Prince Henry of Portugal would capture the city of Ceuta in Morocco and he would become known as Henry the Navigator. Inspired by the legend of a Christian king called Prester John whose kingdom was supposedly somewhere in Africa he was seen as the patron of Portuguese navigation. He believed that the best way to tap into the Saharan gold and slave trade, (as well as finding Prester John's kingdom), was for sea exploration. With the new compass, possibly imported from China which Zheng He was using to navigate the Indian Ocean at the same time, he organised over fifty voyages supported by map-makers, astronomers, and mathematicians. The Azores, Madeira, and São Tomé were soon colonized by Portugal. Spain was late compared to Portugal in exploration. For many years what is now Spain was divided between three main kingdoms: Castile, Aragon and Grenada. Grenada was a Muslim state and in 1469 the two Christian kingdoms formed a dynastic union when Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon. In 1492 their combined forces conquered Grenada and with a continued crusading zeal decided to channel this into navigation.

Before we look at the main actors we'll look at a Portuguese navigator named Bartolomeu Dias. The above photo is a statue of Dias in South Africa. Some of you may be wondering why a Portuguese navigator is being honored with a statue in South Africa. The reason is in 1488 Dias rounded the tip of South Africa. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople so now Christian Europe's connection to the eastern markets were controlled by Muslims instead of Christians. Zealous Portugal and Spain were outraged at having to trade with Muslims but they still wanted access to the lucrative spice market. Portugal wanting access to the Indian markets so sent Dias to get access to India via southern Africa. Although Henry the Navigator had died by this time his life goal was continued by Dias; one of his mission goals was to find Prester John's kingdom. Dias originally named where he traversed the 'Cape of Storms' but a later king renamed it Cape of Good Hope as it was Portugal's access to the Indian Ocean.

Christopher Columbus
Of all the people in history Christopher Columbus is one of the most controversial. We shall discuss his post-exploration career (and his legacy) in a future post and why there should not be a Christopher Columbus Day. Columbus represented everything that Europe was at the time. Born in Genoa he had been a merchant trading along the west coast of Africa and all across the Mediterranean. He had access to the compass which the Portuguese had used to colonize the Atlantic islands and across the Cape. Thanks to the letterpress made by Gutenberg in 1436 detailed maps and records became readily available for him to pour over. Despite what the media often says Columbus was fully aware that the planet was round, (since the time of the Greeks humanity had known that the Earth wasn't flat). Based on Ptolemy and the Imago Mundi, taken from Muslim scholars, he overestimated Asia's size so he thought he could find an alternate route to the Indies by sailing west instead of going around the Cape. Originally Columbus tried to get Portugal to invest his expedition, not Spain, and despite the media portrayal Isabella did not believe in him. Isabella of Spain is often portrayed in a sexist light where Columbus woes her into believing his plan and then convincing Ferdinand. In reality she turned him down and when Columbus was leaving Cordoba Ferdinand had the navigator summoned back where he offered to fund his expedition in 1492. Filled with crusading zeal Spain wished to find an alternate route to the Indian Ocean and find Christians so they could continue crusading in northern Africa. On October 12, 1492 Columbus landed in the New World. He landed on an island in the Bahamas which he called San Salvador

On San Salvador he was greeted by the local Arawak people who were peaceful. The Arawaks had lots of gold and Columbus took some captive to demand where their gold jewelry came from. He even boasted in his writings that he could have conquered them with fifty men and govern them as he pleased. This would start a precedent for the subjugation of the Americas by Europeans leading to genocide, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. He left the Caribbean with enslaved people and gold arriving in Lisbon in March 1493. He wrote:
Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled. Of which I took possession without resistance in the name of our most illustrious Monarchs, by public proclamation and with unfurled banners. To the first of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of the blessed Savior, relying upon whose protection I had reached this as well as the other islands.
His words spread rapidly through Europe via the printing press so copies soon emerged in Barcelona, Paris, Antwerp, Rome and Basel. Edmundo O'Gorman has described the 'invention of America' coming from Columbus' journey. Columbus never learnt the local language and imposed his own ideas on the islands which he encountered. He expected to find cannibals, Amazons, and mountains of gold, found none and then said that the locals always told him of another island which had them. He never once thought that he had discovered a new continent but instead had landed in the Indies. Today we still refer to it as the West Indies and his name for the locals, indios (Indians), is still used occasionally. Columbus' description of the local peoples reflects how Europeans would later describe Native Americans on the mainland, Indians, Africans, and other colonized peoples. He highly praised them at times but then would heavily disparage their culture. The best way to show this is by using an excerpt from his letter which he wrote upon his return:
They are naturally timid and fearful. As soon as they see they are safe, however, they are very simple and honest, and exceedingly liberal with all they have...the women seem to work more than the men. I could not clearly understand whether the people possess any private property...I did not find, as some of us had expected, any cannibals among them, but on the contrary men of great deference and kindness.
The early stages of colonialism and imperialism that would characterize later world history can be seen here. As described by Antonio Gramsci we see a cross-cultural encounter that starts to clash. Columbus regards the Arawaks as being 'men of great deference' but seems perplexed by the lack of private property as what happened in Europe. As we shall see in later posts this begrudging respect would soon be supplemented by scorn. Columbus himself would become known for his appalling treatment of the indigenous peoples.

Vasco da Gama and early Portuguese conquest
Da Gama in India
Portugal wanted to dominate the spice trade. Portugal lacked resources so was heavily reliant on trade and the proto-capitalist world was heavily reliant on trade. In 1497 Manuel I sponsored a fleet of four ships armed with cannons under Vasco da Gama to find two things: gold and Christians. Around ninety years after Henry the Navigator first captured Ceuta the Portuguese were still hunting for Prester John hoping to recruit him in a crusade in north Africa. Using technology and astronomical charts made by Henry the Navigator da Gama sailed around the Cape (Europe soon realized that they hadn't found a new route to the Indian Ocean). While in the Indian Ocean da Gama found mariners who knew the seas well. On his initial voyage he bombarded Calicut but was still heavily rewarded by Manuel I who gave him the title 'Admiral of the Indian Ocean'. The king sent da Gama back to enforce Portuguese interests where he destroyed an Indian fleet and captured Calicut where they used their cannons to break in. He returned to Portugal carrying huge amounts of spices, gold and jewels. With Portugal's gains in West Africa early colonialism greatly expanded Portuguese wealth. Portugal then founded a 'trading post empire'. It would take until the 1700s and 1800s for Europe to properly to establish itself in Asia and Africa so at this early stage they would instead take coastal cities which could easily be held using their cannons. Most famously in 1515 they captured Goa. This allowed Portugal to directly tap into the Indian markets with 40,300 tonnes of shipping going to Asia in return for 26,300 tonnes between 1497 and 1510. We soon see a clash of cultures. Indian states had always been land powers being disinterested in the sea. Their sovereignty ended at the coast in their mind. This differed to the Mediterranean where states battled for supremacy. When Portugal established themselves in India they engaged in basically piracy attacking any Indian ship not carrying a licence called a cartaz. Few could afford a cartaz however so this was used by the Portuguese, (and by later Europeans including the Dutch, French and British), to exercise power. Here we see the origins of European world hegemony.

Can we really call this an Age of Exploration? Zheng He and Vasco da Gama used already established routes to travel along, and even then they were interested in breaking into (or breaking) markets which they already knew. Columbus, despite 'discovering' America, had wanted to also break into this market and only failed thanks to him overestimating Asia's size and underestimating the size of the oceans. Even then we cannot say that he explored or discovered anything. Millions of people lived in the Americas. Below we have a map of the areas which was actually discovered (i.e. where no humans had actually been):
Places actually Discovered
In this period we also see the trends which will go on to characterize European imperialism. Portugal in India managed to create an edge for itself by using brief technological advantages to then impose European ideas. This clash of ideas would give Europeans an excuse to dominate the local peoples. Meanwhile, in the Americas Columbus showed an Orientalist view on the indigenous peoples. Centuries later Thomas Jefferson would lament the fate of Native Americans but would blame them for not accepting European culture and religion. We see the same in the Indies. In a future post we shall explore this further. For the next two posts, however, we will focus on the Aztecs and Incas. We shall look at these two unique cultures before they were broken by European greed and power. Thank you for reading and I have used these sources:
-Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
-The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700 by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
-The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism by Joyce Appleby
-The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
-Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan
-'The Ming Voyages', BBC In Our Time
-Laura Benton, 'Legal Spaces of Empire: Piracy and the Origins of Ocean Regionalism', Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2005
For other World History posts please see here