|A depiction of Columbus|
In 1492 Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. Hardly two years later on June 7 1494 Pope Alexander VI divided this 'New World' along a line 370 leagues west of the Portuguese held Cape Verde islands with the Treaty of Tordesillas. Portugal would hold everything east of this line while Castille-Aragon (Spain) would hold everything to the west. Although the rest of Europe would ignore this treaty it would nevertheless begin around six centuries of European domination and exploitation of the rest of the world. We touched briefly on colonialism when we looked at the Age of Exploration as well as the empires of the Aztec and the Inca. This post will look mainly at the empires of Spain and Portugal but we shall also look at the French, English/British and the Dutch. As a side note slavery will be touched on briefly in this post as I plan to look more closely at slavery in the next World History post. First we shall look at the origins of the European empires.
The Start of Empire
|Henry the Navigator|
Those who read the post on the Age of Discovery will know that European conquest of the non-European world started long before Columbus. As early as 1415 a Portuguese prince nicknamed Henry the Navigator would capture Ceuta in Morocco and would fund over fifty voyages as well as cartographers, mathematicians and astronomers in order to map the non-European world. Henry and many other Portuguese/Spanish nobles became obsessed with finding the mythical kingdom of Prester John, (and gold). Prester John was a mythical Christian ruler and the rulers of Aragon, Castille and Portugal hoped to find this kingdom and recruit it into a crusade against non-Christians. It is important to remember that the Muslim Emirate of Granada was not conquered by Christian Spanish forces until 1492 so the crusading spirit lasted much longer in the Iberian peninsula compared to the rest of Europe. Both Portugal and Spain had created colonies in the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands, and Sao Tome. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded what is now referred to as the Cape of Good Hope. In 1453 the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople so European powers did not wish to access, or could not access, the lucrative spice market via a Muslim power. As a result the Spanish throne somewhat reluctantly sponsored Columbus' voyage to find an alternate route to the Indies. Instead he arrived in the Americas. Edmundo O'Gorman wrote that when Columbus arrived there was an 'invention of America'. Columbus had expected cannibals, Amazons, and mountains of gold but was repeatedly told by the people he encountered that there were none and if there were they would be on the next island. Many of the sources which we have of the European-American interactions were shaped by European preconceptions. Edward Said's Orientalist theory fits very well here. Said wrote that Europeans arrived in the colonized regions with their own ideas of what culture/civilization was and because it clashed with the local culture they in turn saw it as 'backward' or 'decadent'.
In Columbus' first letters which were widely distributed upon his return in 1493 we clearly see this. In reference to possibly the Arawak people he wrote: '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...' Here we see Columbus portray them as almost childlike in their actions. He goes on to write: 'I did not find, as some of had expected, any cannibals among them...' showing that he still had his preconceptions about the people. In his diary we see the horrific side of what would come in European colonialism. He wrote: 'These people are very unskilled in arms... with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished' and '[that upon his arrival the indigenous people cried] with a loud voice to the other Indians "Come, come and look upon beings of a celestial race"'. Here we see that Columbus clearly wished to conquer and enslave the local peoples, (which he did, by the end of the decade he sold over 1,400 to Spanish slave markets), as well as viewing himself as being superior. This would be a common theme in not only the Spanish empire but also that of Portugal, Britain, the Dutch and French.
The Great Dying
|A Depiction of the Great Dying|
The Great Dying is a term coined by historians to describe the genocide of Native Americans. When Europeans arrived in the Americas they not only brought with them weapons, animals, and vegetables but also diseases. As we saw when we looked at the Aztecs and Inca these empires were devastated by epidemics which allowed Spanish conquest under Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro to happen far more easily. When Columbus arrived on Santo Domingo, (Espanola), in 1492 there was around a million inhabitants but by the end of the 1520s when the conquistadors were conquering the mainland hardly any were left. Principally measles and smallpox, whom the Native Americans had virtually no immunity against, complicated by respiratory ailments devastated populations. Fourteen major epidemics in Mesoamerica and seventeen in the Andes wiped out whole populations between 1520 and 1600. In Mesoamerica local outbreaks of malaria, possibly introduced by Italian soldiers and Spanish merchants, added to this. It has been estimated that between 50% to 90% of the Native American population was wiped out. The later European states like France and the Netherlands also contributed to this in North America. This is especially prominent prior to and during the American Revolution. During Pontiac's Uprising in the early 1760s the British General Jeffrey Amherst even resorted to handing out blankets from smallpox hospitals to negotiating chiefs. Although this was rare it did happen. Although disease was not only part of the Great Dying.
The European empires enslaved thousands of Native Americans. Although both the Spanish and Portuguese empires made the enslavement of Native Americans illegal, King Sebastiao of Portugal made it illegal in 1570 except for those taken during war, many thousands were enslaved before then. In what is now Nicaragua between 1500 and 1550 an estimated 200,000 were taken by slave raiders and by the 1560s there were 40,000 were slave labors in north Brazil. Conditions for slaves were awful with many thousands dying in mines looking for gold, silver and mercury. As early as 1515 this was criticized by Bartolome de las Casas. In Protestant countries this gave rise to the 'Black Legend' which then was used to justify their colonialism. In the English, and later British, colonies Native Americans were taken from North America and taken to the Caribbean where they were forced to work on sugar plantations. Brutal conditions, disease, and the climate created an extremely high mortality rate. For the Native Americans regardless of whether the conqueror was Catholic or Protestant colonialism only brought destruction.
|Some of what was exchanged|
The Columbian Exchange is a term used to describe the movement of plants, animals and diseases from the Americas to Europe, Asia and Africa, and vice versa. As we mentioned above many diseases like measles, smallpox and influenza was spread from the 'Old World' to the 'New World'. It was believed that syphilis originated in the Americas but was spread to Europe via Columbus, (who had syphilis himself), although this is now disputed. Alfred Crosby has presented evidence suggesting that there is little evidence of syphilis before 1492 in the Americas, but equally he presents evidence that cultures across Europe, North Africa and Asia saw it as something new. Italians called it the French disease, the French the Naples disease, English the French, Spanish or Bordeaux disease, Russians the Polish disease, Poles the German disease, Indians the Frankish disease, Middle Easterners the European pustules, Chinese the ulcer of Canton, and Japan the Tang sore. With the exception of llamas in the Andes all large mammals that were able to be domesticated in the Americas had gone extinct during the last Ice Age so Europeans introducing cattle, pigs, sheep etc. changed the American landscape. North American Plains Native Americans domesticated horses from Europe and they became integral to their culture. Although it took generations for the landscape to be shaped by Europeans to let European livestock to live. English colonizers initially complained that they couldn't eat beef as the cows couldn't survive so they had to eat lobster instead. Plants were a key part of the exchange. Bananas, coffee and sugar were taken from Africa and became integral crops in the American economy, (especially sugar in the Caribbean and coffee in Brazil). Likewise potatoes, corn and tomatoes were introduced to Europe. Potatoes soon became a staple crop in the diet of many peoples, the Irish being possibly the most famous one. Cocoa and tobacco were also introduced with tobacco becoming so widespread that King James VI and I of Scotland and England even banned it. Even words were spread. In Brazil the colonizers adopted the local hammock with one arrival saying: 'Would you believe that a man could sleep suspended in a net in the air like a bunch of hanging grapes?...I tried it and I will never again be able to sleep in a bed...' Tobacco, tapioca and manioc are just some of the words whose origins were in the Americas.
This is also a good time to talk about silver. Particularly the Spanish crown were eager to see the profits from silver mines in South America. 80% of the world's silver was produced during the three centuries of Spanish rule in the Americas and two-thirds of it went to Europe via Spain. Soon the Spanish currency became the most powerful currency in perhaps the world, (as the British pound was during the 1800s or the American dollar after 1945). Thanks to American silver Spain managed to fund, or directly fight, wars across Europe. Of course this also made Spanish galleons perfect for raiding by English, Dutch and even at times French licensed pirates, like Sir Francis Drake. Unfortunately for the Spanish such an influx in silver caused skyrocketing inflation and fighting so many wars proved to be a drain on the Spanish treasury. This allowed France, England and the Netherlands to also rise as regional or colonial powers.
Colonial Society in the Americas
|The Spanish Colonial System|
Society varied over geography, colony and time so we can't talk about every system. In Peru the Spanish Empire continued the old mitmaq system of the Inka having the indigenous peoples upkeep roads, buildings and mines, often through force. In the Spanish Empire the encomienda system was established for the conquerors; Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of the Aztec Empire, had one of the largest encomiendas. The Native Americans, and later Filipinos, in an encomienda were considered vassals of the encomendaro, i.e. slaves. It was this system which Bartolomé de las Casas heavily criticized. When the genocide of Native Americans had devastated the population the encomienda was replaced by the haciendas which were smaller scale ranches and mines. Like Spain, and the Inkan/Mesoamerican empires, the colonies were incredibly hierarchical. At the top were the peninsulares, reinois in Brazil, who were from the mainland of which the highest ranking were the viceroys. Below them were creoles who were Europeans born in the Americas. Below them were the mestizos and mulattos who were descended from the marriage, or rape, of Europeans with Native Americans or slaves. At the bottom were slaves from Africa or Native Americans. As generations passed this system became more complex until there were over thirty different distinctions made by the Spanish. In the colonies slavery was widespread, (which we'll talk about next time), and there were many in Brazil. From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century 3.5 million slaves were taken from across Africa. In Brazil escapee slaves formed small communities called quilombos, often with Native Americans, which later offered refuge to religious minorities and political dissenters.
The British colonial system in North America differed from this but at the same time was very similar. In the Caribbean it was very similar to Latin America. This is also a perfect time to talk about religion. Colonialism coincided with the Reformation and colonizers brought their religious conviction to the colonies. The English colonies in New England were formed through religious dissenters, often called Puritans but the ones to arrive at Plymouth were Pilgrims, and Massachusetts had a population of 21,000 by 1642. Here there was greater tolerance to the Native Americans as they showed the colonizers how to farm the land. However, as the population expanded this alliance soon came to resemble the Black Legend of their Iberian counterparts. In many areas of the English colonies, especially in Carolina, a social hierarchy was established. Rich colonizers could sponsor poor English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish in something called indentured servitude, (something later replicated in British India). It was expensive to buy African slaves and Native American slaves could easily escape so they resorted to enslaving poor Irish and Brits under the illusion that it was freeing them. For five years an indentured person would be the owner's slave in everything but name. If they got pregnant or married more years were added to their contract. Thanks to poor conditions many died before their contract ended. Only when conditions improved and more lived than died did slavery come into full force in British North America.
Europe and Africa
|A Crucifix from the Kongo|
European-African relations were far less one sided compared to European-American relations. Most of the relations in this section of the world has been dominated by the slave trade so we shall discuss that more in the next World History post. Diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, which Europeans had little resistance to, limited Portuguese presence as well as the strength of the coastal African kingdoms. When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica and the Andes the Aztec and Inka were facing major domestic disturbances. For years Iberia had been enraptured by Africa. The wealth of Mali and the existence of one of the oldest Christian kingdoms with Ethiopia convinced many, including Henry the Navigator, wanted gold and the kingdom of Prester John. Instead of conquest trade happened. Benin, Oyo and Kongo would trade gold, ivory, sugar and slaves in return for wool, silk, tools and weapons. The sugar trade, made profitable by slavery, allowed the Caribbean islands to become very lucrative. Today Cuba is still famed for its sugar. In the Kingdom of the Kongo we see a unique amalgamation of Africa and Europe. Prosperous through both trade with Portugal and an internal African trade Kongo was a very powerful state. Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries hoped to make this kingdom Christian. The manikongo, (king), Nzinga Nkuwu accepted the missionaries hoping that this would open more doors for trade with Europe. He converted to Christianity adopting the name Jaoa, and his son adopted the name Afonso. Here African and Christian cultures combined forming an entirely new culture; something fairly easy as many Christian ideas were already present in the local culture.
Asia- Similarities and Differences
|Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqi|
In Asia the European empires differed greatly in their approach. In specific we shall look at China and Japan, and then India. China under the Ming held considerable sway in East Asia with merchants settling in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, although there was also an illegal trade with Japan as well. The Portuguese were the first to arrive in China and Japan, (1520s and 1540s), and the relationship was based on trade. Later the Spanish formed the city of Manila in 1571. Silver from South America, around a third of all silver, went to East Asia. In 1597 307 tons of silver passed through Manila to China and Japan. The Ming changed their tax system and currency in the late sixteenth-century. Instead of being taxed with goods people were taxed via currency which went from paper to silver coins. Silver from Japan and the Americas became very much in demand in China. Initially, like in India, Europeans remained very respectful of China and Japan. China viewed itself as the center of the world so European homage remained part of their world view. As the picture above shows Matteo Ricci adopted Chinese clothing and Europeans did the same in Japan as well. Japanese daimyo Oda Nobunaga was in particular eager to get hold of firearms. Christianity spread as both states tolerated missionaries. The worship of Christ became one of many religions and philosophies to exist within the Chinese empire alongside Confucianism, Islam, Taoism and Buddhism. However, things changed. Like in Spain the influx in silver caused issues for both China and Japan. Inflation added to the Ming's many issues and helped their collapse. Meanwhile, missionaries, particularly Jesuit missionaries, in Japan were seen as taking too many liberties with their growing influence. The rising power of Christianity and the addition of inflation caused Japan in the early 1600s to isolate itself from Europe excluding the new colonial power of the Netherlands who had access to Japan via Nagasaki.
India was different. Vasco da Gama had arrived in Calicut in 1488 to bring Portuguese influence to the Indian Ocean. Just over twenty years later in 1510 they captured Goa. Here Portugal formed factories. These were not like modern factories; instead they were trading posts to tap into the lucrative spice trade from the Indies. Here there was a cultural clash. Largely Indian states believed that their sovereignty stopped at the coast, something very different to European views, and piracy often was seen less negatively. Seasonal fishermen would turn pirate, raid coastal towns or ships, and then return home, (giving some of the profit to the local temple). When the Portuguese moved in they introduced the cartaz or licence. This meant one required a licence to trade or engage in piracy. This allowed Portugal to hold a trade monopoly as one had to pay for a cartaz which many Indians couldn't afford. Later the Dutch East India Company, Vereenigte Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), moved in. The VOC was a private company designed to profit from the spice trade through direct political power and to do that they waged war against Portugal and local rulers. This more direct action meant that no profits could be made. All profit was spent on war and defending themselves, and when the VOC finally got a monopoly on the spice trade the appeal of spices soon dissipated. England too tried to muscle into South Asia. While the Portuguese came as religious crusaders and the VOC in search of political power the English East Indian Company just wanted profit. Establishing themselves at Surat and Madras they traded at the bequest of the Mughal emperors. As England became more powerful, and local rulers made alliances with the Mughals, they used this to slowly extend their own political power. Over years this allowed direct English control over India.
Colonialism is one of the darkest parts of world history. Driven by greed and religious zealotry many hundreds of thousands to millions were killed or enslaved. This post has not even touched one of the darkest parts of colonialism, that of slavery. Colonialism would later shape the world that we live in today. It brought Christianity to central Africa via Kongo, caused the demographic makeup of Latin America to be changed, brought plants to Europe which would shape the region, and allowed empires to rise and fall. The position of the viceroyalties in Latin America even shaped what countries would form in the region centuries later. Next time we will look at a major side of colonialism: the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giraldez, 'Born with a "Silver Spoon": The Origin of World Trade in 1571', Journal of World History, 6/2
-Europe and the People Without History by Eric R. Wolf
-Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 by Merry Wiesner-Hanks
-Give Me Liberty! An American History by Eric Foner
-The Columbian Exchange by Alfred Crosby
-A History of Brazil by E. Bradford Burns
-Spain in America by Charles Gibson
-J.D. Fage, 'Upper and Lower Guinea' in The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. 3, c.1050-c.1600 edited by Roland Oliver
-A History of Colonial Brazil by Bailey W. Diffle
-Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. For other World History posts please see here. For other blog posts we have a Facebook page or see me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.