The Conquest of America

The Conquest of America

The subjugation of native peoples on the scale of mass genocide.

Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes were two Spanish conquistadors who sailed to the Caribbean and the Americas in the 14th and 15th centuries. While Columbus ultimately caused the destruction of the Natives in the Caribbean, Hernan Cortes was directly responsible for the destruction of the Aztec Empire as a whole. While Spain as an empire tried to colonize these people, Christianize them, and reap the benefits of their land in gold and silver, they ultimately lost control of their territories in the 19th century. This four hundred year conquest resulted in the loss of life on a scale that has only been described as genocide. The Spanish conquistadors treated the people that they conquered as lesser versions of humanity, described by many as “other.” Why deaths happened on a mass scale has been a debate throughout history going on centuries.

Christopher Columbus, the first conquistador, described the reasons why he saw the Native Americans as “other.” Columbus wrote a journal concerning his repeated travels to the Americas. In one of his earlier entries, he mentions their absence of clothing. In turn, he related this to mean there was also an absence of culture. This led to his further dehumanization of the Native Americans. He also favored the lighter skinned natives, the ones closer to his own color. Yet, although they were practically naked, he still described them as closer to men than to animals. He especially remarked the beauty of the women. Although he is constantly curious throughout his observations, he never truly tries to understand the people he encounters.

The European system of trade and exchange also lends itself to the conquest. This is one of the main reasons why Columbus ultimately sees the Native Americans as inferior. When Columbus found himself shipwrecked on Jamaica during one of his trips, he is confronted by a group of Natives. In order to communicate, an exchange is made, as they were lacking language with one another. Columbus was amazed to find that no matter what he decided to give to the natives, they would always give something extremely valuable in return. For example, the Spanish would give them a worthless trinket and they would respond with things of value, such as gold or jewels. This leads to the myth of the “noble savage.” They didn’t understand the value of items or the concept of trade. There was also no concept of private property, as everything was shared within the community. When the Spanish came to visit, the natives allowed them to use whatever they wished. When the natives tried to do the same, Columbus and his admirals cut off their noses and ears. The fact that they didn’t understand the concept of property and payment was enough for Columbus to believe that they were less human, and in their opinion, not Christian. This further degraded Columbus’s opinion of them.

The Natives were fooled by the Spaniards generosity. When friars visited the islands to understand the native’s concept of religion, they were surprised to find that it didn’t fall in line with what the Spanish Christians believed. They understood that the natives believed in some kind of supreme being. The difference was that the Spanish believed the natives felt as though the Spanish were from the heavens, due to the riches they brought on the conquest. This led to what some may describe as worship of the Spanish. The Spanish also showed that ultimately, they were very human. Their desire for wealth was their downfall, as the natives soon realized they Spanish weren’t who they thought they were. This was a concept that was realized and practiced around the world. The period of the Middle Ages brought about a religious concept that placed materials goods at the top of Christian core values. From here, it becomes a point of exchange: religion is transmitted to the natives in exchange for gold, silver, and other types of wealth. This was simply not enough for Columbus: he needed to conquer and create settlements. Here is where we see the transfer from assimilation to destruction.

The conquistadors feared that the natives would be unwilling to part with their treasures. When Columbus’s brother witnessed the natives defecating on Christian pictures and idols, it was asserted that they must be subdued. This was their justification for the enslavement and slaughter of the native peoples. They even went as far as to send pictures back to Spain showing the natives in a cannibalistic nature. Columbus also likened the slaves to be equal with parcels of wood, as he writes in his journal in September of 1498: “From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold, as well as a quantity of Brazil [timber].” This started a sort of slave trade between the Americas and Spain. Although Spain wished to have citizens who were able to pay taxes, Columbus was steadfast in his approach. As a result, many of the natives died due to the spread of disease and the fact that they weren’t accustomed to a colder climate.

Cortes, on the other hand, differs in his conquest by getting to know the other, inside and out. While Columbus always saw himself as superior, Hernan Cortes tried to understand the natives on their level. Regardless, the end result was the same: mass genocide, and even worse in Cortes’s case: the fall of an established empire. The motivation was the same: each wanted the gold and riches of the land. The Spanish were vulnerable and didn’t initially obtain cooperation from the natives. If they felt threatened, they retreated, although the natives were very welcoming to the outsiders.

Cortes’s conquest is ultimately worse than Columbus. He was conscious of his actions in his takeover of the native population, while Columbus always tried to rationalize his decisions. Intent is the key component of difference. Through all of this, Cortes is seen as the first conquistador who tries to construct a Spanish colony in the Americas by ultimately taking down Montezuma’s kingdom. In order to do this, he must understand the native people, in order to trick them into trusting him and his army. By using La Malinche, a slave woman who knew many languages, to his advantages, he was able to subdue the kingdom. She is influential because she betrayed her indigenous values in order to serve the interests of the Spanish, sometimes even speaking words and barking orders that Cortes had never even said himself.

Cortes used La Malinche to learn the customs and languages of the native population. Once he found himself an audience with Montezuma, he was able to convey his beliefs on war with him. Cortes sat on the sidelines laughing as the Aztecs fought their battles. Through this friendly exchange, where he actually gave Montezuma advice, he was able to learn the Aztec war tactics, which he would eventually use against them. He also helped to create trust between his men and the natives, which he would eventually use to undermine and destroy them.

Christianity was used as the main justification of this conquest, as it was with Columbus. After his audience with Montezuma, Cortes tried to impose Christian beliefs on the native peoples of Mexico. Montezuma tried to negotiate with Cortes, by placing components of both religions in their places of worships. The problem with Christianity of the time is that it is a universalizing religion, which means that the God they believe in is the one true God, no one else. This ultimately means the Spanish saw the Aztecs as being heretics if they would not succumb to Christian beliefs, further justifying Cortes’s belief that they should be conquered. Cortes explains to Montezuma that it is God’s wish that they settle on this land. This was the main justification of colonization.

Cortes went exceptionally far to prove this point to the people of the Aztec society. They wanted the Aztecs to believe they were sent by God and superior in every way. This was the only way they could truly subjugate them. He had a desire to control all of the information they received. A specific story comes to mind when trying to explain this. The natives were so impressed by Cortes’s horses, they weren’t even sure if they were mortal. Because of this, Cortes made sure to bury his horses so the natives would never even see them die. Cortes wanted to make it appear that the information he relayed to the Aztecs was sent from the divine. It didn’t matter whether it was true or not, only that it appeared to be so. This is sometimes conveyed in history as a Machiavellian concept.

The two conquistadors were similar in certain ways as well. Their mentality always concerns objects, what they can necessarily gain from the people that they conquer: houses, merchandise, fabrics, jewelry. Cortes specifically wonders of their riches, but doesn’t even see the people who created these riches as equal to himself, or human. They were obsessed with “collecting” things from the New World. While Cortes didn’t see the others as equal to himself, at least he thought of them as being human. Columbus was far worse in the sense that even the humans were reduced to simple objects, to be bought, traded, and sold, just as jewelry and cattle were. Neither of the conquistadors saw the other as having any kind of desire. They only saw them for what they could be used for, to obtain personal gain.

Even in Spain, we see the differences in the perception of the native population. Though they admire their work, they don’t portray them that way. Native art has no influence on the renaissance art of Europe. They speak highly of their accomplishments, but they don’t speak to them. There is no exchange of dialogue, just barking of orders in order to obtain and use the natives for what they wish.

The word genocide doesn’t necessarily have to mean a loss of life on grand scale, even though that is essentially what happened to the native population of America during the time of the Spanish conquest. Far more was lost as well. We see the ending of one of the prime civilizations of the time in the Aztecs. We also see the destruction of their way of life, their customs, and their culture. Even so, there weren’t many natives left over to carry these traditions forward, due to disease and the brutal murder of so many by the hands of the Spanish. The real tragedy lies in the absence of their culture, reduced to nothingness as a result of Spanish subjugation due to feelings of superiority. The genocide of culture far supersedes the loss of life.
Cover Image Credit: The Samana Whales

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