Tag Archives: Latin America

A brief, over-simplified history of Latin America: The influence of topology

One interesting thing about the Spanish conquest of the Americas is how topology affected the future of the native peoples. The Spanish were interested in farmland, not mountain areas nor jungles. They were interested in the resources that might lie in those areas, but by and large, the Spaniards allowed the natives to retain possession of extremely mountainous areas.

That’s why the native populations remained strong in many of the Andean countries, but not so much in places like Argentina and Uruguay, where the fertile lands led the invaders to drive the natives out.

In other words, in the Americas, the reign of Spain was mainly on the plain.

(And one! That’s right, I was able to make a historical point and still get in a bad Friday pun)

Photo by Eva Schuster

A brief, over-simplified history of Latin America: Los conquistadores

In the beginning, Spain had no interest in settling the Americas. That is, those who came over were explorers and adventurers; they weren’t families looking for a new home. The intention was to come to America, make their fortune, and return to Spain.

The conquistadores were mercenaries, many of them veterans of the wars with the Moors. They would hire out their services and travel to the Americas (and other regions) to conquer a designated region. If they were successful, the person who contracted them would pay no taxes on that land, and the conquistadores would receive many rights and freedoms back in the homeland.

Though claiming to a high code of honor (think Don Quijote), the conquistadores were treacherous men who would betray one another to get a bigger stake of the loot. Duels were frequent, as were plots and counter-plots.

These men would often father children in the New World, mestizos who were not accepted in either culture. They also brought disease with them, diseases like small pox and measles that had a devastating impact on the native peoples. The battles that were not won through superior technology were won through the spread of fatal diseases.

The Spanish expeditions explored most of North, Central and South America. There was great competition with the Portuguese to see who would control more land and more resources. The resources found in the Americas helped Spanish and Portuguese monarchies hold onto their power long after other nations had democratized. They remained in a feudal system as the rest of Europe industrialized. And the gold and silver they found in America found its way into the coffers of the merchants from other countries who sold them the products of industrialization.

In a future post, I want to talk about the impacts of land distribution on the future of Latin America. But we’ll leave that for another day.

A brief, over-simplified history of Latin America: Early “evangelism”

1492 was an eventful year for the Kingdom of Spain. It was the year they defeated the Moors once and for all at Grenada. It was also the year that they funded Cristoforo Colombo in his exploratory journey to the West.

It’s no coincidence that Columbus’ ship was called the Saint Mary (and the real name of the Niña was the Santa Clara; Niña was a joke, based on the last name of the owner of the boat, which was Niño). Fernando and Isabel were the Catholic Kings, and the colonization of the Americas quickly became an evangelistic effort.

Of course, as we saw yesterday, evangelism could be carried out by many means. The Spaniards believed that if they could baptize the native people before killing them, this would count as a conversion. History records that they would christen natives, give them “Christian” names, then execute them. Sometimes they were killed in groups of thirteen, to symbolize Jesus and the twelve apostles. Accounts are told of the Spanish baptizing babies, then killing them immediately to assure these children went to heaven.

Bartolomé de las Casas (16th century), a Domincan friar, became a defender of the American people and documented many of the atrocities. Here he describes the killing of Hatuey in Cuba:

“The Spaniards told the Indians that they had a disease that only gold could heal. They demanded that the Cuban cacique Hatuey reveal the location of the gold. He denied that he had any hidden gold and as a result he was ordered to be burned alive.
When the cacique was bound to the post, a Franciscan friar … told him some of the matters of our Faith, which the chieftain had never before heard. . . . The padre told the cacique that if he wished to believe these things, he would go to Heaven … but if not, he would go to Hell and suffer eternal torment and sorrow. The cacique … asked the friar if Christians went to Heaven, and was told that the good ones did. The cacique, without further thought, said that he did not wish to go to Heaven but to Hell, so as not to be with Spaniards or see such cruel people.”(Bartolomé de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: a Brief Account, p. 45)

Part of Christianizing the natives involved destroying as much of native culture as possible. Fray Luis de Landa worked among the Mayans on the Yucatán peninsula. He describes the destruction of a vast Mayan library:

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

Landa was surprised at the regret and affliction the Mayans felt at seeing their culture go up in flames. Three documents survived.

Not all Christianization efforts were as ungodly as what I’ve described. However, this is a part of history that needs to be told. And remembered.

A brief, over-simplified history of Latin America: The Reign in Spain

The majority of Spain was under the control of the Moors, Muslims from North Africa, for more than 750 years, beginning in the year 711 A. D. Their final defeat came at the hands of the armies of Fernando and Isabel in 1492 at the city of Grenada. To put that in perspective, remember that the Moors ruled Spain longer than the Spanish have been in the Americas. Put another way, since the year 700, Spain has spent more time under Muslim rule than non-Muslim rule.

During most of the Moorish era, there were Christian kingdoms within Spain which resisted Muslim rule. Two of the most powerful were the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon. When Isabel of Aragon married Fernando of Castille, the power of their united kingdoms allowed them to vanquish the Moors and establish the modern Kingdom of Spain. Spain soon became the leading power in Europe, fueled largely by the wealth they would discover in the Americas.

Whereas the time of Muslim rule had been a time of religious tolerance, the Catholic kings felt the need to impose a common religion within their realm as a means of unification. Muslims and Jews were ordered to leave the country, though many “converted” to be able to keep their properties. The Spanish Inquisition was established to ensure the purity of the Catholic faith within the empire’s borders.

All of this had myriad effects on the future colonization of America. A few points that are especially noteworthy:

  • The Catholic Church was beholden to the Crown. Fernando and Isabel were champions of the faith, defenders of orthodoxy. They gave great power to the Church. The hold Christianity had on Spain was due to the power of the Empire, not the power of the cross.
  • The Crown was beholden to the Catholic Church. The Church emphasized the teachings of the divine right of kings, of the necessity of submitting to their authority. No good Catholic could consider rebelling against the Crown.
  • Religious conversion had little to nothing to do with personal beliefs. If you wanted to be a member of the Spanish kingdom, you had to “convert,” no matter what you believed.
  • Violence was an accepted form of evangelism and church discipline.

Lots more to be said (that was over 8 centuries of history in less than 350 words!), but hopefully that’s enough to help us

A brief, over-simplified history of Latin America: Before Columbus

All right, I want to share some of my understandings of Latin American history. I want to move pretty quickly until reaching the last century or two, trying to hit broad themes.

First, let’s talk about pre-1492 America, from Mexico on down. In the Americas, there were surprisingly advanced civilizations, as well as smaller, more primitive societies. (yes, the anthropologist in me cringes at some of these terms) Some of them we know a lot about, some we know little of. They principally fell into two groups: hunter-gatherers and farmers. Those can be broken down further, but it suffices to say that the people lived off the land.

Some of the groups are fairly well known:

  • The Mayans: famed not just for their calendars, they were highly advanced in mathematics and astronomy. Their civilization developed the only true writing system in pre-Colombian America.
  • The Mexica (Aztec): Also known as the Triple Alliance, this group came to dominate what is today Mexico. Ferocious warriors and astute politicians, they came to rule over an empire 10 million people strong. [Mexica, Aztec and Triple Alliance are not synonyms; those interested can Google a bit to learn the differences]
  • The Inca: The Inca empire dominated the Andes. Comprised of over 100 distinct ethno-lingustic groups, the Inca empire had an elaborate road system, advanced stone-working techniques, intricate terraced farming methods and even metalworking.

It’s easy to romanticize these groups and forget that many of their practices looked like the things God condemned the Canaanites for in the Old Testament. These empires were built through people dominating other people, shedding blood and terrorizing their neighbors. They were neither better nor worse than peoples in other parts of the world; unfortunately, much of what they had to offer the world was lost. But that’s a tale for another post.