War of the Worlds: Why & How Europe Conquered the Americas


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Examines explanations of how & why Europe successfully conquered New World civilizations.

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War of the Worlds: Why & How Europe Conquered the Americas

  1. 1. WAR  of  the  WORLDS   Why  &  How  Europe  Conquered  The  Americas   by  Craig  Collins,  Ph.D.   Most   scholarly   efforts   to   explain   Spain's   conquest   of   Latin   America   focus   almost   entirely  upon  the  exploits  of  renowned  Spanish  conquistadors  like  Hernando  Cortez   and   Francisco   Pizarro.   However,   whether   these   histories   extol   their   bravery   or   deplore  their  brutality,  this  traditional  approach  to  the  conquest  of  the  New  World   is   inaccurate   in   the   extreme   and   flawed   at   its   core.   The   Spanish   (and   European)   conquest  of  the  Americas  must  be  explained  within  the  context  of  a  much  deeper   process  whose  motive  forces  lie  far  beneath  either  the  ruthless  charismatic  courage   of  Cortez  or  the  fatalistic  religious  prophecies  of  Montezuma  and  his  people.   The   most   comprehensive   effort   to   understand   the   Spanish   conquest   necessarily   entails  confronting  questions  that  reduce  even  the  epoch’s  greatest  personalities  to   little  more  than  brilliant  reflections  off  the  surface  of  the  great  river  of  history.  What   motivated   Spain   and   its   European   rivals   to   explore,   conquer   and   colonize?   What   vulnerabilities   in   the   ecology   of   the   New   World   and   in   the   structure   of   pre-­‐ Colombian  societies  explain  why  Spaniards  (and  Europeans)  were  so  successful  in   this  endeavor?  What  accounts  for  the  extreme  variability  in  Europe’s  penetration   and  domination  of  Asia,  Africa  and  the  New  World?   Spain's  conquest  of  the  Americas  was  part  of  the  wider  process  of  European  global   expansion.   Its   mechanisms   and   motives   must   be   sought   well   beneath   the   convictions   of   any   man,   kingdom   or   empire.   World   system   theorist,   Immanuel   Wallerstein,  contends  that  the  explanation  lies  within  the  developmental  logic  of  an   emerging  capitalist,  European-­‐centered  “world-­‐system”,  economically  committed  to   production   for   profit   on   a   global   scale   and   politically   fragmented   by   intensely   rivalrous  states.   For  world-­‐system  theorists,  Spain's  motives  for  conquest  necessarily  arose  from  its   involvement   in   the   acutely   competitive   and   war-­‐prone   interaction   between   the   dominant  European  states  that  formed  the  core  of  this  world-­‐system.  The  unique   aspects  of  Spain's  motives  (for  example,  the  Crown's  crusade  to  “Christianize”  the   native   population)   were   secondary   derivatives   of   an   expansionist   drive   which,   in   the  main,  was  identical  with  the  imperialist  motives  of  other  colonizing  European   powers:  the  need  to  seek  maximum  advantage  in  a  high  stakes  game  of  economic   and  military  “king  of  the  mountain."  Thus,  in  the  Americas,  Spain  sought  to  plunder   the  tremendous  wealth  to  be  found  in  exploiting  Indian  labor  to  mine  the  precious   metals   of   Mexico   and   the   Andes   and   use   this   wealth   to   finance   their   bid   for   European  hegemony.  It  was  indeed  a  fortunate  coincidence  for  Spain  that  the  major   population   concentrations   of   the   Americas   were   so   close   to   the   richest   known   deposits  of  gold  and  silver.   William   H.   McNeill's   THE   PURSUIT   OF   POWER   gives   implicit   recognition   to   Wallerstein's  expansionist  world-­‐system  and  notes  that  this  hot  house  of  military  
  2. 2. and  market  rivalry  produced  an  unusual  cooperation  between  royal  monarchs  and   merchant   capitalists,   each   eager   to   reap   the   benefits   from   conquest   and   colonization.   This   environment   also   encouraged   the   rapid   development   of   technological  and  social  innovations  designed  to  improve  the  efficiency  of  overseas   trade  and  both  naval  and  land  warfare.  Thus,  although  Europe  lagged  well  behind   many   other   civilizations   by   some   measures,   its   ability   to   combine   overseas   transport  with  military  prowess  was  unmatched.    The  Aztec  and  Incan  armies  were   at  a  distinct  disadvantage  when  their  more  primitive  weapons  faced  the  steel  armor   and  swords;  the  war  horses  and  muskets;  and  the  battle-­‐tested  military  strategies  of   the  Spanish  invaders.    But  this  advantage  only  partially  explains  how  Pizarro's  band   of   168   soldiers   could   defeat   thousands   of   Incan   soldiers   and   subdue   an   entire   civilization.   McNeill   acknowledges   in   another   work,   PLAGUES   AND   PEOPLES,   that   Spanish   military   and   technical   superiority   over   Amerindian   civilizations,   “do   not   seem   enough   to   explain   wholesale   apostasy   from   older   Indian   patterns   of   life   and   belief.”(p.1)   McNeill's   book   documents   the   ghastly   impact   of   a   “weapon”   so   devastating  that  it  completely  exterminated  many  New  World  peoples  and  so  secret   that   it   was   wielded   unknowingly   by   the   invading   armies   of   the   Old   World.   This   “secret  weapon”  was  infectious  disease.  Behind  the  astounding  military  victories  of   the   conquistadors   and   the   miraculous   religious   conversions   of   native   peoples   by   Spain’s   Catholic   missionaries   lie   the   profound   demographic   and   psychological   implications   of   pathogens   that   killed   only   Indians   while   leaving   Spaniards   unharmed.  Neither  Europeans  nor  Native  Americans  realized  that  these  Old  World   diseases   had   become   endemic   to   European   society   through   their   age-­‐old   contact   with  farm  animals  not  found  in  the  New  World.  Thus,  diseases  that  killed  only  native   people  "could  only  be  explained  supernaturally,  and  there  could  be  no  doubt  about   which  side  of  the  struggle  enjoyed  divine  favor.”    Thus,  the  conquest  of  the  Americas   must   also   be   studied   as   a   tragic   episode   in   humanity’s   historic   encounters   with   dangerous   micro-­‐parasites   and   the   far-­‐reaching   consequences   that   have   ensued   whenever  contacts  across  disease  boundaries  allowed  foreign  pathogens  (smallpox,   measles,  influenza,  etc.)  to  invade  a  population  that  lacked  any  acquired  immunity   to  their  ravages.   The  reasons  behind  the  one-­‐sided  susceptibility  of  New  World  peoples  to  European   diseases   leads   directly   toward   a   far   more   pervasive   vulnerability.   According   to   Alfred   Crosby,   The   New   World   was,   by   comparison   with   the   enormous   size   and   ecological  complexity  of  the  Afro-­‐Eurasian  land  mass,  no  more  than  an  enormous   island.   Forms   of   life   were,   in   general,   more   highly   evolved   in   Eurasia   and   Africa,   having  responded  to  a  wider  range  of  variability  arising  from  a  larger  land  mass  and   greater   biodiversity.     This   gave   Old   World   civilizations   access   to   a   wide   range   of   animals  (horses,  pigs,  goats,  sheep,  oxen,  cows)  that  could  be  domesticated  for  farm   labor,   food,   transportation   and   warfare.   Consequently   plants   and   animals   introduced   by   Europeans   to   the   Americas   often   displaced   native   species   and   disturbed  pre-­‐existing  ecological  balances  in  explosive,  and  at  least  initially,  highly   unstable  ways.  For  example,  the  Amerindian  peoples  of  Central  America,  Mexico  and  
  3. 3. California   found   their   crops   invaded   by   unknown   European   weeds,   insects,   and   vermin  and  trampled  and  eaten  by  both  feral  and  domestic  herds  of  sheep,  cattle,   pigs  and  horses.  This  ecological  conquest  was  largely  unconscious,  but  nevertheless   it   had   the   objective   effect   of   starving   village   after   village   of   native   peoples   into   submission   to   the   missionary   system   and   dependency   upon   European   forms   of   agriculture.  (Crobsy,  ECOLOGICAL  IMPERIALISM:  THE  BIOLOGICAL  EXPANSION  OF   EUROPE  900-­‐1900).   Thus  the  conquest  of  the  indigenous  populations  of  the  Americas  was  only  partially   conscious  and  partially  military  in  nature.  In  reality,  it  was  a  pervasive  assault  upon   every  aspect  of  the  Native  American  way  of  life.  Those  who  survived  the  military   conquest   lived   to   have   their   habitats   destroyed   by   invading   European   flora   and   fauna  and  their  lives  threatened  by  Old  World  diseases.   Eric   Wolf   and   Charles   Gibson   point   out   that   the   biological   and   ecological   vulnerability   of   New   World   civilizations   was   compounded   by   the   structural   susceptibility  of  its  major  agricultural  empires  to  Spanish  conquest,  domination,  and   control.  Gibson  stresses  that,  in  the  region  of  Veracruz,  where  Cortez  first  landed,   the  natives  had  only  recently  come  under  the  domination  of  the  Aztec  empire  which   had  been  gradually  conquering  and  subjugating  its  neighbors.  “This  fact  goes  far  to   explain   the   ease   with   which   Cortez   and   his   followers   established   their   main   foothold.  As  deliverers  or  apparent  deliverers,  here  and  at  many  other  points,  the   Spaniards   were   repeatedly   able   to   turn   native   political   conditions   to   their   own   advantage  (Gibson,  26).”  Wolf  concludes  that,  “None  of  Cortez’s  military  successes   would  have  been  possible  without  the  Indian  allies  Cortes  won  in  Middle  America.   Spanish   military   equipment   and   tactics   carried   the   day,   but   Indian   assistance   determined  the  outcome  of  the  war  (Wolf,  154-­‐5).”   Even  the  “one  powerful  cement  for  social  unity”  possessed  by  the  Aztec  civilization,   its  doomsday  cosmology,  became  a  potent  force  for  destruction  at  the  hands  of  the   invading  Spaniards  (Wolf,  144).  Because  the  Aztecs  believed  that  their  civilization   must  eventually  fall  victim  to  violent  cataclysmic  forces,  Montezuma’s  people  must   have  been  struck  with  a  profound  sense  of  apocalyptic  fatalism  as  they  saw  village   after   village   either   put   to   the   sword   by   armored   horsemen,   die   of   mysterious   ailments,  or  side  with  invaders  in  open  rebellion.   Once  the  Aztec  empire  had  been  beheaded,  the  sedentary  socio-­‐economic  structure   of   this   densely   populated   agricultural   society   made   it   relatively   easy   to   impose   Spanish  control  over  the  defeated  peoples  of  the  empire.  Even  the  religious  beliefs  of   the   Mexical   peoples   were   highly   compatible   in   their   resemblance   to   Catholicism.   Both   religions   believed   in   a   structured,   ordered   and   hierarchical   supernatural   world.  The  Catholic  Church  was  careful  to  offer  the  Indians  a  way  to  re-­‐cast  their   traditional   spiritual   attachments   into   new   forms.   The   transition   from   old   to   new   gods   was   eased   by   an   astonishing   similarity   in   belief,   ritual   and   symbol.   Both   religions  had  a  rite  of  baptism,  a  kind  of  confession,  and  a  communion  ritual.  Both   religions   used   incense,   fasted   and   did   penance,   went   on   holy   pilgrimages,   kept   houses  of  celibate  virgins  and  believed  in  the  existence  of  a  supernatural  mother  
  4. 4. and  virgin  birth.  Both  religions  even  made  use  of  a  holy  cross.  While  Aztec  religion   had   no   notion   of   original   sin,   its   stress   on   predestination   meshed   with   Catholic   fatalism.   The   Aztecs   even   divided   their   afterworlds   into   the   realms   of   a   blissful   heaven  (Tlalocan)  and  a  murky  underworld  (Mictlan).  The  Aztec  regime  applied  the   death   penalty   against   adultery,   homosexuality,   and   upon   women   who   induced   abortions.  Divorce,  while  possible,  was  very  difficult  to  obtain.  Thus,  even  on  these   questions   of   sexual   policy,   the   Spanish   Catholic   regime   brought   no   new   changes   (Wolf,  167-­‐72).   Most  important  of  all,  both  Aztec  and  Incan  religions,  like  Catholicism,  believed  that   their   rulers   commanded   authority   because   they   were   closer   to   their   gods   than   everyone  else.    This  belief  predisposed  them  to  believe  that,  if  their  own  priest-­‐kings   could  be  defeated  by  these  invaders,  then  their  gods  must  be  even  more  powerful   and  worthy  of  fearful  obedience.   The   amazing   socioeconomic   and   cosmological   similarities   between   Spaniards   and   Aztecs  may  explain  why  the  conquistadors  found  ruling  the  indigenous  populations   of  central  Mexico  relatively  easy  compared  to  the  rebellious  Toltec  peoples  of  the   Yucatan,   the   Andean   empire   of   the   Incas,   or   the   fierce   hunter-­‐gatherers   of   the   Argentine  pampas  and  Mexico's  northern  badlands.   Like   Cortez,   Pizarro's   conquest   of   the   Incas   benefited   from   the   demographic,   economic,  and  psychological  devastation  of  deadly  European  pathogens  which  may   have   cut   the   population   of   the   Incan   empire   in   half   before   he   arrived   in   1530   (Gibson,  64).  And  like  Cortez,  Pizarro  was  able  to  cleverly  exploit  a  political  schism   between  rival  Incan  rulers  to  divide  and  conquer  Andean  civilization  (Gibson,  30).   Yet   the   Spaniards   and   their   religion   were   not   readily   accepted   among   the   Incan   peoples.  The  Incan  empire  had  been  relatively  benevolent  and  egalitarian  compared   to  the  Aztecs,  and  Incan  cosmology  was  less  similar  to  Catholicism.  Thus  the  Andean   peoples   maintained   a   sullen   hostility   toward   the   Spaniards   and   awaited   the   day   when  a  new  Inca  warrior  king  would  lead  them  against  the  invaders  and  reorder  a   world  turned  upside  down.   The   Spanish   conquest   faced   even   greater   resistance   from   the   more   mobile   and   warlike  hunter-­‐gatherers  of  the  Southern  cone  and  northern  Mexico.  The  lifestyles   of   these   peoples   were   completely   incompatible   with   colonial   systems   of   coerced   labor  in  plantations  or  mines;  and,  with  the  introduction  of  the  horse,  these  nomadic   tribesmen   sharpened   their   ability   to   wage   mobile   guerilla   warfare   against   the   encroaching  Europeans.  The  conquest  of  these  fierce  nomads  was  further  retarded   by   the   fact   that   their   homelands   were   less   valuable   to   the   Spaniards   since   they   contained  neither  fertile  land  and  dense  populations  of  exploitable  labor  nor  known   deposits  of  gold,  silver  or  other  precious  minerals.  Therefore,  unless  the  Spaniards   found   some   political   or   economic   reason   for   putting   added   resources   into   the   conquest  of  these  “savage”  territories,  they  usually  held  out  against  the  European   invaders  much  longer  than  their  more  “civilized”  neighbors.  
  5. 5. In   sum,   the   Spanish   conquest   of   the   Americas   was   far   more   than   a   dramatic   confrontation  between  conquistadors  and  Indians.  It  was  a  protracted  and  titanic   war   of   the   worlds   whose   outcome   completely   transformed   the   future   of   both   continents.  It  was  an  ecological  and  biological  battle  between  New  and  Old  World   species,   pathogens,   and   peoples;   a   technological   war   pitting   spears   and   arrows   against   rifles,   cannons,   and   armored   horsemen;   a   socioeconomic   confrontation   between   a   concentrated   and   rivalrous   system   of   warlike   seafaring   traders   and   a   dispersed  and  disparate  array  of  sedentary  agrarian  societies  and  nomadic  hunter-­‐ gatherers.   It   was   a   political   war   pitting   imperialist   monarchies   against   large   agrarian   empires   and   small   tribes   of   foragers.   And   finally,   it   was   a   cosmological   conflict   between   those   who   believed   in   man’s   superiority   over   nature,   and   his   unlimited  ability  to  "pillage  &  progress"  at  her  expense,  and  those  who  believed  in   nature’s  supreme  power  to  either  favor  or  destroy  man’s  flimsy,  short-­‐lived  efforts   at  civilization.