How would you explain the causes and processes of European conquests of the Americas?
Conquest is "the subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by use of military force[, example]: the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish, ” according to Oxford Dictionaries Online. In this broad sense, there were many conquests of the Americas by Europeans, such as the Spanish conquests of Caribbean islands (e.g. Hispaniola), Aztec and Inca empires, the Portuguese in Brazil, and later establishment of colonies by French and English in North America. As the dictionary definition suggests, the Spanish conquest of Aztecs was the classic example of conquest, where both the place AND the people were subjugated and controlled by the use of force. In this essay, I’ll illustrate the causes and processes of these trans-Atlantic conquests using the conquest of Aztecs as the primary example, and where appropriate bring in other cases to illustrate the broader applicability of the arguments. All evidence I cite comes from Lectures 3 and 4.
In explaining the causes of these conquests, I find it convenient to distinguish factors that motivated the Europeans to conquer the Americas vs. factors that gave Europeans decisive advantages over indigenous Americans. Europeans who engaged in exploration and conquests of the Americas – including voyagers, conquistadors, and their sponsoring states – were primarily motivated by prospects of wealth and profits. Christopher Columbus obtained sponsorship for his expedition from the Catholic Monarchs by promising a lucrative trade route to the orient. Portuguese knew from their experience in mid-Atlantic islands that sugar plantations were lucrative. Hernan Cortes and his followers would have been motivated by possibly both the fabled wealth of El Dorado and the real wealth of Aztec’s cities such as Tenochtitlan. After establishing presence and control, besides plundering, Europeans always tried to find ways – sometimes very complex ways – to make their colonies profitable. Spanish mining of Inca silver mines, Portuguese deployment of African slaves to work on sugar plantations in Brazil, and French establishment of fur trading in North America were all cases in point.
While wealth and profits lured Europeans to conquer the Americas, it was the Europeans’ technological and genetic (in the sense of relative resistance to fatal diseases) advantages that ensured European’s success in their conquests. European’s transportation technologies included sailing vessels, wheels, horses. They also used iron and gunpowder weapons. Indigenous Americans did not have any of these. Even so, indigenous Americans, with their numerical advantage and local knowledge, might not have succumbed to European conquests, had they have stronger resistance to fatal diseases such as smallpox, measles and typhus brought by the Europeans. It was true that Europeans also contracted American disease(s) such as syphilis, but fatality rates appeared much lower than that of Americans contracted with European diseases – when Cortes entered into Tenochtitlan in 1521, as much as 40% of the cities’ inhabitants had died from diseases. European advantages in technology and disease-resistance ultimately derived from Europe’s long-term involvement in the evolution of Afro-Eurasian societies and ecosystems – for example, Europeans could deploy horses and gunpowder weapons without needing to be the first to domesticate horses or to invent gunpowder themselves.
European conquests of the Americas typically underwent two main stages: military conflicts, followed by establishment of control. In both stages, leverage of local resources – allies, language, knowledge and institutions – proved critical. As mentioned before, I would use the conquest of Aztec as the primary example to illustrate my points. During the stage of military conflict, conquistadors usually had a small force: Cortes only had 500 men. This conquistadors would leverage existing local political conflicts to their advantage – Cortes allied with anti-Aztec tribes in the Yucatan peninsula who would provide most fighting men and invaluable intermediaries (such as Dona Marina). During this stage, there were multiple negotiations, skirmishes with ups-and-downs for the Europeans – Cortes lost 67 men on one night. European diseases like smallpox would cause high casualties, demoralize the main opponents, and lead to the eventual conquest and plundering of their capitals. In the next stage of establishing controls, Europeans would decapitate the apex of political leadership, while leveraging many aspects of existing local institutions for on-going governance. In New Spain (now Mexico) for example, Spanish would send viceroys to represent royal authority, while existing village leaders would continue to provide local leadership, legitimacy and stability. After this, the process turned from conquest to colonization, which would prove to be a long process with its own new dynamics, such as the effective governing of the conquistadors themselves by state authorities back in Europe, and effective on-going extraction of resources and profits from the colonies. In conclusion, motivated by wealth and profits, Europeans conquered the Americas by leveraging local political conflicts. Europeans’ success ultimately relied on both technological advantages and their disease-resistance, derived from long-term participation in the Afro-Eurasian system. Nevertheless, for both stages of military conflicts and establishment of control, a multitude of local American resources – allies, intermediaries, and institutions – were leveraged, leading to colonies with amalgamated political and economic systems.
Lectures 3 and 4
Oxford Dictionaries Online (http://oxforddictionaries.com/, retrieved Oct 3, 2012)