Sat

12

Jan

2013

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.

 

Works cited:

Lectures 3 and 4

Oxford Dictionaries Online (http://oxforddictionaries.com/, retrieved Oct 3, 2012)

 

 

Comments: 3 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    lawpark (Saturday, 12 January 2013 16:28)

    peer 1 → On the whole, I thought your evidence clearly supported your argument. Focusing primarily on the Aztecs as evidence for your argument allows you to include more detail on the causes and processes you describe, but at the expense of having less space to show that the conquests illustrate a global process. (The instructions ask us to present evidence that is “balanced across multiple cases to explain a global or connected process.”) Part of the problem is with the question itself, since it doesn’t lend itself all that well to global processes (as would a question like “Compare the European conquests of the Americas with the Mongol and Islamic conquests.”) I might have tried to link the question into the geopolitical situation at the time (e.g. the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 threatened to obstruct European access to China, which influenced Columbus and the Spanish crown to search for a sea route to Asia, which was in turn motivated by a desire to finance the reconquest of Grenada and a crusade to Jerusalem). You might have included a little more detail on the conquest of the Incas (and possibly of Hispaniola and Brazil), though there isn’t a huge amount of detail in the materials, to fully answer the question and to show that European conquests of the Americas were a process with “multiple cases.” On a very minor point, it is not clear whether measles and typhus epidemics occurred before the conquest or if it was only smallpox that decimated the Aztecs (p. 465 of the text). Your thesis is that European technology and genetics were responsible for the success of the conquests. I would agree with this but a key factor in why a few hundred Spaniards were able to overcome millions of Aztecs and Incas was that the Aztec and Inca empires were weakened by internal division (especially the Incas after their civil war) and the Aztecs by external enemies who resented their rule (which you refer to later when discussing the processes). I might have omitted the sentence on European’s contracting syphilis as unrelated to your main thesis. I thought the discussion of how Europeans exploited their colonies “[a]fter establishing presence and control” was not relevant to the question of causes and process of the conquest, and would better have been omitted in a 750- to 850-word essay in which almost every word needs to count. While it may be useful to make clear that your answer to the question about conquest stops at the point where the conquest is largely completed and colonization begins, I would have omitted most of the sentence beginning “After this,” as being irrelevant to the question and your arguments. I particularly liked your comment about American resources (allies, intermediaries, and institutions) being leveraged. I had not quite linked the three together in that way. I noticed that you cited the lectures but not the text. If you don't have the book, I would recommend buying it if you have the money to buy it and the time to read it - it's very good. Regarding grading, your essay was by far the best of the five I read. I would have given it a B+ (perhaps A-) overall. To give an essay a score of 9 points I would expect it to be close to publication quality. (I have the academic background and professional experience writing articles to tell whether it is.)

  • #2

    lawpark (Saturday, 12 January 2013 16:29)

    peer 1 → I thought your argument was clear and compelling but I am not convinced it fully answered the question (which was admittedly somewhat poorly-worded). I read “causes” in the question to include the historical causes for the conquests as well as the motivations of the conquistadors. The conquest of Hispaniola was an accidental byproduct of Columbus’s search for a sea route to Asia (itself partly caused by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople 50 years earlier, which threatened to block or increase the cost transporting goods overland on the Silk Roads). With respect to motivation, religion, as well as greed, was also a factor. The Spanish crown financed Columbus’s voyages to obtain money to obtain funds for the conquest of Grenada and a crusade to recapture Jerusalem, a religious motivation. Spaniards of the time were very religious and had a short life-span (especially if, like Cortés and Pizarro, they were soldiers), and the prospect of a reward in the afterlife for extending the frontier of Christendom to the Americas and helping to convert the natives would have been a powerful motivation. You divide causes into motivations for the conquest and the advantages that enabled the conquerors to succeed, which I think is right (except for the omission of historical causes). In the paragraph discussing the processes of the conquest, the first sentence does not specifically state what processes you are going to discuss, but instead refers to two main stages of the conquest. I interpreted processes to refer to military, political, social, and other processes. You may be thinking of military conflicts as a military process and establishment of control as a political process, but it’s not entirely clear from the sentence how your two stages relate to processes in the question, and I read them as being temporal stages rather than processes. (You do refer to process once in the middle of the paragraph, but I think it would be better to link the paragraph directly to the question at the beginning of the paragraph.)

  • #3

    lawpark (Saturday, 12 January 2013 16:29)

    peer 1 → I thought your essay was well-written and clearly-organized. I have listed below a few minor stylistic and grammatical points, some related to informality: I would use italics rather than all caps for AND; “I will” for “I’ll”; probably “lectures three and four” for “Lectures 3 and 4” since numbers under 100 (and particularly under ten) are spelled out in formal use; replace “vs.” with the more formal “from” (or at least spell out as versus); insert “and” in “wheels, horses”; “European” (or “Europeans’”) for “European’s,” perhaps the more felicitous if less descriptive “firearms” for “gunpowder weapons”; “the American disease,”“diseases,”or “syphilis, an American disease” for “disease(s)”; “conquest of the Aztec Empire” or “conquest of the Aztecs” for “conquest of Aztec”; “The conquistadors” or “Thus the conquistadors” for “This conquistadors”; I’m not so keen on the use of “anti-Aztec”; perhaps “control” rather than controls if the reference is to overall control rather than, for example, a number of specific process controls in a factory.