Discovery and Reformation

Discovery: The


   The discovery of the American continent had nothing to do with intellectual curiosity or even unfathomable human courage. It was almost entirely about one and only one thing: money. And it was a mistake.

   The Portugese all throughout the sixteenth century ruthlessly and aggressively built a monopoly in the spice trade from the east by dominating the trade routes around the continent of Africa. Spain, on the other hand, began thinking of ways to get around this monopoly by developing a western route to the eastern countries. The problem was that this route was infinitely longer than the trip around Africa and it lay across an ocean so vast that it staggered the imagination and chilled the heart.

   It was Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), a Genoese navigator, who convinced the Spanish to underwrite a western expedition to the eastern countries. Contrary to what you might have heard, educated Europeans knew that the world was round and had known this for millenia. Then as now, people who thought the world was flat were regarded as crackpots. Europeans also had a good idea as to the circumference of the earth; this circumference, in fact, had been accurately calculated in the second century BC. The general view, then, was that a western voyage to India would be a disaster, for the ship would have to travel thousands of miles over open ocean. The ship's crew would starve or die of dehydration long before the journey was complete.

   But Columbus believed that the world was considerably smaller than was imagined in the general view and he managed to convince Isabella, the Queen of Spain that a western expedition would be but a short trip. He was, of course, completely mistaken and had not the Americas gotten in his way, he and his men would have starved or died of dehydration just as everyone knew they would. But fortunately for Columbus, America did get in the way.

   The Europeans immediately believed that a new continent had been "discovered" and they called it the "New World." As for Columbus, he never acknowledged or believed that the Americas were anything other than Asia—he was pretty much the only European who subscribed to this view. He went to his grave absolutely convinced of this idea, and sent several of his crew to their grave for daring to suggest otherwise.

   The "New World" is a problematic term for many reasons. First, it was not a "New World" for the inhabitants of America had known of its existence for some twenty thousand years. No European had "discovered" America since Native Americans had, in essence, discovered the continent some twenty millenia earlier. Second, the Americas were not isolated continents, even from Europe. Icelanders had landed on and settled along the coastline of Canada in the thirteenth century, and accounts of this settlement spread throughout Iceland and the Scandinavian countries. However, even before the Norse settlements in Canada, there seems to have been some kind of sporadic trade with the Americas dating all the way back to ancient Egypt. There is disputed physical evidence of American products in the Mediterranean and Europe including the discovery of nicotine in Egyptian mummies (nicotine only comes from tobacco, which only grows in the Americas). The circumstances and nature of this trade has been lost to us; suffice it to say that if this trade occurred, it was extremely rare, circuitous, and certainly not an ongoing phenomenon.

   A few Europeans, then, had a slight knowledge of the Americas. Columbus's discovery, however, catapulted these continents to the forefront of the European imagination.

   Soon after Columbus's discovery, every country in Europe jumped on the Americas bandwagon. Henry VII of England sent John Cabot to explore the coast of New England. In 1500, Pedro Cabral, a Portugese captain, discovered South America. Florence sent Amerigo Vespucci, who travelled several times to the new continent in order to catalog the geography; because of this, the continents would eventually bear his name.

   It was the Spanish, however, that dominated the settlement and exploitation of the Americas. In 1494, Spain signed a treaty with Portugal, the Treaty of Tordesillas, that divided the entire world between the two countries (imagine that). All the trade routes east of the Cape of Good Hope belonged to Portugal while all the routes west across the Atlantic belonged to Spain.


Civilizations in America
Aztec / Mexica
Incas
   Soon a new type of explorer would enter the scene: the conquistador. As the name suggests, the conquistador set out to conquer the territories of the new continents. While many were officially sanctioned, they were all essentially independent and autonomous entrepreneurs financed by themselves and by individual investors. They were, then, private expeditions rather than official expeditions representing Spain. In 1519, Hernan Cortes began his conquest of Mexico which would result in the overthrow of the Mexicas (or Aztecs) in 1522. By 1550, the Spanish conquered all of Mexico. In 1531 and 1536, Francisco Pizarro conquered the extensive Inca empire. By 1560, the entire western coast of South America was firmly in Spanish hands while the Portugese had conquered Brazil.


   By the 1540's, the Spanish had become the first major colonial power in the Americas. They started settling the new lands, first with garrisons and then with clergy and other people, and they modelled their colonial government after European models. The indigenous peoples suffered cruelly in the areas under direct Spanish control. In those areas, Native Americans who were not decimated by the new European diseases or killed in the conquests, died quickly as slaves to their new Spanish masters.

Richard Hooker



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Discovery: The Spanish Empire


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-7-98