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1492: Indigenous Societies In The Atlantic & The Americas

August 30, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

March 6: A young Montezuma celebrates tlacaxipehualiztli, the spring fertility festival, and witnesses the sacrifice of human captives.

It’s not clear why Felipe Fernández-Armesto chose tlacaxipehualiztli to begin his chapter on the Americas. Perhaps it was one of the few (only?) significant dates that offered an easy (most readers have at least heard of Montezuma) entryway to discussing the civilizations, great and small, of the “fourth world” that both caused the Spanish (and their fellow European conquerors) so much trouble and provided the wealth that transformed their global status.  For this is Fernández-Armesto’s central point about the pivotal role played by the Americas in the wake of 1492:

The incorporation of the Americas—the resources, the opportunities—would turn Europe from a poor and marginal region into a nursery of potential global hegemonies. It might not have happened that way. If Chinese conquerors had bothered with the Americas, we would now think of those areas as part of ‘the East’, and the international dateline would probably sever the Atlantic. (p. 309)

It was the silver of Potosí and the gold of the Aztec and Incan empires, followed by the wealth extracted from sugar, tobacco, rice and cotton plantations, that propelled European societies towards the industrial revolution in the 18th century and world domination by the end of the 19th century.

Two additional themes emerge from Fernanández-Armesto’s discussion of European conquest and the Americas: 1) Late 15th century American civilization was in many respects the equal—or superior—to European civilization. 2) Conquering the Americans, and the island peoples between Europe and America, was hard.

1 – The Aztec and Inca empires “both encompassed astonishing environmental diversity—far exceeding anything Europeans could achieve, or even imagine—and both relied for their cohesion, and perhaps their survival, on their ability to shift products between eco-zones to meet local shortages, ensure a variety of supply, and cheat drought and famine…. Both, in about 1492, were at or near their peak: their time of fastest expansion and greatest security.” (p. 289)

The Aztecs (our name for them, not theirs) created “a tribute system of unparalleled complexity” (p. 298), covering much of modern-day Mexico and Central America. At the center was the empire’s capital, Tenochtitlan (on top of which is today’s Mexico City), larger in population than any city in Spain and rivaling the largest cities in Europe (Istanbul, Paris, Venice).

In 1492 the Inca Empire was the largest in the Americas and larger than any in Europe, stretching over 3,000 miles from modern-day Colombia to central Chile. The Incans “engaged in what we now think of as state-sponsored science, developing new strains, adapted for high yields”. (p. 302) Staple crops from the Americas—maize (corn), potatoes, sweet potatoes—fed peasants the world over in the ensuing centuries.

2 – The Canary Islands, an archipelago 100 miles off the coast of Morocco, were the first stop—in several senses of the word—on the Spanish route to conquering most of the Americas.

The archipelago was a laboratory for conquests in the Americas: an Atlantic frontier, inhabited by culturally baffling strangers, who seemed ‘savage’ to European beholders; a new environment, uneasily adaptable to European ways of life; a land that could be planted with new crops, exploited into a new plantation-style economy, settled with colonists, and wrenched into new, widening patterns of trade. (pp. 274-75)

The Canary Islanders had a rudimentary physical culture. “They lived in caves or crudely extemporized huts. They were armed, when they had to face European invaders, only with sticks and stones.” (pp. 275-76) Yet, despite those disadvantages it took over 150 years for Europeans conquer and subdue the Canary Islanders.

The conquest of the Canaries was Spain’s education for empire. Here the crucial problems were anticipated: vast distances, unfamiliar environments, spectacularly broken terrain, intellectually and morally challenging cultures, hostile people whom the Spaniards had to divide to conquer.  (p. 287)

Those lessons—along with the financial, political, religious, corporate and military institutions created and adapted to serve the needs of empire—proved enormously valuable to Spanish conquerors in the wake of Columbus’ famous 1492 journey (which departed from San Sebastián de la Gomera, the westernmost of the Canaries). Spanish conquest of the Caribbean islands proceeded much more quickly. But even then, the Spanish encountered baffling obstacles.

On average, in the sixteenth century, it took Spanish convoys almost twice as long to get from Santo Domingo to Veracruz, on the coast of Mexico, as it did to cross the entire breadth of the Atlantic. For more than a generation after Columbus’ first crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, in 1502, Spanish pilots struggled to learn the pattern of the currents. In 1527, the navigators of the expedition of Pánfilo de Narvaez still had not done so: bound for Mexico from Cuba, they actually sailed backward—imperceptibly driven back, night after night, by the Gulf Stream. When they reached what they thought was their destination, they were on the west coast of Florida. (p. 288)

It took until 1533 for the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs and the Incas, and even then indigenous resistance continued for generations. Regardless, it was the mineral wealth of the Americas, combined with the forced labor of its peoples and enslaved Africans, that were the crucial ingredients in the rise to power of Europe in the following centuries.

Other posts in this series:

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From → Books, History

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