When Europeans landed and began to colonize in the Americas, the different European groups began to assert their power over the land and indigenous people; first the Spanish in the Caribbean and the majority of Latin America, the Portuguese in Brazil, and the British, French, and Dutch in the eastern parts of North America. They built new settlements and began looking for ways to use the natural resources of the land for their own gain. They looked at the native people as savages and their customs as unholy. Above all they lusted for the rumored gold of the Aztecs, or a position of sovereignty in newly acquired territories of the Americas. European colonial rule was expressed by a deliberate and merciless takeover of native land and resource, proliferation of disease, and was an experience of pain for most of its population.
Beginning in the in the late 1400s the Spaniards began to conquer the Caribbean islands and parts of Mexico. They feigned friendship at the onset, then exploited this trust for the acquisition of gold and other resources of the Caribbean and Mexico. According to the text Patterns of World History, “After the 1492 landing of Columbus in the Caribbean, friendly trade relations deteriorated into outright exploitation” (Von Sivers, Desnoyers, Stow 532). The landing of Columbus was just the beginning of this odious exchange. As history will show, real change came with the arrival of Hernan Cortez in the New World in 1504. Cortez’s arrival to the mainland of modern day Mexico was the beginning of the end for the Aztec way of life. Cortez, wanting to further his family’s name in Spain, learned of the rumored gold in the Aztec empire. Cortez was pushed back in 1519 but returned 10 months later with 2,000 Spanish soldiers, and a large force of native troops from tribes on the periphery of the Aztec Empire. These native tribes had been conquered by the Aztecs and Cortez exploited their feelings of resentment toward the Aztecs to fortify his invading force. Even though the Aztecs were superior in number, the Spanish had technology on their side. The Spaniards employed the use of gunpowder weapons, horses, and well-trained troops, and were fueled by a lust for gold.
The Inca Empire to the south had a very similar story, different only in that they had been weakened before European arrival due to a smallpox outbreak. This allowed Francisco Pizzaro and a relatively small group of men to easily conquer the Andean people (Marks 76). Pizzaro used the Incas’ internal conflict over succession of leadership to gain the advantage. Pizzaro lured these Incan claimants to the throne into a trap killing them all. He spared one Inca leader until he delivered a sufficient amount of gold, then strangled and decapitated him (Marks 76). In both cases the conquistadors were after gold, silver, and other natural resources. Due to warfare and disease brought by Europeans the Aztec and Inca suffered from a massive population drop that left the indigenous people feeling demoralized and weak. The Incas continued to fight valiantly for their autonomy, choosing guerilla methods rather than direct combat to defend themselves against the Spaniards. The Inca managed to sustain themselves until 1572, but the Spanish then gained control over the Incas of South America.
The Portuguese began their Brazilian conquests not long after the Spanish. They discovered the Coast of Brazil around 1500 and began to build trading outposts, and fortified coastal villages. They mixed with the indigenous Tupi people, taking Tupi women for wives, and began building sugar plantations. The Portuguese used the Tupi as a coerced labor force, but turned to their already existing African slave trade as well. Portugal was already a dominant player in the West African slave trade, so slavery was another logical solution. The Portuguese turned Brazil into a large sugar plantation and mining region, and as Spanish is the regional dialect in most Latin America countries, Portuguese remains the native tongue of Brazil.
On the East coast of North America, the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century shows us a similar fate for the American Indian culture. The English, French, and Dutch built settlements on land they purchased from the native population; the English in Jamestown (1607) the French in Quebec (1608) and other British settlements along the eastern seaboard in the years following. Agriculturally, these settlements were a harsher environment in which to survive. It was difficult to grow crops and survive in the extreme freeze of the New England winter. At first they traded and lived among the Indian people, but as the century progressed larger numbers of settlers arrived from Europe. Slowly the native population was pushed back by the European colonies and began to become dependent on European goods. The American Indian become dependent on European goods, began to lose touch with many of their techniques for survival, and their customs began to disappear. Slowly they began losing their way of life. After the United States became a sovereign nation in the late 1700s, the government pushed the American Indian back further into the plains of the mid-west. During the early years of the United States there were countless conflicts between the U.S. Army and American Indian tribes. In many cases entire populations were displaced or killed off by the United States government. The U.S. government developed the reservation system, and drove many Indian tribes like cattle into these agriculturally unusable, and dismal landscapes.
The Europeans unbeknownst to them had brought a secret weapon to the New World. They had brought a myriad of new diseases to share with the native people. Smallpox ravaged the Aztec people killing over half its population, thus enabling the experienced Spanish forces to take advantage and seize the Aztec capitol (Marks 76). The Inca had already been struck by the smallpox virus before the Spanish arrival, and were left vulnerable to the conquistadors. Disease was a very big player in the disappearance of entire populations of native people. The natives of the Americas did not have immunity to the pathogens that had arrived from Europe. From 1518-1600 seventeen major epidemics were recorded in the New World. European diseases arrived in bulk: smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, chickenpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, and tropical malaria (Marks 77). From 1500-1600, ninety percent of the native population of the Americas had vanished due to European genocide and diseases brought from the Old World. In the region of Mexico there was only three percent of the native population left from before the European arrival. These are staggering numbers to wrap the mind around, and they seem to be seldom addressed in modern society. It is still a scholarly debate how much disease affected the North American Indian population, but it is the well-documented cause of fate for the Aztec, Inca, and Tupi people.
The European arrival in the Americas was the beginning of the end for the native people of these continents. Europeans exercised ruthless domination over the native people and lands. Genocide at the hands of the Europeans, coupled with the diseases brought to the North and South American continents and nearly erased an entire way of life. Entire cultures have all but vanished and the ones that remain are left with a legacy of pain. Much of this historical narrative has been glossed over by many of our primary education systems, and ignored by mainstream media outlets. Although there have been many small reparations made to people of the Native Americas, there will never be a way to reverse the atrocious actions of the European colonialists. Europe’s expression of dominance, and the native people’s experience of pain, will forever be carved in stone on the hearts and minds of the people descendant to these civilizations.
Marks, Robert B. The Origins of the Modern World: a Global and Environmental Narrative From the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Century. Lanham: Roman & Littlefield, 2015.
Von Sivers, Peter, Desnoyers, Charles A. and George B. Stow. Patterns of World History: Volume 2: Since 1400. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.