The Growth of the Spanish Empire | European Exploration and Expansion

By the Treaty of Tordesillas Spain and Portugal had divided the world open to trade and empire along a line cut through the Atlantic, so that Brazil became Portuguese. This same line extended across the poles and cut the Pacific, so that some of the islands Magellan discovered came into the Spanish half. Spain conveniently treated the Philippines as if they, too, were in the Spanish half of the globe, though they were actually just outside it.

The Spaniards in the New World soon explored and acquired thousands of square miles of territory. The original explorers by sea were followed by the conquistadores, often of the now impoverished lesser nobility— half explorer, half soldier-administrator, and all adventurer. Of the conquistadores, two in particular— Hernando Cortes (1485-1547) and Francisco Pizarro (c. 1478-1541)—conquered vast territories. With a handful of men they seized the two most civilized regions of the New World: the Aztec empire of Mexico, taken by Cortv82s with 600 men in 1519-1521, and the Inca empire of Peru, taken by Pizarro with 180 soldiers in 1531-1533.

Other Spaniards in search of gold, salvation, glory, and excitement toiled up and down these strange new lands: Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (c. 1510-1554), Hernando de Soto (c. 1500-1542), and Alvar Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490–c. 1556) in the southwest of what became the United States; Sebastian Cabot (c. 1484-1557) on the great Paraguay and Parana river systems; Pedro de Valdivia (c. 1502-1553) in Chile; Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541) in Guatemala; and Pedro de Mendoza (c. 1487-1537), a Basque who with many Austrians, Flemings, and Saxons reached La Plata (the area around the River Plate in present-day Argentina and Uruguay) in 1536 and founded Buenos Aires.

The toll in lives of Spanish exploration was staggering, especially in South America. A single expedition to Peru in 1535 lost 150 Spaniards, 150 slaves, and 11,000 Indians. The sea passages were often horrendous; by 1540 more than 2,000 men and twelve ships had been lost trying to find the route ultimately mapped out by Magellan. As late as 1925 an entire expedition disappeared in the interior of Brazil.

The pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas crumbled under the impact of the Europeans. From Mexico to Bolivia, Paraguay, and Patagonia (in southern Argentina), millions of people survive today who are of American indigenous stock. Any understanding of Latin America requires some knowledge of their folkways and traditions. But the structure of the Aztec and the Inca empires has totally disappeared.

Well before the end of the sixteenth century, the work of the conquistadores was over, and the first of the true European colonial empires had been established in Latin America. Nowhere, except in northern Argentina and in central Chile, was the native population eliminated and replaced by a population almost entirely from the Old World. Over vast reaches of Mexico and Central and South America, a crust of Spanish or Portuguese formed at the top of society and made Spanish or Portuguese the language of culture.

A class of “mixed blood,” the mestizos, was gradually formed from the union of Europeans and the indigenous population, and in many regions the Indians continued to maintain their old ways of life almost untouched. Where the Indians were exterminated, as in the Caribbean, or where they proved insufficient as a labor force, as in Brazil, African slaves added another ingredient to the racial mixture.

Geography and the circumstances of settlement by groups of adventurers in each region created several separate units tied together only by their dependence on the Crown. Geography alone was a fatal obstacle to any subsequent union of the colonies. Between such apparently close neighbors as present-day Argentina and Chile, for instance, lay the Andes, crossed only with great difficulty through high mountain passes; between the colonies of La Plata and those of Peru and New Granada lay the Andes and the vast tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin, still almost unoccupied in the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, the Spaniards transported to the New World the centralized administration of Castile. At the top of the hierarchy were two viceroys: From Lima, Peru, the viceroy ruled for the Crown over the Spanish part of South America, except Venezuela; from Mexico City the viceroy ruled over the mainland north of Panama, the West Indies, Venezuela, and the faraway Philippines.

Each capital had an audiencia, a powerful body staffed by professional lawyers and operating both as a court of law and as an advisory council. During the sixteenth century audiencias were also established in Santo Domingo, Guatemala, Panama, New Granada, Quito, Manila, and other major centers. A special Council of the Indies in Madrid formulated colonial policy and supervised its execution.

This centralized, paternalistic government was less rigid in practice than in theory; given the vast areas and the varied peoples under its control, it had to be. In time the bureaucracy came to be filled largely with colonials who had never been in the home country, and who developed a sense of local patriotism and independence. Madrid and Seville were simply too far away to enforce all their decisions. It proved especially impossible to maintain the rigid monopolies, which sought to confine trade wholly to the mother country, and to prohibit or severely limit domestic industry in the colonies.

The hand of Spain was heaviest in the initial period of exploitation, when the rich and easily mined deposits of the precious metals in Mexico and Peru were skimmed off for the benefit both of the Spanish Crown, which always got its quinto, or fifth, and of the conquistadores and their successors. By the early seventeenth century, when the output of precious metals began a long decline, the economy and society of Spanish America had stabilized.

Colonial products—sugar, tobacco, chocolate, cotton, hides, and much else— flowed out of Latin America in exchange for manufactured goods and for services. Creoles (American-born subjects of European descent) and mestizos (persons of mixed European and Amerindian descent) were the chief beneficiaries of this trade. Above the African slaves in the social pyramid, but well below the mestizos, was the native population. This was a system of social caste based on color rather than race, one that never became as rigid as that in North America.

Everywhere, but especially in the Caribbean, the whites tried to use native labor on farms, in the mines, and in transport. The results were disastrous, for epidemics of smallpox and other diseases that had been introduced by the Europeans took a terrible toll of the native population. In the West Indies the Carib Indians were wiped out. In central Mexico the total population fell from about 19 million when Cor(82s arrived to only some 2.5 million eighty years later. Conquest may have been preceded by a “disease frontier” in which smallpox and influenza had so weakened the Indian groups that they could not resist the major European military attacks. However, a biological exchange also took place; although the origin of syphilis is still disputed, many historians of medicine believe that it was brought from the West Indies, where it was mild, to western Europe, where it became virulent.

Attempts to regiment native labor in a plantation system or to put it on a semimanorial system of forced labor, known as the encomienda, proved almost as disastrous. The encomiendas grouped farming villages whose inhabitants were “commended” to the protection of a conquistador or colonist. The “protector” thereby acquired both a source of income and an economic base for potential defiance of central authority.

Against these forces there were counteracting forces. The New Laws of 1542 forbade the transmission of encomiendas by inheritance, thereby inhibiting feudal decentralization. These laws also forbade the enslavement of Indians, who were regarded as wards of the Crown. The cause of the indigenous people was championed by men of great distinction, notably by Bartolorne de las Casas (1474-1566), “Father of the Indians” and bishop of Chiapas in Mexico, who fought vigorously to limit slavery.

Unlike their counterparts in Africa and Asia, the Indian masses in the New World were converted to Christianity. More than Spanish pride was involved in the grandiose religious edifices constructed by the colonists and in their elaborate services; many priests wished to fill the void left by the destruction of the Indians’ temples and the suppression of the complex pagan rituals. Church and state in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World worked closely together. The Jesuits in Paraguay tried to set up a benevolent despotism and paternalistic utopia for the Guarani Indians. On the northern fringes of the Spanish world, a long line of missions in California and the Southwest held the frontier.

In their close union of church and state, in their very close ties with the home country, in their mercantilist economics, and in other respects, the Portuguese settlements in Brazil resembled those of the Spaniards elsewhere in Latin America. Yet there were significant differences.

The Portuguese settlements were almost entirely rural; many black slaves were imported into tropical Brazil, and both because there were more slaves and because the white males often drew no sexual color line, the races became more thoroughly mixed than they did in most Spanish colonies except Cuba. Finally, perhaps because of the relative proximity of Brazil to Europe, the Portuguese had more troubles with rival nations than the Spaniards did.

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