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Hidden Histories: Exposing the Reality of Hispanic America's Conquest, A Must-Read for Politicians
About two years ago, I posted this article on another platform. Witnessing politicians on both sides of the Atlantic display ignorance about a significant chapter in history is disheartening. Hispanic America was a part of the Spanish empire for three centuries, yet some individuals today overlook this period, particularly the numerous achievements our society gained from the encounter between two civilizations.
👉🏼 People who do not take the time to learn about the topics they hold opinions on should not be quoted in the media. Their statements should be noted as unverified.
Hernán Cortés and the Ambassadors of Moctezuma, by José Galofré (1519)
Do you remember the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue shortly after the U.S. took Baghdad? The invasion was justified by the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction, which we now know was a lie. It shows that sometimes, a false allegation is enough to bring everything down.
Every fallen statue symbolizes the birth of something new, a rejection of the leader or the ideology they represented. This is why statues of Stalin, Lenin, and the Shah were removed from their pedestals. It was time to stop seeing their faces on people's daily commutes, to erase their presence from the streets that once celebrated them.
In recent years, figures like Columbus, Cervantes, and Fray Junipero have faced the weight of revenge and the justice of the masses. They represent the colonial process in the Americas for three centuries. But who are the ones protesting? Are they descendants of the Mayas, Mapuches, or Chibchas? Not really. They are a cosmopolitan mass, born in the era that Frances Fukuyama called "the end of history" after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have experienced the most comfortable and least conflict-ridden period in history.
Here are four ideas that they may not yet be aware of: ideas that could prevent more statues from being vandalized due to lies.
1. The conquest was a particularly violent process
Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, states: "Tolerance is not a trademark of sapiens." It is widely believed that sapiens wiped out the Neanderthals, removing them from the evolutionary game long before the conquest of new territories became a priority for any civilization.
Iconic figures such as Attila, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great emerged as masters of the art of invasion. They routinely conducted brutal campaigns to acquire vital resources for themselves (to continue expanding their power) and for their people (to gain their support). However, this pursuit came at a high cost. Death was a constant companion in their campaigns, and survival often meant either living as a slave or paying tribute.
There were no euphemisms to soften the harsh realities of their time. That's what living was about. Life was fragile, and the rights we know today were envisioned in the late 1700s for the first time, during the French Revolution, or at least a glimpse of them.
So why focus specifically on the Spanish conquest of America?
The colonization process involved encomiendas, which were permissions granted by the monarch to explorers to venture into new territories and exploit their resources. Under this system, the encomendero was granted control over the labor of those who lived in the territory.
They became de facto land owners and businessmen using the labor of the locals. In exchange for this right, they had to pay a portion of their profits to the Crown while spreading the Catholic faith among those under their control.
This system occasionally concealed slavery and exploitation, preventing conquered people from voicing their complaints. However, just as there were different types of communities and relationships between feudal lords and villains, there were also variations in the relationship between indigenous populations and the colonizers during the colonial period. Some indigenous populations willingly embraced the encomienda system and established productive relationships with those in charge. They were provided with land, had their food needs taken care of, and both parties thrived.
For them, this was a preferable choice to living in constant fear of raids from other tribes. It was as simple as that.
One of the most well-known examples is Juan de Ampíes, who founded Coro in today’s Venezuela in 1527.
"[Ampíes] had done the most extraordinary thing: to create Coro, with the historical singularity of an agreed coexistence, with the unrepeated formality of its mixed character. Where, in short, there would be neither conquered nor conquerors. Then, the seed sown could no longer be uprooted because its roots were to be profound.
Source: Demetrio Ramos Pérez, La fundación de Venezuela. Ampiés and Coro a historical singularity.
Bartolomé de las Casas documents in his book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias the horrors suffered by the natives in the first years at the hands of the newcomers from the peninsula.
This writing had a broad impact on the center of power in Spain. In response, in the same year of 1542, Charles V created the New Laws. While they did not fully satisfy De las Casas, they represented a step towards respecting the native population.
Previously, in 1537, the papal bull 'Sublimis Deus' had already been issued, which recognized the natives as individuals with full rights. This was 484 years ago.
Did atrocities occur during the process? Yes. Are these atrocities justified? From today's perspective, no. However, at that time, the conquerors were men who had been hardened by wars in the peninsula, facing the Arab invaders. This mindset, viewing life as a battle between "us versus them," influenced those who took the step forward and sought a promising future in the new land.
However, it was not a quick process to conquer the locals. The fate of those who explored the mainland was not any kinder. The Jirajaras, located in present-day Venezuela, resisted for over a hundred years after their initial contact with the newcomers. During this time, the natives carried out lightning attacks in a guerrilla warfare style, using arrows, stones, and even weapons acquired from other raids. These attacks were meticulously executed and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.
To conquer Chile, the Spanish Empire faced initial defeats before achieving victory. As Emperor Charles V stated, "The conquest of Chile has taken my best soldiers." The Mapuches did not passively await the arrival of a new leader but instead resisted fiercely.
If precisely half a thousand Spaniards managed to make their way through a territory occupied by millions of people, many people were fed up with the bloody regime imposed by the Triple Alliance (Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Mexico-Tenochtitlan). Cortes signed a series of alliances with these disgruntled peoples and led a sort of revolution to overthrow this bloody totalitarianism.
Source: Manuel P. Villatoro, Cannibalism, sacrifices and totalitarianism: the truth about the Aztec Empire that Hernán Cortés encountered.
This confirms that violence is a natural part of the processes of invasion and appropriation of territories. It measures the relative power of the conflicting forces without being specifically identified with one side or the other.
Rousseau's romantic idea, in which he assumes the innocence of the natives and argues that every human being is born pure while society corrupts them, leading them to become vile beings, is strongly refuted. It is even arrogant: do those who criticize the outcome of the clash of civilizations believe that one of them was gentle and docile, like a society of goodwill?
2. Diseases arrived with the Spaniards
When examining the facts, it is evident that pathogens played a leading role in favor of the conquerors. Smallpox emerged as the most impactful aspect of their military campaign.
"According to an estimate of the demographic evolution in Central America, in the century that followed the conquest, the population of 25 million inhabitants was reduced to less than 1 million in just 100 years."
Source: Alfredo Morabia, Past, present, and future of epidemiology. A Latin American perspective.
However, there is also evidence that both Spaniards and natives experienced significant episodes of contagion at different times and caused by different vectors. Regarding the natives, the text "The Diseases of American Man" mentions:
"The study of environmental factors, food, vectors and infectious agents in pre-Columbian America, indicate that American man was exposed to various causes of disease, peculiar to their environment.
It has also been confirmed that parasitization by mosquitoes, flies, lebotomes, simulids, horseflies, horseflies, bedbugs, triatomas, fleas, lice, mites, demodex, and ticks served as vectors of infectious diseases of high morbidity and mortality that in some cases were endemic and in others epidemic. Several of these parasites by themselves were capable of producing annoying diseases in man."
Source: F. Guerra and Ma. Ca. Sánchez Téllez, Las enfermedades del hombre americano, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares.
Therefore, the idea that pre-Columbian people were immune to illness and that the only cause of their ailments was the arrival of Spanish ships is proven false.
For the Spaniards, there are references in the book "Epidemiología Española" by J. Villalba (1803), which states that by the year 741, there was smallpox in Andalusia introduced by the Arabs. Epidemics are a natural occurrence for humans; germs, bacteria, and viruses travel by ships, carts, or foot, acting as silent passengers that cannot be eliminated and blaming those who carry them.
The main difference is believed to be the European practice of living with livestock, which facilitated the transmission of zoonotic viruses unknown to the Amerindian peoples, who primarily relied on agriculture rather than animal husbandry. In today's terms, it would be like a pandemic starting from a zoonotic virus transmitted from human to human, rapidly spreading illness. Can you imagine that?
3. The enemy of my enemy is my friend
From the Conquest of México series.Representing the 1521 Fall of Tenochtitlan in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.
When it comes to the conquest and fall of Tenochtitlán (the conquest of Mexico), it is often thought that Cortés and his army of a few hundred soldiers subdued the Mexicas. This leads to a train of thought that combines the cruelty and vivacity of the conqueror, the type of weapons he used, the innocence and naivety of the locals, and, of course, a great deal of luck.
The truth is that it was unlikely for Cortés to fail, and I will explain why. Upon arriving in what is now Yucatan, the Spaniards encountered tribes that nearly wiped out all of them (Cortes and his men). However, after months of clashes, they realized that perhaps by uniting, they could obtain more significant benefits. This is what Matthew Restall recounts in his book "Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest" (Oxford University Press, 1964)1.
At first the Tlaxcalan political faction hostile to the Spaniards dominated the response to the arrival of the foreigners, who suffered a series of violent confrontations.
… But Spanish survival and the impression made by their weapons allowed the Tlaxcalan faction in favor of making an anti-Mexica alliance with Cortés to come to the fore. As these Tlaxcalans rightly judged, with Spanish assistance they would be able to destroy the Mexica empire and its capital city.
… As Prescott2 deftly puts it: "The first terrible encounter of the Spaniards with the Tlascalans, which had nearly proved their ruin, did in fact insure their success. It secured them a strong native support on which to retreat in the hour of trouble, and round which they could rally the kindred races of the land for one great and overwhelming assault."
… According to prominent Conquest historian Ross Hassig, the final siege and assault on the Mexica capital was carried out with 200,000 native allies, "even though they went virtually unacknowledged and certainly unrewarded."
This debunks one of the widely spread misconceptions that asserts the Spanish conquerors committed genocide. In reality, there were multiple instances where the defeat of the Mexicas and similar situations occurred due to the alignment of interests. This is not significantly different from what has happened in other world regions over the past 500 years following the New World conquest.
It was not only Pizarro who found himself confronted by opposing peoples, willing to ally with the newcomer in exchange for getting rid of his traditional enemy, with whom he had fought for decades if not centuries.
In the nascent United States, the thirteen colonies were defining their identity; between 1689 and 1763, the Anglo-French wars took place, in which the sides had the support of the natives, professing even more animosity and virulence than with those who had invaded their lands.
"Throughout this period, the English maintained a firm alliance with the Iroquois, and the French with the Algonquians and Hurons. The European conflicts extended to vicarious wars between these surrogates."
Source: Philip Jenkins, A Brief History of the United States.
José Tomás Boves, the cruel Asturian warrior who ended the Second Venezuelan Republic in 1813, had a majority of pardos, mestizos, and Indians in his ranks. His lieutenant, who was equal, harbored more hatred towards the Creoles, the whites born in America, than towards those from the peninsula, who, on paper, had subjugated the native peoples for over three hundred years.
"Resentment, revenge, deep hatreds were the passions that apparently drove the pardos, blacks, and Indians to engage in a violent war between 1812-1814 against the Mantuan designs. This civil war that confronted two social sectors did not seek to establish the ideas of freedom nor to untie the now Venezuelan territory from the "Spanish yoke" as the country's historiography has taught. In the beginning, the Mantuanos did not aim to break the ties with the Crown, but rather their objective was to reaffirm them and maintain the traditional order of society".
Source: Jaika Tejada Soria, Pulperos Pardos e Independencia en Venezuela. 1812-1814
Some may argue that money and the existing system of caudillos influenced the indigenous people to choose convenience over resistance. This perspective cannot be dismissed entirely. However, it contradicts the main argument that the locals were fighting against colonial oppression, especially considering that the independence of most of Hispanic America did not bring any benefits to them. On the contrary, it exacerbated the problem of unchecked regional micro-powers, which would not have been possible under a monarchical system.
4. The ones from here and there, before the law
Being born in the New World (or the overseas territories) did not automatically create a sense of solidarity among the different groups living in the colony. For example, there was no such thing as a Nueva Granada citizen, and the laws did not classify those born in Nueva Granada as a specific type of people, neither positively nor negatively.
Throughout the discovery of the mainland and the process of independence, there was no unified sense of nationality or foreignness. Under Habsburg rule, the Empire's territories were not differentiated; they had institutions that could administer justice, resolve disputes, and manage public affairs. Exploiting a mine in Seville, Spain, differed from doing so in Potosi, Viceroyalty of Peru.
Internally, there was a lack of social cohesion, which led the Creoles (whites born in America) to maintain relationships of dominance. They believed that mixing with other races threatened their livelihoods and that of the country.
According to historian Frédérique Langue, out of 104 dispensations and marriage licenses requested between 1636 and 1815 in the Province of Caracas, an overwhelming majority -100 of them- were based on the existence of kinship, either practical or spiritual, between the contracting parties, with the former being the predominant condition. Langue also asserts that 75% of the applications were submitted after 1750, explaining that during this time, "economic issues related to generational succession and the inevitable division of family estates became more pressing."
The Cabildo of Caracas has issued the following opinion in a letter addressed to the Council of the Indies regarding the pardos (mixed-race people):
"In them, there is no honor that contains them, a reputation that stimulates them, shame that obliges them, esteem that puts them in reason, nor virtues that make them live according to the Laws of Justice. Their profession is drunkenness, their application is Robbery, their revenge is treachery, their rest is idleness, their labor is idleness, their Study is incontinence, and their attempt is all to shake off the yoke of subjection. They do not feel the nakedness, the bad bed, the short reason, and not even the punishment as they are left to live in their wideness, flooded in vices and mainly in their carnal torpitudes, all their commotions stem from the subordination that is the one that embitters them, and that precipitates them in the greatest cruelties and the most execrable sins".
Source: AGI, Indiferente General, 802, f. 21-22. Report of the síndico procurador of the Cabildo of Caracas, November 9, 1789.
They, therefore, preferred inbreeding to the risk of losing their inheritance. There is no evidence that there was any better treatment of the whites born in the colonies towards mestizos, Indians, or blacks for three hundred years than they received from the conquistadors.
Not even the Universal American, Francisco de Miranda, would be spared from being subjugated for being the son of a Canary Islander named Sebastián de Miranda. He was engaged in commerce, an activity seen as vicious and of a low nature by the wealthy classes.
In 1769, for example, they rejected the acceptance of Sebastián Miranda as an officer in the white battalion of the city of Caracas. All, without exception, refused to be part of the same corps and disqualified that designation for being a man of inferior quality and known as "...public merchant and formerly cashier in this city where he manufactures and sells bread daily his wife, a person of baxa sphere and where our ears do not fail to perceive the demanded voices of his countrymen who speak of him as the son of a ferryman and as a subject of dubious cleanliness."
Source: Inés Quintero, The Nobles of Caracas and the Independence of Venezuela.
Historian John Lynch writes:
"during the eighteenth century, Venezuela was not a stable colony...the social structure contained a number of hostile elements-Mantuanos versus Canarios, whites versus blacks, Venezuelans versus Basques-that created tension and violence."
Source: John Lynch, Canarian Immigrants in Venezuela (1700-1800): Between the Elites and the Masses.
In addition to the Canarios vs. Basques struggle, this paints a picture where there was little to no collaboration based on one's origin from the peninsula or being conquered or conquistador. This pattern has persisted since the sixteenth century and does not address the issues currently believed to promote the exclusion of native people by Spain and its institutions at that time.
In summary, there was never a time when natives, mestizos, or mixed races were explicitly subjugated and discriminated against. On the contrary, even among Spanish-born individuals, there were profound differences that haven't been widely recognized (and, of course, advertised).
Every clash of cultures results in unequal consequences, and the colonization or conquest of America is no exception. Spain arrived in a land inhabited by civilizations very different from those they had encountered in Europe. The indigenous populations lacked military preparation. Additionally, they did not have a strong profit motive or a culture of surplus, and their trade was limited.
However, this does not mean that pre-Columbian societies were foolish or helpless. Some fiercely resisted the invasion of their lands, not realizing that biology would be a more powerful enemy than bayonets or gunpowder. The domination of millions of people was more of a sanitary issue than the result of superior intelligence exercised by the hundreds of peninsular conquerors.
There was no need or justification for the crown to devastate the continent. The crown required subjects to produce and wage expansion of faith campaigns and to sustain a well-functioning bureaucracy. However, this should not be seen as something negative, as it was customary for every monarchy on the continent.
Does anyone believe that if the contact had been the opposite way, the same or worse would not have happened? Thousands of natives would have prepared to conquer Europe after one of them made landfall in Andalusia. Did the Vandals, Huns, Saracens, or Slavs avoid imposing Gothic or Victorian structures? On the contrary, they dreamt of planting their flag on them.
This is not an attempt to justify or whitewash past actions. It demonstrates that in almost all natural and imagined scenarios, what drives us is human nature, which requires external control to prevent abuse. There is no evidence to suggest that Creoles felt a greater attachment to enslaved people or indigenous populations or that these groups considered them their compatriots.
What is certain is that under the colonial structure of the encomienda, abuses were committed, some of which were documented, but most were not. However, it is also true that institutions promptly punished those who exceeded their authority. The church was present in most expeditions, settlements, towns, and cities, enforcing the rules received from the Vatican and the peninsula.
Just as the condition of enslaved Black people or segregated natives did not improve after the North American cotton plantations separated from the British crown, the regional caudillos and oligarchies in Spanish America maintained power in their newly liberated territories, now without supervision or authority to obey. The perpetuation of conditions of inequality continues to this day, no longer the fault of any oppressive king or empire.