The Discovery of the New World
I’m Steve Anderson, and this video essay is about the Discovery of the New World.
Many stories of the Discovery focus on Christopher Columbus, and the fateful encounter between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas on October 12th, 1492. This was indeed a dramatic moment, as shown by the film, 1492: Conquest of Paradise.
In recent history in the United States, school children were taught the rhyme, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492,” and Columbus Day became a national holiday. The celebration was for the so-called “Discovery,” but that term is very misleading. On the one hand, there wasn’t really anything to discover, as other Europeans had sailed around the upper regions of the Americas for hundreds of years. And besides that, what about the indigenous peoples or the Indians as Columbus referred to them — they were already there. If anyone discovered the New World it was their ancestors, many centuries ago.
So, where does this leave us with the term “Discovery,” and is it still relevant? The popular view of Columbus and his journey has shifted greatly, especially when the 500 year anniversary in 1992 brought focused attention to the Discovery’s legacy. Columbus has gone from a hero to a villain. On the one hand he brought Christianity to the Indians, but also smallpox and slavery. The celebration has been toned-down somewhat, and new perspectives are being discussed by scholars as well as the general public.
For the purpose of this class, the term Discovery moves beyond the voyages of Columbus and the first steps of Europeans on the sandy shores of the Caribbean. Discovery, here, involves the cultural, social, and political negotiations that took place as Indians and Europeans began to know one another. In the broad sweep of Latin American history, the Discovery is often thought of as a single moment, and quickly passed-by in order to include as much history of the region as possible. Here though, we’ll slow down a little, and consider the pace and complexity with which the Discovery took place.
As Europeans and Indians cautiously approached one another, they also began to question their own societies. For example, on the indigenous side, those on the outskirts of the Aztec empire questioned the authoritarianism emanating from Tenochtitlan. And on the European side, religious scholars such as Bartolomé de las Casas questioned the methods and practices of Spanish conquest in the Americas. The Aztecs saw their empire disintegrate and fall into ruins before their very eyes. And the Spanish crown quickly discovered that ruling the New World would also require a new outlook on colonial administration.
The Americas could not be remade in the shape of Europe, and after the Conquest they could never be fully indigenous again either. From this moment in history, true globalization began to take place. Latin America would be at the mercy of a world-wide economic system, and European foods and diets would take on their modern appearance. In Latin America, from the great mines of Zacatecas and Potosí, Spanish silver traveled the world, from China and Japan, to Europe, and Australia. And tomatoes, potatoes, and chocolate were unknown in Europe before 1492 — it was only with global trade that these Latin American foods made their way to European tables.
Spanish silver, and especially European guns and weapons, also found their way to Africa, and over time slavery in the Americas became an institutionalized system. In Mexico, Brazil, and the rest of Latin America disease, over work, and lack of nutrition reduced native populations by the millions. The horror of this demographic collapse was made worse by the pressing demand for human labor, and the same system of trade that brought Latin American foods to Europe, also brought African slaves to the New World. Traded for European commodities, millions of people in western and central Africa struggled to find a new way of life in the Americas.
In Europe, the idea of the “Black Legend” began to take hold in the wake of the Discovery. Spain had become increasingly powerful after the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and from Charles V onward, Spain controlled an immense, global empire. As the Spanish empire grew, the presence of Spanish troops and religious influence in distant colonies, and also across Europe, fostered hatred and contempt for the Crown. In text and printed images, anti-Spanish propaganda demonized the actions of the conquistadors and encomenderos, and the friars and priests as well.
The truth behind the Black Legend was really somewhere in the middle. Even Spain itself struggled to understand its position as the ruler of an entire continent, an ocean away. As shown by the writings and debates of Las Casas in Valladolid, the Spanish enterprise was wrestling with the contradictions of capitalism and salvation. The Discovery, in this case, was as much about finding the New World as it was about discovering oneself, or one’s own culture, community, and government.
In the moments after Discovery, deeply philosophical questions were being asked, and some were easier to answer than others. For example, are the Indians human? Do they have a soul? Could these godless creatures come to know Christ and be saved? Once conquered, are they subjects of the King of Spain to be protected? What if they resist, either the king or Christian baptism? And how can these people that have never known writing in the European sense, understand the complex Spanish bureaucracy, or the religious texts of the Gospels? Spanish rule and Catholicism were assured, but could the Indians become priests? How high could they rise in the Church? How would the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who were told to worship one, Christian God, understand the Holy Trinity and the Litany of Saints?
As with any watershed moment in history, the Discovery bought with it more questions than answers. From the instant that European sailors set foot in the New World, we have had the complicated task of understanding each other, and ourselves. The Discovery, then, is not necessarily a fixed moment in Latin American history, for it’s still ongoing, even today.