Collision of Cultures in the Americas

Prior to 1492, contact between the Eastern and Western hemispheres was occasional and sporadic, if at all. Norse settlements in North America ended shortly after their arrival in 1000 C.E.; and evidence indicates some occasional contact by Europeans; however no significant interaction took place prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

The Americas: When Europeans did in fact establish a presence in the Americas, they brought with them a wide range of technology unavailable to the indigenous people of the area. Additionally, there were conflicts between the indigenous peoples which the Europeans were able to exploit. That, together with the devastating effect of epidemic diseases proved the undoing of many native cultures.

Columbus and his followers set up headquarters on the island of Hispaniola (present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.) The original plan was to establish forts and trading posts where merchants could trade with local people for products in demand in Europe. They soon discovered that the islands offered no silks or spices for trade; and turned their attention to mining gold. The Spanish themselves were too few in number to mine gold, and were disinclined to hard labor under any circumstances; so they developed a system known as the encomienda whereby the Indians of the area were forced to work for them. Under the agreement, the Spanish settlers, known as encomienderos, were granted the right to force the Arawak (also known as Taino) Indians to work in their mines and fields. In return, the encomienderos agreed to care for the workers’ health and welfare and encourage them to convert to Christianity. The Indians were treated cruelly. By one account, they lost a finger if they failed to deliver the required quota of gold within designated periods. Many died from exhaustion. Many workers died from smallpox and other contagious diseases. When the number of workers declined due to mortality, the Spanish organized raiding parties to kidnap and enslave other Indians. The result was to expose still more Indians to disease and further decimate the population. The population declined from an estimated six million in 1492 to a few thousand in 1545. Native societies simply ceased to exist. The few remaining elements of Taino society are words which have made their way into the English language: Canoe, Hammock, Hurricane, Barbecue, Maize, and Tobacco.

Even though gold was rare in the Caribbean, the Spanish continued to search for it. Later, when they discovered rich sources of silver in Mexico and Peru, their emphasis shifted to that location, and the Caribbean became something of a backwater. In the meantime, French, English and Dutch settlers came to the Caribbean planning to cultivate cash crops, primarily sugar. Tobacco later became an important cash crop. Several million slaves were imported for work on the Caribbean plantations. By 1700, there were few European administrators compared to a large number of African slaves.

The Conquest of Mexico and Peru: In the early sixteenth century, Spanish Conquistadores ("conquerors") moved into Mexico, Panama and Peru. In 1519, Hernan Cortes led a contingent of 450 soldiers to Mexico and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. There they seized the emperor, Montezuma II who died in 1520 in a skirmish with Spanish forces. The Aztecs forced the Spanish away by sheer numbers; however Cortes, with the aid of a female interpreter named Dona Marina, formed alliances with other Indian tribes who resented Aztec domination. They provided thousands of additional warriors and logistical support. The Spanish effort was aided by an outbreak of smallpox in Tenochtitlan which killed thousands. So many people died that the Aztec society was unable to function. Cortes then managed to surround the city and starve it into submission.

In Peru, Francisco Pizzaro led 600 soldiers in 1530 to attack the Inca civilization. He arrived at a time when a bitter dispute within the ruling house had just occurred, which he was able to exploit. The Spanish called the Inca elite together under the pretext of holding a conference; after which they seized and killed most of them. They spared the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, until a large ransom of gold was paid. When the ransom was paid, the Spanish went back on their word and murdered Atahualpa by strangulation, after which they decapitated his body. Even after the collapse of Inca society, the Spanish relentlessly searched for gold and silver. Statuettes and other ornaments were melted into ingots rather than saved for their artistic value. In their craze for precious metals, the Spanish even raided the tombs of embalmed Inca rulers for the gold buried with them.

Pizarro succeeded easily for the same reason as had Cortes. A number of subject peoples despised Inca rule and readily assisted the Spanish. Also, epidemic diseases ravaged the Inca capital of Cuzco and the surrounding countryside. Pizarro thus faced a decidedly weakened foe.

Although Mexico and Peru were conquered by free lance adventurers who attempted to distribute land to their troops under the encomienda system, the two countries came under royal control by 1570. Each was ruled by a viceroy who acted as the king’s representatives in America. Although they exercised considerable power, their conduct was subject to review by independent judicial systems known as audiencias. New capitals were established at Mexico City, built over the site of Tenochtitlan, and in the new city of Lima, Peru in 1535. (Incidentally, Lima Beans are named for the city.)

Mexico and Peru experienced raid immigration from Spain by colonists who preferred to live in cities, even though their income was derived from agricultural production on landed estates which they owned. They eventually expanded Spanish controlled territory and built a complicated bureaucratic system based in their newly founded cities. New Spain as it was called extended from Mexico City to St. Augustine, Florida and from Panama to Buenos Aires.

In 1494, Spain and Portugal entered into a treaty in which they somewhat arrogantly divided the known world between them. Under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain could claim any lands west of a line drawn 370 leagues west of the Azores Islands, and Portugal could claim any lands to the east of the line. The line, the famous Line of Demarcation, was drawn by Pope Alexander VI. The purpose of the line was to divide Asian Spice Islands between the two countries; in fact there is some argument that the purpose of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage was to determine the location of certain islands in relation to the line. Since the line also extended on the far side of the globe, Brazil, so named because of the Brazil nut trees which grew in abundance there, became the property of Portugal. Although the Portuguese showed little interest in Brazil at first, they changed their attitude when French and Dutch mariners showed up on Brazilian shores. In time, Brazil became a thriving colony with numerous large sugar plantations on its coast.

Cities established in Spanish/Portuguese America bore striking resemblance to European cities with many churches and cathedrals and in which Spanish and Portuguese languages were spoken. In more urban areas where there was little excess production to draw settlers, the few who did migrate adopted Indian languages and customs. These languages are still spoken today in remote areas. Although few Spanish and Portuguese came to settle in the areas, eventually over 500,000 Spanish and 100,000 Portuguese arrived and created a new world.

Colonies in North America: European colonies in North America began with the founding of Port Royal (Nova Scotia) in 1604 by the French; English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607; and Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1623. The English eventually seized New Amsterdam and renamed it for the Duke of York, but the French maintained a presence in Canada until they surrendered all North American lands to England by the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which ended the Seven Years War.

Life was difficult at first in the early colonies. Most came to find gold rather than produce food, and many starved when provisions from England ran low. In Jamestown during the winter of 1609-1610, conditions were so bad that only sixty of five hundred inhabitants survived. Many disinterred corpses for food; one man even murdered his wife and salted her down to see him through the winter. (He was found out and hanged.)

French and English colonies in America differed from the Spanish colonies in that they were settled by private investors, primarily joint stock companies. Spanish explorations had been royally supported. North American colonies also retained their own assemblies and exercised some degree of self government; whereas the Spanish colonies were subject to a viceroy. They also did not encounter large populations of indigenous people as had the Spanish. They often staked out claims on land to the exclusion of the Indians. The availability of fertile land attracted many settlers. Over 150,000 Englishmen moved to America during the seventeenth century. They often tried to "buy" the land from the Indians by means of treaties, which the Indians did not understand. They also justified their claim to it that it was wasted by the Indians, who did not put the land to good use, as they merely hunted on it. (In Europe, hunting was a pastime reserved for the well-to-do. Europeans did not understand it as a way of life, and a necessity for the Indians.)

Misunderstandings and European attempts to exclude Indians often led to conflict. Indians occasionally attacked farms and settlements, in one instance in 1622, they massacred over one third of the population of the Chesapeake, including John Rolfe, who had introduced tobacco cultivation to the region. Indian attacks almost always brought reprisals from settlers who destroyed Indian fields and villages. One settler even advocated completely wiping out the Indians: "Victorie may bee gained many waies; by force, by surprize, by [causing]] famine,[through] burning their Corne, by destroying and burning their Boats, Canoes and Homes; by breaking their fishing Weares [nets], by assailing them in their huntings, whereby they get the greatest part of their sustenance in Winter; by pursuing and chasing them with our horses, and blood Hounds to draw after them, and Mastives [Mastiffs} to teare them.

Colonia Societies in the Americas: Most Europeans remained near the coast, not venturing into the interior regions of the Americas. The few who did often found themselves at the mercy of hostile Indians. In those areas where they remained, European colonists established a new and radical social order. All became multicultural; Spanish and Portuguese territories became multicultural and ethnically mixed also. Since most migrants to the latter colonies were men, they often married Indian women. The result was a burgeoning Mestizo (part white, part Indian) culture. In the cities, Spanish migrants tended to marry among themselves and re-create a European-style society. In urban areas, mestizo society dominated. In Brazil, society was even more ethnically mixed, as Portuguese settlers often mated with Indian women or slave women. The result was a combination of ethnic mixtures: mestizo; mulatto (black and white) and zambo (black and Indian.)

In both Spanish and Portuguese America, those at the top of the social ladder were those born in Europe, and were known as peninsulares. Just below them were individuals born of Iberian parents, known as creoles, or criollos. People of mixed ethnicity were next, with slaves and conquered Indian people on the bottom.

In North America, European settlers typically married within their own ethnic groups, although some few French fur traders married Indian wives. European colonists looked down upon native peoples, and considered themselves decidedly superior to black slaves brought to work on plantations. The result was a virulent racism as English settlers drew distinctions between themselves and people of other ethnic groups. Even so, they borrowed many cultural elements from other societies. They learned native terms for animals like raccoons and opossums; trees like hickory and pecan, adapted deerskin clothes. They borrowed food crops and cultivation ideas from African slaves.

The Spanish came to America primarily to search for gold. When they conquered the Aztec and Inca, they melted down all of their artifacts into ingots rather than save them for their intrinsic value. Silver proved to be much more prevalent than gold, and the Spaniards put thousands of Indians to work in silver mines. Silver production at times was staggering. American silver quickly stimulated the global economy. In Spain, the crown kept one fifth of the silver for itself, a share known as the quinto. From Spain, much of the silver was traded for silk and spices in Asian markets. Some silver traveled directly from Western American ports to Manila and other Asian markets.

Nest to mining, the primary occupation in Spanish America was farming, particularly on an organization known as the hacienda, the Hispanic equivalent of a plantation. It produced food for itself as well as for nearby mining towns. Most of their produce was of European origin, such as wheat, grapes, beef and pork. Workers on the haciendas were primarily native peoples working under the encomienda system. Native workers were often abused from overwork and poor treatment such that Spanish officials changed the system to the repartimiento system, whereby native communities were compelled to furnish workers but laborers could only be made to work for specified periods of time and they had to be paid fair wages. Native peoples often resisted their taskmasters. They worked halfheartedly, rebelled on occasion, and at times retreated into the mountains and forests where they could not be found. At times they even relied on Spanish law for relief.

In Brazil, sugar production rather than silver mining was the primary economic practice. Rather than using native peoples, Portuguese entrepreneurs imported large numbers of African slaves. In time, African slaves and their descendants became a majority in Brazil. Brazilian life centered around the sugar mill, which came to share buildings and personnel necessary to keep it operating. Owners of sugar mills lived like noblemen and represented a privileged class. Although they lived on a grand scale, they often lived beyond their means and were frequently in serious debt.

Brazilian sugar plantation owners had at first attempted to enslave and work native peoples, but they escaped frequently, and died from epidemic diseases. They therefore turned to African slavery as early as 1530. The intense labor and harsh conditions of sugar plantations was such that ten percent of all slaves died annually. The number of deaths often exceeded the number of births, so there was a constant demand for new slaves. Plantation owners had no incentive to correct conditions; in fact if a slave lived five or six years, his owner would have doubled his investment. He could then purchase a new slave with no loss of profit. Conditions were so brutal and treatment of slaves so harsh that by the best estimates, every ton of sugar exported from Brazil cost the life of one slave.

The North America Fur Trade:  Trade in animal furs represented a substantial element in the settlement of North America. Originally begun by fishermen, the trade soon expanded rapidly. Blankets, iron pots, firearms and whiskey were often traded to Northern Indian hides for pelts, usually beaver pelts, sent to Europe for beaver skin hats and fur clothing. The trade expanded so quickly that beaver populations in many areas were soon depleted. Indians, who had sadly grown dependent on trade for goods (many of their traditional practices were soon abandoned or forgotten), then invaded the hunting grounds of other tribes, the result of which was inter-Indian conflict. Quite often, Indians allied themselves with Europeans in European conflicts in North America, not so much because of allegiance to the Europeans as enmity towards Indians allied with the other side. The Seven Years War began in America as a result of an inter-Indian conflict.


A larger threat to Indian society was the large influx of European settlers to North America. They tended to displace the native people and turn former hunting grounds into plantations. Their argument often was that the Indians were wasting the land, or at least not making good use of it. Many colonists almost starved during the early years, as European crops such as wheat did not grow well in northern America. They only survived because of contributions of food from Indians (or in other instances, food which was stolen outright from the Indians.) Eventually, however, a thriving European society was established.


Southern U.S. colonies soon produced cash crops, commonly known as staple crops. These crops were planted in large quantity and shipped to England or the Caribbean for sale. The first important staple crop was tobacco, which virtually saved the Virginia colony at Jamestown from extinction. Although James I regaled it as an “awful stinking weed,” demand in Europe for tobacco was tremendous. Maryland also furnished tobacco while South Carolina provided rice and Indigo for blue dye. At one point, because of its rice production, South Carolina was the wealthiest of the English colonies in America.


Large cash crop plantations required large amounts of labor. This was initially met by the use of Indentured Servants, people in Europe who were in debt, orphaned, or otherwise had little hope. They were transported by Ship Captains who then sold them at auction in America where they were forced to work as servants for a period of five to seven years. After their indenture, they were free, and entitled to settle on their own; however the life of an indentured servant was harsh. He was little more than a slave, and was often beaten or deprived. Although some became successful in American culture (Benjamin Franklin’s mother came to America as an indentured servant and eventually married her master) many others died of disease or overwork before completing their servitude.


As the employment situation in England improved and land became more scarce in America; the use of indentured servants soon was replaced with African slavery. The first slaves landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1610. Soon there were over 120,000 slaves in the Chesapeake, and 180,000 in South Carolina. Slavery was not commonly practiced in the North, as the land would not support large scale agriculture. Even so, the North profited handsomely from the slave trade, as most slave ships operated out of New England ports. The Brown Brothers of Newport Rhode Island operated one of the largest slave shipping companies in the country. When they retired from the business, they used their profits to establish a university which bears their name to this day.


Christianity and Native Religions in America:  Europeans carried their Christianity with them to America. Priests and Jesuit missionaries in Mexico and Peru attempted to Christianize the people of the area. Many of them preserved volumes of information about native languages, customs and beliefs. They did encounter considerable resistance, as the people of Mexico and Peru continued to follow their traditional religions. Christianity did win some converts, however as the indigenous people believed that their traditional gods had abandoned them.  In North America, French and English attempts at conversion were far less successful. Because they did not rule over a conquered population of peoples, it was more difficult to conduct missions among them. Although French missionaries worked actively to convert Indians and had some modest success, English colonists, who considered Indians the lost tribe of Satan, made no effort to convert them, even though they did not discourage conversion if the Indians showed an interest. At one point, a group of Indians in New England were forced to convert by Puritans and forced to live on a small area reserved for them. They became known as “praying Indians.”


European Activity in the Pacific Ocean:  Australia, whose existence had long been speculated (it was referred to as terra australis incognita—“unknown southern land) was first approached by Portuguese mariners in 1623 who came to Western Australia—the driest part of the Continent—and soon abandoned it. Later, Dutch mariners continued to visit. It was they who determined that New Guinea and Tasmania were islands separate from the mainland. They were so active in the area that Europeans often referred to Australia as “New Holland.”  The Eastern coast of Australia was not visited until 1770, when Captain James Cook landed there.


Original encounters with aboriginal Australians did not impress Europeans, and they showed no interest in establishing trade relationships with them. The poor quality of the land also did not interest them. The first serious settlement by Europeans came in 1788, when a prison colony was established there.


Ferdinand Magellan had been the first European to cross the Pacific in 1521. He had encountered only one inhabited island group, the Marianas, before he reached the Philippines where he was killed. In 1565, Spanish mariners instituted trade between Manila and Acapulco, Mexico. They were primarily interested in linking New Spain to Asian markets, and thus seldom went out of their way.


Guam and the Marianas were the only islands that attracted Spanish interest. Guam became a port for provisions used by galleons headed to Manila, and also a place for trade with the native people, known as Chamorros.  Eventually, however, Spanish authorities decided to bring them under Spanish control and force Christianity upon them. Spanish military operations, and smallpox tremendously reduced the numbers of the Chamorro people, and the few who remained were relocated into communities under Spanish supervision.


European and French mariners explored the Pacific still in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. By 1767 they had begun to call frequently at Tahiti, and engaged in trade there. They also frequently engaged in sexual relations with the Tahitian women. Captain James Cook who had visited Tahiti landed in Hawaii in 1778 while searching for the Northwest Passage. He was initially well received, and the Hawaiian people traded with him readily. A number of his sailors had sexual liaisons with Hawaiian women, even though a number of the sailors had venereal diseases and had been ordered by Cook to remain aboard ship. He returned to Hawaii in 1779, and was not well received. Disputes over petty theft erupted into a bitter dispute, and Captain Cook was killed.

 Word of Cook’s adventures soon brought other missionaries, merchants and planters to the Pacific islands. In later years, the relationship between Pacific Islanders and European settlers would become unsettling.