& Colombus Essay, Research Paper

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the world was a quite small place for Europeans. While they knew about China and Southern Africa, their worldview was still focused on Europe and the Mediterranean. Within 200 years, Europe would be almost all over the world with settlement on various continents. By 1700, most of the coastline of the Americas would be under the domination of Europeans. Meanwhile, with the European conquest of the Nuvus Mondus -the New World- Europe also discovered and revealed a darker side of itself in the age of exploration.

The Portuguese all throughout the 16th century built a monopoly in the spice trade from the east by dominating the trade routes around the continent of Africa. Spain, on the other hand, began thinking of ways to get around this monopoly by developing a western route to the eastern countries. The Spanish were especially well prepared by history to conquer, occupy, populate and exploit new lands and assimilate new people. ” With Portugal dominating the African route to India, Queen Isabelle of Castile was persuaded to take an interest in a western route by a Genoese adventures, Christopher Columbus.” Columbus was in his forty-first year. He had lived 9 years in Spain, where he was trading sugar and was making maps and marine charts. During this period, he made many sea voyages that conceived him later in his enterprise of discovery. Finding no acceptance of it in Portugal, he had come to Spain in 1485.

Like all well-informed people of this day, Columbus also believed that the world was round. But Columbus also believed that the world was smaller than was imagined in general and he managed to convince Isabelle that a western expedition would be a short trip. He was, of course, completely mistaken; ” he misjudged the size of globe by 25% and the distance of the journey by 400%.” As a matter of fact, Columbus and his men would have starved or died, but fortunately for Columbus America did get in the way. ” On 12 October he landed in the Bahamas, on an island he named San Salvador.” He had encountered a Mundus Nuvus, a New World. His discovery marked the beginning of the age of exploration.

What were the real reasons behind this decision of discovering a new land? Undoubtedly, the discovery of the American continent was almost entirely about one and only thing: money. Columbus first mission to America was to bring gold or something valuable to bring back to Spain. Besides the aim of finding a new route for the spice trade, Spain wanted to expand his territory in order to find and exploit new resources of income. Those were the primary reasons for which Columbus decided to sail. On the other hand, there were also the personal reasons of Columbus. First of all, he was authorized to have 10% of all removable assets of the newly discovered lands, including gold, silver and other precious stones. Secondly, Columbus was specifically granted the powers as admiral, viceroy and governor; the trade therein was to be a crown monopoly under his control. Columbus’ dreams were about to come true.

Columbus was incontestably a courageous and honest sailor who made possible the settlement of a new world. But there is certainly the other part of the story. Once Columbus has landed on the New World he met the locals. According to his journal, one of the first things Columbus did was to ask them whether they had any gold. Luckless, he did not find what he was hoping for; only a few of the natives wore some gold articles and, because of the lack of communication, Columbus was not even able to learn where this little amount of gold came from. Then he just turned his attention to the trees and shrubs that can be valuable spices; but which trees and what spices? So far Columbus had any valuable articles to offer to his sovereigns than the beautiful scenery he has described in his journal. But he was aware that scenery would not allow him to become a rich, powerful and famous man, consequently he started to search another source of revenue: he began to keep turning in his mind how this peaceful and timid hosts could be a source of profit. According to his journal, on October 14,1492, he wrote: “When your Highness so command, they (the Natives) could all be carried off to Castile or be held captive in the island itself because with 50 men they could all be subjugated and compelled to do anything one wishes.” “By December 16, his ideas in that respect had taken definitive form. “They have no weapons and are all naked without any skill in arms and are very cowardly so that a thousand would challenge three,” says the journal for that date. [...]“Thus they are useful to be commanded and to be mad to labor and sow and to be everything else of which there is need and build towns and be taught to wear clothes and learn our customs.” ” Besides his adventurous spirit of Renaissance, his other side corresponding to exploit the people has emerged. The last thing he did before returning to Spain was to order the capture of a few dozen Indian to be brought back to sovereigns. However this will not be the last time that Columbus would turn his attention to the acquisition of gold and slaves from the Indians. He returned from Spain with over a thousand armed men who were ready to fight against the Arawak Indians. At first, he merely demanded gold and other valuable from them and punished those who refused by disfiguring them (cutting their ears, etc.). When the Arawaks resisted, many people has been taken alive and 500 were sent as slaves to be sold in Castile. Thus, by his own authority Columbus established slavery in the New World.

It could be argued that Columbus was merely a man of his times, and that we cannot judge him according to our modern moral standards. “His obsessions with lineage and imperialism, his seemingly bizarre Christian beliefs, and his apparently brutal behavior come from a world remote from that of modern democratic ideas, it is true; but it was the world to which he belonged. The forces of European expansion, with their slaving and search for gold, had been unleashed before him and were at his time quite beyond his control. Columbus simply decided to be in the vanguard of them.” It is said that Columbus was responsible for starting the intercontinental salve trade and the execution system of the local island populations. Slavery existed in Europe, Africa and the New World far before Columbus. Columbus did not invent it; he was just a product of his time.

Soon after Columbus’ discovery, every country in Europe turned their attention to the Americas. It was the Spanish, however, that dominated the settlement and exploitation of the Americas. In 1494, Spain signed a treaty with Portugal, the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the entire world between the two countries. All the trade routes east of the Cape of God belonged to Portugal while the entire routes west across the Atlantic belonged to Spain.

Soon a new type of explorer would enter the scene: the conquistador. As the name suggests, the conquistador set out to conquer the territories of the new continents. At the very beginning they were independent and autonomous entrepreneurs financed by themselves and by individual investors, but then they become private expeditors representing Spain.

“Hernando Cortes (Appendix no.1) was one such conquistador.” Cortes who was the mayor of a small town, was appointed to command a third expedition to what is today central Mexico. ” But Cortes ambition and personal magnetism made Velasquez suspect his loyalty. Velasquez planned on removing him as the leader of the expedition. Cortes discovered this and cut short his preparations. Cortes sailed across the Gulf of Mexico in February 18,1519.” (Appendix no.2)

Once Cortes has reached Mexico, he began to hear of a great city, a city filled with wonders and more importantly riches. Almost all of the present-day Mexico was then part of the Aztec empire. The capital is present day Mexico City which was then called Tenochtitlan: this city was for the Spanish the treasure that they had come so far to find. Cortes did not want to explore trade and search for Christian captives. Rather his goal was nothing less than the conquest of Mexico However, Cortes had a problem had a problem because he did not have the kings permission in order to march in conquest or even settlement in the mainland; the only power Velasquez has given to Cortes was to explore, trade and return. Therefore, he decided to remove himself from the authority of Velasquez. Soon some of men asked Cortes to take command of a “new colonial administration” that was free of Velasquez, but loyal to the crown. Hence Cortes was now free to conduct his affairs in Mexico apart from the limitations imposed on him. In the light of the above, we can say that Cortes has finally reaching one of the main goals of his exploration: the power.

After a three months expedition with the support of indigenous groups such as Cempoalans and Tlaxcalans, who acted as allies, interpreters and guides, Cortes and his troop finally reached Tenochtitlan. This marvelous city build of stone and baked clay in the middle of a lake, was representing gold and power for the Spaniards. Cortes was at first welcomed warmly by the Natives, by reason of believing that Cortes was a returning, a descendent of their god Quetzalcoatlin (Appendix no.3). According to the Aztec prophecy, Quetzalcoatlin had left Mexico in 10th century but would return from the east to reclaim his authority over the Aztecs. As a matter of fact Cortes arrival from the sea was seen as the fullfilment of this prophecy.

Meanwhile, Montezuma had been paralyzed by indecision. The great leader, who was always been recognized as brave, valiant and as strong and warrior ruler, had become a very scared and confused leader. A certain amount of hesitation on Montezuma’s part is excepted because not only are the Spanish powerful, but there were also a belief that Cortes was an Aztec god. According to Cortes’ journal, Montezuma said to him ” So because of the place which you claim to come, namely from where the sun rises [...] So be assured that we shall aboey you and hold you and our lord in place of that great sovereign of whom you speak; and in this there shall be no offense no betrayal whatsoever. And in all the land that lies in my domain, you may command as you will, for you shall be obeyed; and all that we own is for you to dispose of us as you choose.” Cortes not only accepts this notion of himself being the Aztec god, but also exploits it. In the meanwhile, in order to show their respect to their so-called “returned god”, Aztecs performed a ritual sacrifice. This idea of sacrificing a human in front of the Spanish made complete sense to the Aztecs because within their religion, human sacrifice was necessary in order to feed the gods. However a such event terrified the Christian Spanish; they began to see the Aztec religion as savage and their gods as idols. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the soldiers who accompanied Cortes, describes the Aztec temple: ” All the walls and floor were black with crusted blood, and the whole place stank. [...] The walls were so culsted with blood and the floor was so bathed in it that in the slaughterness of Castile there was no such strink. They had offered to yhis idol five hearts from the day’s sacrifices.” The Christian Spanish were so horrified by the Aztces tradition that they feel responsable to show then the right way, to bring them to the “True Faith” by converting them to Christianity. But thos was carried out with such prujudice taht any attempts to understand ths Aztecs’ point of view has been done. With this sene of responsability Cortes wrote to his sovereigns that “[The Aztecs] have a most horrid and abominable custom which truly ought to be punished and which until now we have seen in no other part” and consequently asked to ” Let your Highness consider, therefore, whether they should not put an end to such evil practices, for certainly Our Lord God would be well pleased if by the hand of Your Loyal Highness the people were initiated and instructed in our Holy Catholic Faith, and the devotion, trust and hope they have in these idols were transferred to the divine power of God ”

“After Courteous initial meeting with Montezuma, relations between the Spaniards and the Aztecs deteriorated rapidly. Perhaps fearing that his company would become the next human sacrifices at the Aztec temple, Cortes seized Montezuma and made him prisoner. In the meanwhile Cortes left the capital to engage a military expedition sent by Velasquez to capture the rebellious captain.” In June 1521, fighting erupted in the capital, because Cortes came back and find out that his troops had massacred an unarmed crowd at a religious ceremony, and he helped kill over 100 000 Aztecs (Appendix no. 4). Suddenly he became evil and started conquering many villages and brutally killed many Aztecs in the act. According to his journal “more than forty thousand were killed or taken that day” , the day of August 12, 1521. His own phrases “So loud was the wailing of the women and children that there was not man among us whose heart did not bleed at the sound ” and ” we could no longer endure the stench of the dead bodies that had lain in those streets for many days ” demonstrate clearly the savageness of the Cortes’ massacre.

How did the Spaniards win the battle when the Aztecs were more than

150 000 and the Spaniards were only some 900? The Spaniards won simply because they had better tactics. First of those tactics is the fact that Aztecs in battle tried to capture, not kill their opponents, in order to use them in religious sacrifices. “This allowed many Spanish soldiers who would otherwise have been killed, to be rescued and fight again.” However, the most important fact in the winning of the battle was “technology”. “Cortes’ cavalry terrified the Aztecs. They had never seen horses or iron armaments.” The Aztecs were just armed with sling, stone tipped clubs and spears. But Spaniards had another crucial advantage: the diseases. “The epidemic of smallpox, measles and pustules broke out so virulently that a vast number of people died throughout this New Spain.” Since their agriculture was mainly labor-intensive, the rapid decrease in population due to the wars and diseases caused the disruption of their traditional farming and as a matter of fact hunger has appeared within the Aztecs. Smallpox as describes by Sahagun, certainly devastated the Aztecs and may have been one of the pivotal factor in Cortes’ success. “By 1522 Cortes was the master of an area larger than all Spain” and by the 1540s the Spanish had become the first major colonial in America (Appendix no.5). Estimates of Mexico’s population on the eve of the conquest range from 12 million to 25 million; by 1568 it was under 3 million.

Why this encounter led to a such destruction of an empire? One of the principal reasons was the greed of the Spanish. The Spanish were expanding, becoming more powerful so their hunger for gold and land became greater than ever. Cortes was a perfect figure of encounter. Even from an early age he looked for adventure. He was a strong and influential man among his community and his crew, but perhaps a little too strong. He wanted gold and royal recognition and was capable of doing anything in order to reach those aims. As a result, he turned an expedition of discovery into a conquest and eventual destruction of an entire culture. Cortes was not afraid to exploit the strength of the Spanish war machine. In order to qualify the Spanish ravages and atrocities, the term “Black Legend” has appeared during the 16th and 17th century.

Discoveries of the 16th and 17th century significantly affected the course Europe would take in the future. The discoveries initiated by Columbus and Cortes resulted in vast profits for their sponsors. Realizing the potential for gains, European countries launched a campaign to colonize the newly discovered lands. These efforts eventually gave birth to the mercantilist system and, hence, capitalism. On the other hand, with the raw material obtained from these newly discovered lands, the economies of the European countries started to grow. To make up for the need of increased labor, Europeans engaged in a disgracing practice: slave trade. The age of exploration has illustrated the darker side of Europe, which foreshadowed the future concerns in the history of modernization.


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