Sunday, June 29, 2008

Land of Confusion: The Delusions and Realities of New World Colonization

Once upon a time, in a land far away, lived a brave and wise man named Christopher Columbus. Columbus lived in a world of ignorant fools, who refused to believe that the earth was round. One day, Columbus convinced the King and Queen of Spain to give him some boats, so that he could prove his theory was right. Columbus then sailed on the ocean blue, in the year 1492. He arrived in a New World, populated with dark-skinned savages, whom he educated and converted to the true gospel of Christ. Soon, scores of people flocked to the new world, bringing the imbecile Negroes of Africa with them. Years later, a group of brave Christians known as the Puritans set out upon the Mayflower, in hopes of creating a better world. When they arrived in Massachusetts, these pilgrims became best friends with their savage Indian neighbors, who were more than happy to have them there. Together, the Puritans and Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving, by eating turkey, singing songs, and praying to God. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Any person with even an elementary understanding of history is more than capable of seeing through the sarcasm of this fairytale. To suggest that such a story provides a just and accurate account would invoke laughter and scorn from most. Despite this knowledge, there are still many who have succumbed to a fairytale of their own. They maintain that the New World was a land of freedom, opportunity, and wealth for European immigrants, who were blessed by the watchful hand of Providence. While their assertion is partially true, its bias is obvious. Such a perspective fails to recognize what the New World meant to the thousands of Africans, who instead of freedom, found themselves in chains in the New World. It also negates the opinions of millions of Natives, who had called this “New World” home for centuries. Such a simple perspective also denies us the opportunity of understanding the numerous nations, cultures, religions, social classes and motivations of Europe, which all contributed to American colonization. In essence, the colonization of America was not a simple affair, but a complex series of events that changed the world forever.

For years, the history of American colonization has been wrapped up in a counterfeit blanket of ignorance. This blanket has provided a warped sense of warmth and comfort, which has given many a blissful but misleading understanding of the past. Though the established myths of popular culture provide an uplifting account of American colonization, they neglect essential truths that help piece the puzzle together. For example, to suggest that American colonization was a loving endeavor, brought to pass by God himself, is hard to prove conclusively when we take into account the actual motivations for colonization. From the English perspective, the elder Richard Hakluyt made it clear that the main motivations for colonization were, "To trafficke" and "To conquer." Not exactly a well-balanced Christian agenda.

Despite the primary agenda of securing worldly wealth, there is no doubt that the establishment of Christianity was a strong motivation for American colonization. From the very beginning, many explorers were driven by religious convictions, which propelled them into the unknown. Alan Taylor, an early colonial historian and author of the book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, claims that Columbus desired to convert those he encountered to Christianity and, "to recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem. Such a victory would then invite Christ’s return to earth" (33). The Franciscan Friars of Spain were also motivated to migrate to America, in an effort to convert the Pueblo Indians. Upon their arrival, the Friars committed themselves to eradicating old Indian traditions. They raided homes, confiscated ceremonial emblems, destroyed idols, and defiled native gods (Taylor, 89). The Friars also sought to undermine the family traditions of the Pueblo Indians, by indoctrinating their youth, restricting their sexual activities, and emasculating the men (Taylor, 92-93). A strange agenda for a group of self-proclaimed pious Christians.

With the expansion of the Spanish into the New World, the Protestant nation of England felt additional pressure to secure their own colonies and preach their own brand of religion to the "savages" of America. To allow the Catholics of Spain total access to the New World was fundamentally unacceptable. As historian Karen Kupperman points out in her book, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony:

We should not underestimate the emotional force of this confrontation between Christians, which has been compared to the Cold War of the twentieth century. Each side believed the other was absolved by its religion of all normal moral and ethical behavior in dealing with the enemy, and capable of the most heinous plots”
To the English, there was nothing worse than confronting the possibility of a New World ruled under the banner of the Pope.

While there is no doubt that religion played a vital role in American colonization, it was not the exclusive motivation for settlement in the New World. The drive to establish trade with the Indians, and to conquer new lands, was just as significant as the drive to spread Christianity. Contrary to popular opinion, European colonization was not an explosive and daring operation. Instead of seeking to further humanity’s knowledge of the unknown world, many explorers hoped to find lands and cultures that could be exploited for profit. As Alan Taylor states, "the adventurers did not pursue exploration for pure love of geographic knowledge…They proceeded incrementally…seeking the sources of known commodities" (American Colonies, 29). Instead of being a benevolent voyage to chart the unknown, most European exploration was empowered to exploit opportunity for immediate profits.

The conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes is a prime example of these profit-hungry intentions, which many explorers exhibited. Like many other conquistadores, Cortes came from the Spanish gentry. To turn a profit, men like Cortes depended on their ability to plunder, conquer, and enforce their will on others. Alan Taylor sums up the life of a conquistador perfectly when he writes, “Greed was the prerequisite for pursuing the hard life of a conquistador” (American Colonies, 58). Upon discovering the riches of the Aztecs, Cortes held to the Spanish law of conquest, which demanded that all Indians were required to submit to Spanish rule, or receive the punishments of a “just war.” By gaining the allegiance of neighboring tribes, who detested the Aztecs, Cotes was able to conquer a literal treasure of wealth for himself and his nation.

The conquests of the Spanish in the New World provided an incredible amount of wealth for the homeland. Between 1500 and 1650, Spanish settlers shipped home 181 tons of gold, and 16,000 tons of silver (American Colonies, 63). With such a bountiful supply of riches, the Spanish government moved to monopolize on the market. They made it illegal for all foreigners to trade directly with the colonies, which forced them do deal directly with Spain. Such a policy protected Spain from losing this very lucrative market.

Spain was not the only European nation to seek economic gain in the New World. England quickly caught the fever of colonization, believing that the New World was an undiscovered Utopia, overflowing with untapped potential. In their planning, Europeans perceived the New World to be a bountiful paradise, which “bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor” (Karen Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 17). This Eden-like New World must have appealed to the hopes and imaginations of many English, especially considering all the poverty, disease and warfare that had plagued Europe over the past two centuries. There is little doubt that such hopes and dreams grew into unrealistic fantasies for many who longed for a better world. Speaking from his perspective, nevertheless lacking a full understanding of global weather patterns, the elder Richard Hakluyt made the following assumption of what settlers could expect in the new world:

"This land that we purpose to direct our course to, lying in part in the 40 degree of latitude, being in like heat as Lisbone in Portugall doth, and in the more Southerly part as the most Southerly coast of Spaine doth, may by our diligence yeeld unto us besides Wines and Oiles and Sugars, Orenges, Limons, Figs, Resings, Almonds, Rice…"
Returning from his recent explorations to the New World, Sir Richard Grenville stated that “we have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 34-35). With such a Utopia awaiting them, Englishmen began gathering and making preparations for a journey that they believed would ultimately make England even mightier than it already was. All of these men, “had an image of England’s future greatness and the exhilarating feeling that they were the people who would make it come true” (Kupperman. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, 30). From the English perspective, there was a clear expectation of a bountiful, fertile, and relatively easy to maintain oasis that awaited them, and that England would become even greater because of it.

Needless to say, these religious and economic motivations for the colonization of the "New World" primarily resulted in utter failure. Converting the "savages" proved to be more difficult than previously thought, since, contrary to European beliefs, the Native Americans cared very little for Christian theology. On the economic front, colonization proved even more difficult. Instead of discovering and settling in a Garden of Eden-like frontier, European settlers were met with Indian attack, harsh weather, terrible crop yields, and disease. For the English, their first experiment at Roanoke met with complete failure, as was almost the case with Jamestown. Even Plymouth suffered terrible losses and afflictions.

What is interesting about these preconceived European beliefs as to what awaited them across the Atlantic is their complete faith and surety that God would grant them a safe and uneventful trek into an unknown land. Upon their arrival, these same Europeans quickly came to the realization that their faith was not only lacking, but their arrogant presumption that God would grant them immediate success was unlikely to happen. This tug-o-war between the religious presumptions of the Europeans and the reality they experienced helps to explain why the early years of American settlement were a violent, hostile, intolerant and unpredictable environment.


Ray Soller said...

I thought our blog readers would like to know just who first promoted the grade school picture of Columbus trying to show the King and Queen of Spain that the earth was really round. In an online Summary article, The Myth of the Flat Earth, Jeffrey Barton Russell points his finger at Washington Irving as the most responsible American figure who promoted this mostly American myth.

Russell writes:
"The American was no other than our beloved storyteller Washington Irving (1783-1859), who loved to write historical fiction under the guise of history. His misrepresentations of the history of early New York City and of the life of Washington were topped by his history of Christopher Columbus (1828). It was he who invented the indelible picture of the young Columbus, a "simple mariner," appearing before a dark crowd of benighted inquisitors and hooded theologians at a council of Salamanca, all of whom believed, according to Irving, that the earth was flat like a plate. Well, yes, there was a meeting at Salamanca in 1491, but Irving's version of it, to quote a distinguished modern historian of Columbus, was "pure moonshine. Washington Irving, scenting his opportunity for a picturesque and moving scene," created a fictitious account of this "nonexistent university council" and "let his imagination go completely...the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense."

Lindsey Shuman said... very true!

Pinky said...

This whole area about the underlying forces that moved the conquistedores and others to plunder in the name of Christianity does nothing more than it reminds me of our nation's warring presence in the Middle East and the prosecution of the indigenous peoples over there.
The confiscation of 181 tons of gold brings up the conquest for oil.
And, all of it tied in to God's plan for the ages.


Brad Hart said...

That's an interesting comparison, Pinky. The will of God has most certainly been used to justify the invasion of Iraq, as it was used to invade the lands of "savage" indians. I think there is at least a small sense of cultural superiority on the part of the United States when we assume that our way (democracy) is best, just as the Spaniards assumed their way (Catholocism) was best for the Indians.

What is most ironic about your comparison is the fact that the Spaniards, after all of their plunder, actually fell into a tremendous national debt that deeply hurt them as a nation. Spain was never any richer, since they squandered away what they had plundered. Sound familiar to anyone?

Pinky said...

"...fell into a tremendous national debt that deeply hurt them as a nation. "
We don't see many thinkers putting our Founding history in perspective to so much of what was going on at the time. For example, the developing knowledge and understanding of lightening as a force of nature. Some person might set that aside as being "flawed reasoning"; but, back in the 1750s it was quite a controversy as it challenged the idea that it was a display of God's interventionist ways.
Gaining knowledge of electricity and spreading that to the general public had an effect on ideas of God's spirit and, so, it impacted religious ideas.
Science was beginning to come down on the thinking of those days in practical ways. Deism and deistic thought were not stand alone exigencies.