Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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 Jesus 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 welcome their new neighbors. 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 misled 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.


Unknown said...


You gotta read Eliiot's book on the history of Spain. It brings out the other side that Tom is talking about with Las Casas. Another good book in "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" in that is brings to light that most of a-holes that enslaved and killed the Caribs were old Conquistadors that Ferdinand made Columbus take. I think Columbus personally kidcapped one or two people to bring them home and then took them back.

He did bring up slavery for sure but their idea of slavery and ours today is different. Many thought it was noble to conquer them and make them more civilized. Las Casas on others of the Salmanca tradition set a lot of this straight.

Las Casas was Columbus biggest fan yet harshest critic depending on what he did.

As I stated before, Cortes dropped out of Salmanca. What if?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Joe. This opens a fascinating and needed meta-discussion on telling history itself.

My own starting point is reading academic-oriented blogs like these

There's a war going on between the new "marxists" who tell history through the prism of raceclassgender---and I think "forensic anthropology" is a good nonpejorative term---and the "Whig" theory of Gordon Wood, bailyn, et al., that seeks to find the "normative," the "consensus" that history moved forward upon.

For instance, the anti-Federalists are of interest, but it's the Federalists---the Framers and the Ratifiers---who wrote American History. The anti-Federalisrts are the footnotes.

Re Brad's post and my "Whig" rebuttal to it, the structural problem is that through 21st century eyes, most all of our historical "greats" are wanting and defective in some way. As Joe points out right here, de las Casas himself is not without "sin," and he's one of the good guys.

The problem becomes when we wring our hands over raceclassgender, we find so many demons that we ignore the "better angels" of history. This is the trap, a skeptical, even nihilistic trap: we can chronicle endlessly how America fell short of its ideal that "all men are created equal," but the real story and the real miracle of history is that we came up with it at all, and sometimes even tried to live up to it.

Jason Pappas said...

Brad, most of your examples describe Spanish policy--a particularly harsh policy of plunger and conquest in the 16th century. Your two main English examples are before successful English colonial establishments. Towards the end you address English colonization and your point on expectations versus reality is a good one.

However, I would tend to view the plunder of the Conquistadors as something very different than the English colonial activity of working the land and producing one’s own wealth. The general difference suggests they shouldn’t be lumped together. No?

Jason Pappas said...

”The anti-Federalisrts are the footnotes. - Tom

Wait a second. How about the Bill of Rights?

Tom Van Dyke said...

”The anti-Federalisrts are the footnotes. - Tom

Wait a second. How about the Bill of Rights?

The Bill of Rights is where they appear in the text. You have to have a starting point in the text for a footnote.


There was opposition to ratification from a movement called the "anti-Federalists*," enough of whom were "bought off" by the Federalists with a promise that the House would devise what eventually became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights.

*The anti-Federalists were a loosely-organized opposition to ratification, with various complaints, some that the Constitution didn't restrict the federal government enough, others that the Constitution wasn't religious enough.

The promise of a Bill of Rights assuaged the former and assured ratification; the latter were told to go suck eggs and were left behind in their own religious dust to hassle the unitarians.

secularsquare said...

I am just getting into an interesting book that touches on some of the issues of this post and the comments-- Jack Greene's The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity, 1492-1800. He argues that Europeans attempted to understand the New World and its inhabitants in terms of the world from which they had come. Greene notes (as per TVD) that some Spaniards such as de las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, and Jose de Acosta developed more nuanced views of the Amerindians. But even these men saw them as candidates for eventual civilization and Christianization that would result in the transformation or destruction of their culture. Most Europeans, however, interpreted the Amerindians in traditional categories of barbarians and heathens who lacked government and civilization. And for some Europeans, New World conditions even explained the barbarism to which Spaniards descended in their conquests. Greene closes his first chapter with the observation that “As the black legend of Spanish cruelty circulated widely through Europe during the late 16th century, America came more and more to be viewed as a place of cultural regress, for natives and immigrants alike, a place that was almost wholly barren of culture and that was important chiefly for the riches it yielded in such abundance for the benefit of a Europe that was the exclusive seat of civilized life.”

And so the race for colonization began.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Square makes some exc points to return to.

In the meantime, the "Black Legend" is a semi-formal term, describing the anti-Spanish [and anti-Catholic] telling of history by the English and Protestant world, the echoes of which persist even to today:

The Black Legend (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra) refers to a tradition of history writing that demonizes Spain and in particular the Spanish empire, by exaggerating the cruelty and violence with which the Spanish empire treated the indigenous colonial subjects in the colonies and religious and political minorities within their political dominion in Europe such as Protestants and Jews.[1][2] The term was coined by Julián Juderías in his 1914 book La leyenda negra y la verdad histórica (The Black Legend and Historical Truth), which sparked a tradition of pro-Spanish history writing, especially within Spain, but also in the Americas. This tradition which describes the Spanish empire as particularly benevolent and interested in the just treatment of its subjects has sometimes been referred to as the "White legend".

Tom Van Dyke said...

To the rest of Lee's comment, the question isn't the savagery of European civilization, it was what men did after they were removed from its judgment and control. Think Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" returning to savagery. Or Marlon Brando as Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now," same story adapted.

The horror.

Daniel said...

In 1492, there was some bad stuff going on in Spain. It wasn't just the conquest of the new world that brought the horrors.

But any narrative that asks, "What motivated the colonization of the new world?" will miss the point if there is an assumption that there is a simgle motivation and a single narrative. Greed, oppression, race, class, and gender have a part in that narrative. So do curiousity, nobility, and idealism. Of course, I think we all understand that idealism can be as destructive as greed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Greed, oppression, race, class, and gender have a part in that narrative. So do curiousity, nobility, and idealism. Of course, I think we all understand that idealism can be as destructive as greed.

Interesting argument, that greed and idealism are opposite sides of the same coin.

There is of course a third option, doing nothing and taking what comes your way, good or bad. There are some folks who think that's virtuous. ;-)