December 5, 2022

How was the Conquest of America and how it claimed the lives of more than 50 million people

Read Time:6 Minute, 18 Second


(CNN Spanish) — In America there is a growing rejection of the figure of Christopher Columbus, the navigator who on October 12, 1492 arrived, without knowing it, in what is now the Bahamas, achieving the so-called “encounter between two worlds”. There are reasons why it should be so.

It is not that Columbus, commanded by the Spanish kings, has not discovered something new while searching for a route to the East Indies. That narrative that presented him as the ‘discoverer of America’ has already been widely surpassed in multiple spaces: the ‘New World’ was only new for the Europeans in whose name he sailed. It was not new for the indigenous peoples had been living there for centuries and for Leif Eriksson and the Vikings they had already been there five centuries earlier.

Instead, it is about the violence, disease, and death that followed the arrival of settlers on American soil, which shaped the continent as we know it today.

The ‘Great Dying’

By the early 17th century, the death toll in America reached 56 million, according to a recent estimate by four academics at University College London. in an article published in The Conversation. That figure represents 90% of the pre-Columbian population and 10% of the total population of the time.

“Many died in wars and others from the excesses of slavery to which they were subjected, but there is no doubt that the main cause of death was disease,” says Professor Gisela Von Wobeser, of the Institute of Historical Research of the UNAM.

And it is that in addition to political, economic and cultural aspirations, the representatives of the ‘Old World’ brought diseases to America. Diseases such as influenza, smallpox, measles and bubonic plague, which triggered the so-called ‘Great Dying’.

This ‘Great Dying’ would be the second deadliest event in human history in proportional terms. Ahead is only the Second World War, which claimed the lives of 80 million people.

One of the possible explanations, according to the UCL researchers, is to be found in the immune system of the indigenous people: they were isolated from the population of the other continents and had not come into contact with deadly pathogens. That “resulted in what became known as ‘virgin soil’ epidemics: if victims didn’t die from smallpox, they died from the subsequent wave of flu, and those who survived both couldn’t outgrow measles.” “The wars, the famines and the atrocities committed by the conquerors did the rest”, they synthesize.

A representation of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America.

Extreme violence, brutality and an institution “of terror”

Upon arrival in the Americas, Columbus and his men enslaved many of the natives and treated them with extreme violence and brutality, according to History.com. In addition to forcing them to work for his own benefit, he sent thousands of Taino “Indians” to Spain to sell them, many of whom died on the journey. He also killed natives in response to a revolt when he was governor of what is now the Dominican Republic and, to prevent further rebellion, ordered the corpses paraded through the streets.

The abuse was not an isolated issue.

The Crown initially established a system known as “encomiendas” that gave certain Spaniards the possibility of exploiting the land with indigenous labor and collecting tributes. In return, according to the regulations, they had to instruct and evangelize them in Catholicism. In fact, explains Benedicto Cuervo, a history graduate, it became an “institution of terror.”

“The atrocities of the encomiendas cannot be silenced. The tributes were excessive and varied, as was the personal work. To obtain them, the encomenderos (…) beat and killed the Indians, seized their women, and even destroyed their agriculture,” says the Spaniard.

To the work of the indigenous people the colonizers would later add that of the slaves brought from Africa.

Genocide, the word at the center of the debate

One of the words that has been at the center of heated disputes when talking about the human cost of the arrival of the Spanish in America has been genocide.

The expert in history, art and culture of Mexico Gregorio Luke he said in an interview with CNN in 2021 that the death of 90% of the indigenous people after the arrival of the Europeans —not only the Spanish but also the English, who “are much worse”— constituted “the most important genocide in history”. “That 10% has been reproduced and yes there is an indigenous presence, especially in Latin America, but we cannot forget the enormous crime and the crime not only of people but of cultures,” he opined.

Alberto G. Ibáñez, author of “The black legend. History of hatred of Spain”, disputes the use of the word. “Genocide implies an intention to wipe out a people. This is what has happened in other parts of the world and indeed we have cases of genocide, sometimes because of their culture, because of their race, because of their religion, and we continue to have them,” he explained. , and argued that the then queen Isabella the Catholic said that the Indians were her vassals and that “they should not touch each other”.

Other academics who have studied the “black legend”, a concept with which they designate the set of beliefs about the barbarism of the Spanish empire that, according to several, ignores the atrocities of other empires such as the British or the French.

An unexpected physical effect of death: the planet cooled down

As a result of the mortality, the land was left without enough workers. As a result of the lack of workers, spaces that until then had been intervened by man returned to their natural state. They were then able to reabsorb carbon from the atmosphere to such a level that the planet cooled, the researchers say in their The Conversation article.

The drop in temperatures fed back into the carbon cycle, removing even more CO2, solving the puzzle of why the planet cooled briefly in those years, leading to cruel winters and cold summers that caused famine and riots.

Columbus statues vandalized 1:14

From spices to metals

“Columbus came looking for the spice route. Later, of course, spices did not appear and precious metals appeared”, explains Pilar Martínez López-Cano, historian at the UNAM Historical Research Institute.

The Spanish kept the gold that the indigenous people had in their possession, often in the form of decorative objects, and also used them as “enslaved” labor to search for more mines of this precious metal. The result for them was “very disappointing”, says the historian. In the Antilles, the first place they searched, the amount of gold found was scarce, remember in this article National Geographic. But the Spanish pushed west and eventually ran into the Aztecs, whose gold they kept.

After the period of the conquest, says the publication, “a mining of appropriation to another of production” was passed in which silver took center stage. Hernán Cortés and his successors created a “network of silver mines” in territories that would later become cities like Zacatecas and Guanajuato.

“The true American wealth, strictly speaking, was not gold, but silver, which for the next three centuries, until independence, paid for colonization, paid for American trade with Europe and especially with China, or guaranteed the integration of border territories, where enormous amounts of money were sent, those located, to pay for fortifications and militias,” they say.

With information from Alicia Lee and Camilo Egaña from CNN.



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