So how were the Europeans able to go out and “discover” this other half of the world? And why was it Europe that went out and explored and committed the Conquest and not Africa, the Middle East, India or China?
A few things: first, the Europeans were struggling to compete with these massive Afro-Eurasian empires. Europe was fragmented and couldn’t really control a ton of landmass and so instead they took to the water and decided to dominate the seas. African, Middle Eastern, and Asian empires were doing fine as they were. They didn’t really have the same desire or need to go out and find new trade relationships – everyone was coming to them.
Europeans were able to do this thanks to the exchange of innovations from China. The new scholars of the Scientific Revolution took these innovations like the compass and improved them to serve Europe’s new sea-faring focus. Because individual kingdoms were competing with each other for dominance, governments funded these expeditions – like Portugal’s Prince Henry founded a navigation school to teach people how to explore the seas. And Spain sends Columbus out, hoping he can reach India before their competition in Portugal, England, or the Netherlands.
Finally, they had two aspects of their society that a lot of other Afro-Eurasian civilizations didn’t. First, growing capitalism. As some European kingdoms start to recognize the rule of law, individuals feel more comfortable taking risks and trying to make money for themselves – knowing that some of those founding documents, like the Magna Carta, would protect them from the government seizing everything for themselves.
But also, they had a Christian mission. Christianity is one of the few religions who has a main focus of proselytizing or actively spreading the faith. Buddhism is the only other main one, and it spread really quickly all across Indian and East Asian trade routes. And remember, the Protestant Reformation has just taken a lot of people away from the Catholic Church, so countries like Spain are looking for new people to bring to the Pope.
So, kingdoms are competing with each other, and thus are encouraging their people to go out and find cool things to make them more powerful than other European kings. Scientists have adapted Chinese technology so that ocean exploration is more possible. Individuals looking for wealth and fame feel relatively protected by the rule of law back home. And they’re also all Christians who want to go convert and save as many “heathens” as possible.
In my opinion, all these explorers and conquistadors have already gotten too much PR.
Yeah yeah, we know. Columbus was an Italian who sailed on behalf of Spain looking for India. He found the Americas and screwed everything up. Quick note: Most scholars throughout history have understood that the world was round. Columbus wasn’t proving anything.
And yeah, Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe (or go all the way around) but he didn’t even do that – he died halfway through his journey and his crew finished the trip without him!
Myths of the conquest
What I want to talk about instead of exploration is the conquest of the Americas itself and three key facts or ideas that are often overlooked. A lot of this is based on a book called Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Matthew Restall – it’s a great book if you’re into this kind of thing.
“The Myth of completion”
The first is what Restall calls, “The Myth of Completion.” Basically, the way we teach the conquest is that it occurred in the early 1500s and once they had militarily conquered the Americas, then they were conquered and that was it. But we ignore the fact that conquest involves a lot more than just political and military power. So yeah, the Spanish took control of the government but it takes a lot more than that to fully conquer a place. This process took centuries and, some would argue, was never fully finished.
Socially, the Spanish subjugated the natives, putting them into a racialized caste system with white Europeans or peninsulares at the top and natives and new African slaves at the bottom. In the middle were groups we call castas, or castes, including mestizos (or people of both European and native descent) and mulattoes (or people of both European and African descent).
The conversion process
Culturally, the Spanish forcefully converted the natives using something called the Requerimiento, or Requirement. When they arrived in a village they would gather everyone together and read them this document asking them to renounce their pagan religion, accept the one true God, and serve the Spanish King as representative of the Pope. People who refused were imprisoned or executed. Oh yeah… and it was read in Spanish. To a bunch of indigenous people. Who didn’t speak Spanish.
Obviously, the first generation of conquered people probably didn’t truly accept Christianity – most of them at least. We have tons of evidence of small rebellions, people fleeing villages and setting up shrines to the old gods in the mountains, or just worshipping Catholic saints who represented other old deities. For example, the Aztecs worshipped Tonantzin, a mother goddess. So when the Catholics showed up with Mary, they thought, “Eh close enough.” The Spanish played into this because it made conversion easier – for example the first Temple to Our Lady of Guadalupe was built on the site of the Aztec worship of Tonantzin.
But after the first generation or two, young people were raised Catholic, young boys were educated in monasteries, and so the conversion process was more complete. But even today Latin American Catholicism is very different from European practices because of this syncretism – or mixing of old and new beliefs.
The second aspect of the conquest that doesn’t get talked about is the importance of native allies. When we ask how Cortes was able to conquer the impressive Aztec civilization with only a few hundred men, that’s really problematic. Because he actually amassed an army of native people who had all been pissed for a long time that the Aztecs had conquered them and forced them to pay tribute.
Even during peacetime they weren’t safe. The Aztecs would go to other rulers, sit down, and commiserate over how they were running out of prisoners of war to sacrifice to the gods. To solve this problem, they would negotiate so-called “Flower Wars” – they would schedule a war so that each side could win prisoners (there were certain rituals that required the sacrifice of a man defeated in battle), go fight, capture each other’s men, and kill them. So when Cortes comes along and says he wants to take down the Aztecs, a lot of people are like, Yes please!
And the most important native ally is the real star of the story. She’s a native woman named Malintzin. Malintzin was from a smaller tribe that was conquered in the Yucatan and she was sold into slavery and eventually became part of the group of women that was given to Cortes when he arrived in Mexico. She was originally the mistress of one of Cortes’s men but he quickly recognized her intelligence and took her as his own mistress and personal assistant.
Since she had been enslaved by the Mayan people, she spoke both Mayan and Nahuatl (the common language of central Mexico, including the Aztecs). Cortes also had a priest with him who had been shipwrecked a few years earlier and spent years living with a Mayan tribe. So he spoke Mayan and Spanish. What ensued was a game of telephone with the fate of the Americas in the balance: Cortes would speak Spanish to the priest, who would translate it into Mayan to Malintzin, who would translate it into Nahuatl for the Aztecs and other tribes. Oof.
But Malintzin was so smart that she learned Spanish in MONTHS. Cortes no longer needed the priest in the middle and Malintzin became Cortes’s principal translator, central to all the negotiations between himself and the native people, including Montezuma. Cortes referred to her as “la lengua” or his “tongue” in his letters back to Spanish King Charles V.
The First Mestizo
Malintzin and Cortes eventually had a son together named Martin Cortes, who is considered the first mestizo person. Somewhat surprisingly, Hernan Cortes recognized his son, even though he had a first wife back home in Europe, and he brought him to live in Spain, although he returned to the New World as an adult. Martin was given a fantastic education, made a Knight of the Order of Santiago, and served as a page to King Philip II – arguably the most powerful Spanish king until his Armada gets beaten by Elizabeth.
Malintzin has mostly been forgotten or maligned by history. A lot of historians, especially in Latin America, have seen her as a traitor since she helped Cortes conquer Mexico. She was nicknamed “La Malinche” based on a different translation of her name and the term malinchismo today means a person who denies their own cultural heritage by preferring foreign culture.
But that’s really unfair. Mexico was not a united single culture when Cortes showed up. So this idea that Malintzin was a traitor to “her people” is totally inaccurate – her people were conquered and subjugated, enslaved and sold to Cortes. So it makes perfect sense that she might help Cortes against the people who destroyed her home. Also, she was a slave woman. Even if she had wanted to resist, her survival was on the line.
Malintzin’s reputation is getting a makeover thanks to a fantastic book about her life called Maltinzin’s Choices by Camila Townsend. If you’re into women’s stories in history, this book is seriously a “must read.”