Sunday, 13 July 2014

Oaxaca - The Columbian Exchange

Although I learned about the Conquistadors when I was at school, I wanted to get a general overview of the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, as I felt that I didn't know the subject well enough and it's important to understand the historical context of Mexico, when blogging about modern-day Oaxaca.

I was lucky enough to find an engaging account of the Spanish conquest called Conquistadors by Michael Wood, written in conjunction with the BBC series of the same name that was broadcast in 2000.  Wood has written several history books as part of the BBC series and I'd recommend this book, as I really enjoyed his easy style of writing and the fact that he quoted from different sources (Aztec and Peruvian), not just telling the story from the Spanish point of view.

Conquistadors (2000) by Michael Wood
16th-century Oaxaca was a little bit off the beaten track, just as it is today, therefore it doesn't feature highly in the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  In those days, 'Mexico' was the Aztec empire, which stretched from the mountains north of the Mexico valley to the southern Pacific coast in modern-day Chiapas.  The Spanish first showed up in the Mayan lands of Yucatan, before moving up the coast to Veracruz and, eventually, making their way to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico city) high in the Sierra Madre.

The Columbian Exchange

Wood, quite rightly, depicts the meeting of Aztec leader, Motecuhozuma (aka Montezuma) with the conquistador Hernán Cortés as a 'meeting of two worlds'.  Karl Marx described it as 'the greatest event in the history of the world'.  As it turned out, the meeting was more of collision of completely different cultures and the outcomes, in terms of globalisation, were immense - after defeating the Aztecs, the Spanish went on to conquer all of central America, the southern United States and South America.

I found the term 'Columbian exchange' quite interesting - it has nothing to do with cocaine or the Bolsa de Bogota, but refers to the exchange of cultures, goods and materials that happened as a result of Colombus' 'discovery' of the Americas.  It was the cruellest exchange in history; where the Americans gave us new foods, plants, medicines and cultural wealth, Europeans brought disease, destruction and devastation to highly-sophisticated societies that had evolved over many centuries without outside influence.

Guns, Germs and Steel

I read a book a few years ago called, Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) by the US scientist, Jared Diamond. This book, more than any other, helped me understand the geography of the world and how this enabled Europeans to make the technological advancements that enabled them to conquer American societies which were unable to resist European guns, germs and steel.

It's estimated that 90-95% of the native population in the Americas died as a result of European diseases, the chief culprit being smallpox, which native Americans had no resistance to.  These deadly epidemics, more than anything, led to the successful conquest of the Americas by Europeans.

There is an interesting documentary on YouTube (by National Geographic) that outlines Diamond's theories - I'm embedding the video below, so you can watch this, if you're interested.

The Cruelty of the Conquistadors

The Europeans could not have predicted the impact their diseases would have on the native peoples of the Americas.  Even so, European/Spanish behaviour in the Americas was appalling.  The conquest of Mexico and Peru are stories of greed, lust, violence and cultural destruction.  The Spanish trampled on everything they saw and raped and murdered the local people in their pursuit of wealth, particularly gold.  It's pretty shocking to read about, from a 21st-century perspective but, in the context of 16th-century Europe, where violence and war was the order of the day, perhaps not all that surprising.

Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro
I was interested to learn that most of the leading conquistadors came from the Spanish region of Extremadura.  Very much a harsh frontier in 16th-century Spain, Extremadura had, for a long time, been part of an Islamic caliphate and by the early 1500's it was inhabited by Christians who'd moved in and taken over the land, pushing the Muslims and Jews out.  The conquistadors were, therefore, from tough 'frontier' stock and I can't help wondering if their harsh frontier mentality accounted for their greed, violence and hatred of the 'Other' when they set out to conquer the Americas?

Hernán Cortés was related to the Pizarro brothers, a kind of mafia family who murdered the Peruvian Inca and grabbed so much wealth in South America.  Whilst reading the history of the conquests, I sensed that the conquest of the Americas got completely out of control.  Although the conquerors claimed to be acting in the name of the King of Spain and the Catholic church, it's clear that they were in it for personal wealth and unrestrained by loyalty to the Spanish crown or the church.

An America that could have been?

Central American figurehead
It's sad to think of the cultural heritage the world lost because of the European conquest of the Americas. Spanish took over as the main language, Catholicism as the main religion and modern American culture is, essentially, another version of European culture.  I wonder what the world would be like today if geography and greed hadn't conspired to bring down the great civilisations of pre-Hispanic America.

What would the balance of power be like in a world with strong Aztec, Mayan and Inca leadership?  It would be the equivalent of having another world view, like that of the Chinese or Japanese or Indian cultures, that have maintained their independence from European domination.  I can't help thinking that we lost something important with the destruction of the great American cultures.

Luckily, indigenous American cultures aren't completely lost and Oaxaca is a good example of a corner of the Americas where native culture has survived the test of time.  The question is whether or not we value native American cultures enough to fight for their preservation, in an increasingly globalised world?

Image credits:

The image of the conquistadors is a composite that I put together from two copyright-free originals.

The image of the Central American figure is one that I took at the Casa de Colon in Las Palmas (Gran Canaria)

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