Growing up, I always thought that America (both North and South) was a completely empty space – devoid of any humans. For every time I would read in General Knowledge books that Christopher Columbus had discovered America, that is the picture the word ‘discovery’ would conjure up in my head. Later when I read about the ‘Native Indians’ in relation to Columbus discovery, I would think maybe the Americas had sparsely populated few inhabitants of the native people because the accounts of natives would be very little, and often obscured by the glory of Columbus and the conquistadors.
It was only later when I also read about two more discoveries in General Knowledge books – ‘Discovery of India by Vasco De Gama’ and ‘Discovery of China by Marco Polo’ – that I realized there was something wrong with my imagination of the word ‘discovery’, for I knew India and China were there long before any of Vasco De Gama and Marco Polo. That’s why, it always intrigued me to know more about the ‘New World’.
And as it turns out, the New World was not even new when Columbus had first set foot on it. People had migrated to the Americas at least as far back as 16000 BC, with some archaeologists accounting for dates even further. It is believed that the people of Eastern Siberian region were able to migrate to Alaska through the Bering Strait land bridge. After the last Ice Age, as the Bering Strait land bridge ceased to exist, the landmass of America got disconnected from the landmass connecting Eurasia.
The archeological evidence of human settlement in places as far as Chile around 14000 BC shows that human settlement had expanded all across the America from North to the South. And the people in America – or the ‘lost world’ – were not at all lost. In parallel to the rest of the world, America also had its own early civilizations and societies which were as structured and sophisticated as the rest of the world. They were able to achieve important parallel milestones like domestication of agriculture and invention of writing on their own.
If one were to do a simple geographical classification of America, it is easier to divide it into 4 regions to make the picture clearer: North America (consisting of modern day Canada and USA), Central America (consisting of modern day Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras), South America and the Caribbean Islands. The longest surviving civilization of America was the Maya Civilization in Central America, which had its own writing system, architecture, mathematics and other inventions. There were important settlements around the Mississippi region in North America and the Andes region of South America.
When Europe had started its era of exploration, America had two important empires running independent of each other – the Aztec Empire in modern day Mexico and Inca Empire in modern day Peru.
The Aztec and Inca Empire were in no way small empires. Considering both had massive populations (around 10 million), one could argue they were bigger than even some of the other prominent empires of the time. The Aztec capital in particular, the city of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) was a city built on an island on Lake Texcoco that ruled 400 to 500 small states with a total population of around five million. So, in every other way, it was as big and advanced as some of the biggest European cities of the time. The whole population of America before Columbus is estimated to be around 60 million, and the whole global population at the time was around 500 million. So, the newfoundland was far from being sparsely populated, and the new world hardly new. The testament of ingenuity and industry of Pre Columbus America can still be seen in Machu Picchu in Peru and Chichen Itza in Mexico, two of the seven wonders of the world.
But it was not the densely populated Aztec or Inca empire that Columbus encountered first. It was the Caribbean Islands which was relatively primitive in structure.
When Columbus landed in the newly found land, he and his team had truly believed they had reached the East Indies. It was the reason they would call the people they encountered as ‘Indians’. In fact, Columbus died in 1505, without even realizing he had discovered the new world. It was only after his death that the Europeans added the new found land on their map and named it America.
But the Caribbean Islands they had found were far from the gold ridden land they had imagined them to be. Apart from the native Indians and some exotic birds and animals not found in the rest of the world, the Spanish could not take anything of precious wealth back to Spain. But eventually, they discovered the land of their imagination – one filled with gold and silver – in the Aztec empire and the Inca Empire.
In 1521, a Spanish conquistador named Hernan Cortes discovered the Aztec Empire and eventually managed to conquer it, effectively establishing a Spanish colony there. In the same manner, in 1532, another Spanish conquistador named Franciso Pizaro discovered the Inca Empire and also managed to conquer it. Therefore, within a span of a few years, European intruders, that too mostly Spanish, managed to conquer two sophisticated cities and establish Spanish colonies in the Central America and South America region, along with the Caribbean islands like Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic). And to get a picture of how an army of just a few hundred intruders were able to take over the empire of millions, we need to focus on two important questions: ‘why they did it’, and ‘how they did it’.
To answer the why part – the answer is 3 G’s – Gold, Glory and God. As Spanish explorers had realized that the land they had reached was not the Indies but the new found world, they could not generate wealth through trade like they had imagined. So, the next resort was Gold and Silver, which the Aztec and Inca Empire had in abundance. They also wanted to spread Spanish glory far across Spain. And finally, as Spanish monarchy was highly driven by Catholicism at the time, they wanted to spread Christianity to the new found world.
To answer the how part – the answer is 2 G’s – Guns and Germs. The Spanish intruders had far sophisticated weapons like Guns and Steel weapons that the Americans had not even seen. So, in a way the intruders seemed not only dangerous and equipped, but also atypical. For the Native Americans who had never seen guns, horses or ships, the sight of humans coming out of ships riding horses with guns must have been like seeing some human-looking-aliens coming out of some never seen before UFO and riding some never seen before animal.
But it was not the guns and the intimidation that destroyed the Americans. It was the germs that eventually destroyed and decimated them. As the Native Americans were exposed to the germs that Europeans intruders had brought to America, they were not immune to the germs, unlike the Europeans who were. So, diseases like Smallpox (majorly), Measles and Mumps decimated almost 90 percent of the native population as more and more of the natives got exposed to the germs. Overall, in less than a hundred year, the population of the indigenous Americans dwindled from around 60 million to 5 million.
The Columbus exploration and the subsequent Columbus exchange is therefore a historical event that requires deeper introspection. It is a reminder to us that the same event can have a contrasting narrative, depending on which side is narrating the whole story. From the narrative of the explorers, the discovery of America was an event of human triumph, not just from the point of wealth and potential riches, but also from the point of pure exploration and adventure. Even though they had reached a land different from what they had planned to, the discovery still vindicated the explorers as it was a story of daring act and adventure to explore into the unknown, a narrative that we still use for our exploration in space.
Whereas, if one were to look at it from the narrative of the natives, it was the single greatest catastrophic event in history. For a world that was running independent on its own, the coming of Columbus meant not just the end of their lifestyle, but life itself for many, as around 90 percent of the native population eventually perished away. In fact, it was not even a discovery for them, as they had existed all along. For them, it was pure genocide of mass proportion, equivalent to some Alien takeover on Earth and the subsequent decimation of earth population that we so often dread with horror in movies.
Life is not always black and white, and history in that sense thus teaches us to analyze the grey of life from different angles. And the discovery of America is one such event. But one thing everyone can agree is that the event was of significant proportion, for it meant the coming together of two different worlds of humans, completely cut off and running independent of each other, on the same planet earth.
Also, because the Europeans and their culture eventually managed to take over the new world, one could think that the native influence was very negligible on the rest of the world. But just as we talked above, the natives had advanced civilizations on their own. Although they had not invented advanced weapons, they had engineered innovations in fields as diverse as mathematics, medicine and governance. But the biggest influence the natives had on the rest of the world – the one that influences our life even today – was in terms of the crops they were able to domesticate.
Known as the New World Crops, as these crops were native only to America before Columbus and not found anywhere else at the time, some of the New World Crops domesticated by the Natives are so common to us today, that it actually feels surprising to know they were all domesticated only in one part of the world for so long. Be it Corn, Potato, Tomato, Chilli, Beans, Cacao, Vanilla or Tobacco – all of these that we are so used to today all trace their roots to the Pre Columbus America. Some of these crops not only make up our staple diet, but also make up various cuisines that are associated with diverse cultures from the rest of the world, which again underlines the influence of these crops across all regions and cultures. There would be no Spanish Tortilla without Potato, no Indian Curry without Chilli, no Italian Sauce without Tomato, no Belgian Chocolates without Cocoa, and thus none of these would exist without the New World Crops. In that sense, the contribution of the natives in terms of domestication of these crops lives forever, not just in the calorie we consume, but also in cultures and cuisines we experience across the globe.
And while the Columbus exploration and subsequent Columbus exchange cannot be perceived in pure black and white terms, the role it would play in the eventual ascendency of Europe and its riches can be perceived that way, as the discovery of America and its eventual colonization enriched Europe more than any other continent. And it was Spain that benefited the most initially, as they were the ones who had first discovered and conquered both the Aztec Empire and the Inca Empire.
But even after the discovery of the new found world, the Spanish Empire knew it had wandered off its original goal – to find the route to the precious spices. Portugal on the other hand, had been able to establish an important path along the coasts of India and East Indies. So, Spain also wanted to find the route to spices.
But there was a problem. As the two Iberian nations both had started their exploration during the same era, they knew there was always going to be some dispute on claiming the new found routes and land, as they had already had one regarding the control of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. So, to resolve any disputes between the two Iberian nations in their exploration, they had signed a treaty known as the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, just two years after Columbus had first set foot on the new found world.
The Treaty of Tordesillas meant that Portugal would get everything outside of Europe east of a line that ran 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (which gave them control over Africa, Asia and western South America) and Spain everything west of this line, much of which was still unknown at the time. The Western South America part that Portugal would receive meant that Portugal would later take control of Brazil, which is primarily the reason why Brazil is the only non-Spanish speaking South American country in the world today.
As Portugal had the sole ownership of the routes to the East via Africa because of the treaty, Spain had to engineer an alternative route to get to the land of spices. And ironically, it would be a Portuguese that would help Spain in circumventing the clutches of Portuguese. Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator that had learnt the trade of navigation in Portugal and but had later fallen out with the Portuguese monarchy, promised the Spanish monarchy that he could lead them to the east by going west.
So, in 1519, he set out on a journey to find the east by going across the west line, as it was a well-known idea that the Earth was round and further West of the America would be the East. But Magellan had miscalculated how massive the ocean between West and East could be. The ocean that he encountered would be not only massive but so peaceful that he would name the ocean Pacific, which means peaceful in Spanish. Magellan and his team would finally reach the east where they would discover the land of the Philippines, which would later become a land under Spanish Empire (the name Philippines comes from the Spanish King Philip II at the time).
Magellan died in a battle against the locals in the Philippines, but his team managed to find the route to indies and spice islands via west, and eventually returned to Spain in 1522, three years after their journey had started. It would be the first globetrotting ever performed in history, and Magellan would forever go down in history as the man who led the first globetrotting expedition, despite himself not making it till the end. Fittingly, it was a person associated with both the Iberian countries Portugal and Spain that achieved this feat, as this was an era of Iberian exploration.
But in the coming years, the Iberian influence in the global trade eventually faded away. It would be the Northern nations in Europe that would herald the next era of Exploration. And it would be a small country in Northern Europe that had ceded from the Spanish empire that would pioneer the next era.