Four misconceptions about the colonization of the Americas

The reinterpretation of history is having spectacular moments. A lack of rigorous analysis allows politicians and social movements to campaign on something that did not occur.

I recall watching statues fall, the first of which being Saddam Hussein's immediately after the US captured Baghdad, as a retaliation for the alleged presence of WMDs, which we now know was a hoax.

Sometimes all it takes is a false accusation to bring it all crashing down.

Every fallen monument represents the rebirth of something, whether it be hate for the leader or a concept that once brought a people together. As a result, statues of Stalin, Lenin, and the Shah were pushed from their pedestals. It was past time for those faces to vanish from the streets that had once greeted them on their way to work.

In recent years, characters such as Columbus, Cervantes, and Fray Junipero, all representatives of the colonization process that lasted three centuries in North, Central, and South America, have felt the weight of vengeance and the justice of the masses.

But who were the protestors, presumably Maya descendants, Mapuches, or Chibchas? Not at all. It was a more cosmopolitan mass, raised in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's demise, which Frances Fukuyama dubbed "the end of history." People who have lived through one of history's most peaceful periods.

Here are four things they may not be aware of that could help to prevent further sculptures from being destroyed as a result of lying.

1. New World colonization was a particularly violent process

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, says: “Tolerance is not a trademark of sapiens”, and it is almost certainly presumed that Sapiens wiped out the Neanderthals, taking them out of the evolutionary game, thousands of years before conquering new territories was on the agenda of any civilization.

Attila, Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great made invasion a sport — effective and cruel in equal parts. It was the origin of resources to sustain themselves and their followers. Death was implicit; when it was possible to get out alive, it was in exchange for slavery or a life of tribute, which was considered a ‘fortunate end’ without euphemisms.

So why put the spotlight directly on the Spanish conquest of America?

The colonization process was carried out through the figure of the ‘encomiendas’, permission granted by the monarch for an explorer to venture out and discover what the new territory had in store for him. To the encomendero, the king cedes the work of those who were to pay for their evangelization in the form of tribute.

Looked this way, without further information, it could be seen as a plunder, a disguised slavery without the right to complain. But, as in the Middle Ages, there were the tyrannical feudal lords and there were the humane ones, those whose vassals were willing to give their lives for their lord. In the case of the colony, the same thing happened; there were indigenous populations that voluntarily accepted the encomienda system and entered into productive relationships with the encomendero. They were assigned lands, their food was taken care of, and both prospered.

One of the best known examples is Juan de Ampíes, founder of Coro in 1527:

[Ampíes] had done the most extraordinary thing: to create Coro, by way of peace, with the historical singularity of an agreed coexistence; with the unrepeated formality of its mixed character. Where, in short, there would be neither conquered nor conquerors. Where everything had to be born of friendship and trust. The seed was sown then could no longer be uprooted because its roots were to be deep.¹

Bartolomé de las Casas documents in his book Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (Brief account of the destruction of the Indies), describe the horrors suffered by the natives in the first years at the hands of the newcomers from the peninsula.

Such writing had broad resonance in the ‘Cortes’ (courts of the crown), a Spanish Dominican monk throwing stones at the roof of his own people. It received a timely response in the same year, 1542, with the creation of the ‘New Laws’ by Charles V. Although they were not to the total satisfaction of De las Casas, it was a step in the direction of respect for the natives.

Previously, in 1537, the papal bull ‘Sublimis Deus’ had already been issued, in which the natives were considered individuals with full rights. This was 484 years ago.

Were there atrocities in the process? Yes. Are these atrocities justified? On the face of it today, no. At that time, the great diversity of both conquerors — men hardened by the wars in the peninsula, exupulsing the Arab invader — and the conquered — peoples spread over gigantic areas in which contact with adversity was scarce — meant that two ways of seeing life generated struggles in the adaptation of one to the other.

Fate was no more benevolent to those who set out to explore the mainland. The Jirajaras tribe held out for more than a hundred years after their first contact with the newcomers. It was a period in which thousands of Europeans were killed in lightning attacks carefully designed by the natives, in the best guerrilla warfare style, using arrows, stones and even weapons obtained from other assaults.

To take Chile, the Spanish Empire had to lose before winning; in the words of Emperor Charles V, “the conquest of Chile has taken my best soldiers”. The Mapuches did not act like lovely Andean children waiting for the arrival of a new leader.

If precisely half a thousand Spaniards managed to make their way through a territory occupied by millions of people, it was because many people were fed up with the bloody regime imposed by the Triple Alliance (Texcoco, Tlacopan and Mexico-Tenochtitlan). Cortes signed a series of alliances with these disgruntled peoples and led a sort of revolution to overthrow this bloody totalitarianism.²

This confirms that violence is a natural part of the processes of invasion and appropriation of territories, a way of measuring the relative power of the forces in conflict, but not specially identified with one of them, but with both.

Rousseau’s romantic idea of the innocence of the natives, a thesis by which every human being is born pure and it is society that perverts him, leading him to be a dastardly and despicable being, is flatly refuted, and is even arrogant. Do those who criticize the result of the clash of civilizations think that one of them was tender and docile, a kind of society of goodwill?

2. Diseases arrived with the Spaniards

If we talk about facing different pathogens depending on who brought them to the place, undoubtedly those who arrived with the Europeans won the game; smallpox dissemination was the most effective military campaign.

According to an estimate of the demographic evolution in Central America, in the century that followed the conquest, the population of 25 million inhabitants was reduced to less than 1 million in just 100 years.³

However, there is also evidence that both Spaniards and natives experienced significant episodes of contagion at other times and caused by other vectors. Concerning the natives, in the text The Diseases of American Man it is mentioned:

“The study of environmental factors, food, vectors and infectious agents in pre-Columbian America, indicate that American man was exposed to various causes of disease, peculiar to their environment.

It has also been confirmed that parasitization by mosquitoes, flies, lebotomes, simulids, horseflies, horseflies, bedbugs, triatomas, fleas, lice, mites, demodex and ticks served as vectors of infectious diseases of high morbidity and mortality that in some cases were endemic and in others epidemic. Several of these parasites by themselves were capable of producing annoying diseases in man.⁴

Therefore, the thought that the pre-Columbian man was exempt from getting sick and that the only cause of his ailments came from the ships of the Spanish fleet is refuted.

For the Spaniards, there are references in the book Epidemiología Española (Spanish Epidemiology) by J. Villalba (1803), in which by the year 741, there was smallpox in Andalusia introduced by the Arabs.

Epidemics are inherent to humans; germs, bacteria, and viruses travel in ships, carts or on foot, silent passengers that no one can get rid of, and no one can blame those who carry them.

The great difference is estimated to have been the European habit of living with livestock, facilitating the transmission of zoonotic viruses unknown to the Amerindian peoples, who mostly lived from agriculture and not animal husbandry.

3. Rejection of the conquerors

It was not only Pizarro who found himself confronted by opposing peoples, willing to ally with the newcomer in exchange for getting rid of his traditional enemy, with whom he had fought for decades, if not centuries.

In the nascent United States, the thirteen colonies were defining their identity; between 1689 and 1763, the Anglo-French wars took place. The sides had the support of the natives, professing even more hatred and virulence than with those who had invaded their lands.

Throughout this period the English maintained a firm alliance with the Iroquois, and the French with the Algonquians and Hurons, so that the European conflicts extended to vicarious wars between these surrogates.⁵

José Tomás Boves, the cruel Asturian warrior who put an end to the Second Venezuelan Republic in 1813, had a majority of mestizos (mixed-race), and natives in his ranks. His lieutenant, of equal human quality, professed more hatred towards the Creoles, the whites born in America, than towards those of the Spanish peninsula, who on paper had subdued the native peoples for more than three hundred years.

Resentment, revenge, deep hatreds were the passions that apparently drove the pardos, blacks and Indians to engage in a violent war between 1812–1814 against the Mantuan designs. This civil war that confronted two social sectors did not seek to establish the ideas of freedom, nor to untie the now Venezuelan territory from the “Spanish yoke” as the historiography of the country has taught. In the beginning, the Mantuanos did not aim to break the ties with the crown, but rather their objective was to reaffirm them and maintain the traditional order of society. ⁶

There will be those who say that money and the prevailing system of caudillos led the natives to bow to the option of their convenience. It is not something that can be discarded, but it clashes with the only argument of the confrontation of locals against the colonial oppressor, especially when the independence of most of Hispanic America did not result in any benefit for them. On the contrary, it deepened the policy of uncontrolled regional micro-powers impossible to exist under a monarchical system.

4. Those born in America were different from those born in Spain

Being born in the New World did not mean having an automatic feeling of solidarity among the different groups living in the colony.

From the discovery of the mainland to the processes of independence, there was no unified consciousness of nationals and foreigners. Under Austrian rule (Habsburg Court), there was no separation between the territories of the empire, all of them had institutions capable of administering justice, settling disputes and administering public affairs. It was the same to exploit a mine in Seville, Spain, as in Potosi, Viceroyalty of Peru.

Internally, there was no social cohesion, leading the Creoles to maintain relations of domination. They considered that mixing with other races was a threat to their subsistence and that of the country. According to historian Frédérique Langue, out of 104 dispensations and marriage licenses requested between 1636 and 1815 in the Province of Caracas, an immense majority — 100 of them — were based on the existence of kinship, practical or spiritual, between the contracting parties, the first condition being predominant. He also states that 75% of the applications were presented after 1750 and argues that this is because, from that time on “the economic problems involved in the succession of generations, and the almost inescapable division of family estates became more pressing.”

The Cabildo of Caracas issues the following opinion regarding the pardos in a letter addressed to the Council of the Indies:

In them, there is no honour that contains them, a reputation that stimulates them, shame that obliges them, esteem that puts them in reason, nor virtues that make them live according to the Laws of Justice. Their profession is drunkenness, their application is Robbery, their revenge is treachery, their rest is idleness, their labor is idleness, their Study is incontinence, and their attempt is all to shake off the yoke of subjection. They do not feel the nakedness, the bad bed, the short reason and not even the punishment as they are left to live in their wideness, flooded in vices and mainly in their carnal torpitudes, all their commotions stem from the subordination that is the one that embitters them, and that precipitates them in the greatest cruelties and the most execrable sins. ⁷

They, therefore, preferred inbreeding to the risk of losing their inheritance. There is no evidence that there was any better treatment of the whites born in the colonies towards mestizos, Indians or blacks for three hundred years than that which they received from the conquistadors.

Not even one of the most prominent americans that ever lived — Francisco de Miranda, would be spared from being subjugated for being the son of a canary islander. His father — Sebastian Miranda, was engaged in commerce, an activity seen as vicious and of a low nature by the wealthy classes.

In 1769, for example, they rejected the acceptance of Sebastián Miranda as an officer in the white battalion of the city of Caracas. All, without exception, refused to be part of the same corps and disqualified that designation for being a man of inferior quality and known as “…public merchant and formerly cashier in this city where he manufactures and sells bread daily his wife, a person of baxa esphera and where our ears do not fail to perceive the demanded voices of his own countrymen who speak of him as the son of a ferryman and as a subject of dubious cleanliness.⁸

Historian John Lynch writes about the differences among those from the Canary Islands (Canarios), Basque Country (Basques) and those born in the colonies (Mantuanos, Creoles):

during the eighteenth century, Venezuela was not a stable colony…the social structure contained a number of hostile elements — Mantuanos versus canarios, whites versus blacks, Venezuelans versus Basques-that created tension and violence.⁹

Adding to the Canarios vs Basques struggle, this completes a picture in which there was little or no collaboration structured based on being or not being from the peninsula, being or not being conquered or conquistador. This fact has been repeated since the sixteenth century and that by no means included the issues that today are said to promote the exclusion of the natives by Spain and its institutions.


Every process of clash of cultures will have unequal consequences; the colonization or conquest of America is no exception. Spain entered a land populated by cultures very different from those that had been in contact in Europe; they lacked military preparation since the Romans had been the key to the attack and defence of territories. They did not have a deep-rooted profit motive, the culture of a surplus was not ingrained, and exchange was limited.

This is not to say that pre-Columbian societies were foolish or helpless. Some of them fiercely resisted the invasion of their lands, not counting that biology would be a more potent enemy than bayonets or gunpowder. The domination of millions of people was more a sanitary issue than the capacity of hundreds of peninsulars exercising superior intelligence.

Put in astrological terms, the planets aligned to make it so.

The crown had no use for a desolate continent either; it needed subjects to maintain courts, war campaigns and a well-oiled bureaucracy. But, this should not be understood as something negative; it was the custom among every one of the continent’s monarchies.

Does anyone believe that if the contact had been the opposite way, the same or worse would not have happened? Thousands of natives would have prepared to take Europe after one of them had made landfall in Andalusia. Did the Vandals, Huns, Saracens or Slavs shy away from imposing Gothic or Victorian structures? No, on the contrary, they dreamed of planting their flag on them.

This is not about justifying or whitewashing the actions of the past. It is about demonstrating that in almost all natural and imaginary scenarios, what moves us is human nature, which we carry within us that requires external control, an active and permanent control because otherwise, it becomes abuse. There is no evidence that Creoles felt a greater attachment to slaves or indians or that these, in turn, felt them as compatriots.

What is certain is that under the colonial structure of the ‘Encomienda’, abuses were committed, some of them documented, most of them not. But, at the same time, it is true that the institutions punished promptly those who exceeded their attributions and that the church was present in most of the expeditions, hamlets, towns and cities, enforcing the rules received from the peninsula and the Vatican.

As happened in the North American cotton plantations, their separation from the English crown did not improve the condition of the black slaves or the segregated indians. In the case of Spanish America, regional caudillos and oligarchies maintained power in their newly liberated territories, now without supervision or authority to obey. Perpetuating conditions of inequality continue to this day and are no longer the fault of any oppressive king or empire.

Juan Carlos Golindano

Twitter: @jcgolindano / Email:

Bibliographical References:

¹ Demetrio Ramos Pérez, La fundación de Venezuela. Ampiés and Coro a historical singularity.

² Manuel P. Villatoro, Cannibalism, sacrifices and totalitarianism: the truth about the Aztec Empire that Hernán Cortés encountered.

³ Alfredo Morabia, Past, present and future of epidemiology. A Latin American perspective.

F. Guerra and Ma. Ca. Sánchez Téllez, Las enfermedades del hombre americano, Universidad de Alcalá de Henares.

Philip Jenkins, A Brief History of the United States.

Jaika Tejada Soria, Pulperos Pardos e Independencia en Venezuela. 1812–1814

AGI, Indiferente General, 802, f. 21–22. Report of the síndico procurador of the Cabildo of Caracas, November 9, 1789.

Inés Quintero, The Nobles of Caracas and the Independence of Venezuela.

John Lynch, Canarian Immigrants in Venezuela (1700–1800): Between the Elites and the Masses.

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