The Turning Point: European Conquests of the Americas (1492-1800)

“The discovery of America, and that of the passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest events recorded in the history of [human] kind”

—Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (Marks 5)

Adam Smith, the founding father of free-market economics, argued that these were the two most important game-changing moments in history: Columbus’ discovery of a route to the Americas in 1492 and Vasco da Gama’s feat of sailing around southern Africa to find the sea route to Asia in 1498. Historians have traditionally agreed with Smith that these were two of the most important turning points in world history. They go a long way in explaining the gradual ascent of a wealthy, powerful, and imperial Europe. These events led to the emergence of the first-ever completely global market, one that fierce international rivals sought to dominate. Europe eventually found itself at the center of the global economic network, commanding large empires. In the next section, we’ll look at Europe’s discovery of a route to the “New World” in the Americas and explore why it is so important in understanding modern imperialism.

The most important motive for early European exploration across the Atlantic was the dream of enormous riches. Initially, explorers and merchants hoped to find a sea route across the Atlantic to the thriving markets of Asia. But Columbus and his fellow Europeans greatly miscalculated the circumference of the earth. Instead, they found a whole new world to explore and exploit: North and South America. The risks were high when Spaniards and Portuguese first sailed across uncharted oceans. Many died from disease, exposure, starvation, and shipwrecks. But the potential material rewards could be glorious. So it’s not surprising that the first adventurers came to the Americas in search of riches.

Upon arriving in the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese sought precious metals or land that could be worked for profit, usually by slave labor. For example, Columbus and the Spanish settlers that followed him to the island of Hispaniola (today the Dominican Republic and Haiti) divided the land amongst themselves and virtually enslaved the indigenous Taino. Likewise, in 1519, the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortez landed in Mexico seeking the rumored gold of the Aztecs. The emperor Moctezuma welcomed the Spaniards, but Cortez kidnapped the emperor and demanded treasure. Once Aztec nobles delivered the ransom, the treacherous Cortez killed Moctezuma and set about conquering central Mexico. Cortez repeated the pattern many conquerors followed, setting up a new nobility (of Spaniards) to rule over the indigenous people by exploiting their land and commanding their labor. Like many “men on the spot” at key imperial junctures, Cortez acted on his own, without the approval of the Spanish crown. Fourteen years after Cortez conquered the Aztecs, fellow Spaniard Francisco Pizarro copied Cortez’s game plan. He landed in Incan territory in 1533 in search of treasure. He too kidnapped the emperor (Atahualpa), demanded gold ransom, then murdered the emperor and conquered an empire. Clearly, the unifying motive of the conqueror here was plundered treasure. The Spanish set up colonial systems that allowed them to exploit and control the people and the land of the Americas for centuries.

There are many reasons why Europeans succeeded in conquering diverse nations and empires of the Americas. First, the Spaniards and Portuguese employed cutting-edge sailing and navigational technology to reach, explore, and shuttle back and forth from the Americas. Cortez benefited from several other Eurasian technological advantages when his small band of six hundred Spaniards defeated the enormous Aztec empire. Conquistadores used steel swords and armor against the wooden clubs and cotton armor of the Aztecs. The original Americans had no answer for cannons and other firearms, such as arquebuses. Also, the Aztecs had never seen or used horses, and they found them terrifying to face in battle. Furthermore, Europeans benefitted from living in literate cultures that could easily record and pass down detailed knowledge about navigation, technology, and conquest. But, most importantly, Europeans brought with them deadly diseases that devastated the Aztec and the Inca, and indeed all the native people in North and South America.

Massive demographic catastrophe occurred wherever Europeans made contact with indigenous Americans. The pattern was set with the Taino, whom Columbus met on his first voyage to the island of Hispaniola. The original Taino population of about 600,000 in 1492 shrank in just 20 years to under 60,000 (Getz 62). It was common to see a drop of 90 percent or more in native populations. One hundred years after the conquest of Mexico, the indigenous population had decreased from twenty-five million to one million (68). In Peru, the Inca met a similar fate. This pandemic severely depopulated or wiped out all natives of the Americas.

Why were European diseases so lethal to the Americans? To answer this question, we have to go back in time, before recorded history. The Eurasian continent included many large domesticable animals—such as horses, cows, oxen, sheep, and goats—that did not exist in the Americas. Over the course of thousands of years, Eurasians domesticated these animals and lived in close quarters with them. The animals were a great benefit but also transmitted all kinds of terrible diseases to the farmers. Both Europe and Asia suffered many plagues that devastated their populations, such as the Black Plague during the 14th century, which killed 25 to 33 percent of people across Eurasia, from China to France. But descendants of plague survivors possessed antibodies that inoculated them from such devastating scourges in the future. The Americas, by contrast, lacked large domesticable animals and concomitant diseases. As a result, the devastating diseases went in only one direction, from Eurasia to the Americas. So, in 1492, Columbus’ arrival in the Americas suddenly collided with 12,000 years of American isolation from Eurasia.

The transmission of the European diseases that depopulated the Americas was part of a larger cultural and demographic exchange, between the “new” and “old” worlds that included food, animals, people, trade, diseases and technology. Europeans won the better of the exchange. While native populations decreased ninety percent, Europeans took gold, silver, and nutritional new (to them) foods, such as potatoes, tomatoes, chiles, squash, vanilla, turkey, corn, and cacao (to make chocolate). Indigenous Americans received, in return, European diseases—smallpox, measles, influenza, bubonic plagues, cholera, chicken pox, whooping cough, diphtheria, and tropical malaria. Historians call this the “Columbian Exchange,” and it was not an even trade.

There were many long-term consequences of the European conquest of the Americas and the global exchange that ensued. It took the Spanish only a few years to find and plunder the two wealthiest empires in the Americas. Huge silver mines found in Mexico and Peru in the mid-16th century meant that Spain instantly became the largest supplier of silver in the world. In the first 150 years following conquest, the Spanish exported 32 million pounds of silver and 360,000 pounds of gold (Marks 78). Spain spent much of this wealth in costly wars in a failed attempt to rule Europe. Much of this silver eventually ended up in China, but we’ll learn more about that later. The depopulation of large regions of the Americas also led Europeans to search for cheap labor. Perhaps the most important consequence of the Colombian Exchange was the forced migration and enslavement of millions of people.

While the Spanish conquered Mexico and Peru, the Portuguese subjugated Brazil and, as a result, led the way in trafficking enslaved people to the Americas. They started in 1441 in western Africa (Getz 86). Ironically, the Europeans’ insatiable appetite for sweetness led to this brutal trade. Wherever the sugarcane crop dominated, so too did plantations with enslaved labor. Unlike Mexico or Peru, the Portuguese colony of Brazil lacked precious metals near the coast. So the Portuguese developed sugar plantations outfitted with enslaved Africans. The Portuguese took sugarcane grass from its native homeland in South and East Asia, transplanted it to Brazil, and then sold the sugar to Europe and colonial North America. The first truly global trade was also the most nefarious. It set the precedent of using African slaves to create cash crops to be sold abroad in a global market. Eighty percent of the 11 million enslaved Africans who came to the Americas went to sugar plantation regions of Brazil and the Caribbean (90).

The slave trade certainly had enormous political, economic, and social implications in western and central Africa. Europeans could not conquer African nations because many were powerful and because various diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever, made it extremely dangerous for Europeans to enter into the interior of the continent. Along the coasts the Portuguese (followed by the Spanish and English) traded firearms, tobacco, cotton, Indian cloth, iron bars, and liquor for enslaved people. It is estimated that central and west Africans acquired over 20 million guns from Europeans during the slave trade, mostly between 1650 and 1850 (Getz 96). This global trade shattered the stability, wealth, and human capital of African nations. On the brutal Middle Passage alone, 1 to 1.5 million Africans died of sickness, abuse, and dehydration (90). African kingdoms and empires were forced to make tough choices about whether they would join the “slaves for guns” trade to compete against their neighbors. If they decided not to make the trade, their neighbors could grow more powerful by amassing the powerful European war technology. The terrible trade led to internal African wars and destruction. Some “vampire” states grew strong by selling off their own people. In many regions of western and central Africa, the traumatic loss of so many men had long-term negative consequences for individuals, families, communities, and nations.

Connected to all major continents on the planet, the slave trade was a key aspect of the first fully global trade. The sugar and slave trade became known as the triangular trade because the English colonies in North America were also involved. The Portuguese sold Brazilian sugar to New Englanders who turned the sugar into rum and sailed across the Atlantic to trade the liquor for enslaved Africans. Africa, Brazil, and the English colonies in America (who also produced tobacco) completed the points of the triangle. But the “triangular trade” is a misnomer because the global trade also included Asia. Europe’s new addiction to Chinese tea and Arabian coffee drove the demand for sugar. By 1800, the consumption of sugar in England had increased 2,500 percent from 1650 (96). So, the first truly global trade flourished on addictive substances—alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, and sugar.

This new global system, with the conquest of the Americas at its core, gradually and greatly enriched the new European imperial powers—especially, early on, the Spanish and the Portuguese, and then later the English and the French. From an economic (rather than a moral) perspective, Europeans had stumbled onto a package of unstoppable global free-market advantages: extremely cheap labor; free and abundant land; rich natural resources, including precious minerals; and abundant markets around the world to sell their products. Although they were latecomers to the Americas, the British stepped into the global trade network and exploited the vast market, first through piracy, then trade, and finally by selling manufactured goods, such as textiles. While the Spanish wasted much of their newfound wealth on wars in Europe, the incipient British banking system helped finance new businesses and stimulate older ones, in industries such as textiles and shipbuilding.

The conquest and settlement of the Americas is the key starting point for understanding the rise of European economic and imperial power. Throughout the early modern era, Europeans struggled to compete with Asian manufactured products in a free market. The rest of the world found cheap Chinese silk and Indian cotton too irresistible and inexpensive. Year after year, India and China became rich at Europe’s expense because of this trade deficit. When free-market competition failed them, European governments simply barred Asian products. Great Britain banned the import of Indian cloth and Chinese silk in 1707, and France did the same 10 years later (Marks 81). In France, it became illegal to even wear Asian cloth, much less buy it. Then European industries simply replaced Asian products—cotton, silk, sugar, indigo, pearls, and, later, coffee—with cheaper substitutions from the Americas. This policy, what economists call import substitution, worked wonders.

Europe’s imperial economic success, however, occurred gradually, almost imperceptibly. As late as 1775, Asia still produced eighty percent of goods traded in the world (Marks 81). But the newfound (or new-stolen?) wealth of the Americas clearly set the stage for the economic ascendance, in the 19th century, of Britain and the rest of Europe. Now, we can return to the wisdom of the famous free-market economist Adam Smith. Writing in 1776, he argued that it was the Americas that accounted for the new wealth of early modern Europe: “Since the discovery of America, the greater part of Europe has improved. England, Holland, France, and Germany; even Sweden, Denmark, and Russia have all advanced considerably both in agriculture and manufactures” (Frank 278). Smith also understood how the Americas allowed Europeans to gradually dominate Asia.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton