The Impact Of Iberian Culture In The New World

Various Authors

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

 

   

     European expansion overseas after the fifteenth century brought

revolutionary change to all the world's peoples, but the Iberian period before

1600 was unique in its violence and ruthless exploitation. Not only were

highly organized states destroyed in the New World, but whole populations were

wiped out by European diseases, shock, and inhumane treatment. This carnage is

one of the most tragic catastrophes in human history. It contributed to a

decided change in the racial composition of Iberian America, as an influx of

black slaves, with continued Spanish and Portuguese immigration, led to a

variegated racial mixture, ranging through all shades of color between white

and black. Fortunately, the Indian populations began recovering in the later

1500s, and their cultures, combining with Iberian and African, formed a new

configuration, to be known later as Latin American.

 

The Nature Of Iberian Regimes

 

     Iberian regimes in America faced serious problems. Their vast

territories, far greater than the homelands, contained nearly impassable

deserts, mountains, and jungles. Supplies had to be moved thousands of miles,

often across open seas. Communications were difficult, native wars frequent,

and disease often rampant. Such conditions help explain, if not justify, the

brutality of Iberian imperialism.

 

     Despite their unique natures, Iberian overseas empires were similar to

Roman or Turkish provinces; they were meant to produce revenues. In theory,

all Spanish lands were the king's personal property. The Council of the

Indies, which directed the viceroys in Mecico City and Lima, advised him on

colonial affairs. The high-born Spanish viceroys were aided (and limited) by

councils (audiencias), made up of aristocratic lawyers from Spain. Local

governors, responsible to the viceroys, functioned with their advisory

councils (cabildos) of officials. Only the rich normally sat in such bodies;

poor Spaniards and mestizos had little voice, even in their own taxation. Most

taxes, however, were collected by Indian chiefs (caciques), still acting as

rulers of Indian peasant villages.

 

     Portuguese Brazil was less directly controlled than the Spanish colonies.

It languished for years under almost unrestricted dominatin of fifteen

aristocratic "captains," who held hereditary rights of taxing, disposing

lands, making laws, and administering justice. In return, they sponsored

settlement and paid stipulated sums to the king. This quasi-feudal

administration was abandoned in 1548. When Philip II became King of Portugal

in 1580, he established municipal councils, although these were still

dominated by the hereditary captains.

 

Iberian Economies In America

 

     Both the philosophies and social structures of the Iberian states limited

colonial trade and industry. Most Spanish and Portuguese immigrants were

disinclined toward productive labor. With few exceptions, commercial contacts

were limited to the homelands; Mexican merchants fought a steadily losing

battle to maintain independent trade with Peru and the Philippines. Local

trade grew modestly in supplying the rising towns, but some crafts developed

large-scale industrial establishments. A national transportation system, using

mule teams, became a major Mexican industry. So did smuggling, as demand rose

higher and higher for foreign goods.

 

     Agriculture, herding, and mining silver, however, were the main economic

pursuits. The early gold sources soon ran out, but silver strikes in Mexico

and in Peru poured a stream of wealth back to Spain in the annual treasure

fleets, convoyed by warships from Havana to Seville. Without gold to mine,

many Spanish aristocrats acquired abandoned Indian land, raising wheat, rice,

indigo, cotton, coffee, and sugar cane. Cattle, horses, and sheep were

imported and bred on ranches in the West Indies, Mexico, and Argentina. Brazil

developed similar industries, particularly those related to sugar, livestock,

and coffee. Iberian economic pursuits in America were potentially productive,

revealing numerous instances of initiative and originality, but they were

largely repressed by bureaucratic state systems.

 

     Before 1650, plantations were not typical of agriculture in Iberian

America, although they were developing in certain areas. Portugal had earlier

established sugar plantations in its Atlantic islands (Madeiras, Cape Verde,

and Sao Tome) before the system was introduced into Brazil around 1550. The

Spanish experimented with plantations in the Canaries, later establishing them

in the West Indies, the Mexican lowlands, Central America, and along the

northern coasts of South America. Even in such areas, which were

environmentally suited for intensive single-crop cultivation, it was not easy

to raise the capital, find the skilled technicians, and pay for the labor

required by the system.

 

     Scarce labor, a perpetual problem in Iberian America, was solved

primarily by the use of Indians, but African slaves were imported early and

were coming in greater numbers by the latter sixteenth century. Some 75,000

were in the Spanish colonies by 1600; over another 100,000 arrived within the

next four decades. In Brazil, slave importing boomed after 1560, reaching

annual figures of over 30,000 in the early 1600s. Some slaves were brutally

oppressed as laborers in the mines. Others sweated on Spanish or Brazilian

plantations, but they were the exceptions in this period. The great age of

plantation slavery would come later and be most evident in other European

colonies. Slaves were also teamsters, overseers, personal servants, and

skilled craft workers. Particularly in the Spanish colonies, a good many

earned their freedom, attaining a social status higher than that of Indian

peasants. Free blacks, both men and women, operated shops and small

businesses. Prostitution was understandably common among black and mulatto

women, a profession encouraged by the sexual exploitation of female slaves, as

concubines and slave-breeders, by Spanish and Portuguese owners.

 

[See African Slave Trade:  The Iberian Impact Upon Indian Life   The Spanish

and Portuguese brought terrible disaster to most Indians. Having seen their

gods discredited and their temples destroyed, the majority accepted

Christianity as the only hope for survival, as well as salvation. Their

Iberian masters also introduced them to hard and sustained labor. Some died

from overwork, some were killed, and others simply languished as their

cultures disintegrated. The most effective killer was disease - European or

African - to which the Indians had no immunities.   Epidemics arrived with

Columbus and continued through the sixteenth century. Smallpox on Haiti in

1518 left only 1000 Indians alive there. Cortes carried the plague to Mexico,

where it raged while he fought his way out of Tenochtitlan. From Mexico, the

epidemic spread through Central America, reaching Peru in 1526. It killed the

reigning emperor and helped start the civil war which facilitated Pizarro's

conquest. Following these smallpox disasters in the 1540s and 1570s a wave of

measles and other successive epidemics continued depleting the population.

Precise accounting is not possible, but a reliable estimate shows a drop in

the native American population by 25 percent during the sixteenth century. ^3

 

[Footnote 3: Ibid., pp. 272-73.]   Depopulation of Indians was partially

caused by their enslavement, despite disapproval from the Catholic Church and

the Spanish home government. The worst excesses came soon after the conquests.

The gentle Arawaks of Haiti, for example, were herded to work like animals by

the first settlers; they soon became extinct. The whole native population of

the Bahamas - some 40,000 people - were carried away as slaves to Haiti, Cuba,

and Puerto Rico. Cortes took slaves before he took Tenochtitlan; other

Indians, captured in Panama, were regularly sent to Peru. The Portuguese

organized jungle "Indian hunts" to acquire slaves before Africans arrived in

appreciable numbers.   Another, more common, labor system in the Spanish

colonies, was the encomienda. This was similar to earlier European serfdom,

involving a grant which permitted the holder to take income or labor from

specified lands and the people living on them. Abuses were so widespread and

Indian complaints so insistent that the system was generally abandoned after

the 1550s.   The Spanish government made some ineffective efforts to protect

the Indians. The Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566), protested

the cruel treatment of the Indians and persuaded King Charles V that

indigenous peoples held the same rights as other subjects. This led to the

"New Law" of 1542, which ended existing encomiendas, on the death of their

holders, prohibited native American slavery, and gave Indians full protection

under Spanish law. Most of these provisions, however, were rescinded when the

law evoked universal protest and open rebellion in Peru. Although later

governors gradually eliminated encomiendas, many Indians were then put on

reservations and hired out as contract laborers, under the direction of their

caciques and local officials (corriqodores). Although this eliminated some of

the worst excesses of the encomiendas, corrupt officials often exploited their

wards, particularly those in Peru.   Most Indians were demoralized by their

misfortunes, but some resisted. In Yucatan and Guatemala, where the Mayans did

not believe the Spaniards were gods, bloody fighting lasted until the 1540s.

About that time a revolt among Indians on the Mexican Pacific coast was put

down with great difficulty by the Spaniards. As the silver mines opened in

northern Mexico, the Chichimecas, relatives of the Apache, conducted border

war into the 1590s, using horses and captured muskets. In Peru, an Inca

rebellion led by a new emperor was only subdued in 1572. The most stubborn

resistance came from the Araucanians of southern Chile, who fought the

Spaniards successfully until the close of the sixteenth century.   Mission

towns, established by the Dominican and Jesuit religious orders, afforded

Indians the most effective protection. Las Casas led the way in founding such

settlements, where the Indians were shielded from white exploitation,

instructed in Christianity, and educated or trained in special skills. The

prevailing philosophy in the missions stressed patient persuasion, "as rain

and snow falls from heaven, not ... violently ... like a sudden shower, but

gradually, with suavity and gentleness." ^4 Large mission organizations

developed in Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela, and upper California. But even those

protected by the missions died rapidly in this alien way of life.  [Footnote

4: Quoted in H. Hering, A History of Latin America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,

1968), p. 173.]  Iberian Society And Culture   Iberian society was stratified

but somewhat flexible. A small elite of Spanish officials and colonial

aristocrats contended over native policy and foreign trade. Merchants and

petty officials were on a lower social level but above mestizos, mulattos, and

zambos (mixed Indo-Africans). Indians were considered incompetent wards of the

king and black slaves were legally designated as beneath the law, but there

were numerous individual exceptions. Many Indians went from the reservations

to the towns, mines, or haciendas; some caciques enjoyed wealth and privilege;

and a few old Indian families retained their nobility as early Spanish allies.

Similarly, some black slaves were craftsmen, overseers, or privileged personal

servants; others acquired freedom and became prosperous merchants; still

others escaped slavery, organized free communities, and sucessfully defended

their independence.   Iberian women in America played ambiguous roles. They

were excluded through childhood from male contacts, educated in cloistered

schools to become wives and mothers, married in their teens to achieve family

interests, and legally subordinated to their husbands. Those who could not

marry usually entered convents. There was, however, another side to the story.

Spanish law guaranteed the wife's dowry rights, a legal protection against a

squandering of her wealth and leverage to limit her husband's activities. The

courts recognized separations and at times even granted annulments. Women,

particularly widows acting for former husbands, operated businesses and held

public offices. Some were wealthy, powerful, and even cruel encomenderos,

supervising thousands of laborers. Whatever their special roles, Iberian women

maintained stability, furthered continuity, defended religion, sponsored

charities, dictated manners, and imbued children with family values.   Both

the environment and the mix of peoples shaped Iberian-American culture toward

a new distinctive unity. From southwestern Europe came the approach to

government, disdain for manual labor, preference for dramatic overprecise

expression, and ceremonial Catholic Christianity. From Indian traditions came

characteristic foods, art forms, architecture, legends, practical garments

like the poncho and serape, and hundreds of words. From Africa came

agricultural knowledge, crafts, and animal husbandry, along with the rhythm

and dance illustrated by Brazilian drums. By 1650, this characteristic Iberian

culture was being preserved in its own universities, such as those at Lima and Mexica, both founded more than a century earlier.]

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