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Latin American History: Introduction to the Colonial Era

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Latin American History: Introduction to the Colonial Era

The Monument to Christopher Columbus, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Christopher Minster

The Colonial Period:

Latin America has seen wars, dictators, famines, economic booms, foreign interventions and a whole assortment of varied calamities over the years. Each and every period of its history is crucial in some way to understanding the present-day character of the land. Even so, the Colonial Period (1492-1810) stands out as being the era that did the most to shape what Latin America is today. Here are six things you need to know about the Colonial Era:

The native population was wiped out:

Some estimate that the population of Mexico’s Central Valleys was around 19 million before the arrival of the Spanish: it had dropped to 2 million by 1550. That’s just around Mexico City: native populations on Cuba and Hispaniola were all but wiped out, and every native population in the New World suffered some loss. Although the bloody conquest took its toll, the main culprits were diseases like smallpox. The natives had no natural defenses against these new diseases, which killed them far more efficiently than the conquistadors ever could.

Native culture was forbidden:

Under Spanish rule, native religion and culture were severely repressed. Whole libraries of native codices (they’re different than our books in some ways, but essentially similar in look and purpose) were burned by zealous priests who thought that they were the work of the Devil. Only a handful of these treasures remain. Their ancient culture is something that many native Latin American groups are currently trying to regain as the region struggles to find its identity.

The Spanish system promoted exploitation:

Conquistadores and officials were granted “encomiendas,” which basically gave them certain tracts of land and everyone on it. In theory, the encomenderos were supposed to look after and protect the people that were in their care, but in reality it was often nothing more than legalized slavery. Although the system did allow for natives to report abuses, the courts functioned exclusively in Spanish, which essentially excluded most of the native population, at least until very late in the Colonial Era.

Existing power structures were replaced:

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Latin American cultures had existing power structures, mostly based on castes and nobility. These were shattered, as the newcomers killed off the most powerful leaders and stripped the lesser nobility and priests of rank and wealth. The lone exception was Peru, where some Inca nobility managed to hold onto wealth and influence for a time, but as the years went on, even their privileges were eroded into nothing. The loss of the upper classes contributed directly to the marginalization of native populations as a whole.

Native history was rewritten:

Because the Spanish did not recognize native codices and other forms of record keeping as legitimate, the history of the region was considered open for research and interpretation. What we know about pre-Columbian civilization comes to us in a jumbled mess of contradictions and riddles. Some writers seized the opportunity to paint earlier native leaders and cultures as bloody and tyrannical. This in turn allowed them to describe the Spanish conquest as a liberation of sorts. With their history compromised, it is difficult for today’s Latin Americans to get a grasp on their past.

Colonists were there to exploit, not develop:

The Spanish (and Portuguese) colonists who arrived in the wake of the conquistadores wanted to follow in their footsteps. They did not come to build, farm or ranch, and in fact farming was considered a very lowly profession among the colonists. These men therefore harshly exploited native labor, often without thinking about the long-term. This attitude severely stunted the economic and cultural growth of the region. Traces of this attitude are still found in Latin America, such as the Brazilian celebration of malandragem, a way of life of petty crime and swindling.

Analysis:

 

Just as psychiatrists study the childhood of their patients in order to understand the adult, a look at the “infancy” of modern Latin America is necessary to truly comprehend the region today. The destruction of whole cultures – in every sense – left the majority of the population lost and struggling to find their identities, a struggle which continues to this day. The power structures put in place by the Spanish and Portuguese still exist: witness the fact that Peru, a nation with a large indigenous population, just recently elected the first native president in their long history.

This marginalization of native people and culture is ending, and as it does many in the region are trying to find their roots. This fascinating movement bears watching in the years to come.

 

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