1492: the Two Faces of an Era


Many of the popular tendencies of the so-called historical revisionism of our times reveal a crass ignorance of the past or the intention of altering the facts. This frequently results in flagrant cases of reverse discrimination against the European culture of the white race. Recently in regard to the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America various opinions of unquestionable partiality, lacking in the most elemental erudite balance and based on ideological or demagogical extremism, have been expressed .

Two fundamental arguments have been used in what has been a campaign dedicated to discrediting the significance of the year 1492. The first, which has been projected for some time now, argues that Christopher Columbus was not the discoverer of America; the second, relatively recent, attributes to him the introduction into America of violence, oppression, slavery, and countless other atrocities suffered by the original inhabitants of the continent.

In the first case the discovery has been credited to various nationalities, but especially to the Vikings. There is no doubt that during the tenth century Eric the Red, his son Leif, and others established themselves for a time in Greenland and visited regions such as Baffin Island, Labrador, and Nova Scotia. What is forgotten, however, is that these attempts at colonization having failed and those who participated in them having disappeared, the continent remained as unknown as before for the rest of the world. It is very likely that other travelers as well, both before and after the Vikings, arrived on the coasts of America, either having been tossed ashore by storms or having engaged in trips of emigration or exploration, but likewise without leaving positive traces for universal history. All of this leads us to the undeniable truth that only after the voyages of Columbus did the rest of the planet learn of the existence of a new continent. And so the term "discovery" can be justified, although with certain reserve as it is necessary to recognize, as Fernand Braudel has indicated, that even the smallest parts of the world already had inhabitants before 1500. With this in mind, we must refer to something of major significance in relation to our theme: with the date of the first voyage a new age in the history of the world begins because of the resulting economic, political, and social consequences.

The campaign to destroy the mythic Columbus created by schoolbook texts is designed in turn to create the new myth that the discovery and conquest introduced violence and oppression into America. And there are those who mention the high mortality among the indigenous population caused by sickness and epidemics as if they had been brought by the Europeans intentionally, in the same modern concept as bacteriological warfare. Those who add this accusation to the undeniable atrocities of the conquest and colonization overlook the fact that since remote times the arrival of new groups of population to isolated zones generally introduce pathogenic microbes for which there is no immunity. In his book Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Alfred W. Crosby mentions numerous historical cases that confirm this assertion from ancient times to the present.

The unfolding of history is a process which human beings in great measure create and from which they suffer. Unfortunately, from time immemorial emigrations, invasions, wars, revolutions, and epidemics have altered or transformed conditions in the diverse parts of the world socially, politically, economically, ecologically, and culturally. Referring to the material and psychological transformation which occurs in Europe from the 13th century, Braudel observes that there predominates an ambition to conquer other worlds and to acquire spices and gold, as well as an interest in new inventions and their utilitarian uses (1.415).

It is also undeniable that characteristic of the moral and psychological limitations of the human race, the civilizations that have developed throughout history have almost always been a mixture of splendor and misery. Along with the growing economical, technological, scientific, and artistic development of Europe durante the 14th and 15th centuries there existed many elements of barbarism in the violence and cruelty of the judicial system, in the plundering and ferocity of its armies in campaign, in the unmerciful fanaticism of its religious conflicts.

To all this must be added what Daniel Boorstin has called "a peculiarly western intolerance along with a ruthless determination to convert the heathen" (193). And this is the Europe that comes to the Americas. In the case of Spain, the reconquest of the peninsular territory which was finally accomplished in 1492 after seven centuries of fighting against the Moors, only aggravates these negative aspects of the European character.

The chain of events unleashed by the discovery must be viewed without the rancor–to a certain extent justified in many cases–the intellectual arbitrariness, and the passion that the so-called theories and revisionist accusations reveal. Thus it is necessary to make clear that violence and oppression were in truth not brought to the Americas by the Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries and their descendants; they already existed in the continent.

Likewise we must remember that the Spaniards were not the first who spilled American blood. According to the Scandinavian sagas which have been preserved, in the first encounters of the Vikings with the natives of the extreme north of the continent there were deaths on both sides. And soon rivalries and deaths followed among the Vikings themselves until they were expelled from the region (Boorstin, 212-214). America was to remain as unknown as before for the rest of the world. Only after 1492 can we speak of voyages of discovery and conquest in the continent.

Columbus was without doubt a man of great valor and above all of unrelenting determination in the pursuit of his ideal. But his excessive ambition for riches and power brought him to a policy of deception and oppression in his relations with the aborigines, followed then by other Europeans, and continuing in various countries to this day. And it is well to comment on the inconceivable European arrogance shown in the ceremonies of taking possession of the territories already populated and polically organized.

To the shame of the human race it is not possible to justify the treatment of the aborigines in Spanish America any more that in the United States during the colonial period and the republic. But at the same time it is necessary to point out that during the period of conquest and colonization Spain was the only country where an organized defense of the Indian, in which natural and human rights were invoked, denied the right of conquest. Unfortunately, the laws which were at last approved in 1540 barely ameliorated the situation of the Indian owing to the avarice of the colonizers and the distance between Spain and her colonies.

If we turn to look at the American world before 1492 we have to recognize that it was not the peaceful paradise that many Europeans imagined. Populated by peoples in diverse states of civilization, it did not abound in the innocence that Columbus originally viewed, nor the perfection that Montaigne exalted, nor the harmony of man in the natural state that the encyclopedists, Rousseau, and the romantics created. It was a world of violence, oppression, and fanaticism, which in some regions existed alongside great scientific and artistic achievements.

When the Spanish arrived on the coasts of America, the Antilles were the scene of various emigrations of peoples, some of them coming from the Amazon region. The most archaic cultures, those of the Guanahatabeyes and the Ciboneys, were being displaced in Cuba by those of the more advanced Tainos or Arahuacos, then principally in possession of the rest of the island and the other Greater Antilles. Meanwhile the Caribes, who already dominated the Lesser Antilles, were carrying out frequent attacks on the Taino population. Consequently although we can consider the Greater Antilles populated by peoples more or less peaceable, we must not forget the gradual conquest of foreign territories by the Tainos and the intentional domination implicit in the attacks of the Caribes against the Tainos.

Among the peoples who inhabited what now constitutes the United States and Canada the wars were constant. They engaged in surprise attacks and torture or sacrifice of the survivors. As an example of the ambivalence of human nature we can cite the case of the Iroquois. When the beavers were diminished in their lands the Iroquois attacked their neighbors in wars of extermination, succeeding at last in extending their dominion to the zone comprised by what are now the states of New England to Illinois (The World, 130). On the other hand the Iroquois Confederation or League, created initially by five tribes, was an original political organization whose Constitution influenced certain of the founders of the United States and its Constitution (The World, 133).

We need not innumerate all the frequent conflicts provoked by the enmity existing among many other tribes. It suffices to mention the constant fighting of the Cheyenne and the Arapaho against the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches, of the Sioux against the Pawnees and Crows, the Navahos against the Pawnees, Tewas, and Hopes, or the Apaches not only against the Spaniards and Mexicans, but also against other tribes. We should not forget either that the peculiar constructions of the so-called "cliff-dwellers" doubtless represented in great part a measure of defense.

When we pass to the great Amerind civilizations of Mesoamerica and South America, that ambivalence of the human race observed in the European world is also evident. We can therefore confirm that violence and, even less, oppression were not foreign to the most advanced peoples of the continent.

In Mesoamerica there remains the evidence of advanced civilizations creators of great cities and vast architectural structures dominated by pyramids, temples with friezes and multicolored murals, statues, steles and intricate inscription. Of these various civilizations which began more than a millennium B.C. with the Olmecs, and continued until the discovery, none surpasses the achievements of the Mayas. To fully comprehend what Frans Blom calls "the surprising scientific prowess of their numerical system and the Maya calendar" we must keep in mind two principal facts: first, that the Mayas possessed the concept of the zero, which reached Europe with the so-called Arabic numerical system only after the year 1000 A.D., and second, that at the time of the discovery the Maya calendar was more exact than that of the western world, which was reformed in 1582 and not followed in England and its colonies until 1752 (Blom, 84).

From a political point of view these Maya societies were governed by theocratic regimes of absolute lords, considered divine, and privileged elites who practiced religious rites involved with personal bloodletting and human sacrifice. Yet it is with the Aztecs in the Mexican plateau that the cult of human sacrifice reached its culmination. In their constant wars of conquest the Aztec confederation not only extended its dominions and its comercial interests but also obtained the captives necessary for these sacrifices. At the same time this culture that imposed such terror on its neighbors was capable of building the beautiful city of Tenochtitlan, with its impressive temples, its markets, gardens, extensive plazas and roads which so amazed Cortes and his men.

The other great aboriginal empire in the era of discovery, that of the Incas in Peru, took advantage of the advances of various earlier peoples, as did the Aztecs. This empire was astonishing for its grand structures of stone and gold, its storehouses, its aquaducts, its extraordinary network of roads and bridges that united the vast extension of the empire, and, above all, for the notable organization of government. But we must not forget that all this existed in a strictly-regimented society in which the subjects of the Inca had no choice but the most absolute submission to the monarch, and whose economy was based, as Hermann Trimborn sinthesized, " in the explotation of the working classes by a small superior class."

When Pizarro disembarked in Peru in 1532, the country was living the last moments of a cruel civil war engaged in for control of the imperial throne in which the ruler Atahualpa ordered the execution of his half brother and all his family.

With this succinct and thus incomplete account of some of the aspects of the two worlds that converged in 1492, we can deduce two conclusions: if among the European and the American there was a great difference in the cultural order, in general terms there was doubtless little difference in what could be called the greatness or misery of the human race. The tragedy of the encounter between the two worlds would be, as expressed by Miguel León Portilla referring to the Aztecs and the Spanish: " the confrontation of two cultures and of two ways of understanding existence." To that may be added the sad consequence of the virtual destruction of the indigenous culture.

English translation by Ruth R. Olivera

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