History and Area Studies Essays

How did European and Indigenous experiences and knowledge inform their views of the other in the early colonial period, focusing on the sedentary Indigenous peoples and the Spaniards? How did these views influence each side's subsequent actions and reactions?

With the eventful, yet easy, conquest of the Caribbean, the European Spaniard’s view of the other (in this case, the sedentary peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes) was shaped by previous interactions with the native peoples of the Caribbean and the Yucatan/Veracruz coast; the Spaniards viewed these peoples as a controllable population with a potential to be become sophisticated individuals in Spanish society.  The indigenous population, on the other hand, first viewed the Spaniards as superior beings with godlike qualities due to their display of military might and technology – until signs of hostility are displayed between the two groups.  These views of the other by both respective groups lead to a complete role reversal in Latin America; the Spaniards acted and reacted with arrogance, conquest, and exploitation, while the indigenous population submitted to the Spanish and were attempting to preserve their identities as potential minorities of their once-owned homeland.

Upon receiving resistance by the native populations of the Caribbean islands, Spanish administrators and conquistadores alike felt more justified and possessed more incentives to subdue the indigenous Caribbean population in order to protect their own interests and the interests of the crown.  Through such a conflict, the Spaniards perceived the native population to be easily controllable.  After all, given the military superiority of the Spanish (even in the hands of conquistadores, who were not professional soldiers), any wish from a Spaniard could be fulfilled with or without force.  Hernando Cortes, the man who is credited as the leading conqueror of the Mexica in modern Mexico, carried this viewpoint of Spanish supremacy with him to the Yucatan and Veracruz coast.  By means of small numbers yet great military technology, Cortes brings an entire empire to the ground and establishes the foundations of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.  In fact, the military technology was so intimidating to the natives that one account of Monteuczoma’s men hearing cannons fire from a boat caused them to faint (Mesoamerica Voices, p. 27).  Along with such a condescending outlook, the Spaniards also perceived all native peoples of the New World (the newly founded continents of North and South America) to have potential in becoming assets to Spanish society.  The indigenous peoples of the New World can be converted to Christianity, grow the Spanish economy with their access and knowledge over resources, and become another subject to the Spanish Crown.  What further amplified this view of potential indigenous assimilation were the already existing, complex empires in Mesoamerica and the Andes.  Cortes described the infrastructure of Tenochtitlan with high regard and described the new, good houses in the area to be “as good as the best in Spain.” (Red Sources Reader, p. 17).  Le Casas describes the scenery of the entrance of Mexico as “such wonderful sights to gaze on…” (Red Sources Reader, p. 25).    Le Casas, throughout his piece A “True History” of the Conquest, praises the sedentary indigenous population for their elaborate cities, dynamic riches, and proper manners.

Initially, the sedentary indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes viewed the Spaniards as a predicted group of deities.  One of the first greetings arranged for Cortes involved dressing up Cortes as a deity (most likely as Quetzalcoatl, a god said to invade Mexico from the East in the future) (Mesoamerican Voices, p. 27-29).  Another demonstration of the indigenous thought towards the Spaniards as deities was the interaction between Monteuczoma and Cortes, where Monteuczoma states that he must be responsible for Cortes’s well-being and hospitality and that Monteuczoma regards Cortes as “our lord in place of that great sovereign…” (Red Source Reader, p. 19) and as an individual who should “…acquaint yourself [Cortes] with the altepetl” and rule it (Mesoamerican Voices p.31).  However, the attitudes turn once the Spaniards demand for more gold whenever they’re around, and the Mexica and nearby allies realize that the Spaniards are simply powerful men who are greedy in most circumstances.  Defeats against the Spaniards influence the indigenous population to adopt passive ways of living with the Spaniards post-conquest.  Despite such nasty defeats, the indigenous populations still stay around their respective altepetls and are therefore not subject to Spanish authority to great extents.

The outright success of the Spaniards leads them to their winning of the lands of Mesoamerica and the Andes, whilst the indigenous populations are better off submitting to the Spanish legal system and coexisting with the growing Spanish society.  Through a glorified conquest, and through their control via military and technology advancements, the Spaniards subsequent actions revolved from the relatively easy victory over the largest empires in Latin America.  They step in and establish the Spanish Crown’s institutions for economic self-interest and exerting Spanish influence around the world.  At the same time, their reactions to the indigenous populations still regard violence, segregation, and a condescending attitude.  The indigenous population, meanwhile, reacts in both submissive and rebellious ways.  Rebellions are usually cracked down and freedom of speech for the indigenous is limited.  Ultimately, indigenous populations are better off dealing with the Spanish if they adopt the Spanish Crown as their authority.

Through feelings of determination, awe, and arrogant ambition, the Spaniards viewed the sedentary peoples of Latin America as manageable yet impressive.  The indigenous populations first viewed the Spaniards as impressive – until war broke out in many altepetls.  As a result of such views, the Spaniards decided to take full control of Latin America after their successful conquest of the Mexica and the Inca, thus putting the indigenous population in a position of submission.  The Spaniards’ subsequent actions set the tones for the workings of New Spain, which would also affect the daily lives of the indigenous populations.  Shortly after the conquest, many natives preserved their identities by continuing to associate themselves with their altepetls.

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