The enslavement of the population was a sharp reminder of the brutality of the encounter. Slavery was not a new idea, but the South American experience was new in that it accompanied the emerging capitalist system of production. Working conditions were horrific, but the Spanish regarded the exploitation as essential to their economic gain.
In 1601, Philip II of Spain pubilicly banned forced labour, but made arrangements by a secret decree for its continuation. Things came to a head with the law of 1609, which gave full freedom to the local people, Christian and non-Christian alike.
The European settlers were enraged, and within two years they had forced the king to revoke this law and to permit enslavement once again.
As new economic activities began - cattle farming on lands cleared of forests, and mining after the discovery of gold in 1700 - the demand for cheap labour continued. It was clear that the local people would resist enslavement.
The alternative was to turn to Africa. Between the 1550s and 1880s (when slavery was abolished in Brazil) over 3,600,000 African slaves were imported into Brazil. This was almost half the total number of African slaves imported into the Americas. In 1750, there were individuals who owned as many as a thousand slaves.
A central cultural value was the organisation of people to produce food collectively and to feed everyone in the community. They were organised under clan elders. Polygamy was common. The Arawaks were animists.
As in many other socieities, shamans played an important role as healers and intermediaries between this world and that of the supernatural.
Fig.: The Caribbean Islands.
The Arawaks used gold for ornaments, but did not attach the value to the metal that the Europeans did. They were quite happy to exchange gold for glass beads brought by the Europeans, because these seemed so much more beautiful.
The art of weaving was highly developed - the hammock was one of their specialities, and one which captured the imagination of the Europeans.
The Arawaks were generous and were happy to collaborate with the Spanish in their search for gold. It was when Spanish policy became brutal that they were forced to resist, but this was to have disastrous consequences for them.
Within twenty-five years of contact with the Spanish very little remained of the Arawaks or their way of life.
People called the Tupinamba lived on the east coast of South America and in villages in the forests (the name ‘Brazil’ is derived from the brazilwood tree). They could not clear the dense forests for cultivation as they had no access to iron.
But they had a healthy and plentiful supply of fruits, vegetables and fish, and so did not have to depend on agriculture. The Europeans who met them envied their happy freedom, with no king, army or church to regulate their lives.
As it happened, the "Crusades" against the Turks began as a religious war, but they increased Europe's trade with Asia and created a taste for the products of Asia, especially spices.
If trade could be followed by political control, with European countries establishing "colonies" in regions with a warmer climate, they would benefit further.
When thinking of new regions where gold and spices might be found, one possibility was West Africa, where Europeans had not traded directly so far. Portugal a small country which had gained independence from Spain since 1139, and which had developed fishing and sailing skills, took the lead. Prince Henry of Portugal (called the Navigator) organised the coa
sting of West Africa and attacked Ceuta in 1415. After that, more expeditions were organised, and the Protuguese established a trading station in Cape Bojador in Africa. Africans were captured and enslaved, and gold dust yielded the precious metal.
In Spain, economic reasons encouraged individuals to become knights of the ocean. The memory of the Crusades and the success of the Reconguista fanned private ambitions and gave rise to contracts known as capitulaciones.
Under these contracts the Spanish ruler claimed rights of soverigntly over newly conquered territories and gave rewards to leaders of expeditions in the form of titles and the right to govern the conquered lands.
2. The Portuguese were more eagar to increase their trade with western India than with Brazil, which did not promise any gold. But there was one natural resource there which they exploited : timber. The brazilwood tree, after which the Europeans named the region, produced a beautiful red dye.
The natives readily agreed to cut the trees and carry the logs to the ships in exchange for iron knives and saws, which they regarded as marvels. ("For on sickle, knife or comb they would bring loads of hens, monkeys, parrots, honey, wax, cotton thread and whatever else these poor people had".)
3. "Why do you people, French and Portuguese, come from so far away to seek wood? Don't you have wood in your country ?" a native asked a French priest. At the end of their discussion, he said, ‘I can see that you are great madmen. You cross the sea and suffer great inconvenience and work so hard to accumulate riches for your children.
Is the land that nourished you not sufficient to feed them too ? We have fathers, mothers and children whom we love. But we are certain that after our death the land that nourished us will also feed them. We therefore rest without further cares."
4. This trade in timber led to fierce battles between Portuguese and French traders. The Portuguese won because they decided to "settle" in colonise the coast. In 1534, the king of Portugal divided the coast of Brazil into fourteen hereditary "captaincies".
To the Portuguese who wanted to live there he gave landownership rights, and the right to make the local people into slaves. Many Portuguese settlers were veterans of the wars in Goa, in India, and were brutal to the local people.
5. In the 1540s, the Portuguese began to grow sugarcane on large plantation and built mills to extract sugar, which was then sold in Europe. In this very hot and humid climate they depended on the natives to work the sugar mills.
When the natives refused to do this exhausting and dreary work, the mill-owner resorted to kidnappping them to work as slaves.
6. The natives kept retreating into the forests to escape the "slavers" and, as time went on, there were hardly any native villages on the coast; instead, there were large, well-laid-out European towns. Plantation owners were then forced to turn to another source for slaves; West Africa.
This was a contrast to the Spanish colonies. A large part of the population in the Aztec and Inca empires had been used to labouring in mines and fields, so the Spanish did not need to formally enslave them or to look elsewhere for slaves.
7. In 1549, a formal government under the Portuguese king was established, with the capital in Bahia/Salvador. From this time, Jesuits started to go out to Brazil.
European settlers disliked them because they argued for humane interaction with the natives, ventured into the forests to live in villages, and sought to teach them Christianity as a joyous religion. Above all, the Jesuits strongly criticised slavery.
2. Nothing, however, prepared Columbus and his crew for the long Atlantic crossing that they embarked upon, or for the destination that awaited them. The fleet was small, consisting of a small nao called Santa Maria, and two caravels (small light ships) named Pinta and Nina.
Columbus himself commanded the Santa Maria along with 40 capable sailors. The outward journey enjoyed fair trade winds but was long. For 33 days, the fleet sailed without sight of anything but sea and sky. By this time, the crew became restive and some of them demanded that they turn back.
3. On 12 October, 1492, they sighted land; they have reached what Columbus thought was India, but which was the island of Guanahani in the Bahamas. (It is said that this name was given by Columbus, who described the Islands as surrounded by shallow seas, baja mar in Spanish.)
They were welcomed by the Arawaks, who were happy to share their food and provisions; in fact, their generosity made a deep impression upon Columbus.
As he wrote in his log-book, “There are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would belive it who has not seen of it, anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no, on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it."
4. Columbus planted a Spanish flag in Guanahani (which he renamed San Salvador), held a prayer service and, without consulting the local people, proclaimed himself viceroy. He enlisted their co-operation in pressing forward to the larger islands of Cubanascan (Cuba, which he thought was Japan!) and Kiskeya (renamed Hispaniola, today divided between two countries. Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
Gold was not immediately available, but the explorers had heard that it could be found in Hispaniola, in the mountain streams in the interior.
5. But before they could get very far, the expedition was overtaken by accidents and had to face the hostility of the fierce Carib tribes. The men clamoured to get back home. The return voyage proved more difficult as the ships were worm-eaten and the crew tired and homesick. The entire voyage took 32 weeks.
Three more voyages followed, in the course of which Columbus completed his explorations in the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles, the South American mainland and its coast. Subsequent voyages revealed that it was not the "Indies" that the Spaniards had found, but a new continent.
6. Columbus's achievement had been to discover the boundaries of what seemed like infinite seas and to demonstrate that five weeks' sailing with the trade wind took one to the other side of the globe. Since places are often given the names of individuals, it is curious that Columbus is commemorated only in a small district in the USA and in a country in northwestern South America (Columbia), though he did not reach either of these areas.
The two continents were named after Amerigo Vespucci, a geographer from Florence who realised how large the might be, and described them as the "New World". The name "America" was first used by a German publisher in 1507.