The Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires founded at the beginning of the 16th century were soon followed by Dutch, English, and French empires. Neil Faulkner looks at how the transformation of the world by European colonialism began.

Spanish imperial troops were paid with American gold

Europe was changing rapidly from the late 15th century onwards. The rest of the world was not. In Asia, Africa, and the Americas, empires rose and fell, but the socio-economic order remained essentially the same.

After the defeat of the Mongols (1368), China was relatively unthreatened. The security of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) rested on the extreme conservatism of the Confucian bureaucrats who ruled it.

India was more turbulent. Between 1526 and 1529, Babar the Tiger, a Muslim invader from the north-west equipped with cannon, conquered most of the subcontinent and established the Mughal Empire. But beneath the froth of elite displacement, the deep waters of life and labour in a hundred thousand villages remained undisturbed.

Much the same is true of Safavid Persia and Ottoman Turkey. There were conquests, changes of dynasty, and new political and religious allegiances at the top of society. But the fabric of everyday life was barely touched.

The dynastic states, some relatively stable, others less so, which floated above each of Asia’s eternal geopolitical units – Turkey, Persia, Central Asia, India, China, Japan – remained essentially rootless and parasitic, each as pointless, as devoid of historic purpose, as the other.

Africa and the Americas were no different. The empires of the Songhai in West Africa, the Aztecs in Mexico, and the Inca in Peru were predatory systems of robbery with violence. There was no organic relationship between state superstructure and socio-economic base. The former simply siphoned surplus from the latter and consumed it wars, monuments, and luxuries.

Santa MariaSuch states were like panes of glass liable to shatter at the impact of a small stone. The threat came from Europe, where the new monarchies of the 16th century were deeply rooted in fast-changing societies. European gold-lust and gunpowder were poised to transform the world.

The Portuguese were the pioneers of European colonialism. Portugal is a mountainous country on the edge of Europe with a long Atlantic coastline blessed with good natural harbours. The Portuguese, therefore, were pre-eminent among seafarers.

Crucial to the European ‘voyages of discovery’ was the development of large, sophisticated sailing vessels. One early innovation was the stern-post rudder. A more gradual and complex process was improving the rigging.

By the late 15th century, the medieval ‘cog’ – square-rigged with single mast and sail – had evolved into a larger vessel with up to three masts and mixed sails, enabling it to sail closer to the wind and to use wind-power more economically. Relatively fast and safe ocean-going travel became possible for the first time.

Between 1492 and 1504, Christopher Columbus led four expeditions to what came to be called ‘the New World’. Though Portuguese, he was funded by the King and Queen of Spain, so the colonies he established on Cuba and Haiti were Spanish possessions.

In a two-year round trip between 1497 and 1499, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa from Lisbon to Calcutta. Within 20 years, the Portuguese had a trading empire extending along 12,500 miles of coastline from Cape Bogador on the Atlantic coast of North Africa to the Moluccas Islands in the Pacific, with outposts in West Africa, Persia, and India.

Between 1519 and 1522, Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe and revealed the basic shape and location of its major continents. The Portuguese navigator thereby drew the map for the Spanish conquistadores who subjugated much of Central and South America in the first part of the 16th century.

Cortes - Spanish conqueror of Mexico.Columbus had found very little gold in the West Indies. He had tried to make the new colonies profitable by turning the natives into slaves and serfs. Instead, the combination of colonial barbarism and foreign germs reduced the population of Haiti from over a million to just 200 in the space of 50 years.

The gold-lust remained unabated. So, in 1519, a force of 660 men, 18 horses, and 10 cannon set out from Spain’s Cuban colony under Hernan Cort√©s bound for the mainland. Within two years, they had conquered the Aztec Empire of Central America.

In 1532-1535, starting out with just 106 infantry and 62 cavalry, Francisco Pizarro replicated Cort√©s’s achievement by destroying the Inca Empire of Peru.

These were victories of steel, gunpowder, and horses over Stone Age technology. Equally important, however, were divisions among Aztec and Inca rulers, and the alienation of their subject peoples. Because of the murderous brutality of the Aztec imperial elite, more native Americans fought on the side of the Spanish than on that of the Aztecs at the final Battle of Tenochtitlan.

Spain was one of the least developed parts of Europe. The Spanish monarchs were engaged in dynastic wars against geopolitical rivals and religious wars against the Protestant Reformation. They wanted gold to pay soldiers. Consequently, the exploitation of ‘New Spain’ was ruthless.

The natives not killed by guns, plague, or famine were often worked to death in the mines and on the estates of their new colonial masters. The Laws of Burgos of 1512-1513 decreed that Indian men were to work for Spaniards for nine months of the year, that their wives and children would be enslaved and their property confiscated if they refused, and that tithes must be paid to the Catholic Church.

Pizarro - Spanish conqueror of Peru.The population of the Lima area in Peru collapsed from 25,000 to just 2,000. The population of Mexico fell from 10 million to 3 million. The mining town of Potosi, on the other hand, was swelled to 150,000 by forced labour. ‘I moved across a good portion of the country,’ wrote a Spanish noble to the King in 1535, ‘and saw terrible destruction.’

The transformation of the world by European colonialism had begun. The Portuguese and Spanish overseas empires founded at the beginning of the 16th century were soon followed by Dutch, English, and French empires.

European capitalism was still in its birth-pangs. Yet already, in the early 16th century, it stretched bloody hands across three continents.

But why did relatively backward, feudal, absolutist, priest-ridden Spain – the Spain of the Holy Inquisition – lead the way?

The Spanish kings needed New World gold and silver to sustain their geopolitical ambitions in Europe, and an accident of geography had given them privileged access to Portugal’s maritime tradition.

Europe was to pay a high price for this accident. A new wave of revolution began in 1521. Revolts by townsmen, peasants, and lesser gentry rolled across Germany through the 1520s and early 1530s. Religious civil war soon raged across the country. A generation later, this spread to France.

Above all, in 1566, full-blooded revolution broke out in the Low Countries. War would continue here between Protestant Dutch and Catholic Spanish until 1609.

It was bullion from the Americas that underpinned the power of Imperial Spain and sustained her armies for two generations in their attempt to drown the world’s first bourgeois revolution in blood.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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