Conquest, Colonies and the Slave-Trade
From the fifteenth century, European maritime projects produced knowledge of continuous sea passages from ocean to ocean. Before this, most of these passages had been unknown to Europeans. Some were not known to anyone. No ship had penetrated the Caribbean or the Americas. The South Atlantic was wholly unexplored; no sea-going ship had ever entered its waters, much less crossed it, or sailed from it to the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, all these feats were accomplished.
For Europe, the ‘discovery’ of the Americas had consequences for others besides the initial voyagers. The influx of gold and silver helped further expansion of international trade and industrialisation. Between
1560 and 1600, a hundred ships each year carried silver from South American mines to Spain. But it was not Spain and Portugal that benefited. They did not invest their huge income in further trade, or in building up a merchant navy. Instead, it was the countries bordering the Atlantic, particularly England, France, Belgium and Holland, that took advantage of the ‘discoveries’. Their merchants formed jointstock companies and sent out trading expeditions, established colonies and introduced Europeans to the products of the New World, including tobacco, potatoes, canesugar, cacao and rubber.
The sudden destruction of the two major civilisations – those of the Aztecs and the Incas – in America highlights the contrasts between the two cultures in combat. Both with the Aztecs and the Incas, the nature of warfare played a crucial role in terrorising local inhabitants psychologically and physically. The contest also revealed a fundamental difference in values. The Spanish avarice for gold and silver was incomprehensible to the natives. 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.