A Clash of Cultures
SOME five hundred years ago, in a small town in the heartland of Castile, Spanish diplomats wrangled with their Portuguese counterparts. By June 7, 1494, their differences were ironed out, and a formal treaty was signed—the Treaty of Tordesillas. Today, hundreds of millions in the Western Hemisphere speak Spanish or Portuguese as a result of that agreement.
The treaty reaffirmed papal bulls of the previous year dividing the unexplored world between the two Iberian nations. A north-south line was drawn “370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.” Spain could colonize and evangelize the lands discovered to the west of that line (North and South America, with the exception of Brazil) and Portugal all land to the east (Brazil, Africa, and Asia).
Armed with the papal blessing, Spain and Portugal—with other European nations close on their heels—set out to rule the waves and thence the world. Fifty years after the treaty was signed, sea-lanes across the oceans had been established, the major continents bridged, and far-flung colonial empires had begun to emerge.—See box, page 8.
The repercussions of this explosion of discovery were vast. Commercial and agricultural systems were revolutionized, and the racial and religious divisions of the world were also transformed. It was gold, however, that set events in motion.
The Winds of Trade
Columbus was right. The gold was there, although he personally found very little. Before long, galleons began transporting to Spain enormous quantities of plundered American gold and silver. The wealth, however, was fleeting. The influx of vast amounts of precious metals brought in its wake disastrous inflation, and the surplus of easy money sabotaged Spanish industry. On the other hand, the bullion from the Americas greased the wheels of a growing international economy. Money was available to buy exotic goods, which ships transported to and from the four corners of the world.
By the close of the 17th century, one could find Peruvian silver in Manila, Chinese silk in Mexico City, African gold in Lisbon, and North American furs in London. Once luxury items had paved the way, staples such as sugar, tea, coffee, and cotton began to flow across the Atlantic and Indian oceans in ever greater quantities. And eating habits began to change.
New Crops and New Cuisines
Swiss chocolate, Irish potatoes, and Italian pizza all owe a debt to Inca and Aztec farmers. Chocolate, potatoes, and tomatoes were just three of the new products to arrive in Europe. Often, the new flavors, fruits, and vegetables took time to catch on, although from the outset Columbus and his men were enthusiastic about pineapples and sweet potatoes.—See box, page 9.
Some crops from the East, such as cotton and sugarcane, came into their own in the New World, while the South American potato eventually became a major source of nourishment for many European households. This interchange of crops didn’t just give more variety to international cuisine; it brought a fundamental improvement in nutrition, which contributed to the enormous growth of the world population in the 19th and 20th centuries. But there was a darker side to the agricultural revolution.
Racism and Repression
The new cash crops, such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco, could make the colonists rich, provided they had sufficient cheap labor to work their estates. And the obvious source of manpower was the native population.
The European colonists generally viewed the natives as nothing more than animals with the gift of speech, a prejudice that was used to justify their virtual enslavement. Although a papal bull of 1537 concluded that the “Indians” were indeed “true men endowed with a soul,” this did little to stem the exploitation. As a recent Vatican document points out, “racial discrimination began with the discovery of America.”
Harsh treatment, along with the spread of “European diseases,” decimated the population. In the space of a hundred years, it declined by as much as 90 percent according to some estimates. In the Caribbean the natives were all but wiped out. When local people could no longer be conscripted, the landowners looked elsewhere for strong, healthy farmhands. The Portuguese, who were well established in Africa, offered a sinister solution: the slave trade.
Once again racial prejudice and greed inflicted a terrible toll of suffering. By the close of the 19th century, convoys of slave ships (mainly British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese) had probably shipped more than 15 million African slaves to the Americas!
With its racial overtones, it is not surprising that the discovery of America by Europeans is deeply resented by many native Americans. A North American Indian stated: “Columbus didn’t discover the Indians. We discovered him.” Likewise, Mapuche Indians from Chile protest that ‘there wasn’t a real discovery or an authentic evangelization but rather an invasion of their ancestral territory.’ As this observation implies, religion was not blameless.
The religious colonization of the New World went hand in hand with the political one.a Once an area was conquered, the native population was obliged to become Catholic. As Catholic priest and historian Humberto Bronx explains: “At first they baptized without oral instruction, practically by force. . . . Pagan temples were converted into Christian churches or hermitages; idols were replaced by crosses.” Not surprisingly, such arbitrary “conversion” resulted in a peculiar amalgam of Catholic and traditional worship that has continued down to this day.
After the conquest and “conversions,” obedience to the church and its representatives was strictly enforced, especially in Mexico and Peru, where the Inquisition was established. Some sincere churchmen protested the unchristian methods. Dominican friar Pedro de Córdoba, eyewitness of the colonization of the island of Hispaniola, bemoaned: “With such good, obedient, and meek people, if only preachers entered among them without the force and violence of these wretched Christians, I think that a church as fine as the primitive one could be founded.”
Different but Not So New
Some see the discovery, colonization, and conversion of America as an “encounter between two cultures.” Others view it as “exploitation,” while a few condemn it outright as “rape.” However it may be judged, it was undoubtedly the beginning of a new era, an era of economic growth and technical development, albeit at the expense of human rights.
It was the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci who in 1505 coined the phrase the “New World” to describe the new continent. Doubtless, many aspects were new, but the fundamental problems of the Old World were also endemic in the New. The futile attempts of so many Spanish conquistadores to find the legendary El Dorado, a place of gold and plenty, reveal that human aspirations were not satisfied with the discovery of a new continent. Will they ever be?
a The desire to evangelize the New World was even used to legitimize military force. Francisco de Vitoria, a prominent Spanish theologian of the day, argued that since the Spanish were authorized by the pope to preach the gospel in the New World, they were justified in warring against the Indians to defend and establish that right.
[Box on page 8]
Columbus, Forerunner of the Age of Discovery
THE 50 years following Columbus’ discovery of America saw the remaking of the map of the world. Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Dutch, and English sailors, searching for new routes to the East, discovered new oceans and new continents. By 1542 only the continents of Australia and Antarctica remained undiscovered.
South America First Columbus and soon thereafter Ojeda, Vespucci, and Coelho charted the coastline of Central and South America (1498-1501).
North America Cabot discovered Newfoundland in 1497, and Verrazano traced the Eastern seaboard of North America in 1524.
Circumnavigation of the World It was first accomplished by Magellan and Elcano, who also discovered the Philippines after an epic voyage across the vast Pacific Ocean (1519-1522).
The Sea Route to India via the Cape of Good Hope After rounding the southern tip of Africa, Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498.
The Far East Portuguese sailors reached Indonesia by 1509, China by 1514, and Japan in 1542.
[Box/Picture on page 9]
Plants That Changed the World’s Menus
THE discovery of America revolutionized the world’s eating habits. There was a rapid interchange of crops between the Old World and the New World, and many plants cultivated by the Incas and the Aztecs are now among the most important food crops of the world.
The Potato. When the Spanish arrived in Peru, the potato was the basis of the Inca economy. The potato also thrived in the Northern Hemisphere, and within two centuries it had become the staple food of many European countries. Some historians even attribute to this humble but nutritious tuber the rapid population increase that accompanied the European industrial revolution.
The Sweet Potato. Columbus encountered sweet potatoes on his first voyage. He described them as somewhat like “great carrots” with the “flavor proper to chestnuts.” Now, the sweet potato is a staple food of millions of people throughout a large portion of the earth.
Corn, or Maize. So important was the cultivation of corn to the Aztecs that they viewed it as a symbol of life. Now corn is second only to wheat in world acreage planted.
The Tomato. Both Aztecs and Maya cultivated the xitomatle (later called tomatl). By the 16th century, the tomato was grown in Spain and Italy, where gazpacho, pasta, and pizza became cuisine favorites. Other Europeans, however, were not won over to its virtues till the 19th century.
Chocolate. Chocolate was the favorite drink of Aztec ruler Montezuma II. At the time Cortés arrived in Mexico, the cocoa beans, from which chocolate was extracted, were so highly esteemed that they were used as money. In the 19th century, when sugar and milk were added to improve the flavor, chocolate became an international best-seller, both as a drink and as a snack in solid form.
Arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas, 1492
Courtesy of the Museo Naval, Madrid, (Spain), and with the kind permission of Don Manuel González López
[Picture on page 7]
Copy of the Treaty of Tordesillas.
Courtesy of Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain
[Picture on page 10]
Mexican victims of the Catholic Inquisition
Mural entitled “Mexico Through the Centuries,” original work by Diego Rivera.
National Palace, Mexico City, Federal District, Mexico