New world: metamorphoses of colonization

LEDA CATUNDA, Copafamily, 2020, acrylic on fabric and velvet, 88 x 252 cm


Authors' introduction to the newly released book.

In this book, we seek to develop an innovative perspective on the European conquest and colonization of the New World, considered in the plurality of its aspects and dimensions, as well as in the complex of its historical consequences. Without recklessly pretending to have taken into account everything that mattered in the vast international bibliography that has accumulated around the central issues we are dealing with (the synthesis effort is always approximate), we present new data and complementary points of view that may contribute to deepen the concrete and comprehensive understanding of the dense fabric of the formative facts of the societies of our continent and of the ideological constructions that affected them.

The quality of the historical study of ideas and doctrines depends not only on the relevance of the identified sources, but also on direct access to them. Therefore, we apply the criterion of reading and analyzing the texts in the original; when exceptionally we use translations, we indicate in a note. Interpreting these sources requires a difficult balance between historical objectivity and an assessment of their intellectual, cultural, and moral significance, which inevitably involves value judgments. The most obvious example is slavery. It is not possible to remain neutral in the debate opposing those who defended it and those who condemned it. But we would fall into an anachronistic moralism if we condemned “in limine” those who in the sixteenth century accepted it as inescapable, seeking only to mitigate its ills. Only in the last decades of the eighteenth century did a movement of opinion organized in the Anti-Slavery Society assert itself in England, which developed persistent propaganda, managing to get Parliament to prohibit the trafficking of Africans in 1807.

The historical horizon of the studies gathered here extends from the XNUMXth century (first great navigations along the African coast) to the XNUMXth century (modern colonization in the United States and Brazil). The central themes of the first three chapters are part of an arc of time that covers the first decades of the XNUMXth century. The last two chapters study the issues of colonization and land appropriation as they were configured with the bourgeois conception of property, theorized by John Locke at the end of the XNUMXth century and implemented in the following two centuries, mainly in the United States.

Although distinct, these perspectives are convergent and complementary. They reveal decisive moments in the colonization of the New World, articulating them, in each concrete historical situation, to the contradictory images of the indigenous in European culture. In the Spanish metropolis, debates about indigenous peoples gave rise to long and bitter theological, legal and political controversies. In addition to the famous reports by Bartolomeu de Las Casas denouncing “the destruction of the Indies”, the great doctrinal landmark of the defense of native peoples is found in the Relectio de Indis by Francisco de Vitoria, founder of the Second Scholasticism. But there was also no lack of detractors like the Hellenist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who used his knowledge of Aristotelian Politics to justify the enslavement of subjugated populations.

We insist on the reciprocal surprises and oddities of the first encounters between the discovered and the discoverers. Although they had no precise idea about the hitherto isolated branch of the human species that they found when they landed on the Caribbean islands, Columbus's “mental dossier” was prepared to classify all inhabitants of the lands he might encounter as Indians. This “dossier” contained the collective memory of multiple reports, some purely imaginary, about earthly paradises and fantastic voyages to the New World: metamorphoses from colonization to Edenic islands, others inspired by news with a possible background of truth, even if somewhat nebulous, such as the Phoenician trips to the Canary Islands, or more consistent ones, like the ones that the Vikings installed in Greenland made in the north of present-day Canada. Whereas the natives of the New World, the object of the discovery, could only resort to pure mythical imagery to exorcise their astonishment.

The discoverers, starting with Columbus, thought they could discern, in the exuberance of the flora and fauna, in the naive simplicity of the uses and customs and in the communal conditions of existence of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and Brazil, the signs of an Edenic garden. Or at least of an extremely fertile nature, as assured by Pero Vaz de Caminha in the famous letter of May 1, 1500 that he sent to King Dom Manuel. Informing that they have not yet found gold, silver, metal or iron; he assures that “the land itself is of very good air”, that “waters are many; endless", so that, "wanting to take advantage of it, everything will be given in it, for the sake of the waters it has".

In France, the image of this hitherto unknown branch of the human species came from the reports of the Catholic André Thévet and the Calvinist Jean de Léry, who were in Brazil during the ephemeral attempt to found France Antártica (1555-1560). They inspired Montaigne's reflections, as we show in item 1 of the fourth chapter, as well as the praise of the simple and virtuous life, close to nature, which we find in the philosophers and utopians of the Enlightenment, namely Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Morelly.

Protagonists of the first century of the discovery and European occupation of the New World, Spain and Portugal took possession of immense territories, which they occupied in different rhythms and dimensions. While Portuguese settlements remained mainly in the coastal regions of “terra brasilis”, slowly progressing inland, the Spanish conquest, which began in the Caribbean islands, expanded with the influx of the search for precious metals. Two decades after Columbus landed on the island he called Hispaniola (where today the Republics of Santo Domingo and Haiti are located), its inhabitants, as well as those who lived on the neighboring island of Cuba, had been almost exterminated. The population disaster was amplified by the conquest of the Aztec state by Hernán Cortés, in 1521, and the Inca state by Francisco Pizarro, in 1532.

The fulminating demographic decline of the attacked populations is explained by the combined effect of the massacres, the brutal exploitation to which the remnants were subjected and the diseases transmitted by the viruses and bacteria brought from Europe, against which the natives had no antibodies. In chapter I, item 6, we examine data and assessments regarding the relative weights of these factors in the population collapse of indigenous peoples.

The responsibility for the attitude adopted by the Spanish metropolis towards the tragic fate of the indigenous people was and continues to be the subject of multiple controversies. Leaving aside arguments that appeal to national prejudices or nebulous generalities, for example, to the psychology of peoples, we dedicate the second chapter, “Imperial fundamentalism and Renaissance culture”, to the historical conditions of the formation of the Spanish State over the years. last centuries of the “Reconquista”, showing the complete opposition in the attitude of two great Castilian kings towards religion. In 1077, King Alfonso VI of Castile and León proclaimed himself “Emperor Totius Hispaniae” and “king of the two religions”, that is, of Christians and Muslims. He intended to reconquer all of Spain by taking positively into account the religious and cultural diversity of the Iberian peoples. His tolerance was pragmatic but broad, also encompassing the third religion: in effect, he abrogated discriminations against Jews that went back to the old codes of the Visigoths. Four hundred years later, on November 1, 1478, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, “the catholic kings”, suppressed that ancient tradition of tolerance, institutionalizing the sinister tribunals of the Inquisition.

Fundamentalist Catholic, guided by the charismatic personality of Cardinal Cisneros, her advisor and confessor, the Queen of Castile considered her religious responsibilities inseparable from the interests of the Spanish State, politically unified by her marriage to the King of Aragon. The year 1492 marked the fulfillment of her greatest ambitions. On January 2, she triumphantly entered Granada, the last Islamic stronghold in Iberian lands; Installed in the Alhambra Palace, on March 31, she signed the decree of summary eradication of Judaism; on 3 August, Columbus, whose expedition she had sponsored, set sail from Palos, sailing west towards "the Indies"; on October 12, he landed on an island in the Bahamas archipelago, starting what would become the largest colonial empire of the XNUMXth century.

Regent of the Kingdom of Castile after the death of Isabel in 1504, Cardinal Cisneros personified the singularities of Spanish imperial Catholicism. He had the ambition to reform the Church, not only by combating the relaxation of customs, but also by mobilizing Renaissance scholarship to promote a return to the sources of original Christianity. To this end, as we show in item 4 of the second chapter, he sponsored the grandiose project of polyglot bible, the first complete edition of the original text of the Scriptures, bringing together at the University of Alcalá de Henares, which he had founded, a team of specialists in the original languages ​​of the biblical texts: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. The work remains among the most important editorial productions of the Renaissance period, when, about 60 years after its invention, the use of movable type printing became widespread.

However, as a cultural movement of broad and multiform dimensions, the Renaissance did not find in the Iberian Peninsula favorable terrain to flourish, unlike what happened in France, the Netherlands, Germany and England, where it expanded creatively from the paradigm Italian. On this finding are based the interpretations of the history of Latin America that attribute the origin of its political ills and economic weaknesses to the cultural effects of the religious intolerance prevailing in the Iberian metropolises. Two of these effects would be especially paralyzing: regarding work as a curse and professing a faith that inhibits intellectual inquiry. As a rule ideologically saturated, these interpretations tend to pejoratively compare Iberian colonization to British colonization and Catholicism to Protestantism.

It is beyond our scope to enter into this controversy. But we deal with the complex of its historical assumptions in the three central chapters of the book (second to fourth). In them we show, always based on the direct analysis of the main contemporary Iberian and British texts of the colonization of the New World, that the main Spanish authors of the sixteenth century recognized the rights of the indigenous people, in contrast to John Locke, the great founder of the liberal doctrine, for the which the guarantee of property is the raison d'être of the political order ("Commonwealth”), but what legitimizes property is its productive use (“improvement”), which the natives would not be capable of. He also contributed to include in the constitution of the colony of Carolina (1669) the guarantee, to “every free man” established there, of “absolute power and authority over his black slaves”.

There is a strong contrast between this absolutization of the colonizers' property and the doctrine enunciated a century and a half earlier by Francisco de Vitoria, the great initiator of the Second Iberian Scholasticism. in your Indis Relections (1532), he analyzed with theological, philosophical and legal criteria the main arguments that intended to justify the conquest and colonization of the New World, showing why some of them (which violated the rights of indigenous peoples) were illegitimate. By itself, this distinction implied a doctrinal limitation of the powers that the Emperor had to exercise. Carlos V reacted, censoring the dissemination of Vitoria's classes. But, in the wake of Cisneros, who had accepted the denunciations of Bartolomeu de Las Casas about the atrocities committed by the conquerors, naming him “protector of the Indians”, the emperor promulgated in November 1542 the “New Laws”, which restricted the “parcels” and prohibited the enslavement of indigenous peoples.

Referring with unabashed irony to the need for measures to protect the natives from the rage of their compatriots, Hernán Cortés, who had conquered Mexico in the name of Emperor Charles V, commented that “most of the Spanish people who come here are of low manners, strong and vicious from diverse vices and sins; if these people were given free license to walk through the villages of the Indians, rather for our sins, the new world: metamorphoses of colonization would convert them to their vices rather than attract them to virtue”. He himself, however, had Cuauhtémoc, the last monarch, tortured ("tlatoani”), so that he would reveal where the treasures accumulated by his predecessors would be hidden. The insatiable thirst for gold did not just affect the “low mannered”. The hostility of the “Spanish people” to any legislation that restricted the means of getting rich quick was generalized.

The application of the “New Laws” was effectively sabotaged. Appointed Bishop of Chiapas in 1544, Las Casas was soon forced to resign and return to Spain. He did not, however, renounce the defense of subjugated populations. In 1550 and 1551, he was the main protagonist of the debates held in Valladolid before a group of illustrious theologians and jurists summoned by Carlos V, convincingly defending the cause of the natives against the Hellenist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who considered them “slaves by nature”. .

We describe in broad strokes in Chapter I, Item 2, how, to compensate for the rapid and brutal depopulation provoked by the conquest of the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba, as well as to circumvent the opposition of Catholic theologians and missionaries to the enslavement of the natives, the colonizers were authorized by the Spanish Crown to apply in the New World the solution adopted by the Portuguese in the Atlantic islands they had occupied throughout the XNUMXth century: employing African slaves as labor in the sugar cane plantations. The growing scale of production on large plantations made it profitable to supply oneself through the slave trade.

Although colonial laws prohibited the enslavement of indigenous peoples, the corvee of mines persisted notably in Mexico and Peru, where the exploitation of the Potosí silver mines, located more than four thousand meters high in the Andes, was a dismal drain on human lives. . At the end of the XNUMXth century, the world's largest silver production came from those mines; the conquistadors, recognizing the enormous volume of riches that were going to fill their coffers, gave Potosí the status of “Imperial Villa”.

Unprecedented in the social history of humanity, the transoceanic articulation between the European metropolises, the colonies of the New World and the network of African slave traders crudely manifests the tricontinental dimension of the economy and colonial society established by the Iberian conquest. During the XNUMXth century, the European presence consisted of a majority of adventurers and a minority of friars. But from the second half of the XNUMXth century onwards, a growing migratory movement of European settlers heading mainly to North America, then shared by the British and French, modified the composition of the population and introduced an economy of small independent producers, which developed parallel to the large plantation powered by slave labor. These settlers advanced slowly but inexorably towards the western United States, appropriating the lands inhabited by the indigenous people.

During the second half of the 1840th century, migratory flows from Europe increased on an unprecedented scale. It is estimated that, between 1860 and 1845 alone, more than four million Europeans arrived in the United States; about half came from Ireland (where the great famine of 1852-XNUMX caused at least a million deaths). This thriving population movement reached its greatest intensity at the end of the so-called Civil War. The March to the West offered the impoverished European masses the prospect of prospering by bringing together what capitalist development separated: work and property. The success of this new type of colonization, which corresponded to the conception of property formulated at the end of the XNUMXth century by John Locke, led to the suppression of the indigenous people's conditions of existence; those who escaped extermination were confined on reservations.

In Brazil, however, this type of colonization has atrophied, as we show in the fifth and final chapter. The imperial government, in the face of pressure from the British government, which had prohibited the slave trade and taking into account the advances of abolitionism, tried to promote the immigration of European colonists, mainly French, in a similar way to what was happening in the United States, where the Homestead act (1862) granted full ownership to participants in the March to the West. But, although from the point of view of the imperial bureaucracy, the introduction of European colonists was the solution for replacing slave labor and whitening the population, with few exceptions, the empire's colonization policy was not successful. The Brazilian agrarian oligarchy wanted immigrants to come and work on their farms; she was not interested in them becoming smallholders. Social relations spoke louder than government projects.

*João Quartim de Moraes He is a retired full professor at the Department of Philosophy at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of The military left in Brazil (popular expression).

*Ligia Osorio Silva is a professor at the Department of Politics and Economic History at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Vacant lands and latifundia (Unicamp).


João Quartim de Moraes & Ligia Osorio Silva. New world: metamorphoses of colonization. Campinas, 2023, Ed. Unicamp (

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