The Spanish American Conquest of Mexico and Peru has been tainted by two false narratives – the Spanish “White Legend” where the Spaniards Christianized and civilized the natives, and the Protestant “Black Legend” which claimed the Catholic Spanish were guilty of genocide and mass-scale theft.
Neither is correct. Surprisingly, the Black Legend survives today. It was originally Anglo-Saxon propaganda and was filled with lies and exaggerations to paint the Spanish as evil and cruel. Yet this image survives with the belief that Europeans oppressed and exterminated the Indians. Here’s why it was false in a nutshell – the Europeans didn’t bring enough bullets to exterminate anyone.
Disease People of South America.
The South American population in the pre-Colombian era has been moderately estimated to be around 50 million by historians. The North American population was at or lower than 10 million. Most seem to have come from Central/East Asia via the Bearing Sea Ice Bridge, but there is evidence that some Polynesians reached South America directly over the Pacific.
The South Americans lived in deep isolation from the rest of the world. They developed no resistance to non-indigenous diseases like small pox, malaria, and influenza. This was a genetic disaster in the making.
When the Europeans arrived, initial contacts were generally friendly. The Indians were interested in manufactured metals, particularly steel. Europeans in South America wanted access to the abundant steel, but there were exchangeable goods across the Americas.
The Europeans and Africans carried Eurasian diseases. Smallpox normally killed up to 30% of a European population that had some genetic resistance to the disease. We can use that as a baseline to measure the minimum deaths. Repeated waves of epidemics caused a demographic collapse. The population of South America rapidly dropped from 50 million to less than 10 in a century.
Another great killer? Earthworms. These changed the vegetation levels of forests. New animals like rats, horses and cattle radically changed the environment.
Could this have been avoided? Not really. It did not matter whether the Chinese or Europeans intiated first contact. Sadly, this continued until the 20th century as Brazilians encountered isolated Amazonian tribes and set off fresh epidemics.
Conquest of Mexico
The Black Legend is particular wrong when it describes the conquests. There are too many myths to count. Many of them strip the Indians of agency – by acting as if they were not intelligent decision makers but were just pawns controlled by Europeans. The Black Legend, while critical of Europeans, is still ethnocentric.
The Mexican Empire (Aztec).
In ~1325 the Mexica (me shee ka) – a migrant group from North America – arrived in the Mesoamerica and grew to prominence – expanded rapidly between 1428-1440. They conquered the sedentary farming populations and created an Empire across much of Mesoamerica. The Aztec were a militaristic society and used a traditional hierarchy to rule: King > Military and Religious Elites > Commoners.
It is important to remember that the Aztec were a foreign conquerer with a foreign religion, who made up at most 5% of the population. This was an empire and subjugated tribes paid a tribute to the Aztecs.
The Aztec practiced human sacrifice on a scale that was unprecedented by indigenous tribes. Their military was well organized and trained to take captives for ritual sacrifice.
The Aztec’s stronger neighbors kept their independence through strong defense and armies. The Tlaxcala was one of the stronger confederacies that tried to halt the Aztec advance. The Aztec continually attacked the Tlaxcalans to obtain prisoners for more sacrifices.
In 1518-1519, Hernando Cortes and his conquistadors arrive in Mexico. Who do they contact? The Tlaxcalans were near the east coast, and they quickly accommodated the newcomers.
The Spanish were simply viewed as another foreign tribe, like the Aztec, who migrated to the region. The Indians had no concept of an Indian Nation at all. The Tlaxcalans saw the Spanish had effective metal weapons and armor and watched small numbers of Spanish infantry defeat much larger numbers of Aztec warriors. The two became allies and trading partners. The Tlaxcalans provided the majority of infantry and logistical support, while the Spanish provided the elite troops to decisively win in the center of the battle.
A few hundred Spaniards in the New World did not single-handedly conquer the Mexico or Peru. The Aztec and Inca had been powerful empires. Rather, the Spaniards allied themselves with major tribes such as the Tlaxcalans before waging war against the powerful empires. The subjugated people within each empire rebelled and there were also civil wars.
Plague was a major factor. Smallpox, malaria, influenza, bubonic plague, typhus, etc, swept across the continent, causing a severe population reduction that threw these empires into turmoil.
The Spanish acted as a catalyst to cause uprisings through Mexico and Peru. The Aztec were crippled by mass uprisings, sudden collapse in the economy, epidemics, and an advancing confederate army led by the Spanish and Tlaxcalans. After a few victories, more and more tribes united with the Spanish against the Aztec.
The Spanish essentially retained the Aztec Empire with themselves supplanting the Aztec rulers. After the war ended, they even retained much of the Aztec military and continued the old wars of expansion using the same Aztec officers and warriors.
The greatest change was the demographic collapse. Over the long run, almost 90% of the original population died off. The scattered remnants united under Spanish rule on asymmetrical terms. This was not intended by the Spanish one way or the other. It was just an unpredictable side effect.
The Black Legend that the Spanish were guilty of genocide is absurd when one looks at the actual history. Many European Colonists in North and South America did not have to kill anyone to get land. They simply occupied abandoned towns and farmlands where the indigenous population died off. There’s a tragedy, but it is not one of deliberate genocide. The Europeans did not understand Germ Theory and certainly did not engage in intentional biowarfare. I’m sure everyone has heard that Europeans gave smallpox blankets to Indians. That’s another Black Legend and there’s no evidence it ever happened. It’s doubtful given that Europeans did not yet realize how smallpox spread.
As a side note, the Europeans could not conquer Africa at the same point in time for the opposite reason. Diseases in West Africa decimated Europeans who tried to live there. The West Africans remained indepedent until the 19th century when European medicine finally improved enough to fight off diseases like malaria.