Exploitation and Betrayal: The European Way Of Conquest
When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, his letters back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain move effortlessly from initial awe to plans for violent exploitation of the Arawak people he encountered.
They are so artless and so free with all they possess,” he writes, “that no one would believe it without having seen it. Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.
He was equally amazed by their lack of weaponry, reporting: “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance.”
Then, his mind wanders to thoughts of exploitation. “They would make fine servants,” he reflects. “Should your Majesties command it, all the inhabitants could be taken away to Castile [Spain], or made slaves on the island. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
The European way: surprise and betrayal
Within a few short years, these musings of power and exploitation would come true beyond Columbus’ wildest dreams. Some of the most astonishing stories in history recount the way the greatest empires of the New World – the Aztecs and the Incas – were laid waste by two small bands of Spanish explorers led respectively by Hernando Cortés and Francisco Pizarro.
When Cortés first arrived at the gates of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519 with less than a thousand Spanish soldiers, his entire group could have been wiped out by the Aztecs, whose formidable warriors firmly controlled the central region of Mexico. Instead, they were welcomed in friendship and invited into the city to join a festive celebration.
The Spanish promptly betrayed their hosts’ welcome and began slaughtering the singers and dancers, chopping off their hands and heads and disemboweling them with their swords. They then retreated from the panicked crowd to the royal palace where they took the Aztec ruler Montezuma as hostage.
Once the Aztecs realized their terrible mistake, they tried to fight back but it was too late. Within two years their empire was gone forever and Cortés claimed their territory for Spain, renaming the capital Mexico City.
Inspired by Cortés’ achievement, Pizarro set out a few years later to emulate his conquest, targeting the Inca empire of South America. With fewer than 200 soldiers facing an army of 80,000 Inca warriors, Pizarro also used the strategy of surprise and betrayal to meet the Inca leader Atahualpa face to face, then began slaughtering Atahualpa’s troops while taking him hostage. Within a year, the capital Cuzco was conquered and the Inca empire was no more.
The sacred warfare of the Aztecs
There are many reasons for this one-sided conflict between the Spanish and the empires of the New World. Jared Diamond has identified some important ones, such as the industrial infrastructure that permitted the Spanish to sail to the New World in the first place, their use of horses, swords, and guns, and the devastating impact of the diseases they brought with them.
One factor, however, that is left out of the discussion, but which underlies the entire European conquest of the New World, is the vastly different conceptualizations of power and warfare held by each side. For the Aztecs, who believed they needed the blood of human sacrifice to keep the sun in motion, warfare was a sacred endeavor to provide a continual supply of victims to propitiate the gods. The Aztecs thus conceptualized power literally in terms of the fuel needed to keep the sun rising each day.
The sacred nature of warfare meant that treachery or fraud was unthinkable. They would announce their intentions to conquer a city in advance, and would even send along food and weapons to the inhabitants, making sure they had a worthy adversary in battle. It was for this reason that they acted in a way that our modern viewpoint deems hopelessly naïve, inviting Cortés’ soldiers into their city to join their celebration.
The idea of such treachery was inconceivable to them, just as it had been inconceivable for anyone to break the legendary Gordian knot until Alexander drew his sword and sliced it in half. Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 16 | Great Rats: The Story Of Power and Exploitation
Selected references: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (London: Vintage, 2005). David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)