The conquest of the Americas was not planned or foreseen. It was an uncoordinated pell-mell rush to acquire souls and gold. The Catholic Church’s need for souls and man’s desire for “wealth” drove this madness. No one knows where the souls went and the cost of the so-called wealth may prove to be more than the world can afford. For the peoples being discovered or enslaved this was a time of devastation and destruction. For the majority of the people of Europe all this new found wealth brought only pain and suffering. Life was hard for European peasants and laborers and intolerable to impossible for indigenous Americans and Africans.
The discovery of the New World by Columbus at the end of the 15th century launched the Age of Discovery. A Papal Bull (Dum Diversas) issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V authorized Portugal to enslave any non-Christians . This opened the African slave trade to Europe. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V issued the Romanus Pontifex which extended Catholic nations of Europe dominion over lands yet to be discovered. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetera bull establishing the Law of Nations. Together the Papal decrees led to the global slave-trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Age of Imperialism.
By the end of the 15th century Europe had depleted the fertility of its farmlands through monoculture farming and polluted its streams and rivers and even the off-shore fishing waters. The Ottomans had severed the overland trade routes to the East. Europe desperately needed access to new resources. These resources were found in the New World. The Europeans were not concerned that these lands and resources were being utilized by other people.
By 1455 Spain and Portugal had full permission to “convert or invade, capture, subjugate, and perpetually enslave any non-Christians”. This gave the people of both nations legal and moral authority to plunder the wealth of the Americas. The Spanish began enslaving the indigenous people of the Caribbean with the arrival of Columbus. On his first trip he returned with a few samples of the product and on the second voyage he sailed with 500 Arawak men, women, and children to be sold as slaves. Only 300 survived the trip. He later wrote “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.” However, so many died on later Atlantic crossings that this proved to be not as profitable as using these people as local slave labor. They would rape their own lands to feed Europe’s greed.
During the first decades of colonization, abusive slavery and infectious diseases had killed so many Americans that a new source of labor was needed. The first African slaves were brought to the New World as early as 1502. The Spanish were not deeply involved in the slave trade so the British and the Dutch slave traders kept them supplied. On the other side of South America the Spanish were busy stealing silver and gold using enslaved or conscripted indigenous people.
And the ecological imperialism was equally devastating. The Portuguese “harvested” the Brazilwood trees for ship building and export. In place of the forests, they planted the same sugarcane crops that had depleted the soil of the Mediterranean islands. By this time the Brazilian natives had either died from diseases or had fled into the forests. The Portuguese looked back to Africa for the labor that was needed for ecosystem destruction and monoculture faming.
All this stolen wealth did not help the people of Europe; for most of them it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, inflation, and exploitation. In most parts of Europe, two per cent of the population owned ninety-five per cent of the wealth. What wealth the bourgeois did not piss away on trinkets and toys they spent on wars; religious wars between and within countries, wars to steal more wealth from other Europeans or to protect their own, and wars to put down the many peasant uprisings.
The discovery and exploitation of the New World is usually depicted as a great advancement for mankind but how is that to be determined? Not by the improvements in warfare. Not by the number of dead and unborn. Not by the increased inequalities or the added wealth of the few. And certainly not by the things we don’t know we lost. We have no idea of the wisdom and knowledge these people may have contributed to the world. Maybe the only believers in the One True God died in a silver mine or on a plantation somewhere. And what was lost in the ecological destruction? From the evidence of what was lost and the lack of evidence of what was not gained we may never be able to evaluate the five hundred year period from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 20th. This age of parasitic devastation is coming to an end. As of now, this same capitalistic drive is still at work, systematically turning the earth and everything on it into wealth, but it can’t go on much longer. We have passed the point of sustainability.
“What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi