12 October 1492 marks an event which was to change life on both sides of the Atlantic forever; this date represents the discovery of America. In 1492, the navigator Christopher Columbus, funded by the Spanish Crown, sailed westward from Spain in hopes of finding a new sea route to South and Southeast Asia. Despite initially believing he had reached Asia, Columbus soon realised that he had happened upon a wholly new continent, the land we know now to be America. Whilst this was not the aim of his voyage, this discovery served to bring far greater benefits to not only Spain, but, in time, the rest of Europe and the wider world. However, as with much of early modern history, where one prospers, another must suffer, and life for the indigenous people of America drastically changed.
Before 1492, indigenous tribes ruled America, the largest being the Aztecs and the Incas. The most extensive native community, in the area currently known as Mexico, was the Aztec Empire. The capital was Tenochtitlan, a city in the middle of Lake Texcoco, and the Aztec ruler at the time of the Spanish conquest was Montezuma. The Aztecs were the most powerful tribe in this area and incorporated smaller tribes into their empire through war, including the Tlaxcalans and the Mixtecs. These conquered communities had to pay tribute, a kind of tax, to the Aztecs, which was often quite a burden for these smaller tribes.
The Incas operated in a comparable way. Their stronghold was the area currently known as Peru, the capital being Cusco. They also incorporated less powerful tribes into their empire yet they achieved this through negotiation and intimidation rather than war. The Incas also offered concrete benefits to the tribes they amalgamated, including trading opportunities and desirable commodities, in return for land and labour. Yet, life amongst these tribes was not free of violence and war before the Spaniards arrived, rather, tribes were in constant conflict with each other and some of the smaller tribes collaborated with the Spanish to bring down both the Aztec and Inca empires.
Although the Spanish and native population appeared to cooperate in the early years of exploration, the colonisation of America soon brought death and destruction to the communities living there. European diseases devastated native communities, who were incredibly vulnerable due to lack of exposure. Smallpox was particularly deadly. Indeed, the onslaught of European disease killed far more natives than European swords. For those who survived, it became a life of hard labour and virtual enslavement. Conditions did improve for indigenous people as the sixteenth century wore on, as the enslavement of natives was prohibited in Spanish America and a “protector des indios” was appointed to protect indigenous interests. Yet, the discovery of America still represented a significant rupture in native life, a change from the old regime to the new which wrought havoc for the indigenous inhabitants living there.
Whilst the discovery evidently brought disruption to the native populations, there were also profound effects on the other side of the Atlantic. The discovery of new land meant the discovery of new commodities, such as tobacco, coffee and cacao bean. An elaborate trading system coined the ‘Columbian Exchange’ was developed, representing the trading of goods to and from America. These new commodities greatly influenced European culture. As smoking tobacco became a popular pastime, coffee houses emerged all over Europe. Furthermore, European diets changed, with potatoes being particularly popular. The Americas also contained a very high quantity of gold and silver, enriching Spain and Portugal, so much so that the English, French and Dutch were inspired to explore America themselves, leading to the colonisation of North America and the Caribbean. Additionally, due to the mass depopulation of native peoples and the significant number of workers needed to tend new lands and supply new trading networks, the Spanish cast their gaze away from America and began importing slaves from Africa, initiating the birth of the slave trade.
The importance of the discovery of America is clear, the consequences of Columbus’ voyage in 1492 were to change the world forever. Whilst the ramifications of the exploration and colonisation that followed are still debated today, no one can deny that the discovery drastically changed lives on both sides of the Atlantic, both positively and negatively, and these changes are still felt today.