European Voyages of Exploration of the 15th and 16th Centuries
For several centuries following Columbus's historic discovery the North American Continent, Spain enjoyed riches from overseas that allowed it to be the most influential country in Europe. Originally inspired by a combination of a quest to prove that he could reach the Far East by sailing west and the desire to reap the rewards of precious metals and spices, Columbus left Portugal for Spain, after failing to achieve the support he needed from the king to finance his first voyage (Hayes & Clark, 1966). With the eventual support of Queen Isabella in Spain, he managed to stumble onto North and South America while looking for the Indies. Initially, the silver, gold, and spices imported from the first Spanish conquests in the Americas enabled Spain to become the most powerful nation in Europe.
That happenstance was fortunate for Spain, at least in the relatively short-term (Hayes & Clark, 1966; Zinn, 2003), although not as fortunate for Spain as it was unfortunate for the millions of native inhabitants of the parts of South and Central Americas and the Caribbean Islands claimed by Spain, and later, of the Atlantic shores of North America and other Caribbean islands claimed by France, England, and the Dutch (Hayes & Clark, 1966). Like Columbus before them, the other Spanish explorers and many of the other European explorers adopted cruelty toward the native populations as a standard operating procedure for enriching themselves. The indigenous peoples of those territories found themselves at the mercy of their "discoverers," and there was little such mercy to be dispensed. Instead, the European explorers set about exploiting them to put it most politely; and to put it less politely, they found ways to justify deceiving, enslaving, and murdering those native peoples by the thousands (and sometimes into extinction) in their Holy Bible (Hayes & Clark, 1966; Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003).
The Motivation and Societal Rewards for the European Exploration Voyages
In the 15th Century, gold was fast becoming the most reliable universal source of wealth, even more so than land, because with enough gold, one could purchase anything, including land (Zinn, 2003). Columbus (and others) believed that yet-undiscovered foreign lands existed that held boundless riches in gold and other precious metals and that were (literally) paved in gold or connected by flowing seas and expansive hills of precious metals and other valuable natural resources (Hayes & Clark, 1966; Zinn, 2003). Columbus was not alone in his belief that one could reach the East Indies by sailing west, or in the desire to prove the theory and establish trade routes and to conquer additional foreign territory that also motivated the other European explorers after him. Later on, some of the European explorers brought missionaries so that they could begin disseminating Christianity in the form of Catholicism to the native populations in some of the conquered areas; meanwhile, others began rounding up and enslaving those they chose not to kill or work to death where they found them but to ship them back to Spain for sale as human slaves (Hayes & Clark, 1966; Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003). In general, westward exploration helped enrich the Western European monarchical bureaucracies and the first major capitalists who invested and financed those voyages (Zinn, 2003).
Ironically, both of these goals (to spread religion and to enslave others for profit) also became motivating factors to finance continued western oceanic exploration from Europe. Columbus himself believed that God would reward his efforts with the riches of the foreign lands he sought for Spain if he could achieve greatness in that achievement (Zinn, 2003). Coincidentally, the involvement of Christian missionaries also provides one of the most comprehensive primary sources of information recorded contemporaneous with Columbus's first voyages, as well as the only unbiased critical account of the horrific ways that the explorers the missionaries accompanied abused and massacred the native peoples of South and Central America (Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003).
By the middle of the 16th Century, Spain had profited so much from the riches sent back from the New World that she became the largest and wealthiest nation in Europe (Hayes & Clark, 1966). However, in the longer term, those riches would also lead to Spain's downfall, by financing costly wars she would lose badly. In the 17th Century, those losses would eventually result in the decay of the royal government and in the substantial loss of control over much of the Spanish trading empire built during the prior two centuries (Hayes & Clark, 1966).
The Impact on the Conquered Peoples of the European Exploration Voyages
Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566) was a Christian missionary who sailed with Columbus when he discovered North America. In 1542, fifty years after he sailed with Columbus, de las Casas compiled his contemporaneous notes from those voyages into a book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which he published in 1552 (Cohen, 1969; Zinn, 2003). The atrocities that he witnessed first-hand shed a completely different light on Columbus and his contemporaries than has most often been taught since then. Virtually, as soon as Columbus and the first expeditions of Spanish explorers set foot in the Bahamas, they sent back reports to Spain about the new resource they found in the new world, namely, so many human beings that they existed "without number" (Cohen, 1969; Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003). He quickly realized that the natives were helpless to defend themselves against metal weapons and instead of trading with them, he simply enslaved them, marveling at how easy it was to do so in his letters back to Spain (Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003).
Briefly, Columbus and the men of his expeditions massacred the humble and pacifist Arawak Indians they discovered in the Bahamas and enslaved them to do the near equivalent of squeezing water from stones at gunpoint and sword point. Specifically, the Spaniards forced them to work as slave laborers extracting the little gold ore that the Spaniards initially believed was present in copious quantities on the new continent (Zinn, 2003). In his first letters back to Madrid, Columbus fancifully exaggerated the value of what he found in Cuba, still believing he had reached the coast of China (Zinn, 2003). He referred to the land as a "miracle" where the rivers and mines were rich with gold and spices and he promised to send back as many human slaves as were needed in Spain (Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003). Ironically, in the same letters in which Columbus referred to the indigenous population as nothing more than a natural resource to be sent back to Spain in cargo holds, he also obsessed himself with references to his divine inspiration and the godliness of his expeditions and triumphs (Zinn, 2003).
When Columbus eventually realized that he had failed to reach an island of bountiful wealth that was easy for the taking, he set about forcing the Arawak Indians to eek whatever value there was buried in the land almost as though it was their fault that there were no rivers or mountains of shining gold. The Spaniards imposed impossibly heavy quotas and brutally punished any able-bodied Arawak men who failed to produce enough or from the mines they forced them to dig or who tried to escape. According to de las Casas, they killed and maimed so routinely that they would think nothing of using human beings to test the sharpness of their blades (Cohen, 1969; Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003); and they became lazier and lazier with their authority, riding Arawak men like mules, being carried in hammocks, and being fanned and shielded from the shining sun by Arawak holding large leaves over them (Cohen, 1969; Zinn, 2003).
Other Spanish explorers adopted very similar practices to those of Columbus toward the Arawaks of the Bahamas: Cortes brutalized and massacred the Aztecs in Mexico, Pizarro exploited the Incas in Peru, and the first English settlers of colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts did much the same to the peaceful Powhatan and Pequot Indians in North America (Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003). Cortes massacred the Aztecs systematically in one area after another, sometimes by pretending to arrange a meeting of his men with the townspeople, whereupon he would encircle the natives and slaughter them with canon fire. Pizarro did the same to the Incas in Peru (Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003).
Like Columbus, the Pilgrims who settled New England proclaimed that various sections of the Christian Bible justified usurping the land that had been home to native inhabitants for thousands of years (Stennard, 1993; Zinn, 2003). John Winthrop (the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony) invented the convenient distinction between the natural rights of the Indians to their own land that were inferior to the Settler's civil right to claim it, predicated on the notion that the latter had merely occupied it but failed to "Subdue" the land (Zinn, 2003).
"Subdue" would be a dramatic understatement for what Columbus and his fellow Spanish and other European explorers did to…