What do you think was the biggest threat to Spain/Portugal in this part of the colonial period: was it internal (for example, indigenous revolts, worker uprisings), external (for example, other European powers vying for control over colonial holdings, or economic ( for example, maintaining trade balance in silver, gold, or sugar)? Defend your answer and discuss.
Post an original comment responding to the discussion question, utilizing the readings in your response. There must be at least two citations from the readings to receive credit for discussion. This post must be at least 200 words.
As you have probably noticed (and some of you have even said as much), our text for this course focuses on the Spanish quite a lot, sometimes to the detriment of the native folks and Mestiza/os (mestizo= person of mixed race, usually Spanish and Indian). And to an extent, this is true. However, the focus on the Spanish is important- as distasteful as it might be– because the actions of non-Spaniards (indigenous, mestizos, Africans, etc.) all happens within the confines of Spanish structures of power.
In other words, there are two ways to think about this:
1) As Spain tightened its grip on Latin America and created their own systems of governing and institutions that regulated behavior, everyone else started finding cracks within that system and exploited those cracks, and manipulated the system to their own ends (and often to their own benefit).
2) Latin America is not a simple binary of conflict between Spanish and non-Spanish peoples. Remember, for European countries, colonies were only as strong as the country that “owned” them in Europe. Therefore, talking about the oppression of the Indians is important, but it is equally important to think about the ways in which Spanish and Portuguese America were both prizes that were sought after by other European colonial powers looking to rise. For instance, the Dutch in Brazil, or the British in Cuba, or just about everyone in the Caribbean. In this sense, for a long while, Latin America was a prize to be fought over by European powers– therefore, by pulling our lens back and seeing the big picture (the role of Europe and defense of Latin America), we understand the reasons why the Spanish did what they did at home.
The timeline at the beginning of the chapter gives us all a good sense of not only the priorities of the Spanish and Portuguese in the early colonial system, but also the challenges– which reached far beyond the subjugation of native peoples to include the rest of the world, specifically, the rest of Europe. Thus, as you read the chapter, keep in mind that the goals and objectives of the Spanish were usually in the service of both their own enrichment and the defense of their colonies.
Of course, the fact that the Spanish and Portuguese worked hard to protect the colonies does not mean that they were trying to protect the people living in the colonies. While some priests and members of the Church in New Spain and throughout Latin America worked very hard to protect indigenous communities (and you will hear about this later!), the big picture of the Spanish crown in Latin America was hardly so generous. Yes, they were all about the money.
An important term to keep in mind throughout this period especially is mercantilism. There are a lot of definitions of mercantilism out there, and most of them are correct. However, in thinking about colonial history (not just Colonial Latin America) we would probably want to think of mercantilism as an economic theory that says, “the colonies exist to make the mother country rich.” The technical details of the term will refer to trade protectionism and “profitable balances” (at least that’s what came up when I googled the term!), but for our purposes, when we think of mercantilism, we are thinking of the ways in which all of the production (mining, large scale agriculture, such s sugar production) was done for the sake of enriching Spain, rather than building up the colonies.
This is not to say that the wealthy members of colonial society did not get their piece. They profited quite nicely from the sugar trade, for instance. In colonial Latin America, next to mining for gold and then silver, the sugar industry was a profitable and important industry for the Spanish crown, and the plantation owners who produced the sugar.
As your text states, sugar and bullion (gold and silver) were the “two most important exports of colonial Latin America.” These two goods produced quite a lot of income for the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, so they did everything they did to keep mining and sugar plantations operational, and make sure that the gold, silver, and sugar was shipped safely to Europe (p. 162).
I know what you are thinking: “ok, Professor, I understand the appeal of gold,because it is a precious and valuable metal. Heck, professor, I even understand the appeal of silver,
but what the heck is up with sugar?”
That’s a good question, students!
Sugar is one of those commodities that, until the European arrival in the Americas, was tough to come by. To grow it effectively, you need to be in a temperate area, with good soil, moisture, etc. Usually, these types of areas were found along the equator. In fact, one of the earliest regions that produced sugar was a region called “the Levant,” which was basically the western area of the Middle East.
According to one historian, Syria and Egypt produced a lot of sugar in the late middle ages, which would then find its way to Europe (through Venice initially, then elsewhere). However, as sugar became more popular in Europe, the demand for it was much higher than the supply. Sugar, then, became a valuable commodity, and as a result, became quite expensive. A quick example: today, when people want to show off their wealth, they drive an expensive car, or buy a large home. Back then, if you wanted to show that you were really wealthy, you put sugar on your table for everyone to see (and use!). That gives you an idea of how precious sugar was in Europe in the decades leading up to the Spanish arrival in the Caribbean in the early 1500s. Finding the climate agreeable in the Caribbean, the Spanish (and then the French, the Dutch, and the English– and of course the Portuguese in Brazil) began producing sugar at a massive rate, because for a long time it brought in quite a lot of money for the European powers.
Of course, the emergence of sugar plantations brought with it the problem of how to gather a workforce that was willing to grow, harvest, and produce sugar quickly and consistently. It was here that the European powers (yes, even the Spanish) began to bring slave labor from Africa to the caribbean, not long after essentially extinguishing the native people of these islands through disease.
Sugar production itself is a difficult and arduous process, especially for the workers. Of course you must first grow it:
Looks easy enough! After growing it, of course, you have to harvest it. This is difficult, because even though the picture above looks like it is a bunch of overgrown weeds, when you get closer, you see that each one of those stalks looks like this:
It is very thick, and very strong, almost like bamboo. To harvest it, you need a a machete, or at the very least a strong blade to cut these stalks down. Working in these fields back then, looked like this:
It is not all that different today, as people still walk out into those fields and cut down stalk after stalk to be sent to the machines that pressed juice out of the sugar cane and began the refining process to turn it into crystals:
This is not the easiest picture to decipher, but when you put the photos above together, you get the sense of how large sugar plantations were, and how big an industry it was. In fact, because it was so profitable, many of these plantations were operating 24 hours a day, rotating shifts of slave laborers at all hours to ensure that the production never stopped– no doubt a maddening process for the slaves, who were overworked constantly, while simultaneously facing the prospect of injury or death in their work on behalf of sugar production.
Of course, this was irrelevant to the European powers, least of all the Spanish and Portuguese– the Spanish, in fact, maintained sugar production in Cuba and Puerto Rico well into the late 1800s (1898, to be exact, although due to internal pressures in Cuba– a failed revolution– slavery ended (kind of) a little but before that, in 1870). Sugar production and the wealthy interests involved is what kept slavery legal throughout much of the Caribbean for as long as it was.
I’ll say this again, just to be clear– mercantilism is an economic theory that puts the needs of the home country over that of the colonies, which often leaves the colonies themselves in a difficult position. First of all, and most obviously, they are constantly in the economic shadow of the home country. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the single-mindedness of Spanish mercantilism gave the colonies a lot of space to grow in their own direction socially and politically. Thus, as Spain was fighting on several fronts to protect the colonies (which was really about protecting an investment), and dealing with the ups and downs of the world economy (Spain traded mostly in silver with the Chinese, for example– an interesting book to check out is Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)), the Spanish colonies in the Americas continued to grow in new ways. They were not breaking away from the Spanish politically– that would have been nearly impossible, because too many of the wealthy and politically powerful people in the colonies remained close with Spain (remember, these were usually Peninsulares). Therefore, the day to day existence for mestiza/os and Indians, for example, was one of trying to find ways to manipulate the system under which they were forced to live– which is the topic of next week’s lecture and reading.