Since I did all the work, I thought I might as well include my assignment essay here for anyone who was interested. The question I answered (chosen from three) was "How would you explain the causes and processes of European conquests of the Americas?" So here it is:
As our course opens in the 14th Century, Europe is integrated into the AfroEurasian global network of trade and commerce. Trade routes to/from Europe have ranged over the Silk Route and maritime routes through the Indian Ocean to the Far East. The trade routes have been dominated by Arab merchants and traders and the language of commerce has been Arabic.
Europe has had an enormous appetite for the goods produced from the East, especially China - goods like porcelain, silk and spices. Yet less sophisticated goods from Europe don’t have a reciprocal appeal in the Far East: Europe’s balance of trade with China is in a deep deficit.
The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, tightens the Muslim control of traditional trade routes. The ‘Ottoman Blockade’ creates a strategic imperative for Europe to find an alternate route to the East.
To Europe’s good fortune, new shipping technologies and knowledge enable such an enterprise. Tools like the compass and better ships have emerged, and increasing exploration down the West coast of Africa and Atlantic islands have built a knowledge base of trade winds and Atlantic currents which allow European adventurers to venture further and further into the Atlantic towards the Americas.
When Columbus achieves landfall in the Caribbean, he triumphantly asserts he’s found the coveted alternate path to the East (a belief he maintains to his death, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary), but in fact he’s found something much more valuable for the Europeans.
As the earliest conquerors in the Americas, the Spanish initiated patterns that were to be seen elsewhere. After initial settlements on Hispaniola, the Spaniards moved onto the continent. In their conquest of the Aztecs, they made alliances with tribes, such as the Tlaxacan, who were rivals of the incumbent Aztecs. Native interpreters often joined the invaders, often with the support of natives, such as Dona Maria who assisted Cortez. The conquest of the Axtec capital Teochtitlan may have fallen to 100,000 warriors, but only 600 of them were Spanish.
Disease did more to conquer the Aztecs than Spanish swords. The invasion of European diseases ravaged the population as multiple epidemics took the population from well over 100M to less than 20M. The Spanish conquerors entering Tenochtitlan found 40% of the population dead from disease.
The most important challenge facing the Americans was how to sustain their conquest of the Americas. This was not a slash-and-grab operation to gather booty, but a co-ordinated effort to solidify the conquest and make the colonies work for them, both literally and figuratively. The Europeans turned the Americas into an export economy. Originally they exported agricultural products of moderate value. But soon the economy turned on the mining of silver and the production of sugar.
Sugar transformed the European diet, but silver transformed the world economy. The balance of trade, which had so favoured China pre-1492, had shifted by 1600 in favour of the Europeans. 85% of the world’s silver and 70% of the world’s gold was being produced in the Americas, and the Europeans controlled it.
Both silver mining and sugar plantations required large work forces. Where possible, the Europeans used native Indian labour in their enterprises. Notably, the Portuguese grafted onto the existing Mita labour system in South America, turning it into an indentured labour system. But the effects of the epidemics meant that there simply weren’t enough natives left to man the mining and agribusinesses of the conquerors. There was already an example of how to circumvent this labour shortage in the Canaries and Azores: import African slaves. Slavery became the mainstay of the Americas. In fact, of the 6.5M immigrants to American up to 1776, 5.5M of them were involuntary immigrants, the African slaves. By the end of the slave trade, 10-12M Africans had been shipped to the Americas, a staggering number when you consider the relative populations of those days. 40% went to Brazil, 30% to the Caribbean and less than 5% to North America.
So the European process for solidifying their new colonies was to create an export-led economy, whose riches would line European pockets. Labour shortages were overcome through the use of African slaves.