Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 — but the story of European “discovery” and subsequent conquest of the Americas is much more complex than a children’s nursery rhyme can convey. Although America today is seen as the land of the free and the brave, one must remember that the Americas were free and brave long before the clash of the “Old” and “New” worlds. Here are seven facts about the conquest of the Americas:

  1. One of the most famous encounters between the “New” and “Old World” occurred in 1533, when the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, led 168 of his men into the highlands of Peru to seize the Inca Empire. Pizarro captured and then ransomed the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, forcing the Incas to surrender.
  2. Although war and conquest do account for a large number of indigenous peoples’ deaths during the conquest of the Americas, scholars estimate that thousands more died from exposure to diseases brought over by Europeans for which the indigenous population had not had the chance to develop antibodies or immunity. Such diseases included smallpox, influenza and malaria.
  3. Scientists and experts are at odds with each other over the question of whether or not horses are an indigenous American species. Common knowledge holds that horses were not present in North America until the mid-1500s when Christopher Columbus and the numerous Spanish voyages of conquest introduced them to the continent. But more recent research places ancient horses in North America as recent at 7600 BCE. Whatever the correct answer, one cannot deny that having horses gave the Europeans a significant advantage.
  4. People often credit Christopher Columbus with “discovering” America, but more recent scholarship says otherwise. In actuality, a band of Viking explorers led by Leif Eriksson reached what is now Newfoundland as early as 500 years before Columbus ever set foot in America.
  5. Like Pizarro, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez reached present-day Mexico in 1519 and encountered the indigenous Aztec people. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, welcomed Cortez and his men into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Cortez, however, captured Montezuma and forced the Aztecs to surrender to him, further solidifying the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
  6. It goes without saying that wherever the European conquerors landed, there was a devastating blow to the indigenous population there. When Columbus met the Taino Indians on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic), the indigenous population fell from 600,000 to 60,000 in only twenty years. In Mexico, the indigenous population fell from 25 million to one million in just a hundred years.
  7. The conquest of the Americas didn’t stop with the Spanish conquest, however. After settling in North America, the Europeans who stayed there eventually broke off with Europe and formed the United States and pushed ever westward following the ideals of “Manifest Destiny.” Professor Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado estimates that the indigenous population of North America fell from 12 million in 1500 to 237,000 in 1900. Although the “American Indian Wars” definitely contributed to this significant drop, experts agree that the biggest blow to the population was in the form of economic and social upheaval.

The meeting of two worlds came with both good and bad consequences. It is important to remember the consequences of the conquest of the Americas in order to move forward positively as a nation. With hope, future discoveries and explorations will lead to improved, rather than strained, relations.

Mary Grace Costa

Photo: Flickr