The Penguin History of Latin America, Updated Edition

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Disclaimer: I use "America" and "Americans" in the same way those who come from central and south America do and use it to refer to people from the Americas and not just the United States.

Williamson talks about the "genesis" of Latin America (from a European point of view), starting with Spanish and Italian mariners who lay claim to the land they found (I refrain from using the word 'discovered' as the Americas were already there; as one friend said rolling her eyes to someone, "You're like Christopher Columbus, discovering something that was already there!") The natives of the Americas were largely killed by European diseases and though Spanish barbarity towards the population didn't help, it was European germs which ended up killing large swathes of the population. Animals traditionally carry diseases and the Americas had very few animals native to their lands, unlike in Europe or Africa, and so disease was never carried by these animals and passed onto humans. In addition, the populations were never dense and dense populations- think 17th century London during the plague- are hotbeds for contagious diseases, which spread and kill lots of people, leaving only the more robust and resistant of the population to procreate. These survivors then pass on their genes to their offspring, who are also fit and immune to diseases which killed off all the weaker people who never had a chance to reproduce and spread their genes.

The Spanish and Portuguese Crowns were having trouble finding Indian labour to extract gold, extract silver and harvest sugar as the native population was rapidly diminishing due to European germs and barbarity. Over a century before coming to the New World, the Portuguese had set up a slave trade from west Africa and with few labourers to work the land, they diverted the slave trade to Brazil. Africa, having many native animals (who carried diseases, infected the peoples, had the disease spread around thriving populations and cities and left only the fittest behind) meant that Africans were more immune to diseases carried over by Europeans, the same diseases which ended up decimating the Indian population. The Crown then decided to switch to using African over Indian slaves, with Brazil taking over 40% of the African slaves sent to South America.

The Spaniards had a three-tier system or a "dual republic" with Indians on one side and "peninsulares", that is, people from peninsular Spain on the other hand. This was at the beginning, but as there were many male European conquistadores and settlers from Spain and only native women, the two mixed and a caste system developed, giving privileges depending on your origin and the colour of your skin, leading to a three-tiered system. This gave rise to names like mestizo, castizo, mulatto as people of European, American and African origin mixed. When the Spaniards came over, the Crown was the reigning force (pun intended) and as everyone mixed, kept everyone in check with privileges. There were the peninsulares from Spain, the creoles who were of Spanish origin but were born in the Americas and the native American population. Ostensibly, the Crown's objective was to "Christianise" the native peoples, arguing that they were barbaric, savage peoples. As they said this, they tugged nervously at their shirt collars, knowing how insanely advanced the Mayans, the Aztecs and others were, despite their lack of belief in a European god. Working for wages was a foreign concept for the American populations, as they were used to bartering and trading for items that they wanted and so the Spanish Crown had to force them to work through the encomienda system. Native Americans were thus the only ones in Latin America who were forced to pay tribute to the Crown (through labour) and creoles and peninsulares were exempt from paying tribute, which is probably why the Crown stayed in power so long. Queen Isabella (Crown of Castile, 1492) from the beginning said that she didn't want the native Americans to be enslaved and then she sort of turned her head back, winked and said that the encomienda system would be fine. This was essentially slavery as the wages were paltry and the Americans were forced to work against their own will. Gradually, the Americans got absorbed into Hispanic towns and as their numbers dwindled due to lack of immunity to European disease, barbarity and poor living conditions, they were forced to work for Europeans in order to survive, as much of their society had been decimated.

The Crown was a unifying force but the Latin American states saw themselves as independent, with each nascent nation, having kept a lot from its native culture. You can see this today in Peru, where Quechua is still spoken in some parts and amongst the different cultural events in each country which pay homage not only to Catholicism (a late phenomenon for them) but also incorporates bits of their ancestral religions and beliefs. As more creoles were born and they became a majority, they began to see Spain as the overbearing parent. This is different to Brazil, where Americans were fewer in number and were dispersed around the continent and some were even practising cannibalism. For the Crown of Portugal, cannibalism was proof enough of their savagery so there were never any of the moral conundrums that the Spanish Crown fought over, when they preached Christianity on the one hand but then exhibited very unChristian behaviour on the other. In addition, as the native peoples were spread out and there was no unifying culture (like there was in the Andes for example), it was easier for Portugal to colonise, with all of the settlers there never feeling like they were developing a separate nation from the motherland, but rather just forming a satellite of Portugal. As happened in Spanish Latin America, in Lusophone Latin America, many Americans were killed by European diseases and this forced Portugal to turn to slaves from Africa, which they were importing anyway at the time, but would now redirect to the New World. The North of Brazil used to be the most industrious and developed (Salvador do Bahia) but this then moved to the more southern areas of Sao Paolo and Rio, which had better access to the sea and Europe/ Africa

The borders between Spain and Portugal in the New World (i.e. the border between Portuguese-speaking Brazil and Spanish-speaking everywhere else in South America- bar Suriname and Guyana) were fuzzy, but as Portugal kept exploring they were able to lay claim to more land. "Just a bit further," was their motto and they managed to take 1,500km originally belonging to the Crown of Spain. They settled there and were granted rights to the land in which they'd settled.

The book doesn't mention that there are quite large numbers of Portuguese speakers in Uruguay and Paraguay, but I'd love to know more about this, both countries share borders with Brazil so no surprises there, linguistically. Due to the growing sugar trade, Brazil imported many slaves from Africa, more than any other American country (remember 40% of African slaves went to Brazil), so this affected the demographics of their country which has a large African population compared to neighbours Argentina or Bolivia, (10% of Uruguay is black though). This also meant that as the American population disappeared and more slaves and Portuguese made up the population of Brazil, no one felt any loyalty to previous tribes that had been there and no one was around to lament the injustice of the colonisation, compared to Spanish Latin America where more of the indigenous populations survived (possibly because they were greater in number) and had already formed complex, civilised societies that withstood the ravages of European colonialism and barbarity.


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