The Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, 16th century

The origins of the modernization of Northwestern Europe

     In my last commentary, I put forth the phrase “the dialectic of domination and development” to refer to the historic tendency for economic and cultural development to be based on a foundation of conquest and exploitation.  This tendency is well illustrated by the sixteenth century modernization of agriculture and expansion of craft industry in Northwestern Europe, dynamics that were made possible by the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the peoples and empires of the region today known as Latin America.  As a manifestation of the “colonial denial” (see “We must overcome the colonial denial: Wallerstein versus the woke,” May 14, 2021), modern Western scholarship has tended to explain the transformations of Northwestern Europe as due to technological innovations and cultural changes.  But from a world-systems perspective, emerging international relations become visible, enabling us to see the role of the Spanish conquest of America as a fundamental causal factor in the transformations of Northwestern Europe.

     The sixteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America was made possible by several factors, mostly environmental.  The Spanish and Portuguese had horses, giving them a decisive military advantage; whereas in America, most large mammals were extinct from human overhunting, as a result of the relatively late arrival of human populations that had developed advanced hunting techniques.  The Iberian conquerors had steel swords and steel armor, but iron had not been discovered in America.  Spain had a centralized political structure, which had been forged by an alliance of the monarchy and the merchants, who had a common interest in reducing the power of the feudal lords.  In contrast, the Aztec and Inca empires were in a process of disintegration at the time of the conflict with the Spanish, in accordance with the general historical pattern of the rise and fall of empires.  Moreover, there was the rapid and devastating spread of diseases brought by the Europeans, against which the indigenous populations had not developed immunity, because of their relative isolation from the extensive population migrations of Africa and Eurasia.

      In the wake of the conquest, the emphasis was on the acquisition of gold and silver, using a system of forced labor that the Spanish conquerors called the encomienda.  The encomienda was a system in which the holder, the encomendero, was granted the right to indigenous labor by the crown.  The encomendero was formally obligated to provide for the basic needs of the indigenous laborers, but in practice it was a brutal system of forced labor.  In Cuba, for example, immediately following the Spanish conquest in 1511 and 1512, indigenous laborers were forced to extract gold nuggets from riverbed sand, toiling from dawn to dusk, and sleeping on the ground at their worksites by night.  The exploitation of the gold ended in 1542, with the exhaustion of the gold and the near total extermination of the indigenous population, as a result of the harsh conditions of labor, the effects of disease, and the disruption of indigenous systems of production.  Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish Catholic priest assigned to Cuba, observed and recorded the brutality, and appealed to Church and Crown on behalf of the indigenous people; the U.S. Marxist historian Philip Foner published details of de las Casas’ description in 1962, at the beginning of his book on Cuba.

      As a result of the Spanish conquest of Latin America and the imposition of forced labor on the indigenous populations, the Spanish acquired large quantities of gold and silver, which were transported to Spain by fleets of ships under armed guard.  The gold and silver were used to maintain the Spanish military as well as other state expenditures, including the salaries of middle-class state bureaucrats, and to support a lavish lifestyle of the aristocracy.  However, the gold and silver did not contribute to the modernization of the Spanish economy.  Rather than modernizing its system of production to respond to the increased demand caused by the gold and silver, Spain purchased textiles and other manufactured goods from Northwestern Europe. 

     The Spanish demand for manufactured goods had a significant structural impact on the economies of Northwestern Europe.  It led to expansion of craft manufacturing in the towns, which created a higher demand for craft labor, wool, and food.  This demand was met through the commercialization and centralization of agriculture; the conversion of agricultural lands to the pasturing of sheep and cattle; and the importation of grains from Eastern Europe.

     First, the commercialization of agriculture.  The landholders of Northwestern Europe ended feudal obligations, including the obligation of serfs to supply agricultural products to the landholder, and adopted instead an obligation to pay rent in currency for the use of the land.  This turned the agricultural laborers into the direct sellers of their products and induced them to look for more efficient forms of production.

      Secondly, the consolidation of land.  In the new situation of commercialized agriculture, the great majority of peasants with smallholdings were unable to make their enterprises commercially viable, and they were forced to abandon the land.  But those peasants with relatively larger plots of land were able to improve their financial situation, often acquiring access to land being abandoned by peasants with smaller plots, creating a consolidation of land.  Some of these more successful peasants were able to acquire ownership of land from their landholders, becoming independent producers.  So there emerged a new class of middle-class agricultural producers, a "yeoman" class, who were both owners and renters on increasingly larger units of land and who were developing increasingly efficient techniques of production. 

     Thirdly, many landholders converted agricultural lands to pasture, both cattle and sheep.  The high prices of meat and wool made the conversion to pasture attractive economically, and as a result, the amount of land devoted to pasture went from twenty-five to seventy-five percent.  In addition, inasmuch as much less labor is necessary for tending to cattle and sheep than for agricultural production, the conversion to pasture displaced many peasants from the land. There emerged a large class of landless peasants who migrated to towns and constituted surplus labor for the expanding craft manufacturing.  Particularly important here was textile manufacturing.  Manufactured cloth became England's most important export in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

      Because of the extensive conversion of agricultural land to pasture, these transformations led to a decline in food production in Northwestern Europe, precisely at a time when the expansion of craft manufacturing was creating a higher demand for food.  This new demand for food was satisfied by the importation of grains from another region, namely, Eastern Europe.  The Eastern European landowning class, responding to the emergence of a market demand in Western Europe for grains, timber, and wool, imposed demands on peasants for the production of these raw materials.  A new form of forced labor, which Wallerstein calls "coerced cash crop labor," and others have called a “second serfdom,” was imposed on the peasantry by the Eastern European landholding class. 

     Thus, a world-economy came into being during the sixteenth century, with a geographical division of labor.  Northwestern Europe was converted into the core zone of the new world-economy, expanding its craft manufacturing and modernizing its agriculture, importing necessary raw materials from peripheral zones, and exporting manufactured goods to semi-peripheral Spain and Portugal.  Latin America and Eastern Europe were converted into peripheral zones that exported raw materials to Western Europe, using one of three forms of forced labor.  (1) The encomienda was developed in Latin America, in which forced indigenous labor produced gold and silver bullion as well as cattle products (beef and leather) that were exported to Western Europe.  (2) In Eastern Europe, the landholding class imposed “coerced cash crop labor” for the production and exportation to Western Europe of grains, timber, and wool.  (3) African slaves in America, particularly in the West Indies and Brazil, produced sugar that was exported to Western Europe.  The African slave production of sugar was not central to the initial transformations, but it became increasingly important as the world-economy continued to develop. 

     Viewing Western European development in the context of the emergence of a new world-economy, we can see that the changes in Northwestern Europe in the sixteenth century were occurring because of the economic relations between Northwestern Europe and Eastern Europe and between Northwestern Europe and (indirectly) Hispanic America.  Northwestern Europe was transforming itself into a core region in an emerging world-economy in which Hispanic America and Eastern Europe were functioning as peripheral regions.  This world-economy was built on a foundation of American gold and silver, acquired through the Iberian conquest of vast regions of the Americas.  The key to the economic development of Northwestern Europe is not primarily its technological or cultural innovations but its capacity to insert itself into the emerging world-economy, assuming a function that enabled it to benefit from the conquest and exploitation of the indigenous empires and peoples of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America.

     The modern world-economy would develop and expand over the next four centuries and would become global in scope.  During its expansion and development, the modern world-economy would continue to have a fundamental characteristic: the economic development of the core would be related to and made possible by the superexploitation and the underdevelopment of the periphery, developed on a foundation of conquest of the peripheral zones.  The capitalist world-economy is the modern manifestation of the historic dialectic of domination and development.

      I also want to point out another characteristic that is beginning to emerge as the story of the modern-world system unfolds.  Namely, African slavery in the Americas was one manifestation of a global process of forced labor in one form or another, in which nearly all of humanity has been victimized in one form or another, in one place or another, and which has included the ancestors of persons who today are defined as “white.”  I will try to address this delicate issue in future commentaries, not in order to justify African slavery in the Americas, but with the hope that we can understand the full scope and depth of the human tendency toward development through conquest, a necessary precondition for our common emancipation from it.

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Preface - April 6, 2021


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