The Iberian penetration in Africa intensified in the fifteenth century, when competition with the Genoese and the Venetians began.
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Interestingly, at the end of the fifteenth century Seville had forty-four mercantile firms from Genoa, twenty from Florence, ten from Venice, and seven from Portugal, plus some English and Catalan enterprises. The situation in Lisbon was not much different, though that city was better connected with the merchants of Antwerp, Bruges, and London than Seville was.
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The Iberian expansion in Africa and later in the Americas was also an extension of Spanish and Portuguese activity in the Mediterranean, which was visible in their trading stations scattered along the African coast. Soon they began expeditions to bring slaves from Africa as well.
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In a chronicler described the African slaves disembarking in Lisbon: many were white, he wrote, others mulatto, and still others "black like Ethiopians. The Castilians also adopted this logic, and many ships holding royal licenses competed with the Portuguese, even attacking their vessels and their trading stations. The Portuguese retaliated, for example, with their constant forays on the Castilian-held Canary Islands. The Portuguese and Castilian expansion into the Atlantic also resulted in the gradual colonization of the Azores and Madeira by the Portuguese and the conquest and settlement of the Canary Islands by the Spaniards.
Although the Portuguese king took over deserted islands, the Castilians first colonized the Canaries by establishing seigniories on the islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and Hierro, many of whose natives had been captured and sold into slavery in the early fifteenth century. The definitive conquest of the Canaries especially the rich, densely populated islands of Gran Canaria, La Palma, and Tenerife occurred between and and was initially managed by the crown; later, it became a jointly financed enterprise of traders and conquistadors, as would likewise be the case for the Americas.
Some Genoese traders who took part in the Canarian venture would also finance Christopher Columbus's trips. The conquest of the Canaries, in which the conquistadors exploited to their benefit the rivalries of the local chieftains, was practically contemporaneous with the discovery of the New World, thus underscoring the continuity of these forms of expansion.
By the time Columbus died in , Europe had already felt the first winds of change blowing in from the New World, even before the new continent was named America. Notwithstanding Columbus's self-interested stubbornness, most Europeans considered these new lands the new Azores, and the rest believed they were the antipodes. Although intensive exploration of the Caribbean and the first contacts with terra firma took place between and , only in , when the Spaniards came upon the Aztec Empire the Mexica Triple Alliance , would a new phase of the invasion begin. In the twenty years between Columbus's discovery of the lands known as "islands and terra firma of the ocean sea" and the first invasion of Mexico, the Spaniards had founded numerous settlements in the Caribbean.
This document was a contract similar to those signed between the monarch and a captain during the centuries of reconquest, whereby the captain was to reconquer and repopulate the lands held by the Moors in exchange for rewards and titles of nobility.
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The Capitulations of Santa Fe granted Columbus and his descendants the title of viceroy and admiral of Castile and specified that the monarchs and Columbus would share equally the revenue from the commercial and economic exploitation of the new territories. However, the new lands would become the monarchs' personal property. Reports of gold on Columbus's first trip led to the establishment of a business on the island of Santo Domingo Hispaniola managed directly by Columbus. Everyone arriving from Castile was put to work under his authority, exchanging European goods for the gold extracted by the natives.
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The monopoly held by the crown and Columbus turned out to be poor business, however, because tribal life on Santo Domingo and the other Caribbean islands was organized around subsistence farming of cassava, sweet potato, yucca, maize, beans, and pumpkin. The Indians collected whatever alluvial gold there was purely for religious and ornamental purposes, and even though the Spaniards coveted it, it continued to be the rarest of goods.
The royal-Columbian enterprise failed to grow, and the king considered closing it. The rebellion signaled the real beginning of the invasion of the Americas. Having revoked the monopoly in , the crown began to grant licenses to individuals and companies for trading both between Spain and the Antilles and within the Antilles territory. As a result royal officials made their first appearance in the Antilles.
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The new trade satisfied both the Spanish settlers and the monarchy, which sought to block Portugal's expansion and enforce the jointly signed treaty that allocated maritime space. In fact, the Treaty of Tordesillas reprised the contents of a papal bull that assigned to the Catholic king the lands discovered by Columbus, while revising the demarcation line to leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. In this new phase the Spanish king had to find a way to reconcile conflicting interests-those of the settlers and those of religion outlined in the papal bull, which called for the evangelization of the natives-while still enforcing his own sovereignty over that part of the world.
The Spanish monarchy had by then set out on a path that would lead, under Charles V, to a composite monarchy with universal or imperial characteristics in which political and ethical principles coexisted in the link between throne and altar. The still unexplored American regions took on a new significance in the king's imagination and would occupy an important place in the crown's political and religious plans for more than two centuries, in spite of the changes that occurred during that time.
The new directions that the Spanish monarchy embraced as it was about to become the first great modern power were difficult to implement. Once the era of Columbus was over, the monarchy granted several licenses to Castilians for trading with the Antilles natives, but the low quality of alluvial gold, the difficulty in fishing for pearls, and the small agricultural surplus offered for barter ultimately transformed the merchant companies into veritable armed bands that raided Indian villages and captured the natives for use as slaves.
These armed merchant bands were essentially conquest enterprises, whose partners and financial backers included royal officials, churchmen, and the stewards of the great Castilian and European mercantile firms that had their offices in Seville. In time the Iberian invasion of the Antilles led to frequent uprisings, the Indians having tired of the conquistadors' treachery. Obsessed with gold and pearls, the Spaniards armed themselves with swords, spears, and crossbows and went about with vicious dogs as escorts.
Sixteenth-century Europe learned about the horrors of the invasion through the Milanese Gerolamo Benzoni; his narrative, enhanced by Theodore de Bry's vivid illustrations, was the first book to disseminate anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic sentiment in Europe. Nevertheless, the armed bands in the Antilles were, in effect, a vanguard. They built the first Spanish settlements by using their own weapons and goods for barter.
More than just a commercial enterprise, they evolved into a political organization whose members had to obey the oldest or most respected of them, the caudillo leader. When the settlements became stable and turned into cities, these bands took on an institutional character, forming muncipalities, each of which had its own government, the cabildo, or municipal council.
With this transformation the bands became truly conquest enterprises-that is, sociopolitical organizations-rather than mere commercial ventures. The forays of these armed merchant bands, however, soon alarmed both the crown and the Church. Concern grew after the s rebellion of the Castilian cities, which was harshly quelled by Charles V, who feared that the Castilians overseas might likewise aspire to independence. For its part, the Church pressed the monarchy to defend the Indian populations, which had already been decimated in the Antilles. To counteract the breakaway tendencies of the expeditions of conquest, the crown installed an audiencia in Santo Domingo.
This was the first governmental and juridical body in the New World. Patterned after the Castilian audiencias, it consisted of a council of judges appointed by the king and charged with ruling the territory and administering justice. The position of royal commissioner adelantado and alcalde mayor was discontinued, although without putting an end to the expeditions of conquest. In the meantime sugar production began in the Antilles, and sugarcane soon would become the leading Caribbean crop for several centuries. Merchant shipping and sugar production enabled the first American treasure to arrive in Spain: between and , some , ducats a year were unloaded in Seville, of which 70 percent went to the merchants.
The remaining 30 percent were taxes collected in the New World. The effort to strengthen the king's authority in America intensified the activity of the Church, especially the religious orders, which made public pronouncements in favor of the Indians. As a result of Church pressure the Spanish enacted the first laws protecting the natives, known as the Laws of Burgos, in Thus, alongside the economic and social interests, spiritual interests began to take shape, resulting in the increased presence and influence of royal dignitaries and churchmen.
Despite these political correctives, the Spanish invasion of the Antilles took a heavy toll. The population of the island of Santo Domingo shrank from 3. The Brazilian regions were similarly affected, as the Portuguese crown tried to assert its sovereignty in Brazil in keeping with the Treaty of Tordesillas. To reach its goal without any outlay of resources, Portugal granted an exclusive license to Fernando Noronha's merchant company to cut and ship the trunks of the tree known as brazilwood, which was used to produce a red dye.
As had been the case for the Columbian enterprise and for African trade, the Noronha monopoly installed trading stations where the precious trunks harvested by native tribes were bartered for Portuguese and European goods. But here too the monopoly system soon grew rife with problems, not because of disagreements between the partners and the Portuguese employees but because of competition from the French, who were also interested in the precious wood. The arrival of the French in the New World was the first in a long series of infiltrations by European countries that refused to recognize the division of the New World between Portugal and Spain.
The clashes between the French and the Portuguese helped sharpen intertribal conflicts as tribes would ally with one or the other.
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Most likely, the situation exacerbated human sacrifice practices and promoted the intertribal trade of Amerindian slaves, which was previously unknown. The trading between invaders and natives led to the first mixed-race unions and the birth of the mameluco the Portuguese equivalent to the Spanish mestizo , which contemporary Brazilian nationalism identifies as the prototype of the Brazilian. The European invasion of Brazil was very bloody as well: about 2.
The devastation of the native populations caused by the spread of European epidemics, tribal wars, and slavery prevented the rise of a Portuguese-American society, as had been the case in the Antilles for Spanish-American society. In the sixteenth century the Spanish monarchy born of the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon accelerated its imperial designs. With the ascent of Charles V to the throne in , an empire comprising a plurality of realms, with laws and institutions founded on widely dissimilar cultural and political traditions, came into being.
Charles V's empire did not destroy the many cultures within it: the innovation was that he allowed them to live side by side, united under a common system of symbols.
Elements of this system included the Catholic faith, a court that could assure the subjects' loyalty to the crown, and an administration that could convey to the emperor the needs of each different realm. The new empire was a mosaic with tiles of different shapes. Although these pieces did not fit together perfectly, the whole projected an image of unity-a unity that the Spanish monarchy would not actually achieve, or even seek, before the eighteenth century. The Portuguese monarchy projected the same image.
In both cases, the monarch was seen not as the king of Spain or Portugal but rather as the ruler of a number of European and American kingdoms.
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The element that brought unity to both Iberian monarchies was thus the figure of the king as a symbol of justice and a defender of the faith-he who metes out justice, rewards the good, punishes the evildoers, and enforces respect for the rights and duties of each subject as dictated by social rank. This was the ideal of good government that the empire guaranteed to all its dominions.
The imperial organization that resulted from this concept was established in the various territorial councils. In the early sixteenth century there were two, for Castile and Aragon; the Council of the Indies was formed in ; the one for Italy in ; the Portuguese one in , when the two crowns were joined as the Iberian Union; and the Flemish one in Before the two crowns were joined, the Portuguese Empire had two territorial councils, for Portugal and the Indies; the latter's autonomy would be preserved even after Spain and Portugal came under one monarch.