Colonies in Central & South America

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

European expansion in Central and South America involved exploitation for economic growth that had devastating consequences on native societies such as the Inca and the Aztecs. Explore the ruthless economic pursuits and religious justifications of the Spanish and Portuguese in establishing colonies in the New World. Updated: 11/03/2021


In 1491, the Inca and the Aztec maintained control of large regions in Central and South America, while other smaller groups maintained control over the rest of the region. While the two larger empires were certainly not egalitarian, even the status of sacrificial slaves for the Aztec was respected and honored. After all, these were the people who were going to be killed in order to keep the sun shining. However, after the European arrival in the New World, all that changed. For starters, disease swept through every inch of society, killing off between 90% and 95% of the whole native population. Estimates are sketchy at best, but that's something like 25 million to 100 million people dead from diseases, like mumps and chickenpox.

It wasn't just disease, though. With the arrivals of the Spanish and Portuguese, new societal masters were now present. At the very top were those Europeans who had arrived from the Iberian Peninsula. Below them were American-born Europeans, and from there social standing was dependent on a dizzying array of castes that accounted for one's percentage of European, American, or African ancestry. At the very bottom were those unfortunate souls who managed to survive the initial onslaughts of disease. For them, already at the bottom of the social system, the best that could be hoped for was an easy task to do while acting as forced labor. With Native Americans working mainly in the mines, producing vast amounts of silver from places like Potosi in Peru, and Africans working on sugar plantations in Brazil and throughout the Caribbean, there was no shortage of work to be done. This system of forced work on large plantations was called the hacienda system, named after the haciendas, or plantations.

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Between the mines and the haciendas, it is little wonder that the economic output of the New World was booming. The real boom happened when Magellan's expedition provided a sea route around the world in the 1520s. This provided the footwork for connecting the world into one giant economy. Spain mined enough silver to cause runaway inflation in China from the sheer amount of silks being purchased, while sugar was transformed from a treat for the super wealthy to something that members of the middle class would possess in their cupboards. However, this economic growth benefitted only those people at the very top of society. Forced laborers in mines or at the haciendas saw little benefit from their work. In fact, it was considered more cost efficient to simply buy new workers after their predecessors had died than actually care for their well-being in the first place.

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