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The Spanish Empire in the Americas
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires, Franciscan missionaries arrived in Mexico in 1524. They traveled to proselytize to Amerinds (indigenous peoples of the Americas), telling them 'Do not believe that we are gods. Fear not, we are men as you are. We are only messengers sent to you by a great lord called the Holy Father, who is the spiritual head of the world, and who is filled with pain and sadness by the state of your souls.'
The Amerinds' defeat and conquest by the Spanish shaped their early cultural interactions. Amerinds believed the conquest illustrated that their own gods were weaker, and that they should worship the stronger gods of the Spanish. This led to the blending of Christian and indigenous traditions, called syncretism, and pushed Amerind societies to accept the new European beliefs as their own.
Spaniards, of course, were not drawn to the New World solely to save native souls. The lure of gold and silver characterized the first economic interactions between Amerinds and the Spanish, who immediately began enslaving natives to work in the silver mines. The mine at Potosi, in present-day Bolivia, became the most profitable silver producer in the world in the 16th and 17th centuries. But massive Amerind deaths by disease made their labor unsustainable, and they were soon replaced by enslaved Africans.
Soon, in areas outside the main urban areas, such as Mexico City, alternate economic relations between Amerinds and the Spanish took shape. Amerinds managed to preserve a self-sufficient way of life, though Spaniards did force villages to provide a certain number of adult laborers during parts of the year, working in mines or on large plantations. In cities and towns, Amerinds played a very minor role, as skilled labor came to be dominated by mestizos (those of mixed European and Amerind descent) and free Africans.
Other Europeans in the New World
As the Spanish claimed most of North and South America, other Europeans competed for access to the New World. For the English, John Cabot explored the coast of modern-day New England, and those who followed in his footsteps interacted with Amerinds, trading furs and food for European goods. The French then got into the act, when in 1603 Samuel de Champlain began exploring the St. Lawrence River in eastern Canada. In 1608 de Champlain founded the city of Quebec in New France (present-day eastern Canada).
French explorers and missionaries took to the lands around the Great Lakes and down the great Mississippi River as well. The French based their New World claims on the fur trade, in which they exchanged European tools and other goods for valuable animal furs, which were used to make fashionable hats and clothes back home. The Dutch wanted a piece of the fur trade too, traveling up the Hudson River and founding New Netherlands (present-day New York) in the 1620s.
A significant cause of tension between Amerinds and Europeans was their differing conceptions of land. In general, most indigenous peoples of North America subscribed to what scholars call animism: the belief that humans live inside, rather than apart from the supernatural. In this belief, the natural world was the spirit world, and spirit power lived in every body of water, every plant, every rock, in the wind and the clouds--essentially in the land itself. So when Amerinds cleared fields to plant or they hunted, they did so with a logic of restraint, in order not to anger or disrupt the spirits that resided in the natural world.
This view often clashed with the Europeans' conceptions of land, one that emphasized a God-given right to make use of 'virgin' lands to plant, grow, and clear without limit. Lands were to be owned and became private property. This was a difficult sentiment for Amerinds to understand. To enforce this conception of land, Europeans increasingly used firearms and violence to protect what they considered their lands from Amerind encroachment, often leading to a cycle of violence, bloodshed, and death.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English all explored and staked claims to various regions of North America. In doing so, they came in contact with Amerinds (indigenous peoples) of many kinds. The Spaniards' economic interest in the region was mining for gold and silver and for some of the others it was the fur trade. The groups and the indigenous belief systems blended. This is described as syncretism. Though early interactions revolved around trade and commerce, they increasingly became violent as differing conceptions of land caused clashes between Amerinds and Europeans. Animism informed Amerind beliefs that spirits resided in the natural world, while Europeans looked to own property and utilize it for plantation agriculture.
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