A New Approach to the Age of Exploration
Clearly, a new perspective on the Age of Exploration is long overdue. Instead of viewing the age with scolding condemnation, we must focus on the deeds of the men who defined the era: Columbus, the risk-taker and frontiersman; Cortés, the brilliant tactician and orator; Pizarro, the indefatigable warrior and bold trickster; and many others of equal daring and willpower.
All were men out of their time, imbued with a more ancient drive for conquest. And yet – all pious Christians, who strove to improve upon the lands and peoples they had attained in battle.
The deeply Christian morality of these men is an element of the debate which I have touched on so far, but one that certainly requires more attention. In my profiles of the conquistadors, I focused primarily on their military prowess, as well as the shrewdness and ambition of their campaigns, because I believe that these are the traits for which they should be primarily remembered. The conquistadors should be regarded as similar figures to Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon – beacons of inspiration and greatness. Men who took great risks and prevailed against impossible odds. Men of faith and will.
But, of course, the debate over the Age of Exploration is often concerned less with this element and more with the well-being of the conquered peoples, largely due to Zinn’s focus on studying history only in order to understand “the plight of the downtrodden.” So, it is worth dedicating a few words to the truth about Spanish colonial rule in the New World.
Today, the lifestyle of conquered natives in Spanish colonies is often reduced to pure oppression, the worst and largest-scale slavery the world has ever seen; the lies about Columbus’ frenzy for chopped-off hands and constant rape are taken as fact, and as representative of all Spanish government in the New World. This reframe was the original version of the 1619 Project, an attempt at polluting the founding mythos of the Americas by claiming it was uniquely and horribly defined by slavery, and that no one may ever be free of that legacy.
But, frankly, this “legacy” is vastly overblown and chronically misused.
The encomienda system in particular is highlighted as a racist endeavor, something unique to European colonies in the Americas and unmatched by any other cruelty in history. In reality, the encomienda system was merely an expansion of Spanish feudal policies in the Old World, and resembled the typical labor systems of the era across the world. In fact, the encomienda system was carried over from Spain, where it was used to reward participants in the Reconquista with land and labor in a feudal arrangement. Thus, as vassals of the Spanish crown, conquered natives lived essentially as peasants did in Europe, or practically anywhere else. They were required to pay tribute to lords and work in specific farming areas. Most direct administration and organization was actually undertaken by native leaders, as encomiendas were typically granted to only one man or family, and it was easiest to simply adapt existing social structures to the new governmental system. Additionally, while encomienda owners were due tribute from natives, they were also required to arrange for education, protection, and the building of infrastructure, in a sort of formalized noblesse oblige. Many today will sneer at this obligation, pretending that it was never fulfilled – but the rapid adoption of the Spanish language and Catholic faith in the region tells a different story.
With this said – abuses by Spaniards absolutely occurred, especially when the Spanish New World was nascent and less regulated. Most commonly, encomienda holders did not properly pay subjects for their labor, and forced natives on long expeditions for pearl fishing. However, these abuses were actively prosecuted by the Spanish crown and by no means the expectation of the system or the norm.
Additionally, these abuses are exaggerated in the historical record due to contemporary propaganda from other European powers, particularly the Protestant nations of northern Europe (which aimed to paint Spanish Catholics as backwards and oppressive on purely religious and political grounds). The sensational claims of Dutch and English writers about Spanish atrocities are repeated uncritically today, as proof of widespread abuses in the New World; this is known in historiography as the Spanish Black Legend, and widely accepted to be sensationalized and untrue.1 For more details on the Black Legend, the writings of historians Philip Wayne Powell and Richard Kagan are instructive.
Historical propaganda aside, it is worth noting that the abuses which did actually happen were addressed with a massive policy change in 1542: the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, signed by Charles V.2 The system established by the New Laws replaced the encomienda hierarchy and abolished true slavery in Spanish holdings – an act which actually gave Amerindian vassals more rights than their Spanish-governed counterparts in Europe.
Additionally, criticism of Spanish rule in the New World often conveniently overlooks what the previous system looked like. The Aztecs demanded hundreds or even thousands of human sacrifices each year from their subjects – on top of requiring tribute labor, slaves, and taxes. The word “extractive” is often applied to European colonies – yet this Aztec system of rule is simply seen as “how things were.” Similarly, Incan society was based on tribute labor and slavery, often far more brutal than anything the worst of the Spanish could have ever undertaken – simply due to the massive size and broad geographic presence of Incan armies, as compared to the relatively few Spaniards in the New World.
Like other slanted historical interpretations, the demonization of New World colonists relies on hypocritical moral standards and cherry-picking. The vast and brutal conquests undertaken by the Aztecs are excused; in fact, their complexity, military strength, and bloodlust are lauded for some odd reason. The fact that Cortés was able to rally so many against Aztec rule is painted as some dishonest scheme, when in reality the Tlaxcala natives despised the Aztecs and simply did not want to live under such a brutal yoke anymore. Similarly, the Inca are described exclusively with glowing praise, as a wonderful and advanced civilization. Dishonest historians ignore their bloody conquests and their total war practices, as well as their practice of Qhapaq Hucha (ritual child sacrifice).3
At the same time, the incursion of the Spanish into this supposedly Edenic paradise is demonized to no end. Their conquests were depraved and dishonest; their policies were the worst the world had ever seen; their religion was inhumane and oppressive. Modern moral rules are applied only to European conquerors – never to those who had conquered the same lands, over and over, for centuries prior. This sense of morality requires ignoring that the Spanish brought incredible infrastructure and technology to the New World; that, via missionaries and schools, they converted and educated millions; and that their system of government was far more restrained and beneficial than the ones they replaced, largely due to their Christianity. It is a weak and hypocritical sense of morality, in which rules exist only for one group, and only for the purpose of condemning their every act and slandering their greatest heroes. It is, at its core, a malicious double standard.
This double standard reveals the true motivations behind this brand of subversion: hatred of winners. Simple resentment held against those who ultimately succeeded. All attacks on the Age of Exploration are derived from this founding impulse of Marxism, manifesting in historical discourse as the reductive dichotomy between evil oppressors and the pure-hearted oppressed.
Like every other element of leftist historical subversion, the demonization of the Age of Exploration is derived from a simple grudge against Western civilization, a grudge held due to backwards politics and simple racial or religious resentment.
If you accept this frame – that everything created or done by Westerners is tainted by a uniquely bad type of sin – you can never draw any inspiration from history. This is an intentional element; the shaming is by design. Everything in leftist historical discourse is aimed at scolding, at beating down, at humiliating the reader for his beliefs or heritage. Like the concept of the “dark ages,” the framing of the Age of Exploration as evil (and America’s founding as some sort of original sin) is simply meant to attach shame to Western ancestry and culture. It is pure propaganda – and factually weak propaganda at that.
But in order to step over this destructive rhetoric, we must have a constructive alternative. We must draw inspiration, even pride from the men who tamed the New World. The Americas were founded not by some comical villains, but by courageous and bold men. The conquistadors should be regarded as similar figures to Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon – beacons of inspiration and greatness. Men who took great risks and prevailed against impossible odds. Men of faith and will. America was discovered and conquered by men who held this Will to Power, a Faustian drive to explore and tame new frontiers.
And, once their military conquests were secured, these men did not merely extract tribute. They built great works of civilization – cities in which millions still live today. Their strong Christian beliefs led them to convert millions, an act which should see their names inscribed in Christian history as heroes.
Additionally, the morality offered by their Christianity led them to a unique type of rule, one which actually reigned in the worst excesses of conquest – which in a different time or place would have occurred as a matter of policy. Instead, the lands they conquered were liberated from the bloody necrocracies which had dominated them for so long, and became Christian cultures of surplus and civilization.
All of these are objectively good and imitable things, and we should stop pretending otherwise.
The spirit of the conquistadors is particularly prescient today, as their example offers a historical precedent for dealing with problems that seem uniquely modern. The frontier spirit exhibited by these men is clearly recognizable in retrospect – but in their early lives, such a frontier seemed unreachable, or at least fading in viability.
Today, young men in particular lament the lack of frontiers, of civilizational edges where they can test themselves. This is often seen as a historical first – but Cortés and Pizarro faced exactly the same struggle. Their fathers had both made their mark on the world in frantic battles against the Moors and campaigns in Italy, both prospects which would not be available to their sons. They also could not look forward to any notable inheritance: Cortés’ family had almost nothing to give, and Pizarro would never inherit his father’s property due to his illegitimacy. Cortés was pushed into an unwanted legal career, and Pizarro’s future looked as if it would never hold anything higher than swineherding.
For these men and thousands like them, all of this changed with the first whispers of Columbus’ discovery across the Atlantic. With the discovery of the New World, the European concept of the world physically changed: suddenly becoming vaster, wilder, more enticing. In 1493, young men learned of an unknown and wild world just a month away by sail; a land not yet tamed, not yet owned. Ambitious young men clamored for the chance to make the voyage; to struggle against whatever hardship may come on a true frontier.
And they succeeded in grand fashion. Cortés’ rebuttal to Charles V, of having claimed “more provinces than your ancestors left you cities,” captures well the sheer scale of their enterprise.
The spirit which animated these men still exists today, but it languishes in individuals who lack such a frontier. Nietzsche identified the problem over a century ago: just as young men are ready to be “sent into the desert” is precisely when they are shackled by quagmirical bureaucracies – their desire for a frontier subverted into domesticity, complexity, control.4 Since then, the frontier has only further dwindled, and today the spirit of conquest and exploration seems unreachable.
But is this not the same situation that faced Cortés, Pizarro, De Soto, and Balboa? Until 1493, the entire world – as far as they knew – was already discovered and owned. Their opportunities seemed limited, and the concept of proving themselves on a frontier probably looked laughable. Their future seemed to lay in bureaucracy or simple toil. But Columbus’ discovery turned this notion on its head, changing the very shape of the world in the European (and particularly Spanish) mind. Suddenly, the tamed world of Iberia was small and inconsequential compared to the vast lands that lay across the Atlantic.
When activists smear the “gold lust” of the conquistadors, it is because they cannot understand this innate drive to venture into unknown worlds. To dare, to conquer.
The only question that remains is this: what frontier will be discovered next? Where, or rather how, will the Pizarros of the twenty-first century test themselves beyond the edge of managerial society? Is the next frontier perhaps organizational, located in the less-regulated worlds of decentralization, cryptocurrency, AI? Or will there be a physical frontier in our lifetimes, some aspect of earth (or beyond) to tame and conquer?
Who will be our Columbus – or has he already come?
121. Jones, Sam. “Spain Fights to Dispel Legend of Inquisition and Imperial Atrocities.” The Guardian, 29 April 2018.
222. “New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, 1542.” North Carolina State University College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Web.
323. Cockrell, Brian. “Capac Hucha as an Incan Assemblage.” Art of the Ancient Americas, Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 2017.
424. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1881). Dawn of Day. 178.