If this event; Europe’s arrival in the Americas; is interpreted from the perspective of a Westerner in the year 2011, a different reality is apparent. The UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (1974) considers invasion to be an act of aggression, where aggression is “is the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State”. As an example, the actions of the first Europeans who attempted to settle in the Americas, the conquistadores, will be analyzed. These men were certainly armed; in fact, their main advantage in battle (that is, the use of force) against, in the case of Cortés and his troops, the Aztecs was that they possessed firearms (Miller, 2001). War was waged in order to claim their territory, and the conquest ultimately led to Spanish control and suppression of the Aztec people, that is, a removal of their political independence. The Aztec Empire, as one example of an Indigenous civilization, was politically organized by the time the Spanish had arrived; it consisted of an alliance of city states which paid tribute to Tenochtitlan (Merrill and Miró, 1996). There was a rigid social structure which governed Aztec life, with the emperor selected from the nobility comprised of military officials, priests and political leaders; who ruled over the merchant class, the commoners (artisans and farmers) and the slaves (Merrill and Miró, 1996). Furthermore, the Aztecs clearly occupied a definite territory; the Valley of Mexico and its surrounding areas (Merrill and Miró, 1996). With the fulfillment of these two elements; political organization and occupation of a territory; it becomes clear that the Aztec Empire was a state when evaluated against the current Western legal definition of this term (State, N.D.). Therefore, the actions of the conquistadores against the indigenous inhabitants of the Mesoamerica meet the UN’s definition of an act of aggression, or more specifically, an invasion. The European conquests of other sections of the Americas, for example, Pizarro’s defeat of the Inca State in Peru, involved similar circumstances as discussed above (TUOC, 1997). As such, when analyzed from a perspective situated in the West in the year 2011, the European conquest of the Americas was an invasion.
However, this perspective has the advantage of a vast body of scientific knowledge negating racial differences previously constructed as concrete, for instance, many are now aware of the fact that 99.9% of the DNA of each human is identical to that of all others (JS, 2001). In the sixteenth century, there was no such scientific evidence of the similarity of all ‘races’ and as such, minor differences could be manipulated to serve the intentions of, in this case, the invaders. Thus, the obvious question arises: what led to, and what was, the European construction of indigenous peoples in the Americas?
Anibal Quijano (2000) believes that the classification of races began with the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista, which led to the establishment of the ‘certificate of purity of blood’. This, coupled with the invasion of the Americas, led to the Eurocentric concentration of power, allowing the subjects (Europeans) to classify the objects of expulsion, invasion, and domination (Jews, Moors, and Indians) as inferior, thereby legitimizing their exploitation (Quijano, 2000). This also explains the homogenization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; despite the fact that there was huge cultural diversity across the continent, they were all classified as Indians, because they were all objects (Quijano, 2000).
Mignolo (2009), on the other hand, believes that racism was an essential epistemic hierarchy, constructed for the purpose of legitimizing the supremacy of Christianity, and later, the supremacy of Science and Philosophy.
Whatever the relationship of cause and effect, the structure was certainly self-perpetuating; it resulted in the development of an apparently objective, scientific scale of humanity, with Europeans at the pinnacle, and all other ‘races’ ranked according to their likeness to Europeans (Mignolo, 2009). For example, the Aztecs had developed a sophisticated written language which used logograms to convey meaning (Rojas-Lizana, 2011), but because it did not include characters resembling those used in the European languages, they were considered to be illiterate (Mignolo, 2009).The Aztec religion, with its plumed serpent God Quetzalcoatl, was considered as demonic, when compared to Christian symbols, thereby increasing the Europeans’ sense of righteousness in dominating and destroying these people (Mignolo, 2009). Moreover, the Aztec practice of human sacrifice was in total disagreement with the increasingly anthropocentric view of the world adopted by Europeans, thereby justifying their subsequent “sacrifice…to the God of capital in the [next] five hundred years (Giese, 1992:1)”. This is the example of just one indigenous culture; Fernandez de Oveido believed that the autochthonous peoples of the Americas had “become irrational and bestial because of their idolatries, sacrifices and devilish ceremonies (as quoted in Dussel, 1988)”. From this, it is visible that the indigenous ‘objects’ were constructed as intellectually, morally and philosophically inferior to the Europeans. Because of this inferiority, it was impossible for indigenous groups/civilizations to be regarded as ‘states’ in the European sense of the term, meaning that any encroachment upon their territorial integrity or political and religious independence would not be regarded as an invasion, but as a discovery and an enlightenment (Dussel, 1988).
This was a sort of Eurocentric self-righteousness, and had devastating consequences for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. What followed Columbus’ arrival in 1492 was the largest genocide in human history; in 400 years 100 million indigenous people had died, and in the areas which the Europeans had populated, typically 95% of the indigenous population was eliminated (OUP, 1993). The remaining people were enslaved or, later, forced into labour through the Encomienda system, and evangelized, for the material gain of Europe (Proach, 2009); that is, they were exploited.
From all this, it is now apparent that the European invasion of the Americas was necessarily framed as a discovery, in order to justify and execute the subsequent exploitation of the indigenous peoples living on this continent. These people are yet to regain their complete territorial integrity and political independence, although many claim that the situation is improving (Stocks, 2005), with the coming to power of many left-leaning presidents across Latin America, many of whom emphasise social justice (BBC News, 2005).
In a different reality, the monument erected in Santo Domingo in October 1992 would have depicted a European and an indigenous person embracing, and would have been covered in the symbols of all of the indigenous groups of the Americas. Instead of surrounding parklands, there would be housing built for the residents of the shantytowns. This would be symbolic of the events of the past five hundred years; the European arrival and the subsequent intercultural, mutually beneficial encounter between the peoples of Europe and the Americas. The past cannot be changed, but in the future lies the possibility that indigenous people in the Americas will be restored their epistemic rights and their capacity for self-determination.
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