Chapter Ten: The End of Natural Law Societies
In 1502, the seventeen-year-old Bartolomé de las Casas arrived on the island that Christopher Columbus called ‘Hispaniola,’ or ‘New Spain.’ Las Casas’ father was a merchant coming to take advantage of trading opportunities there. Bartolomé de las Casas began to write a journal of his time in the new world; this journal eventually became one of the most comprehensive books on events that took place in the land the Spanish called ‘the Indies’ that we have.
The book was not published until 1552. In its opening lines, he describes his first impressions of the lands of the western hemisphere as of 1502:
THE INDIES were discovered in the year one thousand four hundred and ninety-two. In the following year a great many Spaniards went there with the intention of settling the land. Thus, forty-nine years have passed since the first settlers penetrated the land, the first so-claimed being the large and most happy isle called Hispaniola which is six hundred leagues in circumference. Around it in all directions are many other islands, some very big, others very small, and all of them were, as we saw with our own eyes, densely populated with native peoples called ‘Indians.’
This large island was perhaps the most densely populated place in the world.
There must be close to two hundred leagues of land on this island, and the seacoast has been explored for more than ten thousand leagues, and each day more of it is being explored. And all the land so far discovered is a beehive of people; it is as though God had crowded into these lands the great majority of mankind.
And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve. They are by nature the most humble, patient, and peaceable, holding no grudges, free from embroilments, neither excitable nor quarrelsome. These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world. They are also poor people, for they not only possess little but have no desire to possess worldly goods. For this reason they are not arrogant, embittered, or greedy.
For the rest of his life—the next 59 years after his arrival in 1502—las Casas worked on a book called ‘La Historia De Las Indies.’ He ended up with an enormous book, a five volume set with 260 chapters and more than 2,600 pages. His introduction to this grand work explains why he wrote it:
The ultimate cause for writing this work was to gain knowledge of all the many peoples of this vast new world. They had been defamed by persons who feared neither God nor the charge, so grievous before divine judgment, of defaming men and causing them to lose esteem and honor.
It has been written that these peoples of the Indies, lacking ordered nations and structured governments, did not have the power of reason to govern themselves. In order to demonstrate the truth, which is the opposite, this book brings together and compiles natural, special and accidental causes which are specified below. Not only have the new-world natives shown themselves to be very wise peoples and possessed of lively and marked understanding, prudently governing and providing for their people and making them prosper in justice; but they have equaled many diverse nations of the world, past and present, that have been praised for their governance, politics and customs; and exceed by no small measure the wisest of all these, such as the Greeks and Romans. This advantage and superiority, along with everything said above, will appear quite clearly when the new-world natives are compared with Europeans.
This history has been written with the aforesaid aim in mind by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, a monk of the Dominican Order and bishop of Chiapa, who promises before the divine word that everything said and referred to is the truth, and that nothing of an untruthful nature appears to the best of his knowledge.
Las Casas’ book includes enormous quantity of evidence from official documents, from the personal and professional papers of prominent people of the time, from eye-witness accounts by various respected people, and from things Las Casas himself saw with his own eyes. At the end of the book, he summarizes its points this way:
I have declared and demonstrated openly and concluded, from chapter 22 to the end of this whole book, that all people of these Indies are human. They had their towns, villages and cities, most fully and abundantly provided for. With a few exceptions in varying degrees they lacked nothing, and some were endowed in full perfection for political and social life and for attaining and enjoying that civic happiness which in this world any good, rational, well provided and happy society wishes to have and enjoy; for all are by nature of very subtle, lively, clear and most capable understanding.
Las Casas’ books cast the eastern hemisphere people who had come to the western hemisphere in a very bad light. They described the worst kinds of atrocities committed against the people that culminated in genocide. After the conquerors were in power, they started to consider their image and the way they wanted to be portrayed to future generations. They didn’t want future generations to see them as Las Casas and had described them. They commissioned authors to write books that portrayed them as gentile, kind, altruistic, and benevolent governors and custodians, bringing individuals they called ‘savages’ enlightenment and truth. The new books portrayed the original inhabitants as degenerate beasts, incapable of anything except tearing each other to pieces with whatever tools they could gather, with no social order or skills whatever.
The leaders decided which books people would be able to read, and which would not be available. They commissioned books that depicted them as they wanted to be depicted, and banned the rest. In 1559 the Spanish government in Peru created an index called the and established an institution called ‘ to track down and punish people found in possession of such books.
The official list of prohibited books started out explaining its goals:
The Holy Church has through many centuries carried out immense persecutions, and the number of heroes who sealed the Christian faith with their blood, were multiplied. Today we face a struggle which is lead by the Devil himself; it is founded on something both insincere and destructive; Malicious publications. No other danger is greater, it threatens the faith and exercise of custom and integrity, therefore the Holy Church will increasingly point this out to the Christians, in that way enabling them to retreat before this threat.
The Holy Church, which was appointed by God himself, could not proceed otherwise. It represents an infallible master who securely leads his believers. Thus, the Church is equipped with all necessary and useful means to prevent the infection of the herd of Jesus, by the erroneous and corrupt which will show itself irrespective of the mask it hides behind. Consequently The Holy Church has the duty, and hence the right, to pursue this aim.
Irreligious and immoral books are written in a seductive manner, often with themes which deal with fleshly passion, or themes that deceive the pride of the soul. These books are carefully written to make an impression and aim at gaining ground in both the heart and mind of the incautious reader. No matter how much true literary and scientific values a book can possess, it cannot legitimate the distribution which opposes the religion and good custom. On the contrary, the more subtle and seductive the evil is, the more it necessitates stronger and more efficient suppression of it.
These prohibited books were written to make an impression, and all this have been exposed to remove any doubt occurring among the Catholic believers. This explanation is intended for the devoted, good sons, who readily listen to the words of the good Shepherd Jesus, and to his representative on earth; the Pope. In short, this is intended for those who scrupulously comply with the rules, possibly with some exceptions arising from extreme conditions, where the Church grant exemptions for those who dissociate themselves from reading or owning the books which have been prohibited by the Holy Church. ( to source.)
The actual history books went on this list. Many were totally destroyed and no longer exist. However, some were preserved and collectors and archivists are now scanning them onto the internet. As a result, the information they contained is now available, in some cases for the first time in many centuries.
What actually happened?
We can now begin to reconstruct actual events to determine the real history of the interaction between people from the eastern hemisphere and people from the western hemisphere, starting in 1492. I think it helps to start with a little bit of logic:
How Did the Western Hemisphere People Live?
The people in the western hemisphere did lived much differently than the people in the eastern hemisphere.
We can trace these differences to the foundational beliefs that supported their modes of existence, or societies. the western hemisphere people raised their children to believe that humans are residents of the planet, but we are not its owners. They raised children to believe that nature is the source of all good things and that they had to respect and protect nature for it to continue to provide these things.
The people who had come to these lands when humans first arrived had clearly believed that humans had to live in some kind of harmony with nature if they were to survive. They believed that there were laws of nature that superceded all other laws. For example, I found many quotes by western hemisphere native people that mirrored the message of this one, from Chief Seattle:
Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste. When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by the talking wires, where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift and the hunt?
This is the end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last red man has vanished from the earth, and the memory is only the shadow of a cloud passing over the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people, for they love this earth as the newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. If you come to own and believe you own this land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your memory the way the land is as you take it. And with all your strength, with all your might, and with all your heart – preserve it for your children, and love it as God loves us all. One thing we know – our God is the same. This earth is precious to him. Even the white man cannot escape the common destiny.
These people believed in the primacy of the laws of nature. They taught these beliefs to their children. They wanted their people to conform to these beliefs so they set up rules and social conventions that required and encouraged acting in accordance with the principles of natural law. They organized their ‘modes of existence’ or ‘societies’ so that people who respected the beliefs that they taught and lived accordingly would share in the bounty the land provided. People who respected natural laws would be able to live well; this created incentives to respect the natural laws.
If people don’t believe planets can be owned, in whole or in part, they won’t believe it is appropriate to draw imaginary lines on the ground and then use force to prevent people without certain linage from benefiting from the existence of parts of the world inside of the lines. They didn’t have anything that would correspond to ‘sovereignty nations’ or ‘sovereignty states’ as we use these terms today.
The societies that you and I were born into are built around the belief that groups of people can get together and call themselves by certain names, like ‘nations,’ and acting as nations, can claim sovereign or unlimited rights over parts of planets. These societies accept that these ‘nations’ are real entities with real rights, and all people are bound to have certain emotions (love and respect, for example) for their ‘nations,’ and be willing to fight, kill, and mutilate others, destroy whatever must be destroyed, and submit gladly to death, if these things advance the interests of their ‘nations.’ The largest single industry in the societies you and I were born into is the death industry, with about a fifth of everything produced during times called ‘peace’ going to the tools of mass murder, and up to a half of everything produced used for murder during the times called ‘war.’ This reality is a key part of the societies we were born into and everything that happens in these societies is affected in some way by this reality.
This mode of thought was completely absent from the societies of the western hemisphere natives. It was not a part of their existence.
The societies we were born into also accept the reality of environmental destruction: If you own a part of the world, it exists for your pleasure and benefit. If you want to destroy it, you have the absolute right to do this; since you are the only one with any rights to benefit from its existence, harming the land can’t possibly infringe on the rights of anyone else. The western hemisphere natives didn’t accept the idea of ownability of parts of the world, so they didn’t accept that people had the right to destroy nature or physical parts of the world. Again, the principle of destruction is a foundational principle of the societies we were born into. A great majority of the jobs in the world are somehow related to either mass murder or destruction; these jobs wouldn’t exist if the murder and destruction didn’t take place. The western hemisphere societies didn’t accept the principles necessary for the pervasive activities of the societies we were born into to take place.
Another important difference was the role of work and jobs:
If no one owns the land, no one owns the bounty it produces. The people have to have meetings and make decisions about what to do with the gifts nature gives them. ‘Jobs’ were necessary to collect nature’s gifts. They didn’t want more jobs; they wanted the collection of the good things nature provided to be as easy as possible. People with western hemisphere societies were raised to believe that the land was ownable and owned. The owners owned everything the land produced. Non-owners didn’t have any right to anything unless they could get jobs working for the ones with rights to good things, the owners. The majority of the people in these societies didn’t own. The people in the majority only got anything if they could get jobs. The more jobs there were, the more they got, and the better their lives. They wanted production to take more labor.
Another important difference was the usefulness of the substance called money, which at the time, meant the metal gold. People with the eastern hemisphere societies believed that people with money could use it to buy land. If you have the right kind of rock (one made of this special metal), you can trade it for the right to get an income that will last forever. Once you own, you shift from one ‘class’ to a different ‘class.’ Before, you had to work for the owners to avoid death. After, you become one of the owners and others have to work for you and do whatever you say, on pain of death (if they don’t, they don’t have money to buy food and die).
The people from eastern hemisphere societies saw gold as a magic substance that turned them into gods. They spent incredible amounts of time searching for this metal put immense amounts of effort into removing it from the Earth.
The people raised in western hemisphere societies didn’t believe land could be bought at all, not with gold or anything else. To them, gold was not magical at all. In fact, money wasn’t even magical to them. They shared the bounty of the land and, if they kept nature healthy, nature provided whatever they needed. They could use money to buy things from the people with the western hemisphere societies, which manufactured things that they didn’t make. But it wasn’t magical to them. Having money or not having money didn’t mean the difference between life and death for them. The people from the eastern hemisphere societies saw the people from the western hemisphere societies as lazy. These people could make money working, but they didn’t seem to care about money, at least not in the way the eastern hemisphere people cared about it. To the eastern hemisphere people, money was the ticket to freedom. (Those without money had to do whatever they were told by the masters with money, or they wouldn’t be able to buy food and eat.) To the eastern hemisphere people, money was the ticket to power and control over other people. To the eastern hemisphere people, money was a focal point of their existence, something they absolutely couldn’t live without. The eastern hemisphere people organized their very existence around things that the western hemisphere people couldn’t even understand, like love of country, the need for jobs, and the need for money.
Logic and reason tell us that the reason the western hemisphere people lived differently than eastern hemisphere people had nothing to do with their ‘humanness.’ The eastern hemisphere people came up with standard arguments to try to depict people who didn’t organize armies to defend borders, didn’t exploit and destroy the land they lived on, didn’t want to have jobs and didn’t have the incredible lust for money that the eastern hemisphere people had were not really people at all. People lived in countries and organized their countries for war; they started thinking about what kind of job they would like to have as soon as they could think (I remember people asking when I was barely out of diapers: ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’) Real people care deeply about money, want to get as much of it as they can, and will go to just about any length to get more of it. The people from the eastern hemisphere didn’t want to even call the ones from the western hemisphere ‘people,’ because they didn’t act the way they thought people are supposed to act. They looked for another word and, over the course of history, this word struck: savages.
Sovereign Law Societies
The people from the eastern hemisphere were raised in societies built on the idea that groups of people could get together and call their groups ‘nations.’ They could then claim and enforce rights to unlimited or ‘sovereign’ rights over the land. People deprived of rights (those not in their group) would not accept this, so it had to be enforced. The enforcers had to have the ability to mobilize any part of society to help with the war effort, or they wouldn’t be able to keep their claimed rights. The enforcers had to have the unlimited, or sovereign, authority to make any rules or laws they wanted.
The laws weren’t always fair and didn’t even always make sense. The laws of the nation often went against what they were told were the laws of God, and against what common sense told them were the laws of humanity and the laws of nature. For example, the laws of the nation may require that everyone contribute money to pay for tools of murder and to pay people to use these tools. The laws of the nation require them to become accessories to murder, in violation of what we are told are the laws of God (‘thou shalt not kill’). They may believe mass murder is inhumane, and therefore in violation of the basic laws of humanity and civil behavior. They still have to follow the laws. These laws are above all other laws. The laws of the nation may authorize rape of nature to get resources to use to build weapons. The laws of the nation may say that they don’t get money to buy food unless they participate in the economy and contribute to the rape of the land. The people may believe that this goes against the fundamental laws of nature and dooms them and their children to live in suffocate in filth. (As Chief Seattle said: contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.)
They still have to comply with the laws. They are taught this in school: the laws of the sovereign entity—the nation—are superior to all other laws. They are taught and must accept that they are required to obey the laws of the nation even if this requires that they violate all other laws. As noted before, I am using the term ‘sovereign law societies’ to refer to societies built on the primacy of sovereign law.
Until the discovery of the western hemisphere lands by Columbus in October of 1492, half of the planet (the western hemisphere) had societies built on the primacy of natural law. The other half (the eastern hemisphere) had societies built on the primacy of sovereign law. Prior to 1492, both types of societies existed. But they existed in different hemispheres. The people with these different societies didn’t have any contact with people with the other societies.
Columbus landed with his small crew on lands inhabited by people with different societies in October of 1492. His logs indicate his first priority: gold. The natives had gold and didn’t seem to place it in high regard. His second priority: conquest. The land was unowned. He could claim it. As the owner of the land, he would own everything the land produced or contained, including its gold. His third priority: power. His letters of authority from the crown granted him the governorship of any ‘islands and mainlands’ he discovered. He would have to share the revenues these lands generated with the crown, but his half would make him rich beyond imagination.
His dreams had come true.
Before Columbus left, he drew up a document granting himself certain rights to any lands he should discover. The king and queen didn’t want to agree to the terms of the document, but they formally ‘capitulated’ and signed the document, which came to be called the ‘Capitulations of Santa Fe.’ This document granted Columbus three titles: ‘Governor, Admiral, and Vice-Roy.’
Each title meant something specific: As governor, he was essentially the government and could make all rules and laws.
As Admiral, he commanded the military and could enforce the rules he made as the governor.
As Vice-Roy, he was the administrator of the land, a position of nobility, and this title granted him the right to share in the revenue the land collected. His share was stated in the 1494 letter presented in Chapter Eight: he was to get half.
As his first act, Columbus went through a ritual to ‘claim’ the land. This made the land Spanish property, owned by the King and Queen. The owners of land have every right to charge rent to people who want to use the land. The Capitulations granted Columbus half of the rent. The more he collected, the more money he made.
In 1494, Columbus passed his first law requiring the locals to pay rent. They would pay in gold. He had brought a large quantity of trinkets called ‘hawk’s bells’ to give away to the locals. (These were tiny bells, so named because people who owned hawks attached them to their birds so they could hear their birds coming.) The native streams had gold dust in them and the natives could learn how to extract this gold. In 1494, Columbus set a per-person rent of ½ of a hawks bell full of gold every 4 months. This works out to be 2 grams of gold, which would be worth $100 at 2015 prices, for each 4 month period. (An equivalent of $25 per month per person). In 1495 Columbus doubled the rent to one full hawk’s bell, or 4 grams of gold dust per person, per four month period. As I write this in 2015 gold is selling for $50 per gram, so you could say that everyone had to pay $50 per month for the right to live on the King and Queen’s land.
As the Vice-roy, Columbus’ share was half. The rest belonged to the owners of the land, the King and Queen of Spain.
The sovereigns had accountants who quickly realized that the they weren’t getting the amounts of rents they should get. They new the rental amount per person. They knew how many people there were. Columbus was not sending the amount required. It turned out that Columbus had a soft heart. He let some people slide on their rents. The owners were getting half of what he collected, which was their share. But since he let people slide, he didn’t have as much to split.
By 1513, the royal couple had decided they couldn’t put up with this anymore. It was their land. If people wanted to live on it, they had to pay rents. They needed to make this totally clear to the tenants, or they wouldn’t respect the owners anymore. They passed a law explaining what was required of the tenants and new subjects of Spain, and would happen to them if they didn’t meet these requirements.
The Spanish government called the new law ‘La Requerimiento.’ Here are some excerpts from the law:
Almost all those who have been notified of their obligations have received and served their Highnesses as lords and kings, in the way that subjects ought to do, with good will, without any resistance, immediately, without delay, when they were informed of the aforesaid facts. If you do this also, you will do well and their Highnesses shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you, your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude.
If you do not do this, or if you delay maliciously in doing it, we swear to you that with God’s help we will come mightily against you and you make war against you in every way we can; we will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and His Majesty; we will take your wives and children and make them slaves; we will sell them into slave markets and use the money as His Majesty commands. We will take your property and do you all of the misery and harm that we are able to do to you, as is fitting for vassals who do not obey and do not want to received their rightful master.
We hereby inform you that the deaths and damages that you will receive from this are your fault, and not His Majesties nor mine, nor the soldiers that came with me and will enforce these rules. ( to full text of original document.)
It is often said that the truth is stranger than fiction.
It would seem hard to believe that anyone who truly believed in an afterlife judgment would write such a thing. If a fiction writer claimed someone who believed in afterlife judgment passed such a law as a premise for a book, readers would probably not accept it. But the document above is a real law passed by real people who at least claimed to believe in an afterlife judgment.
This government enforced the law as it was written.
The government under Columbus stamped out special copper medals, a different design for each four month period. When people paid for a given period, they would get the appropriate medal attacked to a string, to use as a necklace. They had to wear the current medal around their necks at all times. Any found without the necklace were deemed to be in violation of the requerimiento. The military went through all of the native towns at the beginning of each rental period inspecting everyone. Soldiers had to arrest any people without the medals–along with their children, as the law specified—and bring them to the nearest market to sell them as slaves. Any of the people who didn’t resist were allowed to live out the rest of their lives as slaves.
What if people resisted arrest?
The soldiers were required to execute any who resisted on the spot. The government gave them instructions to conduct these executions in the most brutal and inhumane ways they could devise. Here Las Casas describes the enforcement methods he saw used, with his own eyes. (Warning: the quote that follows is brutal and graphic in its description of violence. Think about whether you have a tolerance for such descriptions before you read it.)
They spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, "Boil there, you offspring of the devil!" Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby.
As soon as this measure went into effect, the natives began to desert their farms, villages and homes, in order to escape the death squads. They began to go into remote areas of the mountains to live. The mountains were cold and many died of hypothermia; they had little food and many starved to death. Las Casas discusses the decline in native population at great lengths, not just on the big island of Haiti where he lived, but throughout the lands controlled by western hemisphere people. He points out that the official native population of Haiti was 3 million when he arrived in 1502. The 1550 census listed only 200 natives left alive on the entire island. After a few more years, these people were dead also. The entire population had been wiped out.
There were three major causes of the extermiation.
The first was the decline in the food supply. Food production stopped. The natives had large warehouses full of food to deal with shortages. Las Casas points out that they burned these warehouses themselves and destroyed their own reserve food. The hope was that, if the islands didn’t have food to support the conquerors, the Spanish would leave. This didn’t work because the Spanish had good and could buy all the food they want in Europe and have it shipped back to them. (Their ships went to Europe laden with gold from the rents, and returned full of food for the conquers.)
The second major cause of death was disease. The eastern hemisphere people had lived in close proximity to farm animals for thousands of years. (If a family owned a cow in such a system, its milk could mean the difference between life and death. To prevent thieves from stealing the cow, they would bring the cow inside at night and sleep with it.) The two major diseases that wiped out the western hemisphere people, smallpox and measles, were both cattle diseases that had mutated to attack humans, due to the close proximity to people.) For two reasons, eastern hemisphere people were not as susceptible to these diseases. The first was vaccinations. Rich people would vaccinate their children and this would protect them their entire lives. The second was a genetic resistance that had been acquired over thousands of years, as people without this resistance died before they could pass on their susceptibility to their children. The native people had never experienced these diseases, they had no resistance, and no access to vaccines. This passage from a 2010 paper explains the role disease played in the decline in population:
Before Europeans initiated the Columbian Exchange of germs and viruses, the peoples of the Americas suffered no smallpox, no measles, no chickenpox, no influenza, no typhus, no typhoid or parathyroid fever, no diphtheria, no cholera, no bubonic plague, no scarlet fever, no whooping cough, and no malaria. Although we may never know the exact magnitudes of the depopulation due to these diseases, it is estimated that upwards of 80–95 percent of the Native American population was decimated within the first 100–150 years following 1492 (Newson, 2001). Within 50 years following contact with Columbus and his crew, the native Taino population of the island of Hispanola, which had an estimated population between 60,000 and 8 million, was virtually extinct (Cook, 1993). ( to source.)
The third reason for the decline in population is the one that got the most attention from humanists like Las Casas:
The conquerors enslaved the native people and worked to death, or simply slaughtered them. This was easy for them to do: The native people did not have any weapons, they had never had to develop militaries, they had never had to design their economies around war or give leaders the power to order atrocities. They had no experience in mass murder and had powerful social taboos against harming others; this often caused them to refuse to kill a few soldiers they could have prevented from slaughtering the entire village, if they had only been willing to use violence. The people who had grown up in eastern hemisphere societies had had war for as long as they existed. They had great experience with it, knew the most effective ways to kill, had all the necessary tools, and were willing to do anything necessary—including destroy the environment that supported them—in order to make sure they always had enough weapons to keep war going. Although they claimed to be religious, they believed that the laws of their nations were above the laws of their God: If the rulers of their nations ordered them to act a certain way, they would act that way, even if this violated the laws of their God, even if this violated the laws of humanity, and even if it violated the laws of nature. They had been rasied to believe that their sovereigns gained their power and authority from God Himself. To disobey sovereign law was to disobey the all-powerful Creator of the universe. Nothing was more important to them than sovereign law.
Schoolchildren are told that Columbus discovered America, but the truth is he never set foot on the continent. He landed on islands in the Caribbean sea. He set up his headquarters on Haiti, a name that means ‘The Mountainous Island’ in the Taíno language. Various people from eastern hemisphere societies had visited the mainland, but, until 1515, these visits were peaceful. The first military expedition to the mainland of America left Cuba on February 19, 1515, headed by Hernando Cortez.
The expedition made its first stop on the beautiful island of Cozumel, about 100 miles west of the tip of Cuba and just off the coast of Mexico. The people who lived on Cozumel told Cortez that there were two other people of his race living in the city of Chetumal, about 100 miles southwest of Cozumel. The two had been the only survivors of a shipwreck about 7 years earlier. Cortez wrote a letter to them and sent it by native courier. One of the two Spaniards, Gerónimo de Aguilar, came back with the messenger. He wanted to get back to the world he had left behind. The other, Gonzalo Guerrero, did not want to come and sent a letter explaining why. Here is the text of the letter:
‘I am married and have three children, and they look on me as a cacique here, and captain in time of war. My face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say about me if they saw me like this? Go and God’s blessing be with you, for you have seen how handsome these children of mine are.’ (From ‘Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España,’ to source.)
Aguilar was a very big help to Cortez, because Aguilar spoke both Mayan and Spanish. He knew the language and customs, so he could communicate and make sure that Cortez followed the proper protocol to get along with the people who lived there. After they left Cozumel, their next stop was the city of Potonchán (now called Celestún) at the mouth of the Tobasco river. Peter Myrtar, the official historian of the Spanish Crown, provides this description of Potonchán:
There exists a great city extending along the Tabasco river; so great and celebrated, as one cannot measure, it extends flanking the coast about five hundred thousand steps and has twenty-five thousand houses, dispersed among gardens, that are made splendidly with stones and lime in whose construction projects the admirable industry and are of the architects. (Link to source, De Orbo Novo, by Peter Myrtar.)
Cortez spent two weeks in this beautiful city. While there, he met a woman who was to play a very important part in the conquest of Mexico. In her native language, her name was ‘Malintzin.’ The Spaniards had a hard time pronouncing the last syllable, so they called her ‘Malinche.’ A few days after they met, Cortez and Malinche became lovers. Malinche decided to go with Cortez on the rest of his trip.
Most Mexican people today know the name Malinche.
The native people of Mexico consider her to be a great traitor. They put a large share of the blame for the atrocities that were to follow on her shoulders. Malinche had been born and raised in Tenochtitlan (now called ‘Mexico City’). She came from a prosperous family and got a good education. She had moved to Potonchán as a teenager. Her native language was Nauhatal, the language of the central Mexico valley, but she was very well educated and spoke many local dialects. She had become fluent in Mayan while she lived at Potonchán. At first, the two lovers communicated through Aguilar, when they had something to say. But Malinche had a natural aptitude for languages and became fluent in Spanish very quickly. (Malinche and Cortez would eventually marry. But this would be a long time in the future.)
Malinche was familiar with the legends and religious superstitions of the Mexican people. One legend tells of a god from the east named ‘Quetzocoatal.’ According to the legend, Quetzocoatal had arrived from the eastern sea some 1,180 years earlier. (This would be the year 339 AD by the Christian calendar.) Quetzocoatal had gained the respect of the Mexican people and a position of authority. He had created the administrative system that was still in place in Mexico.
But, the legend says, that after Quetzocoatal had set up the administration system, he told the people he could not stay and would have to return home. He told them that he would trust them to rule themselves until he returned and took back his position of authority.
He said he would return and told them when.
It happened that the year that Cortez had chosen for his expedition, 1519, was the exact year that the legendry Quetzocoatal had claimed he would return and reclaim his position.
Malinche told Cortez that he may be able to take advantage of this legend.
Rather than taking the bold step of claiming to be Quetzocoatal himself, he could claim that the Quetzocoatal would soon be arriving and that he, Cortez, had been sent ahead to prepare things for the god’s arrival. Cortez decided to follow Malinche’s advice and pretend to be an emissary of Quetzocoatal.
His men were not very well suited for this mission. They were mostly lower class people he had picked up in the bars of Cuba by promising them a share of any spoils they could find. Cortez told them they would have to act respectable for the ruse to work. He set strict behavior rules. When two of his men violated the rules the first day. To show that he meant business, Cortez conducted a quick court marshal and hanged them. The others appeared to have gotten the message because they were able to act respectably, at least for a while.
Under Malinche guidance, they headed for her home city, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). The closest landing was a native village located where the colonial Spanish city of Veracruz now stands. They arrived there April 21, 1519. Some of the men were afraid of what they faced. Cortez was worried that they would turn coward and run, so he decided to make this impossible. He unloaded the ships and put the goods they would need on shore. Then he sent people out to set fire to the ships. The entire crew watched while they burned and eventually sank. There was no going back. They would succeed or die.
Malinche knew just what to say to the locals. She told them that Cortez was an ambassador for Quetzocoatal. Quetzocoatal would soon be arriving. Cortez had been sent ahead to make sure everything was ready for his arrival. He was to go to the capital, Tenochtitlan, and make arrangements so that the administration could be turned over to him as soon as he arrived. The city of Tenochtitlan is 300 miles from Veracruz. The road between them goes over the highest mountain passes in Central America. Malinche planed the route. She knew that a great many people who lived in villages along the way did not like the administration in Tenochtitlan. Cortez would do well to get them on his side and make them allies. If Cortez did have to fight the Aztecs, these people would fight for him. Cortez formed many alliances along the way. Tenochtitlan was an island city in the middle of a lake, connected to the mainland by three causeways. Cortez arrived at the gate to the main causeway on October 8, 1519 and formally requested entry into the city. The picture to the right is a copy of the map Cortez drew of Tenochtitlan.
Many historians believe that Tenochtitlan was likely the most populous city on Earth at the time. More than 500,000 people lived on the island itself, with at least 3 million more living around the lake. The Aztec leaders knew Cortez was coming of course; they had messengers and a well-organized system for relaying news. But they couldn’t agree on what they should do about it.
Some of the leaders believed it was a trick. They thought that Spaniards had simply taken advantage of the ledged, which was, in fact, what was happening. But some were not so sure. They thought it might be true. They thought that they needed to at least let Cortez into the city to explain himself.
The leaders kept Cortez and his men waiting just outside of the city for a full month before they made their decision. Finally, they agreed to let him in. On November 8, 1519, Cortez and his men marched along the great causeway into the most populous city in the world, being welcomed as if they were the emissaries of gods.
The first day there, a feast and celebration was scheduled in their honor. Montezuma, the highest leader in the administration, was to be the host. We can tell by the events that happened next that Montezuma was one of the leaders who did not believe that Cortez represented any gods. Cortez must have realized that Montezuma did not believe him and would make trouble so he decided to kidnap Montezuma and hold him hostage. When Montezuma announced he was leaving, Cortez asked if he could talk to him in private first. They went into a private room with some guards. Cortez told Montezuma that he was a hostage. If he played along with his captors, he could live; otherwise he would be executed. Montezuma (who came to be regarded as a great traitor to his people because of this action) agreed to cooperate. He remained a captive and told his people to cooperate with the emissaries.
The trick worked.
Within a few days, Cortez had been granted the Aztec equivalent of the keys to the city. The Aztecs put him and his men up in the nicest building in town, and showered them with gifts and honors. Cortez had it made. All he would have to do is not make any serious mistakes and he would control this massive and powerful land without having to fight anyone.
The Fall of the City
Unfortunately, Cortez had already made a mistake.
He had partnered with the Governor of Cuba, , for this trip. The governor provided all of the money and ships; Cortez would command the force. They would split anything they made 50/50. But Cortez had no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. He got his men together three days before the scheduled departure date and left with all the ships and equipment, without any of the governors’ men. It was clear that he intended to cut the governor out of the picture and take all credit, glory, and money for himself.
The governor put together a second expedition to go to Mexico, arrest Cortez, and bring him to justice. The expedition arrived at Veracruz in April of 1520. Cortez found out they were there through Montezuma’s messenger system. The party included 19 ships and 1,400 soldiers. Cortez decided it best that he confront these people in person, so he left the city.
Here is the problem:
Cortez men were from the lower classes and were already having a hard time following the rules. Many of the people on the trip liked to drink alcohol. The Aztecs had a alcoholic drink called Pulque, that they kept offering to the Spaniards. Under the rules Cortez had set, they couldn’t drink. If they did and were caught, they would be hanged. Another rule involved sex. The Spanish were different than the locals and some women are attracted to this. They kept trying to get the men to have sex. Cortez had forbidden any sexual activity with the locals. (Since there were no non-local females, this meant no sex at all.) Again, any who violated the rule were to be hanged. Cortez had let them know he meant business from the first, by hanging two for petty violations of the rules. As long as Cortez was there, his men behaved. But Cortez feared that if he left, his men might think they can get away with breaking the rules.
They apparently didn’t understand that they had to keep up the deception, because the 140 of them could not remain if even a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of locals wanted them gone. Cortez was in a bad situation. He didn’t want to leave, but he felt he didn’t have any choice. If he could talk to the Spaniards who had come to arrest him, he might be able to get them on his side. If he couldn’t talk to them, they could mess up his plan and make it impossible.
As soon as Cortez left, the men he left behind began to violate the rules. The locals started to catch on to the trick and realize that these people weren’t emissaries of gods at all. Finally, they decided to ask the Spaniards to leave. There are several stories about what happened next. Some say that the massacre the Spaniards perpetuated was preemptive: they had learned that the locals would move against them, and they wanted make sure the locals knew they would not tolerate this. Others say that the locals told the Spaniards to leave first, and they reacted with the massacre. Whatever the reasons, the Spanish selected a religious celebration to show their strength. They blockaded all of the exits and killed everyone there. The next day, Aztec leaders raised a posse to remove the Spaniards, and they were driven from the city.
In the meantime, Cortez was on his way to meet the party that had been sent to arrest him. He had some very good luck. He located the Spanish camp and sent a spy in to get information. The spy found out where the command tent was located. In the middle of the night, Cortez and his men moved in and captured the commander of the unit, . Cortez told Narváez that he had located a city of gold. If they worked together, they could take it. Cortez offered Narváez a choice: His first option was to put himself and his troops under Cortez’s command. If he did this, he and all his men would share in the gold in accordance with their rank, and Narváez would likely end up one of the richest men on Earth.
His second option was to refuse to cooperate. If he did this, he would be executed. Then Cortez would go to his men and make them the same offer: those who joined could share in the spoils and get rich, the others would all be put to death. Narváez didn’t have to consider his choices very long. He decided to put his troops under Cortez’s command.
Cortez formulated a plan to take the city. Although the Aztecs didn’t have formal military units and weapons factories, as the Spanish had, they still wouldn’t be able to conquer a city of 3.5 million with a mere 1200 men. They would need an advantage. Cortez decided to use biological warfare.
Smallpox infections lead to large numbers of pustules that fill up with puss. The puss contains the variola virus, the source of the disease. Military leaders who want to use smallpox as a weapon can collect the puss and store it in vials. The puss remains contagious for a very long period of time. (As I write this, the disease itself has been wiped out. However, the virus itself still exists. Biological weapons divisions of major governments have stored the ‘pus’ that contains the virus in vials, in case they ever need to do what Cortez did.) Cortez could then have the pus smeared on blankets and other items that were bound for markets in Tenochtitlan and have them sold there. All he would have to do is wait: in about 3 weeks, smallpox would break out in the city.
The illustration below to the right is from a book written by Aztecs at the time of the conquest called the ‘Florentine Codex.’ It shows drawings of people with the disease that swept through Tenochtitlan in 1520. The photograph on the right comes from a web description used to help physicians to help identify specific kinds of smallpox, depicting the symptoms of ‘Variola Major,’ the most deadly form of smallpox.
The quote below is from the Florentine Codex, describing the onset of the plague:
Before the Spaniards had risen against us, first there came to be prevalent a great sickness, a plague. It was in Tepeilhuitl that it originated, that there spread over the people a great destruction of men. Some it covered with pustules; they were spread everywhere, on one’s face, on one’s head, on one’s breast, etc. There was indeed perishing; many indeed died of it.
No longer could they walk; they only lay in their abodes, in their beds. No longer could they move, no longer could they bestir themselves, no longer could they raise themselves, no longer could they stretch themselves out face down, no longer could they stretch themselves out on their backs. And when they bestirred themselves, much did they cry out. There was much perishing. Indeed many people died of the sickness and many just died of hunger. There was death from hunger; there was no one to take care of another; there was no one to attend to another.
At this time this plague prevailed indeed sixty days.
And then the Spaniards came.
They moved there from Texcoco; they went to set forth by way of Quauhtitlan; they came to settle themselves at Tlacopan. And in Nextlatilco, or Ilyacac, there indeed war first began.
The Spaniards didn’t really ’fight’ for Tenochtitlan.
They waited until the city was helpless—with the great majority of the people either dead or crippled from disease—and took over.
Once they controlled the capital, the Spaniards moved outward in all directions. They cared mostly about gold, so they focused on the areas with the most gold, which were mostly south of Tenochtitlan, now renamed Mexico City. In the aftermath of Cortez’s victory, a great many people came to follow up on his success, and take a part of the planet for themselves. Dewas 24 years old; he enlisted as the lowest rank in the Spanish military and was sent to Cuba with a group of soldiers under the command of in 1520. The group went from there to central America, where they began establishing a military presence in Panama. (Dávila would later become the govorner of Panama.)
Many of the soldiers who went to the western hemisphere to fight the natives refused to do the things they were ordered to do; they considered them to be atrocities. (Refusal to follow orders in battle is a capital crime; commanders generally have the authority to execute the soldiers on the spot.)
De Soto did not have any problems in this area. He quickly gained a reputation for following orders, even if the orders required the most inhumane acts imaginable. In his early career, he learned about the use of biological weapons, including smallpox, measles, typhoid, typhus, bubonic plague, and malaria. The Americans had never been exposed to any of these diseases and had no natural resistance to any of them. If they were intentionally infected with the right combination of these diseases all at the right time, the effect was catastrophic, with fatality rates that often exceeded 50%, all occurring at the same time about 3 weeks after the initial infection. His standard operating procedure was to send in delegations to the areas he wanted to conquer about a month before the intended conquest. The delegates would distribute blankets and other manufactured goods to the people, as a claimed friendship gesture. A few weeks after the presents arrived, the diseases would break out and he would attack when the people were the most helpless. He used several very brutal methods to suppress resistance, and had one of the highest success rates of any of the conquistadors. As a result, he advanced through the ranks very quickly and gained the attention of commanders in the field. He was promoted to officer rank in 1521 and had his own command by 1522.
In 1523, De Soto attracted the attention of an important Spanish military commander, Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro had a bold plan to conquer the enormous and gold-rich Inca people in South America. He needed someone with De Soto’s particular skill sets to make his plan work.
In 1524, Pizarro had transferred De Soto into his unit and made him is second in command. The two men took a trip to the Incan city of Tumbes, on the coast of the Inca lands. Their journals of the trip gave a figure of 426,000 as the population of the city. Immediately after they left, one of the largest plagues in recorded history began, as a mixture of diseases started in Tumbes and spread south. In 1526 the Pizarro and De Soto returned to Tumbes to assess the effects of their previous trip. The giant city of Tumbes was nothing but a devastated ruin, without a single inhabitant. All coastal cities south of Tumbes were similarly devastated and deserted. The Inca survivors had moved up to the mountains, where the disease wasn’t quite as virulent. The two men sent some presents up to the people on the mountains (more blankets) and went back to Europe to make plans for the conquest.
Pizzaro obtained permission from the government of Spain to conduct military operations in Peru in 1529. He returned to Peru in 1530 with Hernando De Soto as his second in command.
The Spaniards sent word that they had come in peace and only wanted to talk to the leaders.
One of the highest officials in the Incan empire, Atahaulpa, agreed to meet with them.
As soon as Atahualpa arrived at the meeting, De Soto took him hostage. They told him they would release him for ransom. His people had to fill an entire room 10x 20x 8 ft to the top twice with silver, and then a third time, this time with gold.
The room is still standing; it is called the ‘treasure room.’
The people complied and delivered the required silver and gold. Pizarro and De Soto ended up with a total of 1,326,539 pesos, or about 50,000 KG, of gold, and twice that amount of silver. The gold alone would be worth $1.5 billion at 2015 prices.
As soon as Pizarro and De Soto had their treasure loaded, they killed Atahaulpa and left.
How this Affected the United States
Hernando De Soto’s share of the ransom was 17,740 pesos (630kg) of gold. This amount of gold would be worth $18 million United States dollars today.
De Soto used his money to purchase a large estate in Castile.
He was now officially a member of the landed gentry. He was part of the upper class. He began to look for a suitable wife. In 1537 he married Queen Isabella’s cousin, Isabel de Bobadilla.
At the time, the Spanish used the term ‘Florida’ to refer to all land in the mainland of North America, technically all Spanish land north of Cuba. God Himself had granted this land to the King and Queen of Spain forever in the Papal Bull of 1493. The Queen was very close to her cousin, and wanted to give her and her new husband a truly magnificent wedding present. She ended up giving the De Sotos North America.
Officially, Hernando De Soto was the ‘Marquis and Adelanto’ of Florida.
The term ‘Adelanto’ translates to ‘president.’
The title ‘Marquis’ meant that he would have the same rights that Columbus had: If he could put any land under Spanish control, he would be entitled to administer it in exchange for half of the revenues it generated.
De Soto was now president of North America. He wanted to see what his new country looked like. He led a group of 800 people through the lands in the southeastern part of North America during a four year period starting in 1539 and 1542.
Chapter Three contained some excerpts from books written during the voyage. Almost every night, he stayed in cities of natives, who provided food, shelter, and entertainment for the entire group. Historians now refer to the people who lived there as the ‘.’ They had well organized societies under central authority with extensive trading and commerce and are considered to be an ‘advanced culture.’ They disappeared shortly after De Soto’s voyage, splintering into small nomadic groups. Many historians speculate that De Soto spread disease cultures during his travels. If these diseases had the same mortality rates that they had shown in other areas where they were used, they would have made the cities and towns uninhabitable.
Post Holocaust Societies
There is an entire literature genre called ‘Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.’ You can find hundreds of such works on the internet. I expect that most people in the world today have read many books or/and watched many movies on this topic.
To have a story, some people would have to survive the collapse of society as they know it. The books and movies tell the tales of the survivors. The structures of their societies have collapsed. Although the plots vary, the standard story involves people who flee cities and come together at some country location. They spend most of their time struggling just to survive. We might imagine that survivors of America, deprived of the societies that had kept them comfortable, would have done the same things.
Human beings survived.
But the immense, well administered, prosperous, and orderly societies that had existed for thousands of years no longer existed.