When Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, European monarchies were fighting the Moorish menace successfully and experiencing a steady development of technologies, while the accumulation of wealth ensured a solid base and motivated Spain and Portugal to pursue new challenges. Latin America offered plenty of riches, populations to Christianize, and territories to conquer. Spain and Portugal were the main actors of the conquer of Latin America. However, conflicts of interest, exploitation of resources, and populations led to the rise of national awareness and fights for independence. By the end of the eighteenth century, the colonial era was waning.
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The conquer of Latin American was the result of a combination of several factors. The threat posed by Moors to Catholic countries had lost strength, and Spain had managed to defeat the latest Moorish fortresses (Skidmore et al.15). Increased navigation skills and improved abilities in building reliable ships contribute to making transatlantic crossings safe. Both Spain and Portugal had sufficient resources to initiate settlements in the New World. Finally, the spread of the Christian faith offered a religious pretext beyond the expansionist aims of the two crowns.
Spaniards had to cope with the Aztec and the Inca empires, and they could not just count on the superiority of their weapons. Hence, they exploited the existing divisions among Indian populations (Skidmore et al.16). Spaniards based the economy of their colonies on mining, as the soil was rich in gold, silver, and gems. The Portuguese did not find a settled resistance when they landed in Brazil in 1500, neither the riches were comparable with the abundance seen in Mexico and Peru (Skidmore 24). The difference is substantial because it led to a different economy, based on large estates, producing sugar or exploiting the forests to collect exotic wood.
The need for a large workforce favored the introduction of African slaves, creating a multiracial society, made from “a mixed species of aborigines and Spaniards” (Bolívar para. 3). A small percentage of whites held power; other groups were Indians, blacks, and mixed races, namely mestizos and mulattoes. The rivalry between whites born in the colonies, the creoles, and whites from the European countries characterized the colonialist era (Skidmore et al. 20).
The Church played a huge role in shaping societies in Latin America. It provided a rational setting for the enslavement of the indigenous populations, by claiming the need to include them within a well-organized social organization (Skidmore et al. 18). When the interracial liaisons began to spread with the consent of the clergy, the Church assumed a different role and contributed to favor mobility among races and to question the legitimacy of the dominance of whites.
In the first years of the nineteenth century, the Spanish colonies were under attack: Hidalgo in Mexico, San Martín in Peru, and Bolívar in New Grenada were attempting to overthrow the Spanish power. The Mexican Revolution was especially harsh, and both Hidalgo and his successor Morales were executed. The climate changed when Spain endorsed the liberal constitution in 1812, and the dominant class in the colonies felt urged to maintain their privileges and declared independence.
Peru became independent in 1821 and Mexico one year later, becoming a republic in 1823. Brazil followed a different path: in 1807, the Portuguese court flew to Brazil, where the exiled crown tried to create new institutions. One year later, however, the Portuguese king could return to Lisbon, living his son Dom Pedro to rule the American co-kingdom. In 1822, Dom Pedro convoked a Constituent Assembly in Brazil, and after a short struggle, Brazil became an independent monarchy. The Brazilian fight for independence was much less bloody compared with Mexican and Peruvian wars, did not have prominent figures such as Hidalgo or Bolívar, and ended with a monarchy.
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Spain and Portugal conducted the colonization of Latin American. Spanish territories were rich in precious raw materials, Portuguese colonies were apt for cultivation and wood trade, leading to the creation of different economic structures. Both Spaniards and Portuguese exploited Indians and introduced a broad number of African slaves, giving birth to multiracial societies. The balance of powers among the various races and the political events that took place in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century eventually led to the rise of movements aimed at creating national states. By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, all the countries mentioned in this paper had gained independence.
Bolívar, Simon, “Address at the Congress of Angostura,” Modern Latin America. Web.
Skidmore, T. E., et. al. Modern Latin America, Eighth Edition. Oxford University Press, 2013.