Reading Guide 1 Colonial Period (Pages 24-89) The Encounter (1492-1600) (Pages 24-57) 1400s: slave trade

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Latin American History—Period 8

September ____, 2012

Reading Guide 1

Colonial Period (Pages 24-89)

The Encounter (1492-1600) (Pages 24-57)
1400s: slave trade1 underway, led by Portuguese
1492: Completion of Reconquest in Iberian Peninsula; arrival of Columbus's expedition to Hispaniola ("the Indies")
1500: Pedro Alvares Cabral mistakenly lands in Brazil. For the first three decades of the 1500s Portugal ignored Brazil, concentrating on its monopoly trade with the Far East
1519: Spaniards first set foot in Mexico. By 1521 the Spaniards, along with aid from rival indigenous groups and the decimating power of European diseases, had conquered the Aztec empire2
1530s: Portugal sends settlers, beginning sugar cultivation and destruction of indigenous societies in Brazil. Indigenous populations
replaced by slaves brought from Africa
1532: Pizarro captures and executes Atahualpa3
1540s: Major mining zones in Zacatecas and Potosí4 opened
1542: Spanish crown issues the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, limiting encomiendas
1544-49: Rebellion of Gonzalo Pizarro against new encomienda laws
1552: Bartolomé de las Casas publishes A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies

Colonial Crucible (1600-1800) (Pages 58-89)
1680: Pueblo rebellion in New Mexico begins
1695: Zumbi, the king of Palmares5, killed
1749: Venezuelan cacao growers revolt
1740s-90s: Bourbon reforms tighten Spanish control over American colonies
1761: Yucatec Maya6 revolt in Yucatán peninsula
1765-66: Uprising in Quito against tax increases
1767: Jesuits expelled from Spanish America
1776: Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata created
1781: Comunero uprising in Colombia
1780-83: Rebellion of Tupac Amaru II7 in Peru and Upper Peru
1789-99: French Revolution
1791: Massive slave uprising in Haiti, beginning the Haitian revolution8
1796: Beginning of war between Spain and England
1799: Beginning of Napoleonic Wars
1804: Haiti declares independence
1806, 07: British invasion of the Río de la Plata
1807: Napoleon invades Portugal; royal family flees to Brazil
1808: Napoleon invades Spain; Joseph Bonaparte crowned king of Spain

Slave Trade

Latin America provides a historical laboratory for the study of African slavery and abolition. Plantations with enslaved workers of African descent existed from Cuba to Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru—not to mention Brazil, the greatest slavery-saturated society of all. In addition, slavery was also a profoundly urban phenomenon in Latin America. Even in regions like Argentina, without plantation agriculture, slaves worked as artisans and domestic servants in every colonial city founded by the Spanish and the Portuguese. In the early 1800s, a quarter of the population of Buenos Aires was made up of black slaves. Lima and Mexico City, places not associated today with inhabitants of African descent, were once full of slaves, too. In most parts of Latin America, slavery declined immediately after independence and was abolished totally around 1850. The great exceptions are Brazil and Cuba, where the importation of slaves actually accelerated during those years and abolition did not come until the 1880s. Given this panorama, historians have produced studies that allow them to compare slavery, and resistance to it—also abolition, and what followed it—in a vast variety of situations across hundreds of years. Students, too, can take a comparative approach.

  1. Why were the first slaves brought to Latin America? How do the numbers of slaves taken to Brazil and the Caribbean during the colonial period compare with those taken to North America?

  2. What did slaves bring with them to the New World, and what new religious traditions, social structures, and blending of cultures (not to mention gene pools) emerged out of their contact with Indians, other slaves, and people of European descent in Latin America?

  3. Many slaves were offered their freedom in exchange for participating on the patriot side during the wars of independence, although after the wars many Creole elites were slow to act on their word. What were some of the debates surrounding abolition in different regions, and in what different ways did African slavery finally come to an end in Latin America?

Aztec Empire

The Aztec empire presents us with an enigmatic combination of beauty and ugliness. The formal language of Moctezuma's imperial court was as delicate as a flower, yet the Aztec class structure was entirely as degrading and hierarchical as anything in medieval Europe. Aztec sculpture demonstrates a highly refined aesthetic sense, yet the sculptures accompanied habitual, systematic human sacrifice on a massive scale. And the most famous sacrifice, the excision of the still beating hearts of captured enemy warriors atop pyramids, was not the only kind. There was an entire sacred calendar involving various kinds of human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of young women chosen as a special honor to delight the bloodthirsty Aztec gods. In addition, many sacrificial victims were eaten. A paper on the Aztec empire will naturally touch on this horrifying but indubitably fascinating facet, yet it should in addition give some account of the complex social order of Tenochtitlan, its unusual construction in the middle of a lake, and its ingenious agricultural system. It should also describe the rapid growth of Aztec imperial power in the century before the arrival of Cortés, giving some sense of how Tenochtitlan fit in a larger context of Nahuatl-speaking city states.
Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. How did the Aztecs manage to develop an empire in such a short period of time, and what means were employed to hold the empire together?

  2. What was the Aztec social hierarchy like, and how did this social order play into the process of colonization? How did the encounter in Mesoamerica compare with the meeting of Spaniards and indigenous populations in South America and the Caribbean?

  3. Like the Inca Empire, the Aztec empire was young and on the rise when it was abruptly ended by the arrival of the Spaniards. How might world history have developed differently had the Spaniards not arrived when they did?


The achievements of the Inca empire are easy to appreciate because they were, above all, practical. The complexities of Mesoamerican calendar systems and the intricacies of their artistic representations can be grasped only by sustained study. Anyone, on the other hand, can immediately appreciate the engineering feats of the Inca empire—the system of mountain roads and relay communications, the swinging bridges thrown through the sky across yawning Andean gorges, the walls made of many-sided stones that interlocked for anti-seismic effect. The grandeur of Mesoamerican pyramids is dimmed, in modern eyes, by the sacrificial uses to which many were put. It is easier to admire Inca administration of imperial resources to promote general welfare, such as the systematic storage and distribution of grain to alleviate famine. A paper on the Incas can explore these achievements without idealizing the Inca empire, as many have done. Andean history contains recurrent idealizations of the Inca empire for students to consider, however. Quechua-speaking indigenous people often looked to their Inca past for inspiration under Spanish rule. Tupac Amaru II embodied that impulse in the 1790s. And in the 1920s, a Peruvian Marxist intellectual named José Carlos Mariátegui idealized the Inca empire as an example of a state committed to the welfare of its people.
Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. What means (taxation, warfare, labor structures) were employed to hold the Inca empire together?

  2. What was the Inca social hierarchy like, and how did this social order play into the process of colonization? How did the Encounter in the Andes compare with the meeting of Spaniards and indigenous populations in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean?

  3. How do "uses" of the history of the Inca Empire compare with interpretations of Maya civilization or the Aztec empire deployed to achieve a certain end in Guatemala, Mexico, and even the U.S.?


The silver mines of Potosí are surely among the most famous in world history. "To be worth a Potosí" was once a common expression to describe enormous riches. Indigenous people knew about Potosí silver before the Spanish arrived, but they did not exploit it on a large scale. Beginning in the 1570s, the Spanish made the "mountain of silver" into an enormous quasi-industrial conglomeration. But the miners were forced labor crews of indigenous people, organized by the old imperial Inca labor draft called the mita. The mines of Potosí produced their richest loads in 1600s, declining in importance thereafter, relative to other silver-producing locations. Mexican silver production eclipsed Peru's in the 1700s. A paper on Potosí might also explore the culture of more recent indigenous Bolivian miners who work in the tin mines. Miners played an important role in the Bolivian Revolution of the 1950s.
Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. Mining in the mountain of silver during the 1600s was a large-scale operation that depended on forced labor—a sort of slave plantation in the bowels of the Andes. But just how many laborers worked in the mines of Potosí, and how many lost their lives to the exploitation of silver?

  2. Potosí generated a network of economies and services revolving around silver mining. Raising mules to transport the precious metal and making cloth to clothe the miners were just two of the activities connected to the mine. What were others, and how far away from the mountain did they stretch?

  3. Mining has continued to be a major economic activity in Bolivia. In the 1900s, however, the main product was tin. How did tin mining affect the indigenous miners, and what political roles have these played in the twentieth century?


Possibly for reasons of climate, settlements of escaped slaves, called quilombos and palenques, were much more frequent in Latin America than in the United States. The unfamiliarity of the English equivalent term "maroon settlement" aptly indicates the infrequency of the phenomenon in U.S. history. In contrast, quilombos, great and small, existed by the hundred throughout Brazil. There was a particularly large and lasting one in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, for example. But none can rival the kingdom of Palmares, inland from the sugar coast of Northeastern Brazil, where African slaves fled from plantations and created backland village settlements governed by African social institutions. Palmares lasted for most of a century, but many tiny quilombos and palanques lasted only a few years. Students interested in Spanish American palenques should direct their attention to the circum-Caribbean region. A paper on quilombos and palenques can explore the ways in which runaway slave communities tried to reproduce familiar African lifeways. Another aspect worth investigating is the complex relations that existed between quilombos or palenques and the slave societies from which they had escaped.

Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. How did maroon societies in different regions of Latin America differ from each other—be it in size, ethnic makeup, or ability to ward off Spaniards and Portuguese?

  2. Slaves and free blacks in Latin America often formed nations, or groups linked by a common linguistic heritage and the same geographic roots in Africa. Were these sources of community driving forces behind the development of quilombos and palenques? What other factors led to the formation of the strong bonds and group identities that characterized some maroon societies?

  3. To the extent that maroon societies were able to recreate African social institutions and practices in Latin America, what can quilombos and palenques suggest about the power of slaves to preserve African heritage and, on the other side, the efforts of colonial powers to integrate slaves into the new colonial societies?


Mayan civilization peaked too early to impress the Spanish in the manner of the Inca and Aztec empires. The great Mayan ceremonial centers visited by modern tourists were all in ruin when the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. In fact, the highpoint of Mayan imperial organization was almost a thousand years earlier. Mayan city states were located in high mountains, in densely forested tropical lowlands, and on the arid Yucatán peninsula. Like the Mexicas (and other indigenous people of central Mexico), the Maya built stone pyramids, but they did not dedicate any to human sacrifice. A paper on the Maya will naturally linger, not on empire building but on Mayan culture. Mayan cities contained ball courts where opposing teams tried to get a rubber ball through a stone hoop. The game was not a sport, but a ritual, and often a matter of life and death, too. Mayan writing, composed of symbols called glyphs, was the most elaborate created by any indigenous civilization. In an attempt to eradicate Mayan indigenous religious belief, the Spanish conquistadors burned large collections of Mayan writings. The Mayan language lives on today, but its linguistic fragmentation mirrors the political fragmentation of the city states. Modern Mayan is a family of languages, rather than a single language. Quiché and Mam, two modern Mayan languages, are no more alike than English and German or French and Italian.
Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. What was Mayan social structure like, and how did it compare to social hierarchies of the Aztec and Inca empires? What factors accounted for the early peak and decline of Mayan imperial organization?

  2. The monumental architecture built by the Maya is still visible today in pyramids and massive stone sculptures. The Maya also engaged in other forms of artistic production that included the crafting of ornate jewelry and developing a system of writing. What meanings and functions did these various types of cultural production have during the highpoint of Mayan civilization and in the renaissance of Mayan city states just before the arrival of the Spaniards?

  3. Despite the highpoint of Mayan civilization and political cohesion ending around 900, Mayan culture continued to thrive, and is still alive in much of Guatemala, as well as areas of Mexico. Language is one illustration of Mayan culture that survived the trials of time. What are others, perhaps still visible today, and what arguments can be made to explain how they survived the encounter?

Tupac Amaru II

This most important of colonial rebellions shook the high Andes and sent shockwaves throughout Spanish America. The mestizo who called himself Tupac Amaru II claimed Inca descent and took that name in memory of Tupac Amaru I, an Inca resistance leader and, subsequently, folk hero who fought a rear-guard action against the conquest in the 1500s. Like the 1810-1811 Hidalgo rebellion in Mexico, Tupac Amaru's uprising was initially "Americano," rather than indigenous, in focus—calling for an alliance among native-born whites, mestizos, and indigenous people against European-born Spaniards. Like Hidalgo's rebellion, however, Tupac Amaru's, once begun, became primarily indigenous and raged out of control, leaping south through the high plateaus like grass fire into Upper Peru (modern-day Bolivia), where it set off another, more stubborn revolt. Finally, like Hidalgo's rebellion, Tupac Amaru's showed that multiclass rebellions of Americanos against Spaniards could easily become more radical wars against the entire white ruling class. As a result, native-born whites in Mexico and Peru were among the last on the continent to embrace the patriot cause during the wars of independence. A paper on the rebellion should look at the ethnic and class makeup of those joining in the fight and consider the appeal they found in following Tupac Amaru. It is also important to highlight the context of colonial reforms in which the rebellion broke out, as well as the impact it had on colonial administrators during the wars of independence.
Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. What factors and conditions led to the outbreak of the rebellion, and how was it that Tupac Amaru was able to mobilize such widespread support?

  2. What were the consequences of Tupac Amaru's rebellion during the remaining colonial decades?

  3. What was the legacy of Tupac Amaru and the rebellion during the wars of independence?

Haitian Revolution

Haiti began as the French side of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, divided between France and Spain. While Haiti does not fit within the normal historical meaning of Latin America, as defined by Iberian colonization, it nevertheless plays an important role in Latin American history. The reason is simple. The Haitian Revolution of the 1790s was the worst nightmare of Latin American slave owners, the greatest cautionary tale ever told on the plantations of the Americas. It occurred when French control over Haiti weakened during France's own revolutionary spasms. As doctrines of the "rights of man" rang in the streets of Paris, Haitian slaves rose up to slaughter and drive out the French plantation owners altogether. Their leader was Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave imbued with the spirit of the French Revolution. Haiti became a black republic, one that dominated the Spanish half of the island, as well. In 1815, at the low point of his struggle against Spain, Simón Bolívar got material aid and moral support from Haitian president Petión, who asked in return only that Bolívar free Venezuelan slaves. A paper on the Haitian Revolution should definitely include the classic work, The Black Jacobins.

Questions for Analysis and Further Reflection:

  1. What were the characteristics of Haiti under French domination?

  2. How does the Haitian Revolution fit into the larger story of the wars of independence in Latin America? How did the revolution inspire or damper other independence movements?

  3. Since the early 1800s, the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been full of tensions, much like that of the U.S. and Mexico. What are some of the main sources of tension, and how have these affected Haitian-Dominican relations throughout the twentieth century?

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