Motivations for and Effects of European Colonialism

Motivations for and Effects of European Colonialism in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa

From the 15th century onward, European colonization of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, respectively, was motivated by economic greed, and (to a lesser extent) by religious zeal on the part of European nations (e.g., Spain in particular) wishing to spread Christianity to “uncivilized” indigenous peoples. As a result of New World colonialism, Spanish influence, for example, is still strongly felt throughout the Americas today, and British; Dutch; French, and Portuguese influence is all still strongly evident within many parts of Africa. Widespread European colonization (and domination) of the two regions was, from the 15th century on, driven neither by intellectual curiosity nor any desire to help or learn from indigenous peoples, but rather, by wave after wave of pure European exploratory zeal, with mostly economic roots. All in all, European colonization of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa created massive changes (most of them much for the worse) in physical landscape and economic distribution of wealth and resources on both continents, which continue to strongly affect the people, the resources (or the lack thereof) and the overall conditions of those areas today.

In the early 1500’s, when widespread foreign exploration of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa (and various other areas) first began in earnest, many scientific facts were also, for the first time ever, being empirically proven and acknowledged throughout Europe, e.g., gravity; electricity; purely medical cures for disease, etc. As a result, long-held beliefs that natural occurrences and phenomena (e.g., floods; earthquakes; plagues), could only be explained as manifestations of God, were being challenged (and often disproved) for the first time. New discoveries and ideas, scientific and otherwise, increasingly made old “truths” seem (depending on who insisted on them, and in what circumstances) simple-minded and anachronistic, if not dogmatic, especially when they could be concretely proven false. One such well-known example was the belief, proved false by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century when sailing to the New World from Spain, that the world was flat.

These times of initial world exploration were eras of European conquest and self- actualization (to use a contemporary term). However, the protracted period of ruthless pillaging of Latin America and Africa and coercive domination of their peoples left both areas and their peoples depleted, of both human and natural resources, and therefore vastly worse off than before. Moreover, despite Latin America’s and Sub-Saharan Africa’s vast geographical distance from one another, and their diversity of natural resources; flora; fauna; climate, etc., both were essentially colonized by Europeans for the same key reasons, that is, to mine those areas’ rich untapped natural resources (e.g., gold; silver; diamonds; minerals, etc.) and thereby enrich the colonizing nations; and to expand geographical and political power, generally through coercion of native peoples.

A try and by the equally ruthless Portuguese, within Brazil (Bradshaw). Portugal was the first European nation to actively export slavery. According to Bradshaw et al.:

The Portuguese were the first European colonists [of Africa], reaching Angola in 1843, and establishing relations with the local Koago ruler. They visited the Mozambique coast in 1848 and ousted the Arab traders who had built coastal cities as centers for their Indian Ocean trade. The slave trade devastated both Angola and Mozambique as over three million slaves were taken to Brazil from Angola alone. (p. 369)

European colonization of Africa was also largely responsibly for African tribes’ migration, from outlying areas relatively distant from one another, to bigger (European-style) cities, creating more crowded conditions and resulting health problems, including malaria (to which African tribes, living far away from one another in the past, had been generally resistant, even though European colonizers themselves had not been so), and, more recently, but for that same reason, the epidemic spread of AIDS, throughout Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, among Sub-Saharan African nations. In the 21st century, such widespread poverty and disease have turned these once rich and vibrant African nations into wastelands. In around 1483 according to Bradshaw et al., “The slave trade devastated Angola and Mozambique as over 3 million slaves were taken to Brazil from Angola alone” (p. 368). from Sub-Saharan Africa during its colonization of Brazil. Sub-Saharan Africa itself was colonized not only by the Portuguese slave traders, but also by the Dutch; the British; and the French. As Bradshaw et al.

During colonization of both Africa and Latin America, European nations and their personal representatives (e.g., the Spanish conquistadores) were motivated by greed and (although to a lesser extent, and perhaps as a spiritual rationalization for that greed) a zeal to spread Christianity to “uncivilized” areas. To Latin America in particular, the Europeans also brought smallpox, which spread and wiped out vast numbers of indigenous New World populations (Diamond, 1999).

As Bradshaw et al. (2003) note similarly, colonial occupation of Latin American nations, by the Spanish and Portuguese:… “dramatically reduced the numbers of Native American peoples and consigned the survivors to an underclass left a legacy of ethnic strife and hindered economic development. Habits and attitudes born under colonialism affected the region’s countries for decades after colonialism.” (p. 451)

Bradshaw et al. further point out (pp. 421-426) that in particular, the Spanish conquerors of Mexico and Latin America, the most famous (or infamous) being Cortez in Mexico, and Pizarro in Peru, were mainly after gold, silver, and other indigenous natural resources.

Toward that end, the Portuguese aggressively harvested indigenous natural resources of Brazil in particular. The Portuguese were helped in this effort by their forced importation of millions of African slaves. They also enslaved indigenous Brazilian peoples for this purpose (Bradshaw, 2003; Diamond, 1999). Further, because of that, as Bradshaw et al. (2003) point out: “Large numbers of present-day Brazilians trace their ancestral heritage to African slaves” (p. 426).

The Spanish and Portuguese, however, were not the only nations to wish to capitalize on the rich natural resources of the New World. “French, Dutch, and British attempts to colonize Latin America came later, and were largely resisted by the Spanish and the Portuguese” (Bradshaw et al., p. 425)

Like Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa has mainly suffered, politically, socially, and economically, as a result of being colonized by outside forces. Today as a result, “Many countries in Africa south of the Sahara are short of the basic human resources and infrastructure needed to achieve slower population growth, faster economic development, and political democracy” (Bradshaw et al. p. 372). Further, as Bradshaw et al. state:

The history of African peoples before the coming of Arabs and Europeans was rich and sophisticated. It included organized kingdoms and empire with trading connections across the continent… However, the extension of global links with Arab, Asian, and European people in the last 1500 years was often to the disadvantage of the Africans. The slave trade and the arrogance of external powers brought undeserved low expectations of African abilities.

African people, whose ancestors were moved as slaves, now form significant populations in other parts of the world. (p. 364)

Moreover, the tendrils of massive European colonization of the regions today cling stubbornly to these areas, their largely depleted economies, and their peoples. Before European colonization, advanced civilizations like the Inca, Aztec, and Mayan ones flourished, as did similarly advanced African kingdoms. As Bradshaw et al. (2003) remind us: The history of African peoples before the coming of Arabs and Europeans was rich and sophisticated. It included organized kingdoms and empires with trading connections across the continent. ” (p. 364). Today by comparison, Africa is viewed by most of the world as a continent plagued by infectious diseases; by famine (see Bradshaw et al., p. 373); by tribal wars, and by widespread poverty, with comparatively little in the way of trade or natural resources to offer other parts of the world. Africa still suffers, also, from the erroneous perceptions, by European colonists of past centuries, that its people are backward, primitive, and unintelligent, and therefore “in need” of foreign intervention into their lives, traditions, customs, and values.

Latin America today suffers similarly in many ways, also an unfortunate legacy of past European invasion. Perhaps most interestingly, Brazil, the Latin American nation most ravaged by the Portuguese, suffers from an AIDS epidemic equal to those of parts of Africa. Indigenous peoples of Brazil, their numbers severely decreased by a smallpox epidemic brought by European settlers, live today in isolated pockets of Andean poverty. Some of Brazil’s indigenous tribes are so small today that they risk dying out within the next generation. Meanwhile, Brazil’s tropical rain forests continue today to be destroyed in the name of “progress,” wreaking havoc with our worldwide ecosystem.

Mexico, once home to some of the most advanced civilizations anywhere, the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs (Bradshaw et al., 2003), which was then ruthlessly conquered by Spanish conquistadores for centuries, and then left to struggle on its own after independence from Spain in 1821 (Bradshaw et al., 2000) has suffered, with Spanish rule as a model, from corruption in government ever since. Like many African nations, Mexico today is a poor country, having been stripped long ago of its once-rich natural resources. In the 21st century, American, European, and Asian trans-national corporations (e.g., General Motors; Toyota; Coca Cola; IBM; Nestle, etc., build plants in Mexico and Latin America, where indigenous labor is cheaper than American labor. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of poor Mexican citizens living in poverty struggle to sneak across the borders of the United States, into California, Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico, in hope of finding better lives by working for American dollars, instead of Mexican pesos.

All in all, European colonialism, an outgrowth and direct result of acquisitive worldwide European exploration and expansion, from the time of the Spanish conquistadores through the Enlightenment Period; through the Industrial Revolution and beyond, has done more harm than good within both Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. For the most part, within these regions, colonialism (and/or its long-lasting after-effects) brought disease; poverty, and much cultural coercion to those areas. Natural resources were stolen; human resources were abused or killed, often in the name of religion, but more truthfully, due to economic greed. The heydays of both Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America took place before European colonialism, or for that matter colonialism of any kind. Neither area of the world, moreover, has been at all well-off since. As Bradshaw states at the beginning of his Chapter 3, of Contemporary World Regional Geography (2003) “Europe is a hearth for many contemporary global ideas and practices.” Clearly, some of these, such as democracy, have made the world of the 21st century a better place. Other European ideas and practices, however, colonialism in particular have based on the examples of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, made the world much worse.

Works Cited

Bradshaw, Michael et al. Contemporary World Regional Geography: Global

Connections, Local Voices. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, 1999.

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