los conquistadors


Having set foot on a tiny parcel of land in the continent of South America it seemed time to consider it a little more. Partly because like all places in the Southern Hemisphere this continent has been colonised. A few hundred years before New Zealand and by different people. Spanish vs British. Conquered before colonised.

Michael Wood’s book is an easy read scattered with anecdotes and reflections on the voyages he has made to retrace the steps of the first conquerors.

It all seems a mass of what is euphemistically called the Columbian exchange – “….violence, death and destruction on a scale unknown until then. Smallpox, malaria, measles and many sexually transmitted diseases were among the bequests of the Old World to the New.” (p.17).

Cortes and the Aztecs, the awful Pizarro brothers and family in Peru and the end of the Inca cities and empire and the thirst for el dorado. Sixteenth century chronicler Waman Poma notes this thirst for gold – as if they would eat it. Amongst these horrors is the intrepid Orellana who walks his way to the Amazon encountering confederations of 4 million (est) tribal people and empires (Machiparo and Omagua). For me the heroes are Cabeza de Vaca and Fr Bartolome de las Casas.

De Vaca, in 1528, stuck in Florida, starving, with many crew dead, is taken in by local tribal people (Karankawas then Coahuiltecans) and taught to heal, learns the language and customs, but decides with a few friends to head south into Mexico. The Sierra Madre is in the way and they follow the “Shell Trail” – estimated to be several thousand years old. On this trail he becomes known for his healing powers, learns more languages and experiences the culture, customs and friendship of the local people. When he with an African and 11 Indians finally reach the Spanish in 1536 near the Sinloa River he finds them rough slave hunters who want to enslave, rape and/or kill the Indians – his friends. Woods portrays this adventure as one of discovery of the Other and the Self. De Vaca ends his days poverty-stricken and unhappy, and his understanding of and knowledge about the indigenous people of South America of no consequence to his compatriots.

Fr de las Casas was a Dominican friar who lived in and travelled about South America. He wrote a book called A short account of the destruction of the Indies. and while he may have encouraged the transatlantic slave trade, he did try to bring to the Spanish crown the horror of what was happening.

King Charles V orders all conquests of Spain to stop and in Valladolid (1550) in Spain there is a discussion about whether or not Indians are human. It is agreed that they are and therefore have rights. However the ban is lifted and further conquests occur.

Abel Tasman arrives in New Zealand in 1642. He travels about, has a battle with some local Māori, charts the land and goes. In 1768 Captain Cook sets sail and his instructions include ” You are likewise to observe the Genius, Temper, Disposition and Number of the Natives, if there be any and endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a Friendship and Alliance with them, making them presents of such Trifles as they may Value inviting them to Traffick,
and Shewing them every kind of Civility and Regard; taking Care however not to suffer yourself to be surprized by them, but to be always upon your guard against any Accidents. You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take Possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain: Or: if you find the Country uninhabited take Possession for his Majesty by setting up Proper Marks and Inscriptions, as first discoverers and possessors.” http://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/resources/transcripts/nsw1_doc_1768.pdf

Two hundred years make a difference. I guess the Brits also realised there wasn’t much gold here.


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