Key developments of 1531 (and notes on Spain’s early-16th century empire)

Most of the developments I’m noting from 1531 CE relate to Spain’s still rapidly growing transatlantic empire– see more on this, below. Within Europe during this year, various Catholic-Protestant things were happening, though nothing that stands out. But the first two items here concern two large pre-Western empires in Africa…

  • 1531 saw two large battles in East Africa between the Ethiopian Empire and the Adal Sultanate. English-WP tells us that between 1529 and 1543, the Adal leader, Imam Ahmed al-Ghazi, “defeated several Ethiopian emperors and embarked on a conquest referred to as the Futuh Al-Habash (‘Conquest of Abyssinia’), which brought three-quarters of Christian Abyssinia under the power of the Muslim Sultanate of Adal.” With an army mainly composed of Somalis, Al-Ghazi’s forces and their Ottoman allies almost snuffed out the ancient Ethiopian kingdom. But the Abyssinians survived with some help from Portuguese troops. English-WP tells us that both the Ethiopians and the Adals exhausted their resources and manpower through the battles, “which resulted in the contraction of both powers and changed regional dynamics for centuries to come.”
  • In West  Africa, in  April, Emperor Askia Musa of the Songhai Empire— a successor to the Mali Empire– was assassinated by his relatives. English-WOP tells us: “At its peak, the Songhai city of Timbuktu became a thriving cultural and commercial center. Arab, Italian, and Jewish merchants all gathered for trade. A revival of Islamic scholarship also took place at the university in Timbuktu… However, Timbuktu was but one of a myriad of cities throughout the empire. By 1500, the Songhai Empire covered over 1.4 million square kilometers…” After Musa’s overthrow in 1531 it went into decline and in 1590 nearby Morocco destroyed the entire Songhai army.

So, the Spanish Empire. In 1531:

  • In April, veteran conquistador Franciso Pizarro, who had gotten Charles V’s permission to conquer Peru, was on his way there and along the way fought a battle with the Indigenous defenders of the island of Puná, off the (Pacific) coast of Ecuador, which he won.
  • In April, the city of Puebla, Mexico, was founded.
  • In June, the city of San Juan del Río, Mexico, was founded.
  • In July, the city of Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico was founded.
  • At some point in the year, conquistador Francisco de Montejo claimed Chichen Itza as capital of Spanish-ruled Yucatán.
  • Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor abolished the worst abuses of the encomienda system, under pressure from Fra Bartolomé de las Casas.

Finally: the image above is a painting the Mexican artist Diego Rivera did in 1930 to illustrate the Aztec creation story, the Popol Vuh. Now in the U.S. Library of Congress.

Notes on Spain’s early-16th century empire

So here’s what I was puzzling over. The Portuguese had been steadily working away since the early 15th century CE on building their globe-girdling trading empire, which around the rim of the Indian Ocean was built up mainly on the principle of securing trading agreements with the existing authorities in key port cities (though down the coast of West Africa their activities were much more predatory.) So then, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs who united Castile and Aragon into the single entity later called “Spain”, sent out Christopher Columbus west across the Atlantic. He “discovered” America (though he thought it was the East Indies.) And the Spanish authorities fairly rapidly figured out three things: (1) that it is possible to sail their relatively large boats across the Atlantic and back with a level of losses that is acceptable; (2) that there are things of value across on the Atlantic’s further shores; and (3) that the weaponry and technology that they themselves have is capable of subduing any opposition the Indigenes of those lands might mount.

The rest, in a sense, is history. That is, the history of: the truly large-scale capture and occupation by the Spanish conquistadores of vast stretches of land along the coasts of the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific coast of Central/South America, and large areas even of the interiors of those lands; and the implantation into those lands of enough Spanish armed settlers and administrators to be able to control it and start extracting massive wealth from it.

All this, and in 1531 not yet 40 years have passed since 1492!

If you want to set out to plan and commit what Raphael Lemkin, the originator of the whole theory (and terminology) of the concept of genocide, has judged to be the largest mass genocide in human history, then the Spanish succeeded amazingly well, and amazingly rapidly.

What were the sources of that success?

The first thing to understand, I believe, is that when Ferdinand and Isabella walked into Granada in 1492, in the final act of the “Reconquista“– that is, the (re-)taking by Christian rulers in the Iberian Peninsula of lands and city-states that for centuries had been governed by Muslims– that was not an overnight phenomenon but the end of a 780-long process. They were heirs to a long-practiced system of governance that knew what to do to conquered peoples: that is, how to both control and exploit them.

The main vehicle that had been built up during the centuries of the Reconquista was something called the encomienda system. English-WP describes it thus:

The encomienda (Spanish pronunciation: [eŋkoˈmjenda] (About this soundlisten)) was a Spanish labor system that rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of conquered non-Christian people. The laborers, in theory, were provided with benefits by the conquerors for whom they labored, the Catholic religion being a principal benefit. The encomienda was first established in Spain following the Christian conquest of Moorish territories (known to Christians as the Reconquista), and it was applied on a much larger scale during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Spanish Philippines. Conquered peoples were considered vassals of the Spanish monarch. The Crown awarded an encomienda as a grant to a particular individual. In the conquest era of the sixteenth century, the grants were considered to be a monopoly on the labor of particular groups of indigenous peoples, held in perpetuity by the grant holder, called the encomendero, and his or her descendants.

So those conquistadores we’ve seen being so active during the 1520s knew what they wanted to do in the Americas. In addition, they had command of the maritime and military technologies they needed in order to do it– along with the well-developed  adminisitrative and financing mechanisms back home in Spain that supported their endeavors in a continuing way.

Of course, there were disagreements among the conquistadores. But the governing system back home in Spain seemed capable of keeping them in check. And of course there was resistance– sometimes very fierce– from the Indigenous people defending their own homelands. But the conquistadores were always able to subdue the indigenes, including by the use of extreme brutality. Later, too, there were numerous insurrections/rebellions by local, conquistador-origined administrations against the Spanish metropole. But by then, the Hispanicization and the Catholicization of nearly all corners of South and Central America (and Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Phillippines, etc) had been completed. Large portions of the world had been remade in Spain’s own image.

Later, I’ll have a lot to say about the brutality of Spain’s empire-building– and how it provided a template that England, France, and other yet-to-emerge European-imperial powers would follow. Also, about how some “religious” people in all those imperial projects, like Fra Bartolomé de las Casas in 1531, wrestled to try to reconcile their horrified understanding of what their own people were doing– and very often in the name of “Christianization” itself– with their reading of Jesus’s message.

On that note, I still remember what a Native American friend told me years ago: “When your people came here, we had the land and they had the Bible. Within a few decades, we had the Bible and your people had the land.”