In the 15th century Christopher Columbus, who was well-read in geographical and theological literature and had extensive maritime experience, believed he could steer a westward course across the Atlantic to Asia. Failing to gain support for his project in Portugal, he decided to move to Spain, where politically favorable circumstances and good fortune led the Catholic monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, to approve the venture.
Columbus set forth commanding three small ships, and after a long, drawn-out journey, landed on the coast of a Caribbean island. Thus commenced the Spanish conquest of America. The widely published report of the 1492 voyage granted Christopher Columbus widespread European recognition, and secured him the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. More importantly, it enabled him to obtain further royal patronage and thus lead three more expeditions to the Caribbean (although Columbus continued to believe that he had reached Asia).
The Aztec and the Inca empires in Mexico were conquered by Spain in the 16th century, while the territory that would eventually become the US was explored by Hernando de Soto and Cabeza de Vaca. They later travelled extensively through eastern and central United States, reaching what is now Chicago, and for three years hoped to cross the sea to China, considered to be the finest market in the world. Cabeza de Vaca's journey from Florida to the Mexican Gulf is described in his logbook Naufragios, which also recounts his shipwreck. He and five other men had been living among the natives in what is now Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Early in 1536 they came across Spanish soldiers on a slave expedition in Northern Mexico, and by July they had arrived in Mexico City.
Mexican territory was conquered by Hernan Cortes. The Aztec people believed Cortes to be their white-skinned god Quetzalcoatlin, a belief which facilitated the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish fleet had landed in Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz in February 1519, and by the month of November, commanded by Cortes, they entered Tenochtitlan and arrested the Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma. Within two years Cortes had completely overthrown the Aztec Empire, securing control of Tenochtitlan and its surrounding territories, upon the ruins of which he would build Mexico City.
In 1532 the Inca Empire was conquered by Francisco Pizarro, whose men kidnapped Emperor Atahualpa in exchange for a ransom of gold and silver; once the ransom was paid, however, Atahualpa was murdered.
This article was originally presented as part of The 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference. You can read the article along with two commentaries and discussion at http://compassconference.wordpress.com/2009/10/19/conference-paper-language-and-communication-in-the-spanish-conquest-of-america/. One of the central questions arising from the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians concerns language and communication. An encounter between two peoples that had not known about the other’s existence – an encounter that scholars have long characterized as a clash of cultures – raises the question of how they managed to communicate with each other. Over 25 years ago, Tzvetan Todorov put forth one way of linking communication and conquest when he argued that Europeans conquered the Amerindians through their superior ability to understand ‘the Other’. More generally, he contended that Western Europeans had a general ‘superiority in human communication’, demonstrated by the fact that they used alphabetic writing (Todorov 251). For Todorov, Europeans displayed ‘remarkable qualities of flexibility and improvisation’, characteristics that allowed them to be more effective in imposing their ways of life on others (Todorov 247–8). They were so successful, Todorov argues, that in the centuries following the initial encounter between Europeans and Amerindians, Europeans were able to gradually assimilate the Other and eliminate alterity. While Todorov’s 1982 work initially received much acclaim, since then several scholars have challenged (directly and indirectly) his claims by subjecting the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians to further study. Scholars have questioned the extent to which these groups were able to communicate with one another, and in some cases, they have questioned what Spanish conquest, authority, and domination actually mean when Spaniards and Indians had such difficulty communicating their ideas to one another. By posing these questions, scholars of varied backgrounds in anthropology, history, religion, and art history have fundamentally reshaped the field of colonial Latin American studies. While they have shown that barriers impeded communication and understanding between Amerindians and Europeans, scholars have also demonstrated that both groups made important contributions to new cultural and religious syntheses. This article will explore a range of scholarly works over the past 25 years that responds to the question of how language and communication are interrelated with conquest.