Culture 08/02/2022

"Only a neo-Francoist discourse can defend that Castilian colonialism had positive aspects."

Antonio Espino demolishes all the myths about the invasion of America and details its extreme violence

4 min
A group of aborigines attacked by dogs in an illustration by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598).

Barcelona"We know about it since Christopher Columbus's second voyage, because there are thousands and thousands of documented references: the circumstances of the invasion of America were terrible, terror and extreme violence were used, but Spain is a self-conscious country and refuses to accept it," says historian and professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) Antonio Espino (Córdoba, 1966), who has just published  La invasión de América. Una nueva lectura de la conquista hispana de América: una historia de violencia y destrucción [The Invasion of America. A New Reading of the Hispanic Conquest of America: A History of Violence and Destruction] (Arpa), an expanded revision of the book he published with RBA in 2013.

Espino refutes all the discourses that are so fashionable lately and that defend that the arrival of Colombus and the subsequent colonization of America had positive aspects. "There was nothing positive," he says. The historian demonstrates this by breaking down several episodes, all documented, of massacres, rapes and tortures. "Only a neo-Francoist discourse can defend that Castilian colonialism had positive aspects," he says. "During the Franco era, a strong discourse was created around the Hispanic and Spanish nation that unfortunately has been repeated". This discourse, currently spread by some historians and right-wing political parties, explains the invasion of America as a great deed and defends that imperialism was good because it brought civilization, culture, technology, the Christian faith and a universal language. "It is the same speech that Felipe VI made just a week ago in Puerto Rico; it was a misplaced speech, he ought to be better informed," Espino adds.

Espino is a great expert on the American invasion, he has works such as Vencer o morir. Una historia militar de la conquista de México [Victory or Death. A Military History of the Conquest of Mexico] (2021) and Plata y sangre. La Conquista del Imperio Inca y las Guerras Civiles de Perú [Silver and blood. The Conquest of the Inca Empire and the Civil Wars of Peru] (2019). For him, it is surprising that in the 21st century there has been no positive evolution, but rather the opposite: current discourses are even more retrograde than a few centuries ago

The author of the book prefers to speak of invasion and not of conquest, because the second verb has positive connotations, since it can indicate that we have achieved something with effort, dedication and skill; the verb invade is more unequivocal. It was groups of volunteers who went to America. "They made the decision to go to the new lands and gambled by crossing the Atlantic to get booty," he explains. Some of them had experience in frontier warfare, because they lived in a rather violent context: the war against Islam and the conquest of the Canary Islands. In all cases, the defeated population became slaves. "The culture was that you had to exploit the one who was different," the historian specifies.

These groups of volunteers were not an army but small groups of a hundred or even fewer people. "They had little chance of survival, they had to use extreme violence and terrorise the population during their campaigns until they allied with aboriginal groups," Espino explains. Terror was the way to impose themselves over large masses of population. Bartolomé de las Casas explains it in one of his chronicles: "They did unheard-of cruelties to the Indians, such as cutting off noses, arms and legs, and women's breasts, and they threw them into the water with weights around their ankles. They stabbed the children because they did not walk fast enough and if they were carried them on their backs they got sick, or if they did not walk as fast as the others they cut off their heads".

Women and their children, victims of exploitation

Espino devotes many pages to detailing and documenting this extreme cruelty. There were massacres, executions at the stake, impalements, killings with dogs, hangings.... And the exhibition of tortured corpses. Not only women suffered rapes and all kinds of aggressions, but also their children. The priest Martín González explains that in the 1570s there were many abortions and infanticides because women preferred to kill their children rather than see them die in the holes dug in the ground where they had to leave them while they worked. "These neo-Francoist discourses speak of miscegenation as a contribution, as if it were the fruit of an agreement, and it was a forced miscegenation. In the 16th century only 25% of those who travelled to America were women. The use and abuse of the enemy's women was a very common practice," says Espino.

Alliances with the native population were essential, but how did they come about? The invaders took advantage of fights and rivalries between neighbours. Espino highlights the massacre of Cholula, during Hernán Cortés's campaign against the Mexican empire (1519-1521). The chronicles say that after a five-hour battle there were 6,000 corpses. Cortés himself writes: "We gave such a hand, that in two hours more than three thousand men died". And he makes the following reflection: "I agreed to prevent rather than being prevented". When Hernán Cortés obtained the alliance of the Tlaxcalans, he decided to carry out this slaughter. "It was his way of showing that they could trust him and that he was willing to do anything, but it was also a way for them to see what he was capable of doing if they betrayed him," Espino explains.

The first civil war in overseas colonies was Spanish

Among some of the singularities of Spanish imperialism is the first civil war in an overseas colony. It was during the invasion of Peru, between the Pizarro brothers and Diego de Almagro. "It was a war originated by greed that lasted for a long time, from 1537 to 1554," explains Espino. Francisco Pizarro ended badly, he was killed.

"We talk about great conquerors who triumphed, even though some of them had a bad end or a very short political career, but we do not talk about the thousands who died in a hard and miserable way and of whom the Hispanic monarchy took advantage" the historian explains. "It took advantage of them in a stark way, because all these volunteers conquered a whole continent and the monarchy got it practically for free, since they didn't have to send a large army".