Though the ‘Great Discoveries’ of the late fifteenth century were part of a continuum of European exploration and colonisation stretching back several centuries, the colonial conquests of Spain and Portugal in the Americas constituted a great break in human history. The indigenous peoples — possibly numbering 100 million in 1492 (Lockhart and Schwartz, 1983, p. 36) — had been isolated for so long from the rest of the human gene pool that they had no inherited immunities to ‘Old World’ pathogens and were tragically vulnerable to ‘virgin soil’ epidemics. Stricken populations were unable to resist alien conquest and, within a single generation of Cortés’s expedition to Mexico (1519–22), the most densely settled regions had been brought under Spanish rule. The Catholic monarchs’ new subjects practised advanced agriculture, and lived in hierarchical societies with complex political structures, but money and the payment of labour were unknown and precious metals were used for artefacts, not regular exchange. Tribute in labour and kind was rendered to the dominant strata (Gibson, 1984, p. 401). The conquerors sought to replicate the social order they had left behind in Europe by grafting the urban institutions of Castile onto the New World. To the rule over the ‘Indians’, they brought habits of mind formed in the centuries-long reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from Islam.
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