The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dismantling the Myths of Spanish Superiority

Conventional rhetoric concerning the historical defeat of the Europeans over indigenous cultures in Central and South America often rely on the “superiority” complex to explain the drastic dominance which the invaders displayed through the colonial era. The causes of whitewashing official history are simple; history must reflect official state doctrine and since often the ancestors of those who won (white Europeans) were generally the only ones with the financial ability to attend the university, they get to write history. Only in the last half century has this idea of historical “superiority” received any serious criticism from historians who have outlined approaches which combat it. One of those historians is Mathew Restall who dismisses the “myth of superiority” and provides readers with a much more material outlook than the unsubstantiated arguments provided by people like Michael Berliner who foam at the mouth with admiration at any sign of their beloved “objectively superior” (Restall 132) western culture and the ideological pillars which support it, despite how tenuous they may be.

The common ideas of the superiority of Spanish technology and weaponry do factor into the outcome. However, often these are severely overstated and ignore other crucial aspects of the genocide against the native peoples. More laughable reasons, such as the ability of the Spanish to convince God (it must be remembered, God is a military strategist) to be “on their side” or that the Spanish were just inherently “more confident” and thus more likely to rule, provide pseudo-historical abstractions which for a long time were commonly accepted frameworks of understanding the conquest. If one were to dig below the surface, however, it becomes easier to develop a historical analysis which makes a bit more sense than the simple “civilized Spanish” versus “barbarous natives” paradigm which plagues many historical accounts. Native allies, disunity among tribes and regions, the spread of infectious disease, steel swords (not necessarily guns or horses), cultural war techniques, and the threat to families and homes were much more important factors which should be attributed to the downfall of the natives.

A brief look at these common myths will strip them of their validity concerning the fall of the natives and the subsequent replacement with colonial regimes. A host of claims are made to either justify the expansion of the Europeans or to simply explain them in terms of technical, strategic, and moral superiority. Contemporary viewers on the colonial side obviously viewed the conquest as ordained by God; it was the Spanish duty to rule over these “heathens.” Of course, noting the Spanish barbarity, genocide, and institutions like slavery which intellectuals such as Dr. Juan Ginés de Sépulueda justified through Aristotle’s concept of “natural slaves,” it is rather hard to claim the Spanish were very civilized or “godly” people (CLA 81). Other reasons focus on the deficiency of the leaders’ military capabilities or the natives just naturally being to weak to fend off the Spanish. Moctezuma was “timorous and cowardly” while Cortés was “noble and valiant” (Restall 134). These juxtapositions are supposed to highlight the failings of the natives while glorifying the brilliance of the civilized Spanish. They ignore the much more vital reasons, as will be explained later (such as disease and disunity), which played a much more enormous role than a few mistakes or negative personal traits attributed to native leaders. Historians also like to claim that due to the Spanish peoples’ advanced writing and language system they were better able to communicate than the primitive natives and this justifies the destruction of native language to be replaced with “proper” speech (Restall 137-139). One wonders how the Aztecs and Incans created such grand civilizations, public works, and complex numerical devices with such “primitive” minds and inadequate communication. Perhaps the Spanish conquered because Cortés and Pizzaro were able to read the plethora of instruction manuals on colonialism that were all the rage in the sixteenth century.

These rather weak arguments for Spanish superiority simply fail the test. There are five basic reasons why the Europeans were able to conquer the Native American people. First, they had help, and a prodigious amount of it. A large majority of the killing and decimating of the native armies they did not have to do themselves; their germs did it for them. Disease was a major factor and one that is largely underestimated in conventional accounts. Smallpox, influenza, and a host of other diseases and illness which the indigenous people had no resistance to provided the Spanish with a severely weakened population. They spread quickly and killed even quicker. Coupled with extremely exploitative conditions such as forced labor and a lack of nutrition from Spanish warfare (cutting off food supplies, etc.), the natives were easily overrun. In many areas disease alone killed off nearly half the population while villages and towns reported numbers as high as 90% dead from disease (Restall 140-141).

The second reason is that Spanish were given help from the very beginning from other natives. Europeans relied on the disunity of the various tribes and regions and used them to play off each other. They would seek help from enemies of the large empires such as the Aztecs and Incans. Acting as guides, translators, and warriors, these natives were an invaluable resource to the Spanish. In some instances, the native allies on expeditions outdid the European invaders by ten to one. Without these native friends, it is nearly impossible to imagine the Spanish conquering as they did.

A third factor is weaponry. Natives were undoubtedly lacking in the technological advancements concerning firearms and cavalry. These factors, however, had a limited effect. The natives quickly learned how to remove the advantage of horses by tactical use of terrain or by learning to ride and raise horses themselves. The firearms at the time were highly inaccurate and took much longer to load than an arrow onto a bow. The real advantage the Spanish had were the steel short swords they used in hand to hand combat; they were just long enough to remain out of reach of native weaponry, durable enough to last long periods of time, and light enough to not be as pressing on the endurance of the Spanish. So, while advanced weaponry does play a part, it is not nearly as large an issue as some would make it (Restall 141-143).

The last two reasons provided by Restall are less easily studied and much more subjective. He contends that natives were hampered by certain war culture techniques, such as pre-war rituals which eliminated their ability to use surprise attacks. He also makes note that capturing enemies for sacrifice is harder than killing in combat and thus, natives were also set back by this. More important, he explains how the Spanish largely consisted of males who were either single or had family back in safe places (Europe or settlements) and, therefore, had very little to lose. The natives, on the other hand, had the loss of family, friends, and their homes to worry about; this made them more willing to compromise and more likely to become compliant if they felt they could save their loved ones and homes. These two positions, while much more subjective than the first three, are much better explanations than those of the “confident Spanish” proclaimed by past historians (Restall 144-145).

It is safe to say that Restall dismantles the prevailing myths of Spanish superiority. It is also safe to say that just because one attempts to dispel these myths and explicate truthful, grounded reasons for the fall of the natives, does not mean that all in native culture was fair and equitable. European and native cultures were very different in many ways, but each had unique contributions and striking similarities (the desire of empires to expand, for instance). Each had barbarity and brutality, its own unique social and economic hierarchy; each lacked the principles of modern societal standards such as political democracy and neither were in the position to seriously consider economic democracy. It is unfair, however, to promote the superiority of Spanish culture while in an attempt to shadow over the fascinating and highly evolved native societies. Dismantling the conventional historical dogma surrounding native culture and European conquest is essential to developing a history based upon material reality rather than subjective moral abstractions.


Burkholder, Mark A., and Lyman, Johnson L., Colonial Latin America, Sixth Edition, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Restall, Mathew, Seven Myths of Spanish Conquest (Chapter 7: Apes and Men, The Myth of Superiority).

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