Colonialism is all about the exercise of power and its consequences. Theoretically, the exercise of power entails the interaction of at least two parties negotiating (by various means or practices) their wills on one or more issues, as shown by their various actions or statements. This definition holds for interactions of both individuals and institutions. The imposition of one state's will over another is the essence of colonialism. This phenomenon can be observed in a formal sense, when, for example, a mother country dominates a colony, as Spain and Portugal controlled their kingdoms in the Americas. It can also be seen in an informal sense, when the British government pressured Argentine representatives to repay the Baring Brothers' loan in the nineteenth century.
The history of colonialism, which has been a ubiquitous part of the history of the Americas for centuries, can be divided into four parts: pre-Colombian native imperialism; early modern European colonialism; new colonialism (in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries); and neocolonialism, which came to dominate especially after World War II. Archaeologists and historians have described two major pre-Columbian empires in this hemisphere. In the first, the Nahuatl-speaking people, who called themselves the Mexica, dominated the far-flung "Aztec" empire, which was akin to a loose confederation of city-states under one dominant power. The second great indigenous imperial regime was that of the Inca in South America. Because the Inca required all peoples newly incorporated into the empire to add the Inca Sun god to their religious hierarchy, to learn to communicate in the Quechua language, and to serve the Inca state as requested, they established an empire that was more unified and homogeneous than their counterparts in Mexico.
The age of modern colonialism began in the fifteenth century with the rise of modern nation-states and the beginning of European exploration and discovery. Both of the pre-Columbian empires of the Americas were subsequently conquered and colonized by the Spanish. Representatives of the Spanish crown quickly reorganized the indigenous population to facilitate their rule. To anchor Spaniards in place, colonial authorities—beginning with Hernando Cortez in North America and Francisco Pizarro in South America—gave to their followers grants of native peoples and the rights to their labor—called encomiendas. Thus imperial fiat created a new Spanish elite. The grantees or encomenderos ruled the native population at will until reports of misuse, exploitation, and the attendant demographic catastrophe motivated the king to establish a government to implement his law and will.
In Spain, the Council of the Indies (Consejo de Indias) was created to study and make policy for the New World, advise the king, and settle important court cases on appeal. The crown created the House of Trade (Casa de la Contratación) in Seville to regulate commerce, collect taxes, and license immigrants. In America, viceroys represented the monarch's person. Supreme courts (real audiencias) and treasury departments (real haciendas) were also established. Local representation of the king was entrusted to district governors, or corregidores. Each Spanish city had a town council (cabildo) that was entrusted with overseeing the urban population, planning and growth, sanitation, and law and order. Because the overseas state remained relatively unelaborated and weak under the Habsburgs, the Spanish king relied on the church to help rule. The church provided education to a select few; kept the baptismal, marriage, and burial records; served as a source of capital; provided the moral underpinnings of order; oversaw charity; and proved a ready channel of communication for royal mandates.
Under the Habsburg kings, the colonies provided the mother country with agricultural commodities, precious metals, and exotic products, and proved a ready and profitable market for manufactured goods, which were increasingly made elsewhere in Europe but shipped in Spanish ships in exchange for Spanish civilization and culture (language, religion, and lifeways), manufactured goods, and law and governance. Because Habsburg bureaucratic jurisdictions remained blurred and overlapping, this partnership between church and state resulted in a flexible and long-lasting system of rule that, because of the distances and difficulties in communication, gave many American districts a measure of local autonomy.
In 1700, the Bourbons inherited the Spanish kingdoms. They realized that Spain's global power had waned since the late sixteenth century and that the American kingdoms were deficient in supplying the mother country with sufficient revenues to justify their new designation as colonies. Therefore the Bourbons set about reforming the colonial structure and its personnel (1) to defend the overseas kingdoms from the encroachment of the Dutch, the French, and the British, who all wanted footholds in the Americas and access to their raw materials and markets; (2) to rationalize the administration of the New World kingdoms; and (3) to maximize the revenues flowing into the royal treasury of Spain. The Bourbons did this in stages—working on the reforms first at home in the peninsula, then in the Caribbean, next in New Spain, and finally in Peru. Among the reforms were (1) the expulsion of the Jesuit order on charges of disloyalty and sedition (teaching new and prohibited treasonous ideas associated with Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu); (2) the creation of the two new viceroyalties of New Granada (1717, 1739) and La Plata (1776) from the viceroyalty of Peru, ostensibly to bring justice closer to the settlers; (3) the replacement of the creole corregidor system of local administration with that of an intendente system of peninsular-born royal officials who enjoyed higher status and broader jurisdiction; (4) the renewal of the tax system to increase some levies (e.g., the sales tax) and create new ones (e.g., the tobacco monopoly); (5) the creation of the first true military organization (for defense); (6) the promotion of new technology (for example, pumps and the Born process to increase the productivity of the mines); and (7) the passage of legislation opening up trade.
These reforms alienated (1) the church, because of the monarch's growing anticlericalism; (2) creole families, because the Jesuits had been the favored educators of elite sons; (3) creole corregidores, who were replaced with peninsular-born intendentes; (4) people of mixed blood (i.e., the castas), who were particularly hard hit by increasing taxes; (5) creole militiamen, who resented the fact that the new military organization allowed persons of mixed blood to join; (6) miners, who wondered why it had taken the crown so long to send them the pump that could solve their flooding problems; (7) large wholesale merchants, who lost their monopoly on import supply; and (8) provincial towns that lost the business from overland traffic of mule teams and llama caravans in the Andes as new seaports were opened up for freer trade.
In the short run, the reforms did improve security, administrative expediency, and tax revenues. But in the long run, the imposition of the will of the mother country stifled local autonomy and was interpreted as a threat to the sociopolitical and economic interests of the creoles, causing enough resentment to heighten the desire for independence. Independence, which split the Spanish-American colonies into more than twenty separate countries in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, ended the formal unequal exchange between Spain and its American colonies.
Portuguese colonization followed the same general outlines, with some notable differences. The Portuguese overseas government in Brazil was established in the middle of the sixteenth century in part to prevent the French and other foreign interlopers from taking control of selected areas. The flight of the royal family and its court from Napoleon in 1807 and arrival in Brazil in 1808 and the presence of the royal family in the early nineteenth century resulted in a controlled independence and rule by members of the royal family, Pedro I and Pedro II, as kings of a separate Portuguese kingdom. Pedro II ruled in a relatively enlightened way, but resentment mounted nonetheless, culminating with the issuance in 1888 of the "Golden Law," freeing the slaves, that fatally undermined support for his rule and led to his exile in 1889.
Independence, which foreshadowed the age of new imperialism, however, did not bring the new republican governments total control over their own affairs. The new nations were politically independent but became subject to foreign invasions and state-to-state pressures over debts and the maintenance of law and order. Europe's industries were eager to find sources of raw materials and new markets. Investors willingly exported capital. As mentioned above, the Argentine government defaulted on its first loan, subjecting it to years of informal British diplomatic pressure for repayment. Further north, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean nations faced invasion to collect similar debts, as when the Spanish, French, and British governments sent troops into Mexico during the rule of the constitutionally elected presidency of Benito Juárez to collect overdue moneys.
In the twentieth century, the term "neocolonialism" referred to informal economic ties and the growing predominance of the cultures and values of the former colonial powers by which they continued to influence the cultures and outlooks of Latin-American states. Unequal terms of trade exacerbated Latin America's relations with the rest of the world as more and more products (such as bananas, coffee, sugar, and tin) were needed to buy the same or equivalent imported products. Resentment at this situation stimulated a rich intellectual life across the continent in the twentieth century; in fields as varied as economics, political philosophy, literature, and art, anti-imperialism was a hallmark of a distinctively Latin American form of modernism.
Deteriorating terms of trade and dependency on other world powers have split the populations of the various countries. The elites support the foreign loans, aid, and close trading relations because they are importers and exporters who profit from such relations or the bankers, lawyers, and politicians who negotiate the loans, write the contracts, and collect the fees for their efforts. Nationalists, in contrast, are against such dealings, arguing that their nations export low-priced products to buy relatively high-cost manufactured goods that are often inappropriate technologically to the needs of the majority of their people. These nations also pay out more in principal, interest, fees, and patent and licensing costs than they take in, thus exacerbating inequality between countries and within their own nations, perpetuating their subordinate status, inequality, and poverty.
In addition, nationalists claim that the ruling elites colonize their own compatriots, in that provincial producers sell their local products—be it oranges or potatoes—at low prices and buy high-priced manufactured goods in return. In addition, the provinces send taxes to the capital and get much less back in the form of public works and services (such as schools)—a form of internal colonialism.
Such unequal relations have left a legacy of inequality and growing suspicion of and covert and overt resistance to the rule-makers at home and abroad. Under the Habsburgs, colonial populations resisted, saying, "obedesco pero no cumplo" (I obey but will not comply), implying that they recognized that the king had the right to issue the law but that if he had been better informed, he would not have done so. While they informed him of their circumstances and the reasons why the decree is not wise, it was not locally enforced. Increasingly this practice has been replaced by the attitude summarized as "hecho la ley, hecho la trampa" (a law passed is a law bypassed [by cheating, trickery, cleverness, or deceit]). This shows the growing cynicism and intolerance of the general population to their governments, international agencies, and unequal relations with the more developed world.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the picture is mixed. The fall of the Soviet Union has undermined the sense of any alternative to U.S. capitalism; at the same time, however, the disastrous economic situation that has resulted from neoliberal reforms—the latest set of policies imposed by international creditors on Latin-American nations—has fueled a new sense of resentment. At the same time, a militant desire for functioning democracy, transparency, and an end to corruption has fostered the growth of a wide variety of grassroots political movements. But for many, the only solution is to migrate, legally or illegally, north—into what a previous generation of anticolonialist Latin Americans called "the belly of the beast."
Susan Elizabeth Ramirez
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