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Was the Spanish Conquest Genocide?

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Does the Spanish Conquest constitute genocide? Do you agree or disagree?

The late 1400’s brought about the period of colonial expansion, initiated under the crown of Castile and the Spanish Conquistadors. This expansion continued over the next 4 centuries, seeing the Spanish Empire expand over most of Central and South America. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire and the Incas spanned over decades and was not a peaceful conquest without bloodshed. The Conquista unleashed violence, death and destruction on a scale unknown until then. Charny acknowledged that it was possible for genocide to occur during the process of colonisation, as seen in the colonising of North America and similarly in Australia. This essay will discuss the various elements of genocide as defined by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, as well as other sources. Through this discussion, the essay will relate it to circumstances and events related to the Spanish Conquest of Latin America, discussing the possibility of a connection between the conquest and genocide.

There are a number of elements that must be satisfied in order to find a case for genocide. When defining an act of genocide, the UN definition is the internationally recognised and the framework by which this essay will follow when referring to an act of genocide. As found in the UN definition of genocide; the act committed must have the intent to destroy the target, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group. Break down the elements of the definition and the following must be satisfied to define an act as genocide; intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group. This is achieved by; killing, causing serious bodily harm or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions to bring about their destruction or preventing births within the group. It must be noted by way of summarising Article 2, of the UN Convention, that the destruction of a group can be in ‘whole or in part’, which is not specifically defined in the Convention. The Convention also spells out that in order for a case for genocide to be successful, the intent of the perpetrators must be established and proven through evidence.

There has been academic dispute over the interpretation and definition of the term genocide, ever since Raphael Lemkin first coined it. Genocide has been misinterpreted in many occasions, sometimes used to describe crimes against humanity, gross violations of human rights or crimes committed during wartime. The UN Convention conforms that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or war, is a crime under international law. Lemkin’s Historical Sociological theory of genocide demonstrates that specific cases of European imperial violence have the potential to be interpreted as genocide, but that it is because genocide is sometimes best understood as an extreme form of colonisation.In order to determine whether there is a case for genocide in Latin America, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, this essay will address the 8 stages of genocide penned by Gregory H. Stanton, in his ‘Early Warning’ developmental model of preventing genocide. Stanton explains that genocide is a ‘process that develops in eight stages that are predictable but not inexorable’. This essay will address the eight stages of genocide and attempt to relate them back to the conquest of Latin America in order to determine whether or not there is a convincing case for genocide.

The eight stages of genocide are; ‘classification (us vs. them), symbolisation, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, extermination and denial’. Whilst Stanton’s model is designed to serve as an early warning system for the detection of genocide, it is just as instrumental in its retrospective application to past incidents. Genocidal priming is a set of processes that establish the preconditions for genocide to take place within a given socio-political context, such as the Spanish Conquest.

The concept of classification is prominent in all cultures, old and new. The native Latin American’s had the ‘us vs. them’ mentality between rivalling tribes, seeing each tribe as significantly different when the Spanish saw them all as barbarians. The Spanish saw the natives as a backward and uncivilised group; it was almost impossible, throughout this whole period of colonisation, for the Spanish to regard the indigenous peoples as human. Due to their lower status in society, the Native Indians were exposed to exploitation in many ways. An example of this was the way that the Spanish installed Encomiendas (regional governors) in charge of a region and the people who lived there. Most regions soon began industrialising, most commonly in the form of mines, and the Indians were ‘employed’ to work in the mines in return for food and payment. However, most of the time, the workers never saw any of the money they earned as the managers would offer advanced loans to the workers, leaving the workers in debt for the remainder of their lives. The psychological effects of the encomienda, and the exploitation of labour it produced, are widely blamed for many Indian deaths.

Symbolisation and classification are collectively human and do not necessarily lead to genocide unless joined with dehumanisation. The Spaniards categorised all natives as Indian, even though the natives themselves saw the differences between tribes. To the Mayans, the Incas were just as different as the Aztec, but to the Spanish they were all Indians and all barbarians. However, in comparison to other cases of genocide, one must acknowledge that the symbolisation in this circumstance is insignificant. The native peoples did suffer a drastic decline in their numbers due to the impact of frontier settlement but the intent of the Spanish was not to destroy them. In regard to addressing a case of genocide, intent is the crux of the argument and analysis. If the intent of the perpetrator isn’t to destroy, in whole or in part, a group of people, then the action does not constitute genocide. In the case of the conquest of Latin America, the intent of the Spanish Conquistadors was not to destroy the natives, it was to colonise the land for political power and recognition.

The conquest of Latin America lacks one integral element necessary to be legally recognised as genocide. Dehumanisation is not present to the extent required to qualify as a genocidal precondition. The Latin American natives were not entirely deprived of their basic human rights or cultural identity. Though exploitive, the industrial economy established by the Spanish, as well as the further conquests, offered natives the opportunity for employment. A native conquistador had the opportunity to earn their freedom and a grant at the end of their service in the Spanish army. In this circumstance, dehumanisation fails to be found present, making it more difficult for one to find a case for genocide in the Spanish conquest of Latin America.

Genocide that occurs during the course of colonisation or the development of a territory belonging to an indigenous people, or any other consolidation of political or economic power through mass killing of those perceived to be standing in the way, provides a strong case for genocide on the international stage. The organisation of such actions is a vital precondition of genocide, as it provides proof that the power in charge gave permission, either directly or indirectly, for such acts to be carried out in order to achieve their goal. Andreopoulos argues that ‘it was desirable to reduce the numbers of the native peoples to the level at which they could no longer ‘block’ progress’. The organisation of such mass killings are normally prevented on a legal basis by the UN and other enforcing powers, however, since the UN was not in existence when the conquest took place we must look at the actions taken by the other world powers at the time. Whilst we are correct in stating that the Dutch and English powers took action against the Spanish, it was not in the interests of the natives but in the self-interest of the other countries, wanting a piece of South America to themselves.

As step five and six respectively, polarisation and preparation are not so apparent in the conquest of Latin America. It has previously been acknowledged that exploitation was present in the conquest and subsequent colonisation but it failed to go as far as polarisation and preparation through cultural separation. Spanish settlement in the ‘Americas almost certainly resulted in a sharp decline in the number of Indians in Latin America, but this was not caused by a deliberate policy of extermination in any obvious or straightforward sense’.

Denial is the final stage that follows genocide and is amongst the surest indicators that further genocidal massacres will follow. In modern day cases, the response to denial is punishment from an international court of law or tribunal. There are varying accounts of the conquest, which makes it difficult to determine the extent of the deaths that occurred during that period and the causes of said deaths. The most pertinent question is how many of those who died, died as a result of deliberate killings and how many of those deaths were subsequent results of other factors such as disease. The catastrophic and rapid decline in the numbers of the natives certainly occurred within a brief period of time after the first European settlement was not purely due to the violence of the conquest.

‘A strong case has now been made by several scholars that while this does not mean that all colonialism is genocidal, it is unequivocally clear that genocides are compromised of distinctly colonial dynamics’. Whilst many elements of the Spanish conquest of Latin America are likened to that found in other cases, too many of them fail to satisfy the requirements necessary to build a solid case for genocide. Genocides in the course of colonisation have taken the lives of countless indigenous peoples, but the case of Latin America is too ambiguous to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a case of genocide to be answered.

The other issue of course being that the events of the conquest occurred centuries before the creation of the word genocide, and all legal documentation relating to the crime. Whilst one can analyse the events retrospectively, it is safe to assume that had there been a circumstance in which Spain could have been held accountable for their actions, the outcome would not have resulted in an established case of genocide, during the conquest of Latin America. The comparative research on genocide states that a crucial distinction must be made in terms of the motive of the perpetrator. The motive behind Spain’s colonisation of Latin America was not to destroy, in whole or in part, the indigenous peoples of the land, only to colonise and industrialise the land, for their economic and political gain. The period of the major military conquests of Latin America, roughly between 1520-40, must rank as the most tumultuous 20 years in the history of the Americas but it does not constitute genocide.

Words: 1946.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

--------------------------------------------
[ 1 ]. Conquistadors, pg. 16.
[ 2 ]. What is Genocide, pg. 132.
[ 3 ]. G. Stanton, ‘What is Genocide?’, Genocide Watch, viewed on May 28, 2013, http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/whatisit.html
[ 4 ]. UN Convention, Article 2.
[ 5 ]. Genocide Studies Reader, pg. x.
[ 6 ]. UN Convention, Article 1.
[ 7 ]. Colonial Dynamics of Genocide, online.
[ 8 ]. Genocide Studies Reader, pg. 316.
[ 9 ]. Genocide Watch, online.
[ 10 ]. Genocide Studies Reader, pg. 318.
[ 11 ]. What is Genocide? Pg. 140.
[ 12 ]. History of Latin America, pg. 20.
[ 13 ]. Genocide, Rubenstien, pg. 60.
[ 14 ]. Genocide, Rubenstien, pg. 60.
[ 15 ]. Genocide Watch, online.
[ 16 ]. Restall.
[ 17 ]. Genocide, Andreopoulos, pg. 76.
[ 18 ]. Genocide, Andreopoulos, pg. 59.
[ 19 ]. Genocide, Rubenstien, pg. 61.
[ 20 ]. Genocide Watch, online.
[ 21 ]. Genocide Watch, online.
[ 22 ]. Genocide, Rubenstien, pg. 59.
[ 23 ]. Genocide, Rubenstiend, pg. 55.
[ 24 ]. Colonial Dynamics of Genocide, online.
[ 25 ]. History and Sociology of Genocide, pg. 9.…...

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