Calling All Historians

Curious students want to know: why was Latin America so thoroughly colonized before Africa was, given that there was European penetration in Africa even before America was discovered? I am stumped.

One layperson’s hypothesis (invented by me, but I am really just guessing and I have no serious knowledge to base this on): the Treaty of Tordesillas and the nature of the colonial enterprise of Spain. They developed major institutions, they did not just have outposts. But the Treaty of Tordesillas gave Africa to Portugal, which had a different colonial policy (see how comparatively little Brazil was developed compared to, say, Mexico). So Africa didn’t become a big-time colony until the French and British, and a few others, got in in the 19th century.

What say you? I am fascinated and stumped. This is far out of my field, but I ought to have some inkling of what an informed person would say on this matter.


18 thoughts on “Calling All Historians

  1. You have an editorial error in your post above: “put gave Africa to Portugal”.

    I really don’t know what the mechanics of the colonisations were. But may I suggest that everything proceeded according to the criterion of the expenditure of effort?

  2. Thanks for catching the typo! Expenditure of effort, yes, that’s the best I can do. It’s the motivations for that expenditure (or non-expenditure) that stump me. Of course (light bulb!) – when Latin America gained independence in the early 19th century, Africa must have started looking attractive…

  3. Perhaps the search for a global trade route to Asia led eastward rather than south- and westward. My own field privileges the importance of Asia in global history so I have Magellan and the Acapulco-Manila galleon trade in mind. … Curious students are smart students!

  4. OMG that is right, I even learned it at one point, it probably doesn’t cover the whole story, but yes. Getting to Asia was very problematic around the Cape of Good Hope, they had tried it and determined the winds would never be reliably safe (or something like that).

  5. The vulnerability of “New World” peoples to European diseases may have played a major role. McNeill’s eloquent description of the psychological as well as the physical impact of smallpox on the Aztecs is beautifully put. A disease that kills so quickly, and kills only the natives but not the Spaniards, not only makes defense a practical impossibility, but destroys the will for it, as it seems a rather obvious statement from a deity as to whose side he’s on. With the Africans, resistance to European diseases was much higher, so defense was much easier.

  6. If I had to guess, I would say it had something to do with the abundant silver resources of Latin America (discovered more quickly and apparently more abundant than in Africa). It is a staple of world history lectures that Chinese demand for silver drove the early modern commodity economy until about mid-eighteenth century.

  7. It’s been quite some time since I taught world history, but if I remember correctly something like a third of the silver that came from the Spanish colonies ended up in China.

  8. Well, we discussed this in class just last week after reading King Leopold’s Ghost (good book, that). The instructor claimed that the reason the interior of Africa was colonized later was malaria. After they figured out you could use quinine it was easier.

    Another thing is you look at the major exports from the Congo: slaves, ivory, and (later) rubber. Slaves you could get by sitting in your boat on the coast and waiting for someone to bring them to you.

    I don’t really know a lot about colonization myself. So there could be other reasons.

  9. In addition to the other comments, I wonder if some of it has to do with how the Spanish literally built Catholic Churches on top of indigenous sacred locations/sites across the continents. I know very little about the history of colonization in Africa–maybe that happened there too? Great question! I’m sure I’ll have to explain that one to my sobrino one of these days.

  10. Thanks everybody!!!

    1/3 of the silver to China, this is fascinating … I need to read King Leopold’s Ghost … I have also learned that, about malaria. Quinine was a Native American plant so didn’t have it for use in Africa until after they’d gotten to America. The thing about the ivory etc. being in the far interior is, I think, important. Earlier on, the Portuguese got Brazil wood from the coasts of Brazil the way they got slaves from the coasts of Africa.

    The Spaniards did penetrate far into the interior of South America – Potosi where the Cerro Rico is, that supplied all that silver, is hard to get to even today. But there was that demand for silver and also, it seems to me, the objectives of the Spaniards – to actually build a second Spain.

    Rebelde, I’d say the building of the churches on top of the temples is an effect not a cause. They built them on top of mosques in Andalucia, too, because they were reconquering, Hispanizing and really planning to live there, not just exact tribute and go away again. I don’t know – do you think my theory of different colonial policies, different colonization projects, works?

  11. I don’t like to speculate about colonial histories with which I have only a passing familiarity, but on the mounting of Catholic symbols upon the destroyed statues of the local populations in central America, I have found useful Jacques Lafaye, Quetzalcóatl et Guadalupe. Incidentally Catholic powers seem to have pursued a similar strategy practically everywhere they went, associating local religious symbols and customs with the Church–not always to the satisfication of the Church center. This debate goes on today (e.g., over the potential for integrating certain local ancestor devotions in parts of Africa into these populations developing Catholic practice).

    I don’t know about the different colonial policies, and I wouldn’t exclude it, as there is never only one explanation for anything. I think that the reason that Brazil was not as heavily developed as quickly did have something to do with colonial policy policy, for example it seems that the system the Portuguese set up for the governance of Brasil did not work very well for them (capitanias), and mostly failed, but I would also note the history of Portugal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: at a decisive point when Spain is still intensifying its exploitation (after 1580), the Iberian Union distracted a lot of Portuguese energy away from activity outside of Iberia, forced the diversion of resources back toward Europe, and made England Portugal’s enemy (they had been allies before). The Dutch also temporarily captured a great deal of Portuguese territory and had to be gradually thrown out, which probably diverted some energy that might otherwise have been devoted toward direct exploitation.

    Exhausted by this brief venture into globalism, I will now go back into my historical closet, researching the history of a tiny, almost irrelevant problem that, if you believe my colleagues, is going to one of those “next big things.”

  12. Ah yes – this Portugal situation is muito importante!!! OBRIGADA!!!

    Those “next big things” … I hope it turns out to be!!!

  13. Thinking of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond, I’m going to throw out my laywoman’s guess that it has a he** of a lot to do with the fact that Africans were immune to a sh**load of European diseases because of that back-and-forth of people / penetration. Great question!

  14. (P.S. Diamond’s book also seemed to suggest that Europeans are overall just as vulnerable to African diseases as Africans are to European diseases, since both continents were populated by people who evolved immune systems while living in close quarters to domesticated large mammals.)

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