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From the 15th to the 17th centuries, the Spanish and Portuguese Empires were known for their global colonization power. From trading posts in Asia to structured colonies in the Americas, Spain and Portugal were among the first to realize the power of colonization and global trade. Yet, each took a different approach to colonial rule. Although they both inhabited Latin America, there were significant differences in their social organization, political structures, and economic goals in the region.
First, it is important to note that Spain and Portugal entered Latin America with different goals. Spain was the first to discover the Americas through King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who believed there was a way to reach India by sailing West. Although they did not initially harbor ill-will towards the natives, an early Mayan attack on a Spanish settlement in the Yucatan convinced the Spanish to follow a procedure of total conquest. Following the precedent set by the Reconquista, Hernan Cortes led a rapid conquest of Central Mexico through warfare. Meanwhile, the Portuguese were concerned with establishing trading posts, originally for brazilwood, in present-day Brazil. Although their first expedition to sail along the coast of South America began in 1501, permanent settlements were not founded until 1532. Gradually, these settlements formed a general government through Capitanias, and began expanding their agricultural and trading footprints. Geography also played a key role in the colonization strategies for both empires; Spain intended to expand inward and topple existing empires, while Portugal had no intention on inward expansion. Because the few existing natives in Brazil fled inward, the Portuguese could expand without bloody wars. Meanwhile, the Spanish felt pressure to settle and militarize to ward off the impending French colonies. Clearly, the Spaniards’ goal of forceful conversion and quick settlements were starkly different from the Portuguese model of trading and slow, gradual colonization.
These geographic differences also influenced the economies of New Spain and New Brazil. While both were eventually based on agriculture, each began differently. New Spain focused on producing silver to fund Phillip II’s expanded religious wars in Europe. When silver reserves ran dry and native populations began to dwindle, the colonies switched to a focus on sugar production with the use of slave labor. Brazil, similarly, formed an agricultural economy based on slave labor. Although initially a settlement of trading posts for brazilwood, as the Portuguese began to expand inward and increase the import of slaves, their economy began to depend on sugar (of which they produced 70% of the world’s total sugar), cotton, tobacco, and gold mining. While similar, Spain’s dependency on the New World for economic support was much deeper than Portugal’s dependence on Brazil.
These colonization and economic differences led to their different political structures. As mentioned above, the Brazilians followed a model of Capitanias. In this system, local leaders called Capitanias payed taxes to the governor general, who reported to the King. Because some Capitanias held local councils, this model can be seen as the first sign of democracy in the New World. However, New Spain’s system of Viceroyalties and Audiencias was similar, but much stricter. In this system, each province was led by a governor who reported to the Viceroy, or leader New Spain, who reported to the King of Spain. Audiencias served as New Spain’s judicial branch and had the right to hear and decide on criminal and civil cases, including complaints against governors or the viceroys. However, New Spain also considered religious leaders to have political power. Although this diminished with the centralization of power and control, the Church continued to rule in areas of political unrest or areas that were difficult to settle. While seemingly similar, New Spain’s control over its colonies was much tighter than Brazil’s. In Peru, for example, government corruption led to attacks on the long supply line of gold and silver from the mines to the capital. Thus, their expansive empire led to a more complicated and strict form of government than was required in Brazil.
However similar their political organization, New Spain and Brazil had radically different social structures. Most importantly, this can be seen in their treatment of indigenous people. In New Spain, Natives were forced to live in separate towns. There was virtually no intermingling between the Spanish and Native populations, and mestizos were viewed as second class citizens. Notably, people of color could buy their way into a higher social class through higher taxes and labor, as if they were buying the right to be white. This social hierarchy, called castas, can clearly be seen in the Siguenza y Gongora letter, in which he discusses the separate parishes, their differing attitudes toward the royal wedding (“common people who are only pleased by novelties and amusements” (Siguenza y Gongora 219)), and the Viceroy’s duty to give charity towards the natives. He even blames all tragedies in New Spain (floods, famine) on the natives, while prosperity is attributed to God. This stark separation eventually formed the basis of independence movements in New Spain.
Brazil, whose economy was based on slave labor, did not face the same pressure to utilize natives for their workforce like New Spain. This use of slave labor was greatly due to Portugal’s prominence in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but also because African slaves were better suited for intensive labor than the natives, who were prone to disease. While disease affected native populations across Latin America, the incidence of disease in Brazil killed nearly all of these natives (who were small in numbers to begin with). Thus there was no workforce like that of New Spain. Finally, the Jesuits in Brazil took measures to protect the rights of natives, and ensured that they were not enslaved using the doctrine that Christians couldn’t be enslaved (although this did not apply to converted slaves). Brazil’s creole population was also much better off, and intermingling of natives and whites was not as frowned upon as in New Spain. It is also important to note that even slaves, while still at the bottom of the social pyramid, were given legal rights. Married couples, for example, could not be sold separately, and there were restrictions on punishments that could be delivered to insubordinate slaves (although not necessarily followed). Although still not viewed as high as white settlers, natives and people of color were drastically better off in Brazil than in New Spain.
While these two global powers played similar roles in Latin America, their differing goals and geographic spread led to vastly different experiences as a Mother Country. New Spain, whose policy of destruction and conversion, had a much stricter political organization and social hierarchy. In Brazil, Portugal’s intentions of trade and their prior prominence in the slave trade led to an agricultural economy with better treatment of natives and a looser political structure. These differences in New Spain and Brazil will carry through the end of the Imperial Era, and lead to drastically different experiences in the Latin American independence movements.
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