When the voice of Rodrigo de Triana rang out from la Pinta on this day in 1492 the world changed. Columbus’ expedition to discover a westward route to India ran into quite a significant obstacle – the vast continent of the Americas. Some might even argue that it has remained a significant obstacle to the present day. Contrary to popular imagination the world didn’t suddenly become round. That much had been discovered by the ancient Greeks. Nor on that day was a New World discovered. The indigenous peoples of the Americas always had had a fair idea that it was right under their feet. No, what changed on that day was what then was the future; both the people of Europe’s and the people of the Americas’ futures were set on a new course – one of rapid expansion and enrichment, and the other of annihilation and victimhood. Let’s not paint the native peoples of the Americas in an absurd romantic light. They were as human as the newly arrived Europeans, yet they were about to meet a vastly more technologically advanced and hyper-aggressive set of cultures from the other side of the North Atlantic, and – of course – a whole new world of germs.
It is something of a myth that the Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, and Dutch arrived and simply butchered the aboriginal populations of North, Mesoamerica, and South America together with the islands. Colonialism over the Americas was a complex affair, with plantations of colonial subjects in places, and the establishment of religious missions and trading posts in others. At times it did indeed amount to genocide and extermination, but what really devastated the first civilisations and tribes to encounter the Europeans was a whole new set of pathogens. Diseases which had for millennia been endemic over Europe and Asia, and against which European and Asian populations had developed immunities, were new and fatal to American populations when they were first exposed. As disease decimated the First Peoples the Europeans found pathways into their land with seriously reduced levels of resistance. What was new to the Europeans was the treasure trove of America’s natural resources; gold, silver, lumber, tobacco, cocoa and more. Greed for plunder became the order of the day and so a race to grab ensued. It was in the frenzy of expansion and exploitation that the disease gave way to the cold steel of the Conquistador, and along with the bison and the gold the ‘Indians’ vanished from the land.