In a multiple-part series, Madison365 columnist Matthew Braunginn will be analyzing the history of the United States to explore ideas of change, from the European invasion of what became the Americas, to the enslavement of Africans, racial oppression, the Civil Rights Movement, to the current day changing demographics in a shrinking world facing a new crisis of climate change and what the United States, and, in turn, the world are facing today.
You can read Part 1 here. (-Ed.)

Part 2

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and in doing so triggering the last great migration of humanity. This migration, like many that came before it, was an invasion. Before this there were two worlds existing simultaneously without knowledge of the other.

One world, which the European invaders dubbed the “Old World,” housed most of the world’s human population, as well as its earliest civilizations. From Asia, to Africa, and Europe, it was defined by conquest and empire, not all competing with one another, but this time it was different as it became Europe vs the world.

Technology across these lands were fairly similar at this point, these worlds started becoming increasingly connected, specifically through trade. The European powers, through the development of steel created a distinct advantage. Steel was able to fully harness the explosive powers of gun powder. But more important was geography. The power brokers in Europe were fighting one another over paltry amounts of land and resources, in order to gain an advantage over one another they had to look outside of Europe to secure resources and land to jockey for position as king of the hill.

Empires in Africa and Asia (including Russia) had far more space to breathe, even though there was conflict between powers within those continents, it wasn’t a driving fuel of empire. All empires are created through conquest, but geography impacts the amount of conflict between powers. The more space to breathe, means less conflict over land and resources, as competing civilizations are more likely to have the resources they need to thrive already under their control. Trade, not conflict between powers becomes more likely when there is more space.

At the same time, in what later became known as the Americas, there was a diversity of nations, some warring with one another, others living in peace, and empires as well. It is thought that humans first migrated to what became the Americas 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, although some recent evidence suggests there were migrations far earlier, as much as 100,000 plus years ago.

There is also debate as far as what was the pre-Columbus population of the Americas, current estimates range between 20 to over 100 million, with the larger end more likely. There is evidence that there were cities, both in North and South America, that rivaled and surpassed the size of some of the largest cities within the “Old World.” The image of a “wild” Americas, where “nature” was not tamed is a myth onto itself. There is plenty of evidence that Indigenous American Nations and Tribes manipulated the land at a massive scale.

What we do know, is that with the almost complete genocide of the Indigenous peoples, culture, and history of the Americas, we may never have a fully clear picture of what pre-Colombus America looked like. We can get a good idea, due to those that have dedicated themselves to preserving their history, but it was almost a complete genocide.

The impact was almost immediate, because Indigenous Americans were not exposed to the same types of germs, they had no immunity to what Columbus brought. At first the migration from Europe started off slow, colonization took time to take hold and really didn’t take off until the late 1600’s. But once those first boots hit the ground, disease spread through the America’s like a swarm of locusts. This, more so than guns, was the great equalizer enabling a European invasion.

1492 was the year the roots of “Western Civilization” were set, the seeds for world conquest were fully sewn. The great migration, conquering, and empires directly shaped the world we live in today. The mentality and psychology that was formed to launch such causes, to justify prolonged brutality had been in gestation, but became fully born during this historical marker. Launching off a great arms race that has turned back on itself and is falling under its own weight.

After early Spanish and Portuguese colonies were formed in the Caribbean, eyes turned to the mainland Americas. In 1519, Hernán Cortés launched his conquest of the Mayans in what we now know as Mexico, with the help of rival tribes. Spain and Portugal focused on conquest of the Caribbean, South and Central America, as well as the southern part of what became the United States.

1492 was the year the roots of “Western Civilization” were set, the seeds for world conquest were fully sewn. The great migration, conquering, and empires directly shaped the world we live in today. The mentality and psychology that was formed to launch such causes, to justify prolonged brutality had been in gestation, but became fully born during this historical marker. Launching off a great arms race that has turned back on itself and is falling under its own weight.

Spain and Portugal developed into early colonial powerhouses, it didn’t seem like it at first as it took until the 1600’s for them to establish permanent colonies, with the United Kingdom and France right on their heals. In 1607, the first permanent English colonies were established in North America, which became Jamestown Virginia. France had many failed attempts at a permanent North American colony through the 1500’s and early 1600’s, finally establishing Quebec in 1608.

Over the 16th century, Spain would go on to violently conquer and enslave much of what we now call Latin America, from modern day Mexico to most of present-day South America. This conquering built Spain into one of, if not the most powerful empire of it’s time. This also started a period where by the early 1800’s over a million Spaniards migrated to Spanish colonies.

Enslavement drove this “new world” economic machine for Spain. Even though there was some slavery in the “old world” before Spanish conquest, it was not systematic or large scale, what Spain and the European empires did was industrialize enslavement of humans to a scale never seen before in history. Initially, Spain enslaved indigenous populations for labor through a system called Encomienda, but eventually minimized indigenous enslavement through what was dubbed “The New Laws.” But forced labor of indigenous populations didn’t end as many were forced to work mines and other hard labor.

Because disease spread through indigenous people quickly, as well as a high chance of rebellions and resistance, Spain started to turn to enslaved Africans for labor in their conquered colonies. But it wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that we saw the mass importation of enslaved Africans.

Portugal was focused on colonizing what is now modern-day Brazil, and it wasn’t until the 1530’s that they created permanent colonies in Brazil. At this point, Portugal long had enslavement colonies in Africa, their first on being in Ghana. Portugal also had a notable population of Africans living within their nation. In part of their conquest of Brazil, they “solved” their problem as they started to export their African populations in Portugal as slaves to their new colonies, they also expanded their enslavement operations in Africa to feed labor to Brazil. Portugal and other European nations took advantage of conflicts between rival nations in Africa to feed their growing lust for black labor, as they began to bleed the continent of Africa of both it’s natural and human resources for their own empires.

Following the establishment of these colonies, England, France, and the Dutch quickly established their own. Just like Spain and Portugal, the intention of these migrations was to feed these conquerors individual wealth as well as the wealth of growing empires. And, similarly, due to disease and ability to escape as well as uprisings, using indigenous populations as slaves was not effective. These early colonies didn’t have the populations for hard labor, so like Spain and Portugal, they started to import enslaved Africans, with 1619 marking the year the first enslaved Africans landed on North American colonies.

This was the start of the second Atlantic slave trade and a turning point in the world, as well as the full start of the idea of chattel slavery. This started as an economic means, and as new ideas started to grow out of “enlightened” Europe, new ideas that grew out of more individual freedom due to the wealth this conquering was bringing, ideas that grew out of questioning the world around them, began the idea of white supremacy. The idea of bringing civilization to the savage. Chattel slavery was a result of this.

Before chattel slavery, one wasn’t born into enslavement because their parent was a slave, they were owned by someone but were more than just property, they largely could work their way out of it, they could still hold onto their history, their language. Chattel slavery was the creation of not just the idea of a racial hierarchy, but the embodiment of it. A system of direct oppression was created, with the explicit goal of ripping away one’s humanity to serve at the behest of someone else to build someone else’s wealth. Humans became nothing more than property to be used as their owners saw fit to their desires. All language, culture, history was ripped away, outside of specific circumstances once you became chattel you would live out the rest of your life as chattel and your children would be born into chattel slavery as well. It became generational.

To justify these practices, thoughts of human hierarchy were created. Using “science” as justification for these devilish practices. At no point in history before or after was there anything like chattel slavery. There was slavery before and still is, but this was industrialized enslavement of an entire people, for the benefit of entire nations.

By 1619, the genocide of Indigenous populations was well underway, but it will take another couple centuries to be complete. In what we now call Latin America, Indigenous populations already faced extreme population decline and were effectively conquered by Spain and Portugal. England, The Dutch, and France only recently established permanent colonies in North America, mostly on the edges. Many northern Indigenous tribes had yet to feel the full impact of this conquest, others already understood what was underway. The conquering and enslavement of Africa was starting to ramp up, all to feed European lust for power, conquest, and wealth.

The seeds of destruction were bearing fruit for these empires, who would only grow to conquer over 80% of the world. This was done through force, enslavement, and genocide. Ideas of freedom for Europeans would be sparked by the wealth that these conquests brought in. Ideas of supremacy would sprout to justify these brutal conquests. The mass migration of Europeans was just beginning, a great flood of change was brought upon the world.

This change would sow the seeds of its own destruction as the hunger for more would only grow. Yes, there was conquest before, yes, there was slavery before, and yes, there was tribalism before. But there was never a conquest of one civilization over so many others that was so complete. There was never an enslavement and colonization of an entire continent before. There was never the almost complete genocide of many nations on another continent before. There was never the complete distinction and hierarchy of being based upon skin color that was so systematically built through every level of society before.

What these differences were will be further explored in part 3 that will take a look at the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade, the expansion of the colonies in America and elsewhere, and the ideas that grew out of “enlightened” Europe. Ideas that led to wars both in the Americas, but in Europe as well.

Written by Matthew Braunginn

Matthew Braunginn

Matthew Braunginn is a Madison native and civil rights activist.