Doing God’s Work
If God told you that it was your right, your duty, to conquer the lesser people of the world would you do it without remorse? What if instead of God saying this directly it were your king, who claims authority by divine right? What if you just desired an empire and used these two scenarios as justification? This was the case for Spanish colonization effort in Mexico and the British colonization in India, they both claimed that they wanted to create their massive empire based on the exploitation of the natives to “Honor God”. The pictures in this article serve the purpose of showing the contrast in the extent that each empire used religion as a tool to control and justify their colonization efforts.
Spain put much more of a focus on religious conversion from the beginning of their presence in North America. Just a soon as Columbus stepped on the beaches of the Bahamas so too did the thought of large scale conquest in the name of Spain. The Spanish arrived in the New World originally searching for a short cut to India so that they could trade faster and make their empire richer faster, however, once the Spanish realized that they were not dealing with the relatively advanced Indian empire and they were dealing with a comparatively primitive civilization the thoughts of military conquest were hatched in their minds. They saw their obvious technological advantages and took note that the natives already treated them like God’s adorning them with vast amounts of gold and silver; the temptation was too much.
Surprisingly, the Spanish began their conquest of the Caribbean by laws and treaties. The issue of legitimacy of these signings was settled in probably the best example of asymmetric information that has happened in human history. The Spanish claimed that the natives, all coming from different tribes with different dialects let alone languages, willingly signed themselves into indentured servitude after the Spanish translator read out the laws to groups of the natives, after which they would line up and sign. This was done to bring glory to God’s name, obviously. For the most part this seemed to work, but when it did not work the populations got to see what Spanish steel and lead could do, sometimes resulting in the loss of entire populations of natives from islands, which seemed counterproductive to their stated goal.
The goal of the Spanish conquest was to bring glory to god’s name and get rich. The order does not necessarily reflect importance. One might ask unreasonable questions such as “How does getting natives to sign away their land and rights bring glory to God’s name?” well the answer to that is: because they are in debt to the Spanish because the Spanish ever so kindly agreed to convert them into Catholics. The laws and treaties that the natives had to sign stated that they were going be converting all of them so that they did not burn eternally in the depths of hell. But in order to ease the process of having to go out and find the natives they would keep them on these “encomiendas” where they could more easily teach them the ways of how to become a good catholic. As payback for the Spanish helping them out in the afterlife they would work fields around the encomienda. This last little detail helps explain part two of the Spanish’s goal: get rich.
The conquistadors came from Spain, across the ocean, discovered the other side of the planet, and after Cortez came through, conquered the most advanced civilization at the time, so they wanted rewards. Coming from Europe, where the only thing that matters is title, they felt that they had earned one. After Cortez and his men toppled the Aztecs they established the encomienda system in current day Mexico. The system in Mexico was not only agriculturally based like in the Caribbean because Mexico has one important resource and a lot of it: silver. After finding out that they could mine tons of silver from the land, the Spanish suddenly felt the Holy Spirit flowing through them and just had to give it to the natives. This is when the system stopped looking so much like a humanitarian effort and started looking like horribly abusive system of enslavement. The abuses of the Spanish were documented in book that shook the world called “A Short Account of the Devastation of the Indies” which was written by a Spanish Friar named Bartolome de las Casas. The book was actually written because Bartolome thought that God would punish the Spanish for the atrocities that they committed against the natives. So it seems as though in the quest of riches they left out the first half of their stated goal.
The photo of the Basilica of our Lady Guadalupe embodies many of the themes that appear in the history of the colonization of Mexico by the Spanish. What stands out the most is the size of the cathedral in comparison to everything in its surroundings. The size in the photo shows that it is the main focus of the picture, which is similar to how throughout the colonization effort it was maintained that religion was the main focus. Upon closer inspection of the photo one can make out there is a market place directly in front of the Cathedral with a massive crowd surrounding them both. The market is the second part of the goal of the Spanish, to get rich, but at expense of the natives which is seen as the crowd coming to give there money to the few shop owners. The extravagant design of the cathedral is shows how much time and money was put into its construction, similar to how the religious justification of colonization took a lot of effort to create and maintain. Even in this ground level picture of the market you can see the edges of the cathedral. What tells the most about the conquest of the Spanish over the native peoples is the fact that this cathedral is in Mexico City, which used to be the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. The cathedral in this city is like flying a permanent flag over the capitol of the Aztecs.
India was not a newly discovered land to its colonizers, so the strategies for colonization were not identical, but similar in justification as the Spanish colonization effort. India was already know to the European powers as a rich far away land that produced great textiles and spices among other luxury items. The first effort to colonize India was by the Portuguese. The Portuguese discovered the Cape of Good Hope can be navigated in 1488, which is very close to the Papal Edict of 1493 that demanded mass conversions into Catholics. They strayed on land for a little in search of Christians, and began converting for a little while. They establish a monopoly on the trade route around the cape and in the Indian Ocean with a system of licenses and their superior firepower over the Moghal navy. The British established their place in the Indian Ocean world after the Portuguese’s folly of monopolizing only pepper for trade without account for economic principals of supply and demand: they created a surplus in Europe and the price tanked. At first the British came in the form of a multinational corporation, the East India Company. This strays from the arching theme of religion as a justification, however, it is quite clear that the goal of making money is clearly there. Most of their influence was in Bengal and they strengthen the cities Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta with their trade and presence. The big momentum change as to who controlled India came at in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey when the East India Company defeated the Mughal Empire and France. While this was not a complete defeat of the empire it certainly weakened it, and lead to the decentralization of it. From this point on the British had the power of taxation.
The power of taxation was the secret to the British’s success. They gained power by taxing Indians they had conquered and that tax money went to training the newly conquered into an army. This new army would then go and conquer more land, and then repeat. One might ask why the British did not face many uprisings if they were clearly expanding at a rapid pace, and taking control of different cultures in a short time. Well it is because they were not forcing their own beliefs on the natives. No, the British did not use their own religion as a justification for rule, they used the Indian’s own religion as justification.
Hindu was the main religion of the area and the numbers of Hindus vastly outnumbered the number of Christian British, so how did such small numbers of people gain such control? Well the British had been in the colony game for a while, and if anyone knew how to rule from behind the scenes it was them. The British read all the Holy Books of Hindu, the Vedas, and although at the time it was mostly an oral and localized religion they used the structure in the Vedas to control the area. They found a system that favored elites, the caste system.
The British and the Indian elites were the only people allowed to read the Holy Texts; the next most powerful caste was the warrior caste. With the rich and powerful happy and in control of the warriors the British just had to benefit the elites without real threat of an uprising, or at least from the Hindu. In the above photo there is a picture of a local elite and his two servants. The photo seems to be an attempted portrait of the Chief, which explains his formal wear and pose. The servants in the photo look as though they
There were other people who practiced different religions who did not quite please the British, such as the Thuggies. These people were notorious highwaymen and the British did not want to deal with Hindus not part taking in the caste system, so they started a vicious campaign to show them as death worshipers and started to kill them in large numbers. While this was justified by saying it was for safety, which it did help, it was also a show of the intolerance of the British towards people who did not want to fall into their control system. What justified the British’s seemingly remorseless intolerance of people who would not just roll over to their domination?
The British had obviously set out to make money, but how did they morally justify their actions? Quite simply the British declared them too easy to rule, almost as if it were their right to rule them. Alexander Dow in 1770 stated that due to the climate and culture the natives are inclined “to indolence and ease; and think the evils of despotism less severe than the labor of being free”. Dow is claiming that they have become lazy to the point that they do not care if they are ruled if it means they don’t have to do anything. Another perhaps clearer opinion comes from Thomas Macaulay who believes that “There never, perhaps, existed a people so thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke”. He agrees with Dow that it is the climate that affects the habits of the natives, but mostly focuses on how feeble and effeminate they are in comparison to the British. This idea of British superiority was later justified when race science and racism came onto the scene in the 19th century. These ideas seem to match the ideas of “The White Man’s Burden” which preached it was the responsibility of the whites to rule over the “lesser” races.
The photo here shows a man watching over three Indian men doing work in front of a church in India. The interesting thing about this photo is that they quite literally have the yokes of a foreigner on their backs. Probably the best example of what Macaulay was claiming. The church stands in the distance, much like how the British distanced themselves from the church as the reason for their imperialism. One cannot tell if the man with his back turned is British or Indian himself, but in either case it shows how the British ruled over India: sometimes upfront, sometimes using the local elites to do their work.
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