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Confrontations of Cultures | Class 11 History

The chapter introduces students to the state systems of central and south America. The chapter also talks about various civilisations like Aztecs, Mayas & Incas and their agricultural practices, building techniques and organisational structure. We also highlight the voyage and the findings of Cristopher Columbus.


Discovering The 'Indies'

Who was Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus, a well-known Italian explorer and traveller, began his journey to the west in 1942, with the support of the Spanish rulers.

The purpose of sponsoring this voyage was to navigate the trading routes where spices and silver could be obtained, and the rulers and nobles agreed to give the pope exclusive rights to rule over any new territories they discovered.

After four voyages, Columbus concluded that the land he had discovered was "the Indies."

The Later Explorations

Columbus was well aware of India's gold and spices, he visited the country several times in an attempt to steal its wealth. He also discovered America; as can be seen, the Americas are divided into two distinct cultural spheres. He asserted that the 'Indians' of the 'New World' were descended from a variety of cultural groups and were not Asians.

During his other explorations, Columbus also discovered small subsistence economies in the Caribbean and Brazil. Monarchical systems with great strength, based on well-developed agriculture and mining.

Central America's Aztecs and Mayas, as well as Peru's Incas, erected massive structures.

The colonisation of South America and its indigenous cultures had disastrous consequences. Europeans later began selling African slaves to work on plantations and mines in the Americas, establishing the slave trade.

Study of the Cultures

The manuscripts and the monuments were ruthlessly discovered during the European conquest. In the late 19th century, anthropologists began to study these cultures. Later, the ruins were found by the archaeologists.

  • The Inca city of Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911.

  • The Europeans who went to the Americas kept logbooks and diaries of their journeys. There are records left by officials and Jesuit missionaries.

  • Europeans wrote about their ‘discovery of the Americas. The histories were written with reference to the local people and the histories were written in terms of European settlements.

The Atlantic Crossing

Columbus believed in prophecies and believed he was destined to find a western route to the East (the "Indies"). Imago Mundi by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly served as a source of inspiration for him (written in 1410).

The Portuguese Crown turned down his plans. On August 3, 1492, the Spanish authorities gave their approval to a small expedition that set sail from Palos. Columbus and his crew had not been adequately prepared for the long Atlantic crossing or their destination.

With two caravels named Pinta and Nina and a nao named Santa Maria, the fleet was small.

The Santa Maria, which had a crew of 40 capable sailors, was commanded by Columbus. Despite the favourable trade winds, the journey out was long. The fleet had been at sea for 33 days and had yet to see land. The crew was agitated, and some demanded that they be brought back.

They sighted land on Guanahani, a Bahamas island Columbus mistook for India, on October 12, 1492. The Arawaks greeted them warmly and eagerly shared their food and supplies, impressing Columbus.

He wrote in his logbook, "They are so inventive and generous with all they have that no one who hasn't seen it would believe it."

Without consulting the natives, Columbus raised a Spanish flag in Guanahani (now San Salvador) and declared himself viceroy. He enlisted their help in getting to Cubanascan and Kiskeya (which he mistook for Japan!) (renamed Hispaniola, today divided between two countries, Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Gold was rumoured to be found in mountain streams in Hispaniola's interior, though it was not immediately available. The return trip was difficult due to infested ships and a tired and homesick crew.

It took 32 weeks to complete the journey. Over three more voyages, Columbus explored the Bahamas, the Greater Antilles, and the South American mainland and coast. Not the "Indies," but a new continent had been discovered by the Spaniards.

Columbus demonstrated that sailing with the trade winds for five weeks could get you to the other side of the world. Despite never having visited either, Columbus is only remembered in a small part of the United States and a country in northwestern South America (Columbia).

A Florentine geographer, Amerigo Vespucci, recognised their size and dubbed them the "New World." In 1507, a German publisher coined the term "America."

Communities in South and North America

The communities have been living in North and South America and nearby islands for thousands of years, and many migrations from Asia and the South Sea Islands have taken place over time. South America was and still is densely forested and mountainous, and the Amazon, the world’s largest river, flows through miles of dense forest.

In Mexico, in Central America, there were densely settled areas of habitation along the coast and in the plains, while elsewhere villages were scattered over forested areas.

Communities of the Caribbean & Brazil

The Arawakians

In the event of a conflict, people with the most humble temperament preferred to negotiate. The Arawakan Lucayos inhabited hundreds of small islands in the Caribbean Sea, which are now known as the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles.

In dugout canoes, the Caribs, a tribe with skilled boatbuilders, sailed the open sea. One of the fierce tribes that drove the Arawakians out of the Lesser Antilles was the Caribs.

● They lived by hunting, fishing and agriculture, growing corn, sweet potatoes, tubers and cassava.

● They produced the food collectively and fed everyone in the community.

● Polygamy was also practised.

They believed that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. In other words, animists.

What is Shamanism?

It's a religious practice in which the practitioner is said to have communicated with the spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness. This has the goal of guiding spiritual energies into the physical world for healing or other purposes.

Shamans played an important role as healers and mediators between this world and the supernatural world.

The Search of Gold

Gold ornaments were used, but they did not place the same value on the metal as Europeans did. They were delighted to exchange gold for the Europeans' glass beads, which appeared to be far more beautiful. The art of weaving was highly developed, and one of their specialities was the hammock.

The Arawaks were generous people who were happy to help the Spanish in their quest for gold. Later, the Spanish policy became so harsh that they had no choice but to resist, which had disastrous consequences for them. After twenty-five years of contact with the Spanish, the Arawaks and their way of life had largely vanished.

The Tupinamba were people who lived on the east coast of South America, in forest villages.

They could not clear the dense forests for cultivation as they had no access to iron. But they had a healthy and plentiful supply of fruits, vegetables and fish, and so did not have to depend on agriculture.

The Europeans who met them envied their happy freedom, with no king, army or church to regulate their lives.

The State Systems of Central and South America

There were some highly organised states in Central America. There was a generous surplus of corn, which provided the basis for the urbanised civilisations of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas.

Who were the Aztecs?

The Aztecs had moved from the north into Mexico's central valley (named after their god Mexitli).

They grew their empire by defeating various tribes and forcing them to pay tribute.

Aztec society was structured in a hierarchical manner. Those born into the nobility, priests, and others who had been given the title were all included in the nobility.

The hereditary nobility was a small minority that held positions of power in the government, army, and priesthood. The nobles chose a supreme leader from among them, who ruled until his death.

On Earth, the king was regarded as the sun's representative. Warriors, priests, and nobles were the most revered, but traders also had many privileges and frequently served as ambassadors and spies for the government.

Talented artisans, doctors, and wise teachers were also held in high regard.

The land was limited

Aztecs built artificial islands in Lake Mexico by weaving massive reed mats and covering them with mud and plants. Canals connected these fertile islands, where Tenochtitlan, the capital, was built in 1325. Its palaces and pyramids jutted out over the water.

The Aztecs' most impressive temples were dedicated to war gods and the sun. The empire began in the countryside. Other crops included corn, beans, pumpkins, manioc root, and potatoes. Clans owned land and organised public works projects. As in Europe, peasants were enslaved to the nobility's lands, which they cultivated for a cut of the crop.

Slave sales were common among the poor, but slaves could reclaim their freedom.

All Aztec kids had to go to school. The nobles' children went to the calmecac to learn military and religious leadership.

And they learned about history, myths, religion, and ceremonial songs at their local tepochcalli. The boys received military, agricultural, and trade training. The girls learned domestic skills.

The Aztec empire was in trouble in the early 1600s. This was largely due to discontent among newly conquered peoples seeking to escape central control.

Who were The Mayans?

The Mayan culture of Mexico developed remarkably between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, but in the sixteenth century, they had less political power than the Aztecs. Corn cultivation was central to their culture, and many religious ceremonies were centred on the planting, growing and harvesting of corn.

Efficient agricultural production generated surplus, which helped the ruling classes, priests and chiefs to invest in architecture and the development of astronomy and mathematics.

The Mayas devised a pictographic form of writing that has only been partially deciphered.

The Incas of Peru

The Quechuas or Incas of Peru had the largest civilisation in South America. Manco Capac, the first Inca, established his capital in Cusco in the twelfth century. Under the ninth Inca, the Inca empire grew to 3,000 miles long, stretching from Ecuador to Chile.

The empire was highly centralised, with the king as the ultimate authority figure. Newly conquered tribes were effectively assimilated; every subject was required to speak Quechua, the court language. A council of elders ruled each tribe independently, but the tribe as a whole owed its allegiance to the ruler. For their military cooperation, the local rulers were rewarded.

The Inca empire resembled a confederacy, similar to the Aztec empire, with the Incas in command. Millions of people lived there.

Building Techniques

● The Incas were magnificent builders. They built roads through mountains from Ecuador to Chile. Their forts were built of stone slabs that were so perfectly cut that they did not require mortar.

● They used labour-intensive technology to carve and move stones from nearby rock falls.

● Masons shaped the blocks, using an effective but simple method called flaking. Many stones weighed more than 100 metric tons, but they did not have any wheeled vehicles to transport these.

● Labour was organised and very tightly managed.


● The basis of the Inca civilization was agriculture. To cope with the infertile soil conditions, the terraced hillsides and developed systems of drainage and irrigation.

● In 1500, cultivation in the Andean highlands was much greater than what it is today.

● The Incas grew corn and potatoes and reared llamas for food and labour.

● Their weaving and pottery were of high quality.

Organisational Structure

They did not invent writing. However, the quipu, or cords with knots denoting specific mathematical units, functioned as an accounting system. According to some scholars, the Incas woven a code into these threads.

The Inca empire's organisation, with its pyramidal structure, meant that if the Inca chief was captured, the chain of command could quickly disintegrate. This is precisely what happened when the Spaniards invaded their homeland.

While the Aztec and Inca cultures shared some characteristics, they were diametrically opposed to European culture. While society was hierarchical, it lacked the private ownership of resources by a few individuals that existed in Europe.

Priests and shamans were elevated to divinity, and large temples were constructed with gold being used ritually, but gold and silver were not highly valued. This also contrasted sharply with contemporary European culture.

There were numerous encounters between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Voyages & Ptolemy's Geographical View

The People of the Caribbean started to sail across the Atlantic Sea, where they got to know the existence of the European people. Earlier, the navigators used the magnetic compass, which helped them to identify the cardinal points accurately. It had been known since 1380, but only in the fifteenth century did people use it when they ventured on voyages into unknown areas.

The Ships played a major role in the voyage and were fully equipped, which could carry a huge quantity of cargo as well as equipment to defend themselves if attacked by enemy ships. The circulation of travel literature and books on cosmography and geography created widespread interest right through the fifteenth century.

Ptolemy’s Geography

What was Ptolemy's Geographical viewpoint?

Ptolemy, a great mathematician of Egypt gave the theory of the latitudes and longitudes. He described and arranged the world in the terms of latitudes and longitudes in his texts which became available in print in 1477. The Europeans gained some information about the world through these texts, it was broadly discovered that there were three continents, namely, Europe, Asia and Africa.

● He suggested that the world was spherical, but underestimated the width of the oceans. Europeans had no idea of the distance they would have to travel in the Atlantic before they reached land.

​​​​​​​European's Voyage

The Europeans had no idea how far they'd have to travel before arriving on land. Many assumed it would be a short journey, but others were eager to explore the unknown seas. The term "Voyages of Discovery" was coined to honour the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who pioneered the 15th-century voyages of discovery.

Historians later claimed that these were not the first voyages made by people from the "Old World" to unknown lands. Sailors from the Pacific Islands (Polynesians and Micronesians) had made major ocean crossings, and Arabs, Chinese, and Indians had navigated vast stretches of ocean.

The Vikings Civilisation of Norway is known for its fierce nature. The Region of North America was captured by the Vikings in the eleventh century. To fulfil their economic, religious and political motives.

How did the European Economy go into decline?

From the mid-fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, the European economy suffered a decline. Many parts of Europe were depopulated as a result of plagues and wars, trade slowed, and gold and silver, which were used to make European coins, became scarce.

● This situation was in stark contrast to the preceding period (from the eleventh to the mid-fourteenth centuries) when growing trade had supported Italian city-states and led to the accumulation of capital.

● The long-distance trade declined after the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. The Italians managed to do business with Turks but were now required to pay higher taxes on trade.

Contextually, the Crusades were religious wars that increased trade with Asia and created a taste for Asian products, especially spices. To maximise the benefits, European countries should establish ‘colonies' in climate-friendly regions. Until now, Europeans had not traded directly with West Africa.

Portugal, a small country that had gained independence from Spain in 1139, led the way. In 1415, Prince Henry of Portugal attacked Ceuta and organised the coasting of West Africa.

The Portuguese then organised more expeditions and established a trading post at Cape Bojador in Africa. Africans were enslaved and gold dust was mined. In Spain, economic incentives pushed people to become ocean knights. The memory of the Crusades and the Reconquista fueled private ambitions, leading to capitulaciones.

The Spanish ruler claimed sovereignty over newly conquered territories and rewarded expedition leaders with titles and the right to govern them.

Spain's Empire in America

Spain's Empire in America with the initial discovery was typically followed by establishing a small settlement, populated by a few Spaniards who supervised the labour of the local inhabitants.

● The local chieftains were enlisted to explore new lands and, hopefully, more sources of gold.

● The greed for gold led to violent incidents provoking local resistance.

The Spanish 'Friar Bartolome de las Casas', the most severe critic of the Spanish conquerors, observed that the Spanish often tested their swords on the naked flesh of the Arawaks. Military repression and forced labour has added to the ravages of disease.

● The diseases of the Old World, particularly smallpox, wreaked havoc on the Arawaks whose lack of immunity resulted in large-scale deaths.

● The local people imagined these diseases were caused by ‘invisible bullets’ with which the Spaniards attacked them.

● The extinction of the Arawaks and all traces of their way of life is a silent reminder of their tragic encounter with Spaniards.

Columbus's Expedition

The expeditions of Columbus were followed by a sustained and successful exploration of Central and South America. Within half a century, the Spanish had explored and laid claim to a vast area of the western hemisphere, from approximate latitudes 40 degrees north to 40 degrees south, without anyone challenging them.

The Spanish conquered lands of two great empires before this. This was largely the work of two individuals: Hernan Cortes (1488-1547) and Francisco Pizarro (1478-1541). Their explorations were financed by members of the landed gentry in Spain, officials of municipal councils and noblemen.

Those joining the expeditions supplied their own equipment in exchange for a share of the booty they expected from the conquests.

Cortes and the Aztecs

Cortes and his conquistadors swiftly and ruthlessly conquered Mexico. In 1519, Cortes sailed from Cuba to Mexico, where he met the Totonacs, a group seeking independence from the Aztecs. Montezuma sent an official to meet him. He dreaded the Spanish, their gunpowder, and their horses.

Montezuma believed Cortes was the reincarnation of an exiled god seeking vengeance.

The Spaniards pressed against the Tlaxcalans, who resisted. The Spaniards then brutally massacred them. They marched to Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519. Tenochtitlan awed the invading Spaniards.

It was five times the size of Madrid and twice the size of Seville, Spain's largest city. Montezuma greeted Cortes warmly.

The Aztecs led the Spaniards into the heart of the city, where the Emperor showered them with gifts. His people were apprehensive, having heard of the massacre of the Tlaxcalans. An Aztec account described the situation:

‘It was as though Tenochtitlan had given shelter to a monster. The people of Tenochtitlan felt as if everyone had eaten stupefying mushrooms... as if they had seen something astonishing.

The Aztecs' fears were realised. Cortes arbitrarily imprisoned the Emperor and attempted to rule in his name.

Cortes placed Christian images in the Aztec temple to formalise the Emperor's submission to Spain. Montezuma proposed a compromise by combining Aztec and Christian images in the temple. Cortes had to leave his deputy in charge and return to Cuba.

The Spanish occupation's arrogance and incessant gold demands sparked a general uprising. Alvarado ordered a massacre during Huitzilopochtli's spring festival.

When Cortes returned on June 25, 1520, he faced a major crisis. The net was closed and the causeways cut. The Spaniards had severe food and water shortages. Cortes had to flee. Montezuma died mysteriously around this time.

The Aztecs fought the Spanish. During the Night of Tears, 600 conquistadores and Tlaxcalan allies were killed. Cortes was forced to retreat to Tlaxcala to plot his attack on Cuauhtemoc.

The Aztecs were dying of smallpox, brought by the Europeans. He arrived with 180 soldiers and 30 horses as the Aztecs prepared for their last stand. Because the Aztecs believed they could see omens foretelling their demise, the Emperor chose to die.

Mexico's conquest took two years. Charles V honoured Cortes as CaptainGeneral of New Spain in Mexico. The Spaniards ruled Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras from Mexico.

Pizarro and the Incas Pizarro

When compared to conquistador Hernán Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado was uneducated and poor when he joined the army in 1502 and ended up in the Caribbean Islands.

He had heard stories about the Inca kingdom, where the citizens are described as people with silver and gold skin (El-dor-ado). The man repeatedly went to great lengths to retrieve it from the Pacific.

After one of his travels, he was able to meet the king of Spain and show him exquisite Inca gold containers of exquisitely handcrafted work.

The king was eager to earn the governorship of the Inca lands, and he promised Pizarro the governorship in exchange for conquering it.

Pizarro was concerned that the situation in the Inca empire was different to what he had found in Mexico. After a civil war, Atahualpa took power as ruler of the Inca Empire in 1532.

Upon setting a trap for the king, Pizarro arrived on the scene and captured him. In one of the most extravagant ransom schemes recorded in history, the king offered a roomful of gold in exchange for his freedom. However, Pizarro reneged on his agreement. After executing the king, his supporters launched a series of looting sprees.

The country was occupied after this. When the conquerors took control of the country, an uprising occurred for two years in which thousands of people died due to the violence of the conquerors, as well as due to epidemics.

The Spanish soon discovered the silver mines in Potosi, in present-day Bolivia, and they forced the Inca people to work in these mines.

Cabral and Brazil

Brazil's Portuguese occupation was accidental. Pedro Alvares Cabral led a grand procession of ships to India in 1500. To avoid stormy seas, he made a wide loop around West Africa, ending up on the coast of modern-day Brazil.

This eastern part of South America was assigned to Portugal by the Pope on the map, so it was unquestionably theirs.

The Portuguese wanted to expand trade with western India rather than with gold-less Brazil. But they did exploit one natural resource: timber. The brazilwood tree, named by the Europeans, produced a lovely red dye.

The natives gladly cut down trees and carried logs to the ships in exchange for iron knives and saws. It was a joke. ('They'd bring a sickle or comb for one sickle or knife or comb.')

Portuguese and French traders fought over the trade-in timber. The Portuguese won by settling/colonising the coast.

In 1534, Portugal's king divided Brazil's coast into 14 hereditary "captaincies." He granted Portuguese residents the right to own land and enslave the natives.

Many Portuguese settlers were brutal to the natives of Goa, India. In the 1540s, the Portuguese established large sugarcane plantations and sugar mills to export sugar to Europe.

The natives worked the sugar mills in this hot and humid climate. When the natives refused to do the tedious work, the mill owners kidnapped them and sold them as slaves.

Natives kept fleeing into the forests to avoid the ‘slavers,' and soon there were no native villages left on the coast, only large, well-planned European towns. Plantation owners were then forced to import slaves from West Africa.

Unlike the Spanish colonies. The Spanish did not need to formally enslave the Aztec and Inca populations or look elsewhere for slaves because they were used to working in mines and fields.

In 1549, a formal government with the capital in Bahia/Salvador was established. From this point on, Jesuits went to Brazil.

For living in villages in the forest and teaching them Christianity, European settlers despised them. Above all, the Jesuits fought against sexism

Conquest, Colonies and the Slave Trade

European maritime projects dating all the way back to the 15th century revealed continuous ocean passages. Europeans were largely unaware of the majority of these passages. There had been no ship entering the Americas or Caribbean. No seagoing vessel had ever entered, much less crossed, its waters, or sailed from them to the Pacific or Indian Oceans.

All of this occurred between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Beyond the first explorers, the 'discovery of the Americas' had ramifications for Europe.

The influx of gold and silver aided global commerce and industrialisation. Between 1560 and 1600, 100 ships transported silver from South America to Spain each year. However, neither Spain nor Portugal benefited.

They did not invest their enormous profits in expanding trade or establishing a merchant navy. Rather than that, the Atlantic-coast countries benefited from the 'discoveries,' particularly England, France, Belgium, and Holland.

Their traders founded colonies and introduced Europeans to products from the New World such as tobacco, potatoes, cane sugar, cacao, and rubber.

America introduced new crops, such as potatoes and chillies, to Europe. Europeans then transported these to India. As a result of the abolition of their way of life, Native Americans were enslaved in mines, plantations, and mills.

Pre-conquest Mexico had a population of between 30 and 37 million, the Andean region had a similar population, and Central America had a population of between 10 and 13 million.

Before the Europeans arrived, the indigenous population numbered 70 million. They reached a population of 3.5 million a century and a half later.

The primary causes were war and disease. The abrupt annihilation of two major American civilisations – the Aztecs and the Incas – exemplifies cultural distinctions.

Both the Aztecs and the Incas used warfare to terrorise indigenous peoples on psychological and physical levels. The contest exposed fundamental value incompatibilities. The indigenous people had no concept of the Spanish gold and silver lust.

Enslavement of the populace served as a reminder of the battle's brutality. South America's experience, on the other hand, was unique in that it occurred concurrently with the emergence of the capitalist production system. Although the conditions were atrocious, the Spanish saw them as necessary for economic gain.

Philip II of Spain publicly prohibited forced labour in 1601, but maintained it by secret decree.

Then came the 1609 law, which granted complete freedom to all indigenous people, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Enraged, the European settlers compelled the king to repeal the law and immediately reintroduce slavery.

After 1700, as new economic activities such as cattle farming on deforested lands and gold mining emerged, the demand for cheap labour increased.

The indigenous people would not submit to enslavement. Africa was the alternative. Between 1550 and 1880, Brazil imported over 3,600,000 African slaves. This accounted for nearly half of all African slaves imported. In 1750, some individuals owned up to 1,000 slaves. Slavery existed in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, and slaves constituted the majority of the labour force in the new African states that emerged in the fifteenth century.

Additionally, they stated that Africans assisted in the capture of young men and women for the purpose of being sold as slaves by European traders in exchange for crops from South America (maize, manioc and cassava, which became their staple foods).

Olaudah Equiano, a slave, responded in his autobiography (1789) that African slaves were treated as family. Eric Williams was one of the first modern historians to reassess the suffering of African slaves in his 1940 book Capitalism and Slavery.


European settlers in South American colonies would rebel against Spain and Portugal in the early 1800s, just as the thirteen North American colonies rebelled against Britain in 1776 and formed the USA. Latin America is now called South America.

Because Spanish and Portuguese, two of the continent's main languages, are Latin languages. The population is mostly native European (Creole), European, and African. Most are Catholic. Their culture is a mix of native and European traditions.

Spanish expansion was based on military showmanship with gunpowder and horses. Locals had to either pay tribute or work in gold and silver mines.