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Conquest of the Americas

Conquest of the Americas

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Conquest of the Americas

Course No. 888
Professor Marshall C. Eakin, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
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Course No. 888
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated, featuring approximately 200 visuals from both European and native sources, dozens of maps charting the conquest, and helpful on-screen text such as dates and key terms.
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Course Overview

Why was Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas in 1492 arguably the most important event in the history of the world? Professor Marshall C. Eakin of Vanderbilt University argues that it gave birth to the distinct identity of the Americas today by creating a collision between three distinct peoples and cultures: European, African, and Native American.

As the inheritors of this legacy, some 500 years hence, we forget how radically the discovery of the Americas transformed the view of the world on both sides of the Atlantic.

A People Unknown, A Land Unmentioned

When Columbus completed his "enterprise of the Indies" he found a people unlike any he had ever known and a land unmentioned in any of the great touchstones of Western knowledge.

Animated by the great dynamic forces of the day, Christianity and commercial capitalism, the European world reacted to Columbus's discovery with voyages of conquest—territorial, cultural, and spiritual.

For the native peoples of the Americas, the consequences were no less dramatic.

When Hernán Cortés arrived to conquer Mexico, the Aztecs feared he was a god, returned from exile to claim his ancient lands.

For all intents and purposes, he may well have been.

  • Within half a century, Old World germs and diseases had reduced native populations by as much as 90 percent.
  • The great empires of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas, which had developed over centuries, were undone in a matter of years.
  • The religious orders of the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits undertook to convert the native peoples to Christianity.
  • Finally, the engine of European capitalism, embodied in the great plantation estates and mining complexes in Mexico and Peru, transformed the day-to-day life of the native peoples.

Enormous and Tragic Consequences

This collision of cultures also had enormous consequences for the peoples of Africa. The transatlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in human history, changed the lives of millions of Africans and initiated one of the most tragic chapters in the history of the Americas.

And yet, this course is no simple account of heroes and villains, or victors and victims. It is a dramatic, sweeping tale of the complex blending of three peoples into one.

Through Dr. Eakin's thoughtful and detailed lectures, you understand how these three peoples formed completely new societies and cultures that were neither European, African, nor Indian. Instead, they were uniquely American.

History from Above and Below

In telling this story, Professor Eakin combines two approaches to history:

  • What has been called "history from above," or the study of heroic and elite figures that played a key role in shaping history
  • "History from below," the story as told by the great majority of common people who experienced this history firsthand.

While Dr. Eakin readily identifies and shares his analysis and interpretation of events, he also generously showcases competing views, and you benefit enormously from the numerous works he cites for further study.

He delivers his evenhanded lectures with one eye on the latest academic research and the other on classic scholarship of the past and original sources.

Those sources include the famous Florentine Codex, a retelling of the Spanish conquest of Mexico by the people who experienced it. It was compiled by a Spanish priest in Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztec Indians.

The Old World and the New

Professor Eakin sets the table for this history of the Americas by examining these two worlds as they developed in isolation for thousands of years.

You discover the wondrous accomplishments of the three great Native American empires, the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas. These sprawling empires mastered the domestication of crops and animals, as well as the control of water so necessary for a society to develop.

You learn how all three had complex religions, imperial ideologies, and impressive technological expertise:

  • The Maya had intricate calendrical systems based on knowledge of mathematics and astronomy that rivaled the achievements of the Old World.
  • The Incas administered, without a written language, an empire that stretched along most of the South American coast.
  • The Aztecs, like the Incas, built an enormous empire, conquering all of central Mexico from coast to coast as they sought more and more humans for the sacrifices their complex religion required.

Breathtaking Architectural Achievements

When the conquistadors first encountered the breathtaking architectural achievements of these civilizations, they were awestruck. These were edifices that matched anything seen in the revered world of ancient Greece and Rome. Some questioned whether the "savages" of these lands were capable of producing such wonders.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Europe was a politically fragmented backwater, and hardly poised to become the dominant force on the globe. How did Portugal, for example, a territory barely larger than Maine, eventually build a trading empire so dynamic it would eventually push out into the Atlantic and set the stage for Spain's historic expeditions of conquest?

Professor Eakin paints the complex political, cultural, and technological landscape of Spain and Portugal in their infancy.

You learn how they became the vanguard of the sleeping European giant that was soon to stride across the oceans and bridge two long-divided worlds.

Making Sense of Columbus

One biographer said of Columbus that, "Like a squid, he oozes out a cloud of ink around every hard square fact of his life."

Professor Eakin separates the facts about Columbus from the myths, and hones in on the significance of his voyage and the frenzy of exploration it set off:

  • You see how the ruthless conquest and subjugation of the Caribbean island peoples set a pattern that was played out across the Americas.
  • You're introduced to the ruthless and strategically brilliant Cortés as he vanquishes an empire of millions with just a few hundred Spanish soldiers.
  • You learn how Francisco Pizarro, inspired by Cortés, set out for Peru with the same dreams of gold and glory.

Eventually, all of Mexico and Central and South America would be defeated, and the European powers would begin to create new societies in these conquered lands.

A Voyage through Turbulent Times

The many topics covered by Professor Eakin as he moves through the turbulent times of the conquest also include:

  • The growth of the transatlantic slave trade as the conquerors began running out of the labor they needed to exploit the new territories
  • The spread of the plantation system as it became the lifeblood of the Portuguese colonial economy
  • The building of Spain's "golden age" on the backs of the indigenous peoples whose grueling labor mined the rich silver deposits of Mexico and South America
  • The "quest for souls" as Christian religious orders fanned out across the Americas
  • How the native peoples of the Americas resisted complete assimilation by creating new and colorful religions from the simmering pot of Christianity and long-held native beliefs.

In the final lectures, Professor Eakin looks at the foundations of the different societies in the Americas and looks forward, for better or for worse, to what future may emerge from this common past.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2002
  • 1
    Three Peoples Collide
    Neither the Eurocentric term "discovery" nor the blandly neutral "encounters" does justice to the impact of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans coming together in the New World. This process of conquest and mutual discovery can best be described as a "collision" whose causes and effects are outlined in this introductory lecture. x
  • 2
    The Native Americans
    Most of the inhabitants of the Americas arrived in a series of migratory waves from Asia between 40,000 and 2,000 B.C. Their civilizations, based on sophisticated irrigation and farming, and complex religions and social structures, would eventually rival those of Europe in almost all realms of life. x
  • 3
    Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas
    The Aztecs and Incas created empires built upon religions of conquest, and powered by the control of water, around Lake Texcoco in Mexico and high in the Andes Mountains, respectively. In the lowlands of Guatemala, the Maya developed a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, and built the archaeological monuments that astound us even today. x
  • 4
    Europeans and Africans
    Europe and Africa had been connected for centuries by Old World trading networks centered around the Mediterranean. It was in the 15th century that Spain and Portugal, nation-states with expertise in shipping and navigation, shifted the trade out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic, along the west coast of Africa. This set the stage for expeditions to the New World. x
  • 5
    European Overseas Expansion
    In 1492, Europe was dwarfed in power by the civilizations of China, India, the Ottomans of the Middle East, and even the empires of Africa. This lecture explains how four factors—the modern nation-state, capitalism, Christianity, and new technologies—combined to catapult Portugal, with its window onto the Atlantic, to a position of global primacy. x
  • 6
    Christopher Columbus—Path to Conquest
    Neither villain nor visionary, Christopher Columbus was an extremely learned and deeply devout man, who embarked on his "enterprise of the Indies" for "gold, glory, and gospel." He died unaware that he had initiated arguably the most important event in world history of the last 1,000 years. x
  • 7
    Stepping Stones—The Conquest of the Caribbean
    Within a generation the Spanish swept across the Caribbean Sea and the surrounding regions, conquering and annihilating native peoples, and establishing the patterns of conquest that they would repeat across the Americas for nearly a century. x
  • 8
    The Rise of Hernán Cortés
    In the conquest of Mexico, two empires collide, and two mighty figures clash. Emerging from obscurity in Cuba, Hernán Cortés would lead a renegade Spanish expedition to the coast of Mexico. He brilliantly exploited divisions among the various Indian tribes, bringing enemies of the Aztec empire to his side, and eventually capturing Montezuma in his own palace. x
  • 9
    The Fall of Montezuma
    After a massacre of the Aztecs by one of Cortés's officers, hundreds of thousands of enraged warriors surrounded the Spaniards, and the battle to flee from Tenochtitlán was about to begin. During the bloody struggle around Lake Texcoco, Montezuma would die, and the Spanish forces would narrowly escape. Cortés prepared to lay siege to the capital, and the ravages of disease began to weaken the Aztecs, sealing their empire's fate. x
  • 10
    Conquistadors and Incas
    Unlike the sweeping epic tale in Mexico, the conquest of the Incas in Peru was a sordid tale of betrayal and civil war. Francisco Pizarro captured and executed the Inca ruler Atahualpa, and pitted an enemy Inca faction against Atahualpa's remaining forces. Jealousy over the spoils of conquest, however, would eventually claim more Spanish lives than the war against the Incas itself. x
  • 11
    The Frontiers of Empire
    Conquests outside of the core regions of Mexico, Peru, and the Caribbean were far less fruitful. Ironically, the less developed people of the frontier proved far more difficult to conquer than the large empires. Pedro Alvarado was successful in his campaigns against the Maya in Guatemala, but expeditions into what is now the North American mainland yielded neither riches nor glory. x
  • 12
    Portuguese Brazil—The King's Plantation
    The Portuguese had stumbled upon Brazil in 1500 while sailing off the coast of West Africa, and it was initially an insignificant part of their vast trading empire. With the growth of sugar as a cash crop, however, Brazilian sugar plantations expanded on a vast scale. The depletion of Indian labor and the protection of Indian populations by Jesuit priests caused Brazil to turn to the widespread use of African slave labor. x
  • 13
    The Atlantic Slave Trade
    The Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration in world history. The Middle Passage, a harrowing experience almost beyond comprehension, claimed the lives of almost 20 percent of its human cargo en route. Slave narratives of the time describe the slave experience in graphic, first-hand detail, and newly assembled documentation assists in understanding the true scope of this shameful chapter in human events. x
  • 14
    Haciendas and Plantations
    The Spanish, Portuguese, and other European powers employed various labor systems to make their colonial possessions productive. This lecture explores the functioning of the encomienda, or land-grant system, the repartimiento system, which allocated draft-enforced Indian labor to landowners, as well as the plantation system as it functioned, quite distinctively, in the Caribbean and Brazil. x
  • 15
    American Silver and Spanish Galleons
    Spanish colonial wealth was built on the great estates, the rich silver mines in northern Mexico and upper Peru, and the fleet system that carried American silver back to Spain. When silver production in 1610 dramatically declined, the mercantilist Spanish economy upon which it was built fell like a house of cards. x
  • 16
    The Sword and the Cross
    With a religious zeal forged both by the long battle against the Moors of North Africa and by the intimate link between Church and State, Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal flooded into the Americas. Many produced some of the most extensive anthropological work on native cultures ever conducted. x
  • 17
    New Peoples, New Religions
    Despite the combination of persuasion and force employed by the missionaries, religious conquest was largely a failed project. Today, the vast majority of people in the Americas practice forms of Christianity, but in syncretic forms that are deeply imbued with indigenous and African religious beliefs. x
  • 18
    Late Arrivals—The English in North America
    In search of the Northwest Passage, and intending to disrupt the Spanish-Portuguese monopoly in the Caribbean, the English began expeditions of exploration and settlement. In Virginia, they would turn to a plantation system similar to that of the Portuguese in Brazil. The Pilgrims settling in Massachusetts Bay would pursue an entirely different, "northern" kind of society. x
  • 19
    Conquest by Dispossession
    The condemnation issued by Bartolomé de las Casas of Spanish treatment of the Indians was taken up by English and Dutch Protestants with vigor and gave rise to the notorious Black Legend. All European powers, however, were equally guilty of cruelty and ruthlessness towards native peoples, and each developed ideologies to justify the taking of lands from them. These ideological underpinnings are crucial to understanding the nature of the various mixed societies that ultimately emerged in the Americas. x
  • 20
    Late Arrivals—The French in the Americas
    The French attempted to establish footholds throughout the Americas, but their greatest success came along the St. Lawrence River, in New France, which would eventually become Quebec. The French Calvinist Jean de Léry also left perhaps that most empathic ethnographies of Indian life, based on his months living with the Tupinamba Indians, which includes an apology for cannibalism! x
  • 21
    Pirates of the Caribbean
    In the early 17th century, Dutch privateers struck at the heart of Spanish and Portuguese possessions in the Caribbean basin to undercut their trade monopolies. The Caribbean became a battleground, and by the end of the 17th century, the English and French had followed suit and established a permanent colonial presence. x
  • 22
    Clash of Cultures—Victors and Vanquished
    The European military conquest of the Americas was largely successful. The parallel effort to impose European cultures and values on Native Americans, Africans, and their descendants has not been. Active resistance to assimilation and the inevitable effects of racial and cultural mixing have led to new, widely divergent hierarchies and continuums of race, class, language, and social mobility. x
  • 23
    The Rise of “American” Identities
    Latin American cities in the 17th century were urbane, sprawling centers of wealth and culture that arguably outshone their European counterparts. The way of life was very different in the countryside, out of the reach of the church and other cultural institutions, as it was in the less developed British North America and along the Brazilian coast, where more uniquely "American" societies evolved. x
  • 24
    The Americas—Collisions and Convergence
    The mainstream of life in the Americas has been fed by three sources—one African, one European, and one Native-American—which are now inextricably fused. If economic development and social and political equity continue to spread throughout the Americas, the process of three peoples becoming one may yet reach fruition. x

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Your professor

Marshall C. Eakin

About Your Professor

Marshall C. Eakin, Ph.D.
Vanderbilt University
Dr. Marshall C. Eakin is Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, where he has taught since 1983. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Costa Rica and at the University of Kansas, where he also earned his master's degree. He earned his Ph.D. from UCLA. Before taking his position at Vanderbilt, he taught at Loyola Marymount University. He has won many teaching awards at Vanderbilt, including the...
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Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 60 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Exquisite As someone born in Latinoamerica I truly enjoyed this course. I t s thorough , engaging and describes the cultures of different part of the Americas with such precision that shows he truly knows what he s talking about. It is very well organized and guides you through the different stages of the "conquest " in a very clever, unbiased, and compassionate way. December 6, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Exceeded my expectations Professor Eakin far exceeded my expectations for this course. I found that the history I was taught was exceptionally superficial. Understanding the Conquest of the Americas involves bringing together the status and development of Europe throughout the time of the Age of Exploration. The commerce, politics, religion, and technology all impinge on how the events unfolded. The professor does an excellent job of explaining how these facts influenced how the Conquest of the Americas unfolded. I love understanding the real history behind the major events that we are taught in school, and this Great Course provided the insights I was looking for. Well done! November 15, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Excellent course. The subjects discussed are very relevant, and masterfully placed in historical and economical contexts. Clear presentation. Strongly recommended. June 28, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by not enough and too much Much solid information is presented, and I learned quite a bit, particularly from the earlier lectures. Professor Eakin's assertion that the story is about the (forced) coming together of people from Europe, from Africa, and from roots in the Americas is helpful. However, his coverage is uneven, with very little time spent discussing events in North America (I would have liked to know more about happenings in what is now Canada). Much personal opinion is given, which may be a necessary part of historical coverage. A graphic that shows the Mississippi River in the wrong location relative to the Great Lakes is disconcerting. I also thought that he could have stopped after his summaries of brutal treatment of people, rather than reading many specific accounts. Overall, I would recommend the course only to those who are very interested in this topic. February 3, 2015
  • 2015-11-29 T10:48:53.372-06:00
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