Skip to main content

Withdrawn Module: Pre-Columbian and Spanish America (AM209)

Hispanic AmericaPlease note that this module was available
until 2010, but has since been
withdrawn and is no longer available.


Tutor: Professor Anthony McFarlane

Columbus's arrival in America in 1492 marks one of the great watersheds in world history. Europeans now discovered vast territories previously unknown to them, and encountered American native peoples who had been isolated from the other continents for many millennia.

This extraordinary encounter had implications of global magnitude. The Spanish settlers and conquistadors who arrived in Columbus's wake quickly created the greatest land and maritime empire which Europe had yet seen and turned the Spanish Monarchy into a European 'super power'. They also opened up vast new lands for European settlement and pioneered exploitation of the remarkably rich environments and resources of the New World, particularly its reserves of gold and silver. The new flows of migrants and trade had enormous economic consequences, both for Europe and the wider world. Europe now became a great centre of world trade, not only trading across the Atlantic but also using American silver to finance the new trades in luxury goods opened by the Portuguese in Asia.

The consequences for the native peoples of the Americas, on the other hand, were disastrous. Before the arrival of Europeans, American communities, societies and civilisations were developing in many different ways and had taken many forms. Some were simple societies, living from hunting and gathering. Others had developed highly-structured social hierarchies, complex cultures and elaborate forms of government, notably in Mesoamerica and the Andes, where the civilisations and empires of the Aztecs and the Incas were still expanding and developing when Europeans invaded their lands. Wherever American peoples had prolonged contact with Europeans, they were devastated by massive biological and cultural shocks. Spaniards saw themselves as a civilising force, bringing Christianity and literate culture, as well as new animals, crops and technologies. They also carried Old World diseases, and brought practices of enslavement and forced labour that weakened, often overwhelmed, native communities and cultures.

Labelled 'Indians' by the Spaniards, those who survived saw the transformation of their economies and societies during the sixteenth century, as they were forced to accept Spanish political, social and cultural dominance. Indians, together with Africans carried into slavery, became the servants of European masters, and from this unequal encounter Pre-Columbian America became Spanish America, a new area in world culture and a major cultural foundation for modern Latin America.

The main purpose of this undergraduate second-year option module is to study the great historical encounter between European peoples from Spain and American natives in Mexico and Peru. It focuses on the Aztec and Inca states; Spanish conquests in Mexico and Peru; European attitudes towards American peoples; the impact of Spanish conquest and colonisation on American Indian cultures; missionaries and Indian evangelisation; and creation and characteristics of Hispanic colonial culture.