What allowed one nation, the seventeenth-century Dutch legal thinker Hugo Grotius wondered, to claim possession of lands that “belonged to someone else”? This question rarely occurred to most of the Europeans who crossed the Atlantic in the wake of Columbus’s voyage, or to rulers in the Old World. They had immense confidence in the superiority of their own cultures to those they encountered in America. They expected these societies to abandon their own beliefs and traditions and embrace those of the newcomers. Failure to do so reinforced the conviction that these people were uncivilized “heathens” (non-Christians).

A banner carried by the forces of Cortes, conqueror of the Aztec kingdom, features an image of the Virgin Mary, illustrating how the desire to spread the Roman Catholic faith provided a justification for conquest.

Europeans brought with them not only a long history of using violence to subdue their internal and external foes but also missionary zeal to spread the benefits of their own civilization to others, while reaping the rewards of empire. Spain was no exception. The establishment of its empire in America took place in the wake of Spain’s own territorial unification, the rise of a powerful royal government, and the enforcement of religious orthodoxy by the expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492. To further legitimize Spain’s claim to rule the New World, a year after Columbus’s first voyage Pope Alexander VI divided the non-Christian world between Spain and Portugal. The line was subsequently adjusted to give Portugal control of Brazil, with the remainder of the Western Hemisphere falling under Spanish authority.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!