Cross-cultural encounters, during and after the Renaissance, gave Europeans exhilarating possibilities. It allowed them the ability to explore new lands and meet new people. The lands of China, India, The Americas – both north and south – and West Africa would fulfill their insatiable appetite for discovery fueled by their curiosity to know more about the world they inhabited. However, as you will discover, the exploration endeavors of Europeans eventually did not bode well with the indigenous people and much of the previous harmony and culture of these regions would be lost, in some cases forever.
A great emphasis in Europe was placed on patronage of the arts and support of the sciences starting from the Renaissance forward to the Enlightenment. The nobles, as well as the ruling elite, were integral to this process, but the cost of supporting these endeavors was high. Within Europe, there was competition among the nations, and they vied to support the best within various fields of the arts and sciences. Growing nationalistic pride and increasing interest in various religious agendas – such as the Reformation and the Counter Reformation – required new revenue streams. Europeans also demanded access to the luxury goods found in Asia that were not otherwise available. Spices, objects of art, and other goods considered exotic to Europeans were highly prized and spoke to the status of the owner. The exploitation of newly encountered lands provided the necessary funds to support these European agendas.
Map 1. World Exploration, 1486–1611. (Sayre, 2013, p.275)
In the Americas, the Spanish and Portuguese arrived before other European nations. The decimation of the indigenous populations of the Americas, from a variety of causes, was nearly unfathomable. The Taino population who inhabited islands within the Caribbean was estimated to have numbered around 300,000 at the time of the initial arrival of Europeans. By 1550, the Taino numbered only about 500. The sophisticated Aztec population residing in the inland areas of Central Mexico was numbered at about 20 million before the Europeans came and the population was reduced to 10% of that within 75 years. The story was the same throughout the region. In many cases, diseases arrived before the Europeans were sighted because of the extensive and complex trade networks that the various indigenous cultures had developed. The Spanish came in numbers sufficient for colonization. They actively attempted to convert all indigenous peoples to Christianity and in this process destroyed many of the extant texts and records from this period and before.
In 1498, Vasco de Gama, of Portugal, arrived via ship on the coast of India after taking a southern route around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. This was the first step in the development of a trade-based empire eventually stretched from India all the way to Japan by the mid-16th century. In China and Japan, these encounters were controlled by the hosts, unlike in southern India or Indonesia. Trade with these regions, prior to de Gama’s maritime arrival, had been overland by way of the Silk Road. However, the 16th century opened a new era of trade between Europe and Asia. In the case of Japan, extensive trade networks throughout Asia already existed. The Japanese knew of the arrival of the Europeans by sea in India, and they were able to plan for the European arrival. Additionally, the Europeans did not attempt to colonize Japan, and the extent to which trade can be controlled without also controlling the territory can be argued to be limited.
European encounters during this period shared the commonality that the peoples of the cultures and civilizations were viewed as others, distinct from the Europeans. Seeing peoples of different cultures or civilizations as others served to objectify the individuals to an extent. Rather than being considered individuals, they were treated, at worst, as commodities that could be bought, sold, or entirely discarded. It can be argued that slavery resulted, in part, from this commoditization of human beings on the African and American continents. Viewing peoples of different cultures in this way often resulted in the application of pejorative terminology such as savage.
Map 2. The slave trade triangle. (Sayre, 2010, p.263)
A growing nationalistic pride and increasing interest in various religious agendas required new revenue to be acquired to support the need to luxuries and art. The exploitation of newly encountered lands provided the necessary funds to support these European agendas. Europeans also demanded access to the luxury goods found in Asia, such as spices, objects of art, and other goods considered exotic.
The initial backlash against these negative perceptions of otherness came in a form that was, perhaps, equally misguided. The development of a noble savage—the indigenous person who, although very different from the European, is giving and willing to share his or her culture with the European—was a different manifestation of ethnocentrism.
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the humanities. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2010). Discovering the humanities. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall.