The central narrative of the Conquest of the Americas begins with a tale many of us have
grown up hearing. Unfortunately though, the conquest created an unprecedented destruction of human lives and cultures and of the natural world.
The story begins with Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the western hemisphere in 1492. Besides discovering a new land, these new settlers encountered a native population of Amerindians. Of course, the determination of the Spanish on this new territory was the never-ending conquest to find gold. In order to make their search crew wider, they forced the Indians to hard labor. The treatment to the Amerindians was so severe that within a mere fifteen years, nearly four-fifths of the Amerindian population had perished. But the biggest killer of the indigenous people were the epidemic diseases that Europeans unknowingly imported to which Indians were not immune.
Because of the great decrease in Indian laborers, an influential Spanish Catholic missionary by the name of Bartolome de las Casas decided to take some action. Bartolome became sympathetic towards the Native Americans and rebelled against the treatment that they were undergoing. In order to pacify the situation, he decided to replace the Indians with African laborers. It is not sure when this slave trade began but the number totaled to more than 12 million in the estimated 1530’s.
Of those 12 million laborers, only 650,000 were brought to North America. By contrast, four million went to the Caribbean Islands, Cuba and Jamaica receiving the larger shares, and South America imported close to 5 million, of which 3.6 million landed in Brazil.
The Africans who came to the Caribbean as slaves originated in a variety of ethnic nations covering a wide region of West Africa. Along with them, came various religious traditions that eventually became a part of the region’s colonial life. “African-based religions” are a result of over three centuries of slavery in the Americas. Given the massive numbers, it is not surprising that slaves and their descendants made such a huge impact on Latin American cultures. African traditions varied throughout the Caribbean depending on how much Spanish Colonial influence there was in that area. In Haiti, for example, European colonial domination and cultural contact ended with the slave revolution so Haiti maintained many more African cultural and religious traditions than most of the other nations in the Caribbean.
However, the Catholic Church did not stand back on this opening to a New World. They played a central role in the conquest and its negative consequences. It was important to maintain leadership and religious and social power so the church had to not only control the native people but also monitor the conquistadores’ treatment of the people. Pacification, domination and control of the native people were necessary in order to profit from the land and therefore stay in control. The catholic religion sets the important aspect of how Caribbean religions incorporate Christian traditions into their theology.
At one point in time, it was religion that controlled everything. The most powerful religion had the highest control of profits, land and people. In the case of the Conquest of the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade we see that the Spanish had the most power and tried to have the most influence on the people. But it is because of such a large number of slaves that what was adopted and did have the most influence were the religious traditions of the Africans. Still today we see many traces of these religions in all of Latin America.