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Aspects of America's past

The Voyages of Discovery:
Some Results

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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To begin with, the voyages of discovery revealed an amazing propensity on the part of the Europeans to enslave or exterminate the various cultures which they conquered.

Slavery had disappeared from Europe during the early Middle Ages and the extermination of subject peoples was never considered. What had altered by the late 15th century to change that perspective?


The Middle Ages and the Renaissance had bequeathed to Europe two important viewpoints. The first was the concept of "the Christian" as opposed to "the pagan". Second was the concept of the "savage".

By the time of the High Middle Ages, Europe was completely Christianized, at least in name. Opposing it was the Moslem menace of the Ottoman Empire. In order to meet that threat, Europe conceived the idea that the non-Christian was inferior and the Christian was allowed to kill or mutilate any heretics.

Much of that idea was carried into the new world of Africa and the Americas with their vast non-Christian populations, hence the Spanish enslavement of the American Indians.

Despite the fact that the Catholic Church came to distinguish between Moslem pagans and others, in that the others were more susceptible to conversion and did not present the same military threat as the Moslems, the old ideas stuck deep.

Even as late as the 19th century, therefore, a distinction was made between Christians and heathens in such places as the American "southern states" and in southern Africa.


To that was added the Renaissance concept of the "savage". The Renaissance created a profound sense of the "civilized" person as opposed to the "uncivilized" and drew up clear rules or guidelines in which the "civilized" person was to act.

Action that fell outside those norms was termed "barbarous" or "savage". The early colonists to America, Africa and Asia took those ideas with them and came to distinguish clearly between themselves and the indigenous races.

Since those "natives" had a culture which was entirely foreign to the European, they became branded as "savages". Coupled to that was the fact that they were also not Christian, which meant that the native people tended to fall victim to all that was nasty in the European culture.

All this was coupled with the notion that savagery was directly linked to the idea of "original sin". The savage was therefore a person who fell under God's curse and was the child of the devil.

In fact, 16th century literature is full of examples where the savage is likened to an animal, often in weird form, with eyes on his shoulders and a mouth in the centre of his chest.


Linked to that was the colour of the skin. The European traditionally saw white as the symbol of purity and black as the symbol of evil. The dark skinned "savages" tended therefore to be equated with "children of Satan".

Because they were still human beings, there was always the possibility of their conversion to Christianity. That would entail two things: adoption of Christian religious beliefs and acceptance of the European way of life.

A converted "savage" would therefore at once be acceptable as a Christian by his adoption of the trappings of the European civilization.

Although the concept of the "savage" was to change in Europe during the 18th century to one of the "noble savage", it would take decades and more for that idea to permeate into the colonies.

The colonists were imbued with the older conservative view and, living often shoulder to shoulder with the "natives", they would not be as easily convinced of the idea of the "noble savage". One need only look at the philosophy of the Voortrekker pioneers of South Africa to understand this.


Many of the settler population, in any case, consisted of Calvinists (e.g. the Pilgrim Fathers of North America and the Dutch colonists at the early Cape). They believed in a theology of "predestination". The "Elect" were predestined for salvation, the rest were not.

Although they were prepared to admit that some of the "natives" might have been numbered amongst the Elect, the majority were not and therefore could be exterminated to make way for God's Elect. That type of religious bigotry was common in Europe at the time.

In a sense it was a tragedy that the voyages of discovery took place during such a time. Many of the colourful cultures of the world were virtually exterminated as a result: the "bushman" (San) of South Africa, the "Red Indian" (Native Americans) of North America, the Aboriginals of Australia.

If the voyages had happened two centuries later, during the Age of the Enlightenment, what a different story it might have been. Or would it?

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