Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

South America
a Land of Adventure and of Promise

The history of the western hemisphere begins rather with South America than with North America. Students of United States history are familiar with the life of Christopher Columbus and his finding of the New World. Although he pointed the way for European nations to found valuable colonies in North America, there was an interval of a hundred and fifteen years between Columbus's discovery in 1492 and the first English settlement in 1607. In this period much history was made in South America. Spain and Portugal established rich colonies on the southern continent. They built cities and developed a valuable commerce that not only enriched Spain and Portugal but created commercial and political centers in South America rivaling in importance many of the cities of Europe. Students naturally ask how it happened that Spain and Portugal gained such an advantage in the sixteenth century over England, France, and the other European nations and why it was that they established colonies in South America rather than in North America.

In the fifteenth century, many cities on or near the Mediterranean Sea developed a rich trade with India, and goods brought from Asia were sold throughout Europe. This commerce made these cities rich and powerful. But in the last half of the fifteenth century the Turks captured Constantinople. Moors had long before conquered the southern part of Spain. Having also taken possession of western Asia, through which the trade lines ran between Europe and India, the Turks made it exceedingly difficult for the cities of southern Europe to continue their commerce with the East. This caused distress to Europe and forced the traders to seek other routes to India.

Through the encouragement of Prince Henry of Portugal, daring seamen sought to reach India by going around the southern end of Africa. Others thought that India might be arrived at by sailing westward and circumnavigating the globe. Christopher Columbus, thanks to the aid of the king and queen of Spain, was the first to attempt to reach India by sailing due west. Instead of reaching India, he discovered the New World (1492). However, he thought that he had reached Cipango or Japan; nor did he, to the day of his death, know that he had discovered a new continent. Six years later (1498), Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese, succeeded in reaching India by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. Thus, a water route to India was found by Portugal and a new world was discovered by Spain. These nations, being, more familiar with long-distance navigation than the northern Europeans and having better vessels, were in a position to develop a commerce with the Orient.

Why was South America colonized before North America?

Christopher Columbus, after landing on one of the Bahama Islands, in October, 1492, and later on the shores of Cuba, founded his first colony on the island of Haiti. He christened it Hispaniola, which means Little Spain, and there set up the first European settlement in America. Returning to Spain, he let his success be known to the world.

This queerly-shaped island of Haiti, lying almost in the middle of the chain of West Indies, between Porto Rico and Cuba, is the second largest of these islands. It contains 2,800 square miles, which is about the area of the states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. At the time of Columbus's discovery, the population was thought to be nearly 2,000,000. The island was rich in natural resources. There was much gold, and the fertile soil produced many things. The Spaniards, eager for wealth, sought to make the natives their servants, forcing them to work in mines and till the soil. As a result, the Indians became hostile and massacred the first colonists. But on his second voyage Columbus brought about 1,500 followers, and the colony, within a few years, increased so greatly that the Spaniards were able to subdue the island. In time they killed out the natives. Since the latter did not make good laborers, negro servants were introduced from Africa, beginning as early as 1512; this slave labor became most profitable. Thereafter, blacks were imported in such swarms that soon the number of negroes on the island was greater than that of Spaniards and Indians together.

In 1496 the town of Santo Domingo was founded; it became the capital of the island and of the Spanish dominions in the New World. Within a short time its streets were alive with adventurers, who flocked thither seeking wealth. For some years it was not only the center of Spanish control in America, but a city of much commercial importance; the island of Haiti was Spain's most valuable colony. Here in 1501 came Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a bankrupt young Spanish nobleman, who had decided to mend his fortunes in the New World. He did not linger in Santo Domingo, but sailed for the Isthmus of Darien, where he made friends with the Indians, established a colony, and discovered, the Pacific Ocean.

It was at Santo Domingo that Hernando Cortez landed in 1504, and from that place he led an expedition into Cuba and thence to Mexico, where in 1519 he captured Montezuma, the ruler of Mexico, and obtained enough gold to make Spain rich.

About the same time another Spanish soldier, Francisco Pizarro, full of the spirit of adventure, landed at Santo Domingo and later joined Balboa on the Isthmus of Darien. From Panama he led an expedition down to Peru, conquering the Inca, the ruler of that country. He, also, shipped enormous quantities of gold to Spain.

As a result of the activities of these and thousands of other Spaniards, Central and South America were explored and vast amounts of the precious metals were sent to Europe. The route down into South America seemed to be lined with gold, but little of it was found in North America, outside of Mexico. For that reason the northern continent for a hundred years after the discovery was considered of small value.

Spain suddenly became great by reason of her territories in the New World. But Spain had one enterprising commercial rival, her neighbor, Portugal. England at that time was a small, struggling nation, hardly able to maintain its independence. France was not a commercial nation of prominence. Portugal, however, after Portuguese seamen sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and opened up a trade route with India, rose to great importance. The Portuguese government wished to secure a share of the wealth of the New World. In 1500, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, a Portuguese nobleman of illustrious family, set sail for America and took possession of the shores of Brazil, which had already been discovered by Pinzon, a companion of Columbus.

Henceforth, the rivalry for the possession of South America lay between Spain and Portugal, and for nearly a century these two nations vied with each other to see which could profit more by the wealth of the New World. Spain at first used the island of Haiti as a base from which to plant her colonies in Mexico, Central America, and along the northern and western coasts of South America.

Eventually, as rich colonies developed, Haiti came to be almost deserted. It fell a prey to savage Indians and negroes, and to pirates that lurked along its coast.

On the return of Cabral, the Portuguese government at once sent to South America a large expedition under the command of Amerigo Vespucci, who made a careful study of the coast from the Amazon to the Plata River. On the first day of January, 1501, he sailed into a beautiful bay which he thought to be a river. He, therefore, called it Rio de Janeiro, or "River of January." He was unable to find much gold and silver, but he did discover a very valuable dyewood of bright red. This Vespucci called "brazilwood," which means "wood the color of fire." It was so valuable that the land was called "The Country of Brazilwood," and finally Brazil. Hundreds of vessels, not only from Portugal but from other lands, sailed to Brazil, and fortunes were made by trading in dye-wood, which was greatly wanted in Europe.

Amerigo Vespucci declared that if there were such a thing as an earthly paradise it could not be far from the Brazilian coast. Returning home, he wrote an account of his voyage, with maps, and published it. Many people throughout Europe read it and marveled at the wonderful country he pictured. When they spoke of the New World, they called it the land of "America," that is, the land discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. Thus we have the name America.

The struggle was now fairly under way for possession of South America. Other nations watched with jealous eyes the stream of wealth flowing from Central and South America to Spain and Portugal, but they were unable to stop its flow or to profit much from it, save by making war here and there in a piratical manner and robbing vessels as they sped along with rich cargoes. The great contest for world supremacy in that period lay between Spain and Portugal.

The Spaniards offered ships to those who would sail along the northern and western coasts in search of gold. The Portuguese planted sugar cane in Brazil and gave land to all who would settle in this fertile country and cultivate sugar. The Spaniards went into Mexico, took the wealth from Montezuma, and shipped great treasures to Spain. The Portuguese sent shiploads of dyewood and sugar back to Portugal. The Spanish built cities, enslaved Indians and negroes, and forced them to work in the mines. The Portuguese established rich plantations, brought in slave labor, and developed great cane-fields and sugar factories, which laid the foundation of a rich commerce.

The Spaniards moved down the west coast of South America and robbed the natives of their wealth. The Portuguese occupied the east coast and cultivated native plants that were useful to Europe. The Spaniards discovered the alpaca sheep on the western slopes of the Andes and, carrying its wool to Spain, gave royalty new fabrics. The Portuguese found the cotton plant in the valley of the Amazon. This plant has since become the principal material of dress of all the world.

While the Spaniards were seeking the Fountain of Youth, where it was believed old men might bathe and regain youthful vigor, the Portuguese were searching for the Amazons, a race of female warriors said to guard the city of El Dorado, the wealth of which was declared to surpass anything in. the East.

The Spaniards discovered on the plains of Peru the llama, the Peruvian sheep, with head like a camel, wool like a sheep, legs like a deer, and neigh like a horse. The Portuguese found in the Amazon an animal, half cow and half fish, the cow-fish, and, in the forests, the anaconda, a snake sixty feet long, as big round as a tree, and with a head like a dragon. They also discovered birds of beautiful plumage which excited the admiration of kings and queens.

All these stories of gold and silver and dyewood and sugar cane and cotton fields and strange animals and beautiful birds gave Europe a new lesson in animals and plants and precious metals. There had been nothing like it in the Old World, and European adventurers turned their eyes toward America as to a fairy region of riches and marvels.

The nations of Europe loved gold because it was the chief money of all civilized peoples. The nobles adorned themselves with it and churches and palaces were ornamented with it; but the sugar of Brazil brought as much joy to the world, perhaps, as did the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru.

South America was the great wonderland. The tales of adventure there were as marvelous as the Arabian Nights; every adventurer returning home could entertain his friends for weeks with delightful stories. So many people wished to hear of the discoveries, made not only in South America but in India as well, that news bulletins became popular, and newspapers may be said to have had their beginning in this public demand for knowledge.

Panama City


Gold and silver from South America flowed in a continual stream into the treasury of Spain. More money than the world had ever known before was suddenly thrown into circulation. As a result, banks sprang up and grew into important institutions: every progressive nation founded them to help in the commerce of the world. It became possible to carry on business on a large scale because money was more plentiful and credit easier to obtain than ever before; great commercial companies arose.

Europe was awake to the fact that a vast continent, wealthy beyond the dreams of the past, lay less than 3,000 miles to the westward. It was easy to reach America, but the voyage took a long time and so large were the cargoes that had to be carried and so numerous were the adventurers and settlers who voyaged that the tiny vessels then in use were not big enough. Ships began to be made larger and better for the trade of South America. Besides, stronger ships armed for war were needed now, for the selfishness and greed of the European nations caused them to prey. on each other's commerce. A new era in ship-building resulted, therefore, from the discovery and colonization of South America.

These treasure ships from South America drew to American waters adventurers from other nations of Europe, who also were learning to build better ships. It was not considered very wrong then for sailors of one nation to capture, by fair means or foul, the merchant ships of other nations. This piratical warfare went on in times when the nations themselves were at peace. A host of pirates, or buccaneers, skulked along the bays and rivers, waiting for these treasure ships; sometimes they even captured towns along the coast. The treasures of the New World were fair spoil for any who could take them. It was an age when bold sailors often made a fortune at a stroke. Such was the land and such were the adventurers that caused Europe almost to forget for the time the wealth of India and look westward. The continent that gave Europe a new lesson in the sixteenth century has a new lesson for the United States today.

In this great contest for possession of the New World, Portugal strengthened her colonies in Brazil and developed an important empire.

But what became of Haiti? The center of Spanish control passed from that historic island to Panama and thence to Peru. The story of this development will be told in following chapters. Unhappily, the later history of Haiti is a tale of cruel tyranny, misrule, and savage warfare.

The Spaniards, lured on in their quest for gold, wellnigh deserted the island which might have become the center of a great nation and a prosperous people. Even the city of Santo Domingo was allowed to decay. The Spaniards in their greed almost forgot that the remains of Columbus and his son lay sleeping beneath its walls. The little island that had once aroused the interest of the Old World became, within a few decades, the stamping-ground of pirates and buccaneers and the football of nations desiring a hold in the New World. Spain established more prosperous colonies in Panama, Mexico, and Peru, and had so little thought of Haiti that it lay almost unprotected: France without much difficulty took possession of it. Later the negroes, who had increased so greatly that they far outnumbered the white or mixed races, rose in 1791 under the leadership of Toussaint l'Ouverture, and finally overthrew French rule and established an independent government. This was the second negro republic in the New World. The other was in the interior of Brazil, where the negroes greatly outnumbered the Portuguese.

The history of Haiti, since the republic came into being, is the story of a people's falling back to barbarism while struggling to erect something resembling civilized government. The first act of the negroes in western Haiti, on setting up their state, was to murder all the white people in that part of the island. The eastern portion of the island was largely Spanish, but the mixture of races and the threatening negroes to the west kept it in a state of turmoil and insurrection. The old civilization was fast passing away. The remains of Columbus and his son had been removed to Spain. Bandit warfare took the place of law and order. The negroes in the interior, no longer supported by civilization, went back to savagery and even to cannibalism, and the black rites of voodoo magic swept away the last traces of Christianity. The life of the African jungle appeared in the New World.

In 1844, the republic of Santo Domingo, which embraces about two thirds of the island, was created, leaving the negro republic of Haiti to occupy the western third. The people of Santo Domingo are more Spanish than negro. They speak the Spanish language and are more capable of self-government than the Haitians. The inhabitants of Haiti are mainly of negro blood and speak a dialect of their own, hardly understood by the people of any other nation. The people of Santo Domingo are hostile to the Haitians, and the two nations have frequently been at war.

So low did the two governments in the island of Haiti fall, such a menace did they become to all nations trading in the waters about the island, so lost were they to the sense of right and justice, that the United States in 1915 was compelled to take over both of them in order to restore order and teach the people how to govern themselves. Thus the first attempt of the Spanish to found a colony in the New World resulted in failure, and the island of Haiti, instead of becoming a factor in world progress, is a serious problem in social and political control. If the United States takes its hands off Haiti, will it revert again to complete barbarism?