A Short History of The Inca Empire

A Short History of The Inca Empire

Machu pichu

The most widespread empire in the Americas prior to European conquest; although the Inca civilization was long-lived, the Empire itself thrived for a relatively short period of time of just under a century. Centered around what is now modern-day Cusco in Peru, the Empire encompassed the majority of the continent’s Western coast, encompassing contemporary territories such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador.

A sophisticated Empire in contrast to the more spread-out Mayan civilization, the Incas built up territory through both violent annexation and more diplomatic assimilation. The Empire was ruled as a Federalist system, with the Sapa Inca as the divine, all-powerful leader of the state. In addition to being the de facto leader, his duties also entailed being the head of the state’s religion. The only other official with a comparatively high status was the Willaq-Umu or Chief Priest. In addition to the centralized government in Cusco, the Empire was divided into four suyus (districts): Chinchay Suyu, Anti Suyu, Kunti Suyu and Qulla Suyu. Culturally, the Incas are best remembered for their stunning architecture, which even Spanish conqueror Pizarro noted as spectacular. Indeed, architecture was by a considerable margin the most important of the arts within the Incan Empire.

Similar to other Mesoamerican cultures, the Incas believed in the concept of reincarnation, with death being a trying phase of life in which spirits had to undergo several trials to reach heaven, which bore several similarities to the Abrahamic notion of the afterlife. There were several bizarre and violent religious customs associated with the Incas, including cranial deformation and human sacrifice, both of which often included infant children.

Despite the glorious highs the Incan Empire achieved, it ended in bloody tragedy. Already vulnerable following a civil war and a smallpox outbreak, the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors proved to be the final nail in the coffin. Lead by the devious conqueror Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish, despite possessing a small army of 168 men, were far more technically advanced than the Incas. Furthermore, they enlisted the aid of tens of thousands of disgruntled natives of territory annexed by the Incas. Following the Battle of Puna in modern day Ecuador, Pizarro attempted to force the Incas into non-violent submission, but due to a language barrier, this did not work. Eventually, the Spaniards captured the Incan leader Atahualpa, and despite his offer to exchange a fortune in gold in silver, which the Incas fulfilled, they were cruelly deceived. Pizarro refused to release him, eventually having him and his brother Huascar executed, allowing the Spaniards to conquer the country. Indeed, it proved to be a cruel end to the Americas’ most formidable empire.

 By Louis Cross

The Crusades

The Crusades

The Crusades were military campaigns endorsed by the Latin Roman Catholic Church during the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages. Pope Urban II declared the First Crusades with the intended goal of restoring Christian access to holy places in and around Jerusalem.By the end of the 11th century, Western Europe had emerged as a significant power in its own right, though it still lagged far other Mediterranean civilization such as that of the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic empire of the Middle East and North Africa.

In November 1095, Alexius sent representatives to Pope Urban II asking for mercenary troops from the West to help confront the Turkish threat. at the Council of Clermont in southern France, the pope called on Western Christians to take up arms in order to aid the Byzantines and recapture the Holy Land from Muslim control. Pope Urban’s plea met with a remarkable response, both among lower levels of the military elite as well as ordinary citizens. They decided that those who joined the armed pilgrimage would wear a cross as a symbol of the Church.

Several hundred thousand Roman Catholic Christians became crusaders by taking a public vow and receiving complete remission of temporal punishment. The makeup of these crusaders were Christians from all over Western Europe under feudal instead of unified command and the politics were often difficult to the point of intra-faith competition. There were also additional opportunities to take up the cross, such as economic or political gain, a craving for adventure, and the feudal obligations to follow one’s lord into combat. A soldier for Christ was a symbol of complete devotion to God.

 Crusade painting, artist and date unknown

Crusade painting, artist and date unknown.

The First Crusades

Additionally, there were six more major crusades and several minor ones. The First Crusade began in 1096 and four separate armies of crusaders were created from troops of a mixture of Western European regions, led by Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois and Bohemond of Taranto. There was also a group known as the “People’s Crusade,” made up of a less organized crew of knights and commoners. The group set out before the others and a popular preacher known as Peter the Hermit was their leader.In the first significant quarrel between the Crusaders and the Muslims, Turkish forces squashed the invading Europeans at Cibotus.

Another group of Crusaders, led by the notorious Count Emicho, carried out a string of massacres of Jews in various towns in the Rhineland in 1096, drawing widespread outrage and causing a major crisis in Jewish-Christian relations. In 1099, 20,000 Crusaders captured Jerusalem, massacring many of its inhabitants in the process. They were to hold the city for almost 100 years.After the First Crusade there was an alternating 200-year struggle for control of the Holy Land, with six more major crusades and multiple insignificant ones. 1291 brought about the failure of the last Christian domination in the Holy Land at Acre.

The Second Crusades

Due to the fact that the crusaders completed their goal before they anticipated, many left for home, while others stayed to govern the territory. The ones who stayed created four large western settlements, otherwise known as Crusader states, in Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch and Tripoli. The Crusader states maintained the upper hand in the region until approximately 1130, when Muslim forces began gaining ground in their own holy war, often known as jihad, against the Christians. In 1144, the Seljuk general Zangi, governor of Mosul, captured Edessa, leading to the  loss of the northernmost Crusader state.

The fall of the County of Edessa the previous year marked the need for more military  reinforcements so the Pope, along with many of the Christian rulers, felt a crusade  was necessary. Various preachers, such as, Bernard of Clairvaux and South German  armies, under the Kings Louis VII and Conrad III, marched to Jerusalem in 1147 but  didn’t have any major victories, launching a failed pre-emptive siege on Damascus.

Upon arriving in Constantinople, they planned the impending invasion. They would cross to Anatolia and destroy the Turkish armies that had been recognized the previous year. Their objectives were also to secure the pilgrim pass, recover the County of Edessa and provide reinforcements to Jerusalem, which was in massive danger as most knights had passed away since the First Crusades.There were two big armies led by kings and a few smaller independent armies that were scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Upon reaching Anatolia, both kings were soundly defeated separately giving the Turks a victory they badly needed. The Second Crusade was a failure, despite some success in the Mediterranean namely the acquisition of Lisbon and other small settlements.

The Second Crusade was a failure due to many reasons. First, there was hardly any communication between the two kings. While Conrad marched first to attack Iconium, the Seljuk Turks capital, the French remained behind and attacked another target. This allowed the Turks to quickly march from one place to another without being weighed down. Conrad was defeated and almost killed. The French, on the other hand, lasted longer but they were ultimately routed and their army was almost destroyed.

Furthermore, The Second Crusades had a devastating effect in Europe and was the first real sign of the decay of the Crusaders States in the Middle East. After their defeat, Jerusalem was weakly protected, but this only resulted in the need for the Third Crusade. However, such a humiliating defeat had a negative effect in Europe, which was visible in its economy, lack of recruits and internal chaos. An additional consequence was that Saladin now ruled the Egyptians. He successfully united Syria and Egypt completely surrounding the Crusaders; the main reason of their union was their common enemy, the Christians.

 Petra, Jordan Photo Credit: Jose Javier Martin

Petra, Jordan. Photo Credit: Jose Javier Martin.

The Third Crusades

In the years between the failure of the Second Crusades and 1170, when the Muslim Prince Saladin came to power in Egypt, the Latin States were on the defensive but were able to sustain themselves. After numerous attempts by the Crusaders of Jerusalem to capture Egypt, Nur al-Din’s forces, led by the general Shirkuh and his nephew, Saladin, seized Cairo in 1169 and forced the Crusader army to evacuate. Shirkuh died shortly after and Saladin took over control and started a series of conquests that accelerated after Nur al-Din’s death in 1174.

Then, in 1187, Saladin began a major operation against the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. His troops nearly destroyed the Christian army at the battle of Hattin, and he took back Jerusalem along with a vast majority of territory. In response to the Church’s call for a new, major Crusade, three Western rulers took on the task to lead their forces in person. These were Richard I, the Lion-Hearted of England, Phillip II of France and Frederick I, called Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. These three leaders banded together. In 1189, on their trek to the Holy Land, Frederick Barbarossa died and most of his armies returned to Germany following his death. Phillip II had been urged into taking up the Crusade by a need to match his rivals, but returned home in 1191. On the other hand, Richard, known as a great soldier was very comfortable in his position and saw an opportunity to campaign in the field, establish ties with the local nobility and to be the voice of the Crusader states.
Although Richard gained a lot of glory through the capture of the island of Cyprus from the Byzantines in 1191 and then recaptured the city of Acre after a long siege, the Crusaders were unable to recapture Jerusalem or much of the territory of the Latin Kingdom. Richard left the following year after negotiating a treaty with Saladin. The terms allowed for trade for merchants and unarmed pilgrims to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, while it remained under Muslim control. After the disappointments of the Third Crusade, Western forces would never be able to threaten the real bases of Muslim power. Subsequently, they were only able to gain access to Jerusalem through diplomacy, not arms.

The Fourth Crusades

The Fourth Crusades never reached the Holy Land. Instead, it became a  vehicle for the political ambitions of Doge Enrico Dandolo and the  German King Philip of Swabia. Dandolo saw an opportunity to expand  Venice’s possessions in the near east, while Philip saw the crusade as a  chance to restore his exiled nephew, Alexios IV Angelos, to the throne of  Byzantium.Pope Innocent III initiated recruitment for the crusade in 1200 with lecturing taking place in France, England and Germany. However, the majority of the efforts were in France. In preparation for this Crusade, the ruler of Venice agreed to transport French and Flemish Crusaders to the Holy Land, but the Crusaders never fought the Muslims. They were unable to pay the Venetians the amount agreed upon so they were forced to bargain with the Venetians.They crusaders agreed to divert the crusade to Constantinople and share what could be looted as payment. As collateral the crusaders seized the Christian city of Zara on November 24, 1202. When Innocent III learned of the expedition, he excommunicated the participants. The crusaders met with minimal resistance in their initial siege of Constantinople, sailing down the Dardanelles and breaching the sea walls. However, Alexios was strangled after a palace coup, robbing them of their success. They had to repeat the siege in April 1204. This time the city was pillaged, churches were destroyed and immense numbers of the citizens were slayed. The crusaders took their rewards, dividing the empire into Latin fiefs and Venetian colonies. The Venetians then persuaded the Crusaders to attack the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, which fell on April 13, 1204. For three days the Crusaders sacked the city. Subsequently the Venetians gained a monopoly on Byzantine trade. The Latin Empire of Constantinople was established, which lasted until the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantine emperor in 1261. In addition, several new Crusader states sprang up in Greece and along the Black Sea. The Fourth Crusade did not even threaten the Muslim powers. Trade and commerce had triumphed, like Venice hoped, but at the cost of irretrievably widening the rift between the Eastern and Western churches. In addition, several new Crusader states popped up in Greece and along the Black Sea. The Fourth Crusade did not even intimidate the Muslim powers. Trade and commerce had prevailed, as Venice had hoped, but at the cost of irreparably expanding the rift between the Eastern and Western churches.

knights templar crusades

Espartosa Jacques de Molay Last (23rd), painting by Marius Granet (1777-1849).

The Knights Templar

Around 1118, a French knight named Hugues de Payens created a military order along with  eight relatives and acquaintances. He called it the Poor Knights of the Temple of King  Solomon, which was later known as the Knights Templar. With the support of Baldwin II,  the king of Jerusalem, they set up headquarters on the sacred Temple Mount and pledged to  protect Christian visitors to the city.

After facing initial criticism by religious leaders, in 1129 the knights received the formal  endorsement of the Catholic Church and support from Bernard of Clairvaux, a prominent  abbot. New recruits and lavish donations began pouring in from across Europe.
The Knights Templar were referred to as many different names, including: The Poor Fellow-  Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, frequently the Order of Solomon’s Temple  or simply Templars.  They were among the most wealthy and powerful of the Western  Christian military orders and were among the most important actors of the Christian  finance.  There were three main ranks of the Templars: The noble knights, the non-noble sergeants and the chaplains.

The Roman Catholic Church officially endorsed them in 1129 and the Order became a superior charity through Christendom and grew swiftly in membership and power. The standard uniform for these knights consisted of distinctive white shrouds with a red cross. They were also among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Those members that were non-combatant of the Order, supervised a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, creating financial techniques that were an early form of banking and building defenses across Europe and the Holy Land.

In the late 12th century, Muslim soldiers retook Jerusalem and turned the tables of the Crusades, forcing the Knights Templar to relocate multiple times. In the decades that followed, Europeans’ support of military campaigns in the Holy Land began to decline; the Templars’ popularity met the same fate as they clashed with other Christian military orders and participated in a series of fruitless battles. By 1303, the knights had lost their traction in the Muslim world and established a base of operations in Paris. However, the French king Philip IV determined to bring down the order, possibly because the Templars had denied the obliged ruler added loans and expressed interest in forming their own state in southeastern France.

On October 13, 1307, a massive amount of French Templars were arrested along with the order’s grand master, Jacques de Molay. They were charged with a series of offenses ranging from heresy, devil worship and spitting on the cross to homosexuality, fraud and financial corruption,.  These men were brutally  tortured.  Then, In 1310, dozens of Templars were burned at the stake in  Paris for retracting their earlier confessions during their trials.  Finally,  under pressure from Philip, Pope Clement reluctantly dissolved the  Knights Templar in 1312. The organization existed for almost two  centuries during the Middle Ages.


Saladin was born Salah al-Din Yusuf and was known as a great Muslim leader. He was born into a prominent Kurdish family and his father worked for the Turkish governor ‘Imad ad-Din Zangi ibn Aq Sonqur in northern Syria. He spent his youth in Ba’lbek and Damascus, where his main interest was the study of religion instead of military training.

When Saladin was old enough to begin working, he worked with his uncle, Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, who was a key military commander under Nur al-din, the son and heir of Zengi. After Zengi’s death, three military expeditions into Egypt began, all led by Shirkuh, in an attempt to stop the country falling to the Latin Christian rulers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The King of Jerusalem, Amalric I, Shirkuh and Shawar, the leader of the Egyptian Fatimid caliph, began a three-way struggle as they fought for control.
in 1163, Saladin climbed the ranks of the Fatimid government by virtue of his military successes against Crusader assaults on its territory and his personal closeness to the caliph al-Adid. When Saladin’s uncle Shirkuh died in 1169, al-Adid appointed Saladin vizier, a rare nomination of a Sunni Muslim to such an important position in the Shia Muslim-led caliphate.

During his term as vizier Saladin began to weaken the Fatimid establishment, and following al-Adid’s death in 1171 he took over the government and realigned the country’s allegiance with the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate. In the following years, he led attacks against the Crusaders in Palestine, ordered the successful conquest of Yemen and avoided pro-Fatimid rebellions in Upper Egypt.

Saladin was now known as the Sultan.  He then became the Sole Master of Cairo and the first Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt in 1174.  Although he occupied Damascus and other Syrian towns, Egypt continued to be the main base of his operations.  Saladin managed to unite and lead the Muslim world and the Christians of western Europe were astounded at his success.


Ancient view of the Citadel

One of the things that Saladin is best known for is the creation of the Cairo military fortress, the Citadel, which he built between 1176-1177, as well the college-mosque, the madrassa, where religion and Islamic law were once again taught to residents. Saladin also ordered up a wall to be built, which enclosed the entire city. His goal was to increase the city’s defenses. Saladin sold off the Fatmids’ treasure to pay his Turkish troops and therefore went from strength to strength in his military efforts.

In 1182 Saladin left Cairo. He went to Syria to fight the crusaders and  liberated the immense majority of Palestine from the English, French and  other armies as well as from the control of the Pope. Saladin died in  Damascus in 1193 and was succeeded by his brother, al Adil.


Saladin Castle. Photo credit: Georges Dahdouh.

Richard The Lionheart

King Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart was prompted by Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 to join the Third Crusade to regain the Holy Land for the Christians. Richard was born to King Henry II of England on September 8th in 1157 and showed excellence in military skills at an early age. In 1174, Richard and two of his siblings, Henry and Geoffrey, rebelled against their father’s rule over Aquitaine.

After conflicts with his father, Richard formed an alliance with King Philip II of France in 1187 to help in his quest against his brothers and father. Richard released the rights to Normandy and Anjou as part of this alliance and went on to win against his father in July 1189 as a unified front. His father agreed to name Richard as his heir, and he was crowned in September 1189 at Westminster Abbey, after Henry’s death.

The pope, Gregory VII, ordered the Third Crusade after Saladin’s defeat of the King of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin, and Richard, who was later given the ‘Coeur de Lion’, the “Lion-hearted,’ title for his heroism, was eager to lead the Crusade. He raised money for the mission by imposing a tax upon all classes and selling off royal lands.

Richard I “Cœur de Lion”, London, April 2008. Photo credit: Jan Kunst.

Richard I “Cœur de Lion”, London, April 2008. Photo credit: Jan Kunst.

There was great respect between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Saladin made an agreement to send fruit and water to Richard’s men when they requested it in their time of need. Saladin discovered that Richard only had a small army and would have little chance of taking the Holy Land. The two men agreed to a truce, although neither was particularly happy about the outcome, but they were exhausted. This agreement allowed pilgrims from the west to visit Jerusalem without being hassled by the Muslims. Richard sailed for western Europe in October 1192, and never returned to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, Duke Leopold of Austria captured him, who Richard had criticized before. Leopold held Richard captive for two years before a sizeable ransom was paid for him. Richard was finally able to travel home in 1194.

The Death Of Richard The Lionheart

By March of 1199, Richard was involved in a siege of the castle at Chalus-Chabrol. There was a rumor that a treasure had been found on his lands,  and Richard was said to have demanded the treasure be given over to him. However, this didn’t happen and instead Richard attacked.
He was killed in 1199 in battle in Northern France’ while trying to expand territory in France on behalf of the English Crown. On the evening of March 26, Richard was shot in the arm by a crossbow bolt while watching the progress of the siege. Although the bolt was removed and the wound was treated, infection could not be prevented and Richard became sick. He kept to his tent and limited visitors to keep the news from getting out, but he knew what was happening. Richard the Lionheart died on April 6, 1199.


The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire occupies a special place in the collective consciousness of the West, at once a dark star on the eastern horizon, threatening the very existence of Western civilisation, and at the same time a source of endless fascination and enchantment, the physical realisation of the wildest Orientalist fantasy. Often identified in the popular imagination of the West as only one step removed from the realm of the Anti-Christ, the Ottoman Empire was at the same time admired for its enlightened attitude towards peoples of other faiths, a place where Jews and Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, could live side by side with Muslim Turks — they may not have liked each other especially, but at least under Ottoman rule, they weren’t slitting each other’s throats.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in 1683.

The Ottoman military, the principal instrument of their success, was also admired as much as it was feared. The first standing army since the Roman empire, with an institutionalized system of conscription, salaried professionals, elite infantry and cavalry divisions, and cutting-edge artillery and sappers, its organisation and tactics were studied and copied by rival powers and laid down the foundations for the modern armies of today.

The Ottomans were also celebrated for their achievements in the arts and sciences, particularly architecture and engineering — the latter were more readily accessible to Western observers, whereas other areas of outstanding Ottoman creative achievement, such as poetry and calligraphy, could only be properly appreciated by those who had made a serious study of Islamic culture.

The Early Ottomans

By and large, though, for much of their 600-year rule, the Ottomans were viewed by the West more in negative terms than positive, a kind of repository for the moral failings of the world and its collective sins and vices, if not the fons et origo of all evil. Thus, in spite of their acknowledged religious tolerance and other enlightened attitudes regarding the governance of the peoples they had subdued, the Ottomans were seen as a cruel and vengeful people, who revelled in blood letting and atrocity.

A famous instance of the alleged barbarity of the Turk was the mass execution of Hungarian prisoners of war following the Battle of Mohács in 1526, when 2,000 captive Hungarian soldiers, including many notable noblemen and leaders, were decapitated on the expressed orders of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman, for his part, seems to have been as laconic as he was magnificent, simply noting in his personal diary for that day:  “The Sultan, seated on a golden throne, receives the homage of the viziers and the beys, massacre of 2,000 prisoners, the rain falls in torrents.”

Terrace of the Seraglio

The Terrace of the Seraglio, Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904).

Suleiman was not exceptional when it came to barbarous deeds. The Venetian ambassador to the seventeenth-century court of Murad IV, describes the sultan as turning “all his thoughts to revenge, so completely that, overcome by its seductions, stirred by indignation, and moved by anger, he proved unrivalled in savagery and cruelty. On those days that he did not take a human life, he did not feel that he was happy and gave no sign of gladness.”

And it wasn’t just cruelty and violence that the Ottomans were famous for, but other vices too: avarice, duplicitousness and moral degeneracies of every kind. Most especially they were associated with wantonness and sexual excess  — Sultan Murat III was said to have fathered 112 children, while the haremof the Topkapi Palace was famous for being home to some 400 concubines, procured solely for the pleasure of the Sultan!

East and West: Clash Of Civilisations

This demonisation of the Ottoman, was no more than one might expect given the threat posed to the Christian West by the seemingly unstoppable westward expansion of their empire during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Europe had been there once before with the Mongol invasion of Poland, Hungary and Croatia in the thirteenth century.

With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and subsequent Ottoman advances into Europe in the course of the following century it must have seemed that the dreaded Gog and Magog were once more on the march and hammering at the gates of Christendom — Gog and Magog were peoples or lands mentioned in the Old Testament, who by the medieval era had come to be identified as the ultimate embodiment of the forces of darkness and evil: When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the Earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore (Revelation 20: 7-10).

It is tempting to view this confrontation between of the Muslim Ottoman and the Christian West in medieval Europe as a “clash of civilisations,” an idea that has a popular resonance in today’s post 9/11 world. And in a way it was, at least as seen from a European perspective.

Thus, Edward Said writes that in the eyes of the West, Islam came “to symbolise terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians … a lasting trauma.” “Until the seventeenth century,” he continues, “the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues, and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life” (Orientalism, 1978: 59-60).

Where the Ottomans were concerned, however, their engagement with the West was rather more accommodating, based first and foremost on pragmatic considerations rather than an ideological rejection of all things European. Though intent on conquering as much of Eastern Europe as they could by force of arms, the Ottomans had no particular interest in converting the peoples they had subjugated to Islam. On the contrary, they were perfectly content to let those whom they had over run to continue to practice their own religions, be administered by their own laws and, except where Muslims were involved, be tried by their own legal systems.

The term “clash of civilisations” was first used by Bernard Lewis in an article in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, but subsequently became more closely identified with Samuel P. Huntington’s prophesy — now some twenty-years old — that henceforth “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural … and the fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future” (Huntingdon ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993).

When the Jews, for example, were expelled from Andalusia following the reconquest of Spain in 1492, many of them moved to Istanbul, where they were welcomed for their business connections and commercial expertise; the Ottoman Empire was nothing if not cosmopolitan.

Not that the Ottomans were especially benevolent or well-disposed towards non-Muslims. On the contrary, non-Muslims were treated as second-class citizens, and looked down upon as generally inferior beings, if not “beasts” (rayah), whose religion and other traditional practices would always have to defer to those of True Believers.  Not only that, but non-Muslims also had to pay extra taxes and they were often treated in humiliating ways — for example in Damascus, Christians were forbidden to ride animals of any kind, not the humble donkey.

And then, of course, they were subject to the devşirme levy, a literal “harvest of children”, where young boys (and the occasional girl if the Sultan’s harem needing topping up) from non-Muslim families — mainly Christians communities in the Balkans — were forcibly removed from their homes at around the age of seven or eight, and brought to Constantinople, where they were made to convert to Islam and then enrolled one of the four imperial institutions — Palace, Scribes, Religious or the Military — whereupon they would receive an education that would prepare them for a career in the service of the Ottoman state.

But if the Ottomans considered themselves to be morally and materially superior to the West in most things — at least during the first half of their 600-year rule — they were quite happy to cherry-pick the best of European science and the arts as and when it pleased them.

The Ottomans, Western Culture & Art

Mehmed the Conqueror of Constantinople,  was steeped in Classical culture and liked to think of himself as a latter-day Alexander the Great and heir to the Roman Caesar!

Sultan Mehmed II,

Sultan Mehmed II, 1480; oil on canvas; National Gallery, London.

Though a firm believer in Islam and the efficacy of Sharia law, in later life he worshiped Christian relics and commissioned the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini to paint his portrait in a flagrant transgression of the Islamic proscription forbidding representational art.

This Europhilia was not a particular quirk of Mehmed. Ottoman scholars translated the works of ancient Greek philosophers and scientists into Arabic and Turkish, while European geographical discoveries made during the great Age of Exploration, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, soon found their way onto Ottoman maps, most famously Admiral Piri Reis’ World Map of 1513.

Similarly, Ottoman intelligence was well-informed about the latest European technical advances, especially in matters relating to the military sciences and engineering, while Leonardo da Vinci was invited by Sultan Bayezid, Mehmed’s successor, to submit a proposal to for a floating pontoon bridge across the Golden Horn.

If Christian Europe viewed the Ottomans on their doorstep with horror and alarm — an existential menace that threatened to penetrate the very heart of Christendom — the Ottomans looked to the West with a more sanguine eye and were happy to take the best that Europe had to offer and adapt it to their own ends.  Even on the Christian side of the equation, it was never a simply a case of black or white, good or evil, where the Ottomans were concerned.

The first appearance of Ottoman Turkish troops on European soil in 1345 was as Byzantine mercenaries, while Venice was ever in cahoots with Istanbul, even when the rest of Europe was waging war on the Infidel.  And come the Reformation and the emergence of a Protestant constituency in northern Europe, for some Christians, at least, the Ottomans no longer looked like the bad guys when they shared a common enemy — the Catholic-based Holy Roman Empire.

In the latter instance, the Ottomans were quite happy to enter into a rapprochement with the Protestant north, whose dominions lay at one remove from their borders. Thus we find Sultan Murad III exchanging letters with Queen Elizabeth I and arguing for an alliance between England and the Ottoman Empire, for as he points out Islam and Protestantism had “much more in common than either did with Roman Catholicism, as both rejected the worship of idols.”

Madame de Pompadour at embroidery

Carle Charles-André van Loo (French Painter, 1705-1765) Madame de Pompadour at embroidery 1747.

Indeed, the closer one looks for a clash of civilisations, the more the notion seems to recede over the horizon. If ever there was such a thing outside of the rhetoric of popes and kings, then perhaps it can only be really applied to the period of the early crusades and the battle for the Holy Land.

Less than a hundred years after the fall of Constantinople, we find the Ottomans fighting alongside the French in the Italian Wars of 1536–1538 and 1542–1546. Needless to say, this was hardly conceived as a pact with the Devil were the two protagonists were concerned, though their common enemy on both occasions, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, might have seen it that way.

No Longer The Turkish Menace

By the end of seventeenth century, following the failure of the Ottomans to take Vienna in the 1683 — this was their second attempt on the city — and their subsequent defeat at the hands of the Holy League in the Great Turkish War of 1683–1699, the Ottomans were a spent force where further expansion into Europe was concerned.

At this point we see something of a sea change in European perceptions and representations of Ottoman society and culture. No longer the “Turkish menace”, Turks, Mussulmen, Moors and indeed anything that had an Oriental provenance began to be seen in a more favourable, even admirable, light, at least by the educated classes.

In the court society of Louis XIV, “turqueries” were all the rage, while gallant Moors and Muslim heroes began to appear in French theatre and literature. Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) similarly acquired a positive connotation, while illustrated translations of One Thousand and One Nights provided an encyclopedia of exotic, not to say erotic, images and situations for a newly romanticised East. And yet despite this Orientalist revolution, which occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the idea of an evil empire led by the Terrible Turk, hell-bent on the destruction of Western civilisation never disappeared entirely.

Indeed, it still persists in the collective consciousness of the West to this day, lurking in the shadows but ever ready to be summoned up, when required, in the rhetoric of modern-day leaders and politicians, not least George W. Bush who in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, famously equated his “war on terror” with a “crusade”.

the Terrible Turk

Painting the Terrible Turk – Macey’s Day Parade NYC, 1930

Interestingly, Osama bin Laden, for his part, was equally happy to play along with the crusader imagery, confirming in an Al Jezeera interview that same year, that he did indeed see al-Qaeda’s struggle very much in terms of a clash of civilisations; no doubt, there are many on both sides of the East-West divide who would agree. This kind of political posturing can only succeed against a background of ignorance and prejudice and therefore any attempt to look beyond the stereotype can only be a good thing.

At its greatest extent of the empire in the late seventeenth century, Ottoman conquests in Europe extended westwards to the borders of modern-day Croatia, Austria, and the Slovak Republic, and eastwards as far the Crimea, taking in Moldova, Odessa and southern Ukraine along the way. In addition to the European half of modern-day Turkey (Eastern Thrace), other European countries within the Ottoman fold, at one time or another, included Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, parts of Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, that is to say the region collectively known as The Balkans.

The Balkans

The Balkans has long been one of the great crossroads of the world. Migrating tribes and barbarian invaders, merchants and missionaries, crusaders and ghazi (jihadi), colonisers and empire builders — ever since the Neolithic era, the Balkans have been a place where people from elsewhere came together.

Some were just passing through, others stayed and made the Balkans their home. Illyrians and Greeks, Romans and Slavs, Roma and Magyars, Bulgars and Turks, layer upon layer of ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity, laid down over centuries.

Geography has played its role in accentuating this diversity — the Balkan Peninsula is a land of mountains and rivers, narrow coastal plains and highland pastures, with contrasting patterns of settlement and associated economies. And religion too, with pagan animism and local folkloric traditions being overlaid by Greek and Roman Gods; Roman Catholicism competing with the Eastern Orthodox Church; and both Christian Churches confronting Ottoman Sufism against a shifting background of religious tolerance, compromise, persecution and zealotry.

Since ancient times this has been contested ground. At different periods in the region’s long history, clan chiefs and feudal lords, medieval kings and their vassal princes, brigands and warlords have all fought with one another for territory and resources, and the control of trade routes. Ethnic and religious differences have only served to further complicate things, the history of the Balkans at a local level being one of bitter enmities, duplicitous allies and dodgy alliances, but one that has always been overlaid by the mantle of empire — Roman, Byzantine, and lastly Ottoman. And although the lasting influence of both Roman and Byzantine empires plays an important part in our story, ultimately it is the Ottomans who take centre stage — a dynastic succession of sultans stretching over six centuries that began with a dream and ended with ‘The Speech’.

The Collapse Of The Ottoman Empire Following The First World War

Not that the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the last word in the Ottoman story, for while the Empire may have officially ceased to exist with the abolition of the Sultanate by the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 1 November 1922, the repercussions of that momentous event are still being felt in Eastern Europe and the Middle East today.  In the case of the Middle East, many of the problems that currently beset the region can be directly attributed to the fallout from the break up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

By the time all the postwar peace conferences had been concluded in 1922, Britain and France had received “mandates” from the newly formed League of Nations to administer huge chunks of the former Ottoman Empire to the east and south of Turkey and there can be no doubt that many of the decisions taken then not only shaped the territorial boundaries of the modern nation-states that now occupy the region, but also predicated the multiple conflicts that afflict them today, both internally and in relation to one another.

British Mandate in Palestine

British Mandate in Palestine: “Searching for arms after the trouble of Nov. 2nd, 1921.”

A large part of the problem was that in creating the territorial boundaries of what would eventually become today’s Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, too little attention was paid to the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious differences that for centuries had been suppressed or at least contained by Ottoman rule.

As US President Woodrow Wilson’s close political advisor, Colonel Edward House, who also sat on the League of Nations Commission on Mandates, presciently remarked at the time, the lines being drawn in the desert sand by European mandarins and diplomats in 1922 were “making a breeding place for future war”.

Many of the same circumstances also prevailed in the Balkans, where ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious divisions that had previously been held together by an Ottoman imperial glue several centuries in the making, also finally came unstuck. In this instance it was the hundred years or so that preceded and precipitated the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire that was the critical period. During this time, one sees the gradual emergence of several nationalist movements seeking to create their own independent nation state from Ottoman-held territories.

Early attempts at rebellion were typically led by small groups of Western-educated, romantically inclined intellectuals, who were not much good at organising an armed struggle; they were usually put down with ease and their leaders captured and executed.

Since, however, these local uprisings tended to provoke reprisals by Ottoman soldiers and irregulars against the civilian populations thought to be aiding and abetting the rebels, they helped to bring about a more widespread resentment against Ottoman rule.

Reported massacres of “innocent Christians” — the spectre of the “barbarous Turk” once more raising his ugly head — were exploited by rebel leaders to elicit support from Western Europe, while the neighbouring superpowers of Austria-Hungary and Russia, were only too happy to wade in and lend a hand in dismembering the “sick man of Europe” as Tsar Nicolas I described the ailing Ottoman Empire in 1853.Unable to contain these separatist movements on several fronts, the Ottoman Empire in Europe gradually started to come apart at the seams.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the majority of Balkan peoples were living in national states created along European lines — Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia — but whereas the nation states of Western Europe had been several centuries in their formation, these new Balkan states were rather makeshift, overnight affairs, with invented monarchies and haphazard national boundaries.

Riven by ancient ethnic and religious divisions which straddled national boundaries, these newly-created polities were inherently unstable and prone to violent clashes as they competed with one another for territory and resources as the Ottoman Empire in Europe fell apart.

Since the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War was accompanied by the simultaneous disappearance of Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia this created a huge power vacuum in the region. Influenced, in part, by political developments in Italy and Germany, the Balkans drifted to the right in a move that saw fledgling democratic institutions swept away by authoritarian governments of various political hues, ranging from oligarchies and unconstitutional monarchs, to military regimes and fascist dictatorships.

German occupation of much of the Balkans during World War II, which was accompanied by the setting up of puppet states allied to the Axis powers, created a second postwar power vacuum following the capitulation of the Nazi regime in 1945.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

This time around it was the communists who took advantage of the situation and once again the Balkans states found themselves on the front-line of a new divide between East and West, only now the “evil empire” was Soviet Russia, and it was Marxist-Leninism, rather than Islam, that constituted the moral and ideological threat.

“I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all … to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil,” Ronald Reagan, address to the National Association of Evangelicals, Orlando, Florida, 8 March 1983.

The Final Chapter

The final chapter in the post-Ottoman story of the Balkans begins with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, when the region was again plunged into to a period of political instability, economic crisis and war. Enmities stretching back centuries once again erupted in a further round of blood-letting and ethnic cleansing that pitted Croat and Serb against Bosniak, Christian against Turk.

Sarajevo's partially destroyed National Library

Vedran Smajlović performs in Sarajevo’s partially destroyed National Library in 1992.

This was an ancient conflict dating back to the fourteenth century when Serbian Prince, Lazar Hrebeljanović, confronted the invading army of the Sultan Murad I at Kossovo Polje in 1389.  This was a battle in which both Lazar and Murad lost their lives, with heavy casualties on both sides, but it was an important Ottoman victory nonetheless for it laid the foundation for further Ottoman conquests into Europe in the following century.

Six hundred years later, the Battle of Kosovo was being fought all over again in the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s and it was only with the final, violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1995, and the resurrection of its dismembered parts as separate independent nations — Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia — that the ghosts of the Ottoman sultans could finally be laid to rest.

A Brief History Of Japan

A Brief History Of Japan

 The early periods of Japanese history can be divided into four distinct periods. Firstly, the Japanese Paleolithic Period, which lasted several millennia between 40,000 BC to 14,000 BC. Human presence in the Japanese archipelago is generally supported by the presence of artefacts, particularly stone tools and axes. The earliest human remains being estimated at between14,000-18,000 years old. Despite this, evidence of human activity prior to this remains controversial, with the Japanese Palaeolithic Hoax showing that several artefacts were planted at various sites, thereby making the presence of human activity and any substantial information about this period controversial and contentious.

Polished stone tools or axes. Hinatabayashi B site, Shinanomachi, Nagano. Pre-Jōmon (Paleolithic) period, 30,000 BC. Tokyo National Museum.

Following the Palaeolithic period was the Jomon Period which lasted nearly ten thousand years, between 14,500 BC to around 300 BC. During this period, the archipelago was dominated by a hunter-gatherer culture, which gradually became increasingly sophisticated. The period is named after, and most well-known for its pottery, much of which has survived to the present day in the form of artefacts. As the period grew in its complexity and sophistication, the population grew increasingly sedentary, establishing several villages. Towards the end of the period, the archipelago became increasingly exposed to new technologies such as bronze and iron while the population dramatically increased, eventually leading to the end of the period. The Yayoi Period, part of the Iron Age, followed. Although lasting only 50 years, the Yayoi Period was nonetheless a very important one, with rice agriculture increasing significantly and advancements in technological and social hierarchy also occurring. The population almost tripled, while the various tribes eventually were consolidated under separate kingdoms, believed to have numbered around 100. This period was followed by the Kofun Period, which lasted around 300 years. This is the first period of recorded Japanese history, however, many of these records are considered to be somewhat unreliable.

The period was named for the Kofun burial mounds, which housed the remains of the Japanese leaders. Built to a colossal scale in the shape of a key-hole, these often took over a decade to complete. During this period, the disparate tribes and kingdoms gradually became unified under a singular dynasty, which was based centrally in Yamato, in Central Japan’s Kinai region. This hereditary line remains the world’s longest-ruling dynasty, still in power in the present day. The Kofun Period is generally considered to have marked the end of Ancient Japan, although there was some cultural overlap with the following period as Classical Japan emerged.

Classical Japan

The Asuka Period followed the Kofun Period and lasted until 710. This was a period of considerable cultural development as it marked the introduction of the Buddhist religion from the mainland. Furthermore, there were several important political and artistic developments, the political system shifting dramatically while architectural styles changed, inspired heavily by Chinese influences. These influences reached their peak during the Heian Period, which spanned from 794to 1185. During this time, the Imperial Court, previously the most powerful force in Japan, saw its influence wane considerably as that of the Fujiwara Clan (essentially an aristocratic family) rose. The Heian Period ended with bloodshed and war. Beginning with a dispute for the throne in1156, conflict erupted across Classical Japan and remained constant over the next thirty years, waged mainly between the Minamoto and the Taira clans. The former eventually prevailed. The Medieval Age then encroached upon Japan, and with it the Shogunate and the Samurai emerged.

Incipient Jōmon Pottery (14,000–8,000 BC) Tokyo National Museum, Japan

The Medieval Age

In 1185, the Kamakura period began, lasting for nearly 150 years. It is considered to be one of the country’s most pivotal turning points in history, marking the beginning of a major societal shift. The idea of a Shogun, a de facto military leader became a major part of Japanese society. During this period, the Shogun was effectively the empire’s de facto leader. Although the emperor technically held power, this was more of the ceremonial kind. The period essentially saw Japan transition into a feudalist society based around the increasingly complex social hierarchy. Furthermore, the Kamakura Period saw the introduction of the samurai, a Japanese cultural icon, and generally considered to be the burgeoning country’s elite warrior. The period was marked by several escalating conflicts. Internal fighting was near constant throughout the period, reaching its climax with a bloody civil war, which saw the shogunate briefly abolished and imperial rule restored in its place. Arguably the most notable military event of the period was the Japanese defeat of the invading Mongol armies under Kublai Khan. Undoubtedly the most feared and strong military force at the time, the Mongols were, however, unable to successfully annex the archipelago over two separate occasions in 1274 and 1281.

The second attempt was felled by a typhoon. Regardless, these victories inspired a sense of military pride and resilience within Japan, which would remain for several centuries. Following the destruction of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the Muromachi Period began, lasting over 200 years until 1568. This period saw internal feuds continue to escalate, with provincial conflict remaining high throughout. Most notably, however, was the first introduction of European influence in Japan. This marked the end of Medieval Japan and the emergence of Modern Japan. The first European arrivals were Portuguese explorers, who firstcame into contact with Japan in 1543.  Amongst these explorers were merchants and Jesuit missionaries, who introduced Christianity to the population. Despite a strong culture shock, for nearly 100 years Japan was exposed to a number of Western influences. Christianity became an influential religious presence in the country, due in no small part to the work of St Francis Xavier, an important missionary. By the end of the century, Japanese Catholics numbered over 200,000. Furthermore, there were several more tangible influences such as foods and materials. The most important of these, however, was the introduction of firearms to the Japanese. This significantly changed the way combat was conducted in Japan. Despite other European explorers following the Portuguese, the Western influence sharply declined at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Following the country’s unification under Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan returned to its secluded, insular original state, mainly due to the rising influence of Christianity. With a few minor exceptions, contact with foreigners was severed and prohibited. Guns were outlawed while any foreigners would be sentenced to death. The Christian population were violently persecuted. Despite this seclusion, this ushered in a long period of peace known as the Edo Period, and the Western foreigners, or the ‘barbarians’ as they were referred, didn’t reestablish relations for another 250 years.

Modern Japan

The Edo Period lasted nearly 300 years. Its end was marked with the fall from power of the shogunate, a system

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, full-colour ukiyo-e woodblock print, Hokusai, c. 1829–32

in place for centuries. Social unrest grew over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries due to several agricultural crises, while the samurai grew increasingly discontented due to huge pay cuts. The resurfacing of the West proved to be particularly damaging. The Japanese became exposed to several Western ideas through writings traded by the Dutch, which lead the country to become less insular. Of particular notability, however, was the arrival of the Americans in1853. The expedition was lead by Commodore Matthew C. Perry with the intention of reigniting trade with Japan and ending its seclusion. The shogunate were defenceless in the far more technologically-advanced American forces, who strong-armed the Japanese into accepting what were called the ‘unequal treaties’, which were very one-sided and benefitted the Western powers, allowing their citizens to move and trade freely in Japan. This was seen as the last straw and any remaining faith in the shogunate’s ability to lead was extinguished. Long-simmering tensions grew violent and erupted into the Boshin War of 1868-9, which finally saw the collapse of the Shogunate. After this, the country changed significantly. The Meiji Period, lasting until 1912, saw Japan undergo significant modernisation. Japan grew increasingly Westernised as the new government sought to catch up with rival nations. The government grew increasingly complex and the country became much more technologically advanced. In addition, the military’s power grew, which aligned with the new government’s desire to expand its territory. The victorious Russo-Japanese War of 1904 cemented Japan’s reputation as a military force to be reckoned with. In 1910, its imperialist designs became apparent as it annexed Korea. Japan’s power grew dramatically over the following decades. Having aligned with Allied forces during the First World War, Japan enjoyed economic prosperity following the Treaty of Versailles, claimed a number of new colonies from Germany and strengthened its international relations with other world powers. The Showa Period, spanning the entirety of Emperor Hirohito’s 63-year reign from 1926 to 1989, was a significant chapter in Japanese history. With the power of the military growing, radical right-wing groups became increasingly prominent and influential in Japanese politics and society.

Emperor Shōwa riding his imperial stallion Shirayuki.

The desire for territorial expansion became a central focus of the Japanese government and their imperialist desires soon drew them into the Second World War. The Manchurian Incident of 1931, a staged bombing, was used as a pretext to invade Manchuria, Northern China. Over a period of five months, the Japanese successfully invaded the region, their occupation lasting until the end of World War Two, reaching its barbaric apex with the notorious Nanking Massacre. Japan’s invasion was opposed by the Western powers, particularly the US, who imposed economic sanctions. Allying with Germany in retaliation, tensions continued to escalate with the West. Eventually, reacting against the sanctions, the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbour, Hawaii in a surprise attack in 1941, leading to the United States to become involved in WW2. Japan initially proved to be a military force to be reckoned with, seizing several European Pacific colonies such as Hong Kong, the Philippines and Malaysia, amongst others. Their military dominance however soon began to wither as they endured defeats in the Battles of Midway and Guadalcanal. Their resilience, its origins traced back to their victory against the Mongols, however, remained unparalleled. It was not until1945 when the Japanese forces surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This proved to be a significant turning point in Japanese history. Occupied by allied forces until 1952, the far-right wing influence was extinguished while its political and social structure changed extensively. Relations with the US were restored with the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951. In the decades following the Second World War, Japan’s economy grew considerably. By 1968, it was the second-largest economy in the world behind the United States. Indeed, Japan still remains one of the world’s most culturally and economically vital countries on the planet.

The Spanish Empire

The Spanish Empire

Lasting nearly five centuries, The Spanish Empire was, at its peak during the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, the world’s most prominent global power, earning the nickname ‘The empire on which the sun never sets’. While its global supremacy was eventually eclipsed by the ascendant British Empire, the Spanish Empire remains one of history’s most important global powers, known as much for its military dominance as it was for its controversial actions and intrigues.

Ferdinand & Isabel

The Spanish Empire’s beginnings, on a macro level, are often considered to originate with the dynastic marriage between Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, who became known as the ‘Catholic Monarchs’. This unification established a sense of religious and social harmony, with Catholicism providing an effective gel between the Iberian Kingdoms. In spite of this, the Kingdoms remained politically distinct entities, retaining their specific customs and administrative practices. Isabel’s Kingdom of Castile was the more dominant of the two, due to its growing influence overseas and the natural resources it reaped from its territories.


spainThe ascendancy of the newly-unified ‘Catholic Monarchs’ coincided with the exploits of famed explorer Christopher Columbus. An Italian financially supported by the Spanish Crown, Columbus’ four voyages are credited with the establishment of European colonisation of the New World, which of course, had far-reaching repercussions across several centuries. The Westward voyages were initially motivated by the a desire to establish new trade routes with the East Indies, and undercut competition with other European powers. However, Columbus’ discovery instead ushered in a long, and devastating period of exploration, colonisation and genocide throughout the Americas. His actions, on the behalf of the Catholic Crown, are often credited by modern historians as establishing the Transatlantic Slave Trade, while he himself viewed his ‘accomplishments’ as missionary in nature, spreading the values of Catholicism. Columbus’ voyages and their impact are credited with significantly contributing to the formation of the modern Western World.

The Conquistadors

While Columbus cannot be entirely credited with establishing the drive for overseas conquest, his discoveries can certainly be credited for its intensification. Following his voyages to the Americas, the Spanish Empire accelerated its exploration and subsequent conquest of the New World. The label ‘Conquistador’ is a broad one and it predated the Columbus-inspired period of territorial expansion. However, generally speaking, ‘The Conquistadors’ refer to the forces who unleashed the conquest of the Americas on the behalf of the Spanish Empire. Two figures are particularly synonymous with this term, Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, for their conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas respectively.

Despite few sources existing, which shine light on Cortes’ personality or motivations, he remains one of the most important figures in the history of the Spanish Empire. Not born into a particularly noble family, this is believed to have a bearing on Cortes’ actions and abilities. He began his expedition into Mexico after arriving in Cuba with Diego Velasquez de Cuellar, an aide to the Governor. The two had a strained relationship, which reemerged after Cortez had been dispatched to Mexico by Velasquez, who ordered him to return. A maverick figure, Cortez ignored his orders and set sail, with 500 troops and 11 ships in tow. Enlisting the aid of a shipwrecked priest Geronimo de Aguilar, who proved an effective translator, Cortes was eventually able to ally himself with some of the native populations, whilst laying waste to others. Following military victories over the Cholula and Tlaxacan Warriors, he marched for Tenochtitlan, the capital and central hub of the Aztec Empire, with designs on conquering it outright. He held its ruler Montezuma II captive whilst his soldiers conquered and pillaged the city, retreating upon hearing Spanish soldiers were closing in on him for his mutinous actions. Briefly coming into conflict with the Spanish, from which he emerged victorious. Following an Aztec rebellion triggered by The Massacre in the Great Temple, Cortez fled, returning in 1521 to conquer the city, which saw him appointed Governor of New Spain by King Charles I and the annexation of Mexico begin. Cortez’s success was short-lived, and he was unceremoniously removed from his position, returning to Spain in 1540, dying seven years later, an embittered and broken man.

Francisco Pizarro, the Conquistador of the Incan Empire, grew up in far more lowly conditions than Cortes, spending his childhood illiterate and in poverty, but nonetheless became one of the Empire’s most accomplished and ruthless explorers. Gaining important experience in less fruitful voyages to the Caribbean and Panama, he convinced Charles I to commission and finance an expedition to the Southern Americas. Two expeditions in 1524 and 1526 ended in failure, while a third in 1528 saw him return to Spain with an abundance of precious metals. He returned with the approval of the King, and came into conflict with the Incan ruler Atahualpa, who was captured and executed after having extorted a considerable ransom from his followers. He completed his conquest of the Incan Empire after overcoming its capital Cuzco, founding the new capital Lima shortly thereafter. Pizarro’s immense military successes were short-lived, as internal divisions intensified into outright conflict. His former ally Diego Almagro led a faction against Pizarro, culminating in the Battle of Los Salinas, with Pizarro emerging victorious and Almagro executed. In retaliation, Pizarro was assassinated by Almagro’s son in Lima.

Gold, Silver & The Galleon Trade

The Spanish dominance over the Americas proved to be a significant source of the Empire’s wealth. This was achieved through the export of a number of materials unavailable in Europe, most notably precious metals such as silver and gold. Mines were established throughout the Americas. It is estimated that by the end of the 16th Century, silver from the Americas accounted for around 20% of the Spanish Empire’s total budget. The prevalence of silver from the Americas caused precious metals’ stock to triple. The lucrative precious metal trade was a significant factor in galvanising Europeans to settle in the Latin American colonies. The Manila Galleon became a critical trade route for the Spanish precious metal trade, linking the Filipino city of Manila with the Port of Acapulco in Mexico. This trade route saw precious metals exchanged for luxury goods from the Old World, whilst also creating a cultural exchange between the two colonies which continues to resonate today. The precious metal trade was a pivotal part of the Spanish Empire’s economic strength, and their loss of the colonies from which these metals were mined had clear devastating financial effects.

Charles I & The Holy Roman Empire

Charles Ist Palace in Alambra

Charles Ist Palace in Alambra

The heir to three of Europe’s most powerful dynasties, Charles I or Charles V is widely considered to be the first titular King of Spain as the first simultaneous ruler of Aragon and Castile. Additionally, Charles inherited rulership of the Holy Roman Empire through the Habsburg Monarchy. As a result, Charles I of Spain or Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor had become Europe’s most powerful monarch and the continent’s closest thing to a universal monarch in centuries. Charles’ immense power and territorial dominance triggered spikes of hostility from his rivals. These rivals feared that Charles would pursue a universal monarchy. As a result, his reign was dominated by recurring conflicts. The most prominent of these were with the French, the Ottomans and the German Princes. These conflicts often overlapped with one another, greatly defining his reign.

His conflict with the French, otherwise known as the Habsburg-Valois Wars, themselves a part of the broader Italian Wars. These conflicts proved to be particularly financially draining upon Charles I. Despite repeatedly recovering lost territory and at one point defeating and capturing Francis I of France, the wars persisted until the end of his reign. Charles’ conflict with the Ottoman Empire was waged primarily in Hungary and the Mediterranean. The war was waged on the behalf of his younger brother Ferdinand I, the King of Hungary, and lasted for the bulk of his reign.

Charles’ conflict with the German Princes was based on religious tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism. Fears about Charles’ monopoly of power over Europe were conflated with concerns about the Catholic homogenisation of the continent while Charles himself was hostile towards the Reformation and spread of Protestantism. While he was successful against the German combatants on a military level, he was unable to curb the spread of Protestantism throughout Europe.

Furthermore, his reign was plagued by rebellions of varying severity. Revolts in Castille and Ghent were particularly troublesome, although they were stamped out.

Charles ultimately abdicated from power, exhausted by decades of near-constant conflict. He ceded control of the Holy Roman Empire to his younger brother Ferdinand and the Spanish Empire to his son Phillip II. The two Empires remained closely linked as allies for centuries, but the monopoly that generated so much hostility during Charles’ life was over.

The Low Countries

Otherwise referred to as the Spanish Netherlands, the Low Countries played a pivotal role in the history of the Empire. Now better known as the modern-day Benelux region, the Low Countries were known for being an arena of conflict during the tumultuous Spanish Empire. Its geographical location ensured it was the stuck between Catholic and Protestant states. Furthermore, the region was often the source of outward rebellion against the Empire, triggered mainly by the arrival of Calvinist Protestantism and a rejection of Catholicism. The fast-growing Protestant movement became conflated with a desire for autonomy from the Catholic Spanish Empire. In spite of this, the Low Countries remained an economically prosperous region throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries through agricultural innovations such as canal-digging. The region also became a significant cultural hub, the cities of Ghent and Bruges being particularly important. The region also enjoyed a degree of political autonomy. The constant surrounding conflicts ultimately curtailed this prosperity, and the Low Countries were ultimately divided up between the Austrian Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire, bringing the era of the Spanish Netherlands to an end.

The Habsburg Dynasty



The Habsburg Dynasty was one of the most powerful forces in Europe for centuries, its rule extending across several different Kingdoms at various points in time. Until its dissolution in 1780, the Dynasty served at the head of the Holy Roman Empire. Following Charles V’s death, the dynasty was divided between Spanish and Austrian branches, which maintained close links despite   independence. Following this separation in the mid-16th Century, the Spanish Habsburgs gradually deteriorated. Historians believe this was partially a result of excessive inbreeding. The Spanish Habsburgs attempted to consolidate its shaky grip on power through marriages within the family, which had a significantly detrimental effect on the gene pool. This culminated with Charles II, otherwise known as ‘The Bewitched’ due to his physical and mental disabilities. His ineffective rule significantly weakened the Habsburg’s grasp on power, and after dying without issue, the War for the Spanish Succession ensued.

Coming Of The Bourbons

The War for the Spanish Succession lasted 13 years and involved many of Europe’s major powers. Charles II’s death without issue triggered a lengthy debate over who would rightfully inherit his Empire and its holdings. Peaceful talks between the Royal Houses of Habsburg, Bourbon and Wittelsbach deteriorated into outright conflict. Although Charles II left his Empire to his grandnephew Philip V, himself the grandson of King Louis XIV, many rival powers feared the House of Bourbon’s growing power. Austria, England and the Dutch Republic, in an attempt to quell the power of the French, supported the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I’s claim to the throne for his second son Charles VI. The ensuing conflict resulted in Philip V, and thus the House of Bourbon assuming control of the Spanish Empire albeit with significant concessions. Philip V renounced his claim to the French throne, thereby preventing the Empire’s hegemony over Europe.

Furthermore, the Spanish Empire ceded several key territories within its Empire to various powers, including the Spanish Netherlands, the Duchy of Milan, Sardinia and the Kingdom of Naples to the Austrian Habsburgs and Gibraltar and Menorca to Britain.

The House of Bourbon thus assumed control over the Spanish Crown, which it still maintains in the present day. However, its grasp on power has been regularly destabilised over the past 300 years. Philip’s reign was beset with residual issues and conflicts from the final years of Habsburg rule, exacerbated by his aggressive foreign policy. His successors’ tenures as rulers were generally less eventful, with sporadic conflicts occurring up until the next major power shift during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Napoleonic Wars & The End Of The Empire

Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David

The Spanish Empire’s decline coincided with the beginning of the 19th Century. The crown’s close ties with France and its new leader Napoleon Bonaparte played a critical role in this. The Empire notably lost the vast Louisiana Territory, ceded to the French and sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Having reached its territorial apex in 1790, the Spanish Empire’s holdings oversea began to decline rapidly. The Empire’s closeness with France ensured its involvement in Napoleon’s military endeavours. During the Battle of Trafalgar, the Spanish Empire’s Naval Fleet was completely decimated, significantly undermining its ability to maintain order in its overseas colonies. This caused Spanish-French relations to deteriorate further. These tensions reached a head during the Peninsular Wars, wherein the joint invasion of Portugal in 1807 ended up seeing Napoleon turn on the Spanish Empire. Additionally, Napoleon forced the abdication of the Spanish King, installing his brother Joseph Bonaparte in his place.The conflict was costly on both sides, depleting Napoleon’s resources and ultimately the Allies emerged victorious. However, the remnants of the Spanish Empire were left in a state of complete discord, with the power vacuum leading to years of dispute between the various Juntas. These internal disputes resulted in the Empire losing control of its many overseas territories.

Latin American Independence Movements

Latin American Independence Movements

The political chaos in Spain predictably resonated throughout its empire, most significantly in Spanish America, which became a battleground for several independence movements during the early 19th Century, marking the end of the Spanish Empire. Whilst inextricably linked by a single motivation, the independence movements were nonetheless separate conflicts rather than a singular rebellion against the Spanish Crown. These wars differed from one another in nature, some being more conventional conflicts than others. While the Empire retained control of Cuba and Puerto Rico, all other major territories were lost during this period as they successfully attained independence.


The Argentine Independence War lasted eight years from 1810-18. Its beginnings are generally traced back to the May Revolution, itself a direct reaction to the Peninsular War. This was the first successful revolution of the Latin American Independence Movements. The Viceroy was successfully overthrown by the Primera Junta, beginning the Independence War. Formal independence was not declared until 1816. The Primera Junta waged a number of military campaigns against the Viceroyalty to strengthen its position. The seizure of Montevideo is considered to be a key turning point in the conflict. The Chile campaign in 1818 is generally considered to be the final act of the Argentinian War for Independence.


Closely connected with the Argentine Independence War, the uprising in Bolivia was set into motion following the upheaval from the May Revolution. Initially known as Upper Peru, Bolivia earned its namesake from the revolution’s most prominent military leader Simon Bolivar. Rebellions in La Paz and Chuquisaca in 1809 gradually spread throughout the territory, but were easily crushed by loyalist forces. Despite this, scattered guerrilla forces kept the revolution alive, although it was relatively ineffective for the next 16 years. Bolivar, supported by royalist defectors led by Antonio Jose de Sucre, deposed the Viceroyalty for good. The newly-liberated Upper Peru maintained its independence rather than merging with other countries, and was rechristened Bolivia after the uprising’s most important leader.


The Chilean War for Independence was arguably the most divisive revolution of the Spanish American Independence Movements. Support for its cause was certainly not unanimous, unlike many others, and the conflict left the population bitterly divided. The conflict escalated from an anti-elite uprising into a full-blown civil war. The origins were similar to other Spanish American Revolutions but there was greater debate over to the extent of self-government the colony should exert. Although the patriots had early initial success, the Battle of Rancagua in 1814 saw the Spanish Viceroyalty reestablish military supremacy, causing the Revolution’s leaders to flee in exile in Argentina. Whilst in exile, the Carrera Brothers and Bernardo O’Higgins earned the support of the Argentinians. The Spanish rule in Chile in this period grew increasingly ineffective, and intensified the people’s resentment towards the regime, winning over more supporters of independence. Armed conflict resumed in 1817, and independence was declared in 1818 following a string of high-profile victories over the Royalists. Despite this, bitter divisions remained apparent within Chile, particularly between supporters of O’Higgins and the Carreras. The three brothers were all executed by 1821, with O’Higgins emerging the leader-apparent of the newly-independent state. His standing was far from secure however, and tensions between the oligarchy and the military remained high for nearly a decade. While the war for independence was over, political chaos raged rampant in Chile until 1829 when a Junta was installed with the aid of the military.


Arguably the most significant conflict of the Spanish American Revolutions, the Mexican War of Independence was also motivated by the Spanish Empire’s decline and other colonial uprisings. The conflict lasted over a decade, with independence being formally declared in 1810 and formally recognised in 1821. The independence movement had repeated stops and starts, with many of its leaders being defeated and executed. The revolution’s chief instigator was a Catholic Priest-Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, whose famous speech ‘The Cry of Dolores’ inflamed the rebellious passions of the people. Despite raising an army of 90,000 volunteers, Hidalgo was easily defeated and his army dissolved. Secular Priest Jose Maria Morelos united the disparate separatist movements in 1813 as the Congress of Chilpancingo, which was also quelled, causing the movement to transform as a guerrilla effort lead by Vicente Guerrero. Ultimately, independence was brought about with the aid of the Creole elites, who aligned themselves with the increasingly powerful insurgency. The Mexican Empire was established in 1821, shifting to a federal republic in 1823 following internal conflict.


Peru initially remained loyal to the Spanish Empire following its descent into crisis, mainly due to the Peruvian aristocracy’s deep Conservatism and the more intense presence of Spaniards in Peru. Interestingly, Peru’s independence was instigated by external forces, most notably Argentinian General Jose de San Martin, motivated by a desire to control the colony’s silver trade. Due to the strong Spanish military presence in Peru, de San Martin enlisted the aid of Simon Bolivar, who eventually forced him out of the effort, refusing to share leadership. Bolivar’s campaign proved successful. Independence was declared in 1821 while the decisive victory in the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824 finally decimated any remaining Spanish resistance.


Anti-Spanish sentiments were arguably more prevalent in Venezuela than any other Latin American colony, with the failed uprising in 1797, prior to the downfall of the Spanish Empire, supporting this. The conflict proper began in 1810 as the Supreme Caracas Junta was established following the ousting of Vicente Emparan, the Captain General of Venezuela. One year later, seven of the colony’s ten provinces declared independence, ushering in the short-lived First Republic of Venezuela. This government was the first Spanish American colony to declare its independence. Despite this, one year after its formation,  the government fell, weakened by the 1812 Caracas Earthquake and the subsequent Battle of La Victoria, which saw Spanish forces regain dominance.  Military liberator Simon Bolivar proceeded to launch a second ‘Admirable Campaign’, forming the Second Republic of Venezuela. This too did not last, due to a combination of internal unrest and a resurgent Spanish Royalist military. Ultimately, Venezuela’s liberation came about through Bolivar’s liberation of New Granada (modern-day Colombia) in 1819-20. Bolivar’s military gambit proved to be a decisive moment in the liberation of Spanish America, significantly enhancing his military power and allowing him to finally seize control of Venezuela from the Spanish. Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador together formed the Republic of Gran Colombia, with Bolivar as its President. Venezuela separated from this union in 1830, declaring itself a sovereign state.


While the monarchy remained intact following the devastating Napoleonic period, the Empire was left a shadow of its former self. Internal instability was exacerbated by the newfound independence of the Empire’s most significant colonies in the Americas. Its remaining major colonies-Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were taken over by the United States following the Spanish American War of 1898 and its African colonies were gradually relinquished over the 19th and 20th Centuries. By this point, the Spanish Empire was an empire in name alone, its one-time global supremacy shattered entirely.

Despite its humiliating downfall, the Spanish Empire’s legacy remains intact today, for better or for worse. The Americas’ cultural and linguistic identity is overwhelmingly informed by centuries of Spanish rule. There are over 470 million Spanish speakers globally, due Spain’s territorial dominance of the Americas. Besides language, the Catholic Church is Spain’s greatest cultural legacy in the Americas.  Architecture in the Americas is also greatly informed by years of Spanish rule. The cultural identity of the Americas remains the Spanish Empire’s most enduring and obvious global legacy.

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire

One of the most imposing military and imperial forces in history, the Mongol Empire cemented itself as a power to be reckoned with over a very quick period of time. Lasting less than 200 years between 1306 and 1368, the Mongol Empire solidified itself as the largest land empire in world history. Known for its impressive and terrifying military prowess, the Mongol Empire was one of the most unique forces in history, unconventional in almost every sense.

Extent Of Empire

Besides their military capabilities, the most notable things about the Mongol Empire was the sheer scale of its territorial dominance, achieved in a very short period of time. The reach of the Empire’s territory was enormous, stretching from the Pacific coastline as far westwards as Eastern Europe around the Danube River. The Empire originated, as its name indicates, within the borders of modern-day Mongolia and quickly expanded deep into the Asian continent. Instead of targeting a single area, the Mongols, under the leadership of warlord Genghis Khan dispatched military campaigns into every direction. Central Asia fell under Mongol control very quickly, with Eastern Europe following shortly afterwards. The Mongol Empire extended as far north as Siberia, as far East as the Sea of Japan and as far West as the Carpathian Mountains. Most impressively, its domination of Indochina marked the first time the region was under foreign occupation while it also exerted its territorial influence deep into the Indian subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan, National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan

Genghis Khan, National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan

The Mongol Empire’s most iconic leader Genghis Khan is practically synonymous with its accomplishments. Genghis Khan was the forefather of the Mongol Empire and its first Great Khan.  It was under his leadership that the the nomadic tribes were first united and that the first of the many Mongol invasions were triggered across Asia. His most significant military campaigns included the invasions of the Caucasus, Kwarazmian, Warm Khitai and most notably against the Jin and Western Zia dynasties of China. His direct military accomplishments were hugely significant, but his influence was even more important. Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire’s dominant military identity and left behind a template for his successors to effectively follow. Khan was known for his brutal and often genocidal military tactics, which have caused a division in historical opinion of him. However, he played a pivotal role in opening up trade and cultural exchanges between the East and West by placing the Silk Road under a singular political environment. Furthermore, he was known for his religious and ideological tolerance, allowing his subjects to conduct themselves how they wished. This practice became known as Pax Mongolica, which reflects the sense of stability he brought throughout his territory. After years of successful military campaigns, Genghis Khan died during a campaign against the Western Xia dynasty in its capital of Yinchuan. The specifics behind his death are veiled in mystery although some believe that he was killed in battle. He was succeeded by his third son Ogedei Khan, who continued his father’s campaigns and expanded the empire even further.

Military Tactics

The Mongol Empire’s success was heavily rooted in its unparalleled military prowess, which almost single-handedly allowed it to dominate any opponent it came up against. The culture of the Mongol Empire was almost entirely centred around the rearing of warriors, emphasising just how significant military combat was to the Empire’s core identity. The Mongol Empire often came up against forces far superior to them in terms of numbers, but this was irrelevant given their tactical superiority.

Mongol warrior on horseback

Mongol warrior on horseback

Mongol warriors were raised to be skilled in marksmanship and most importantly horsemanship, which played a major role in their combat style. They relied on a sense of mobility, embedded within their mindset after years of living a nomadic lifestyle, as well as unwavering discipline, a clear chain of command and a coherent communication system. This ensured that the battle plan was always clear, while their mobility allowed them to adapt to different obstacles. Mobility was ensured through a number of means. Each soldier owned a minimum of 3 horses, the interchanging allowing them to cover. Vast distances whilst preserving the animals’ energy. The nomadic lifestyle allowed them to adjust to new terrain with ease and made them particularly adept at scouting. Furthermore, it allowed them to travel light and live off the land they moved through. Their rigorous training routines instilled within the soldiers an innate sense of discipline and built up skills in archery, horsemanship and formations.

Another major strength of the Mongol military was its adaptability. It notably absorbed many of the military technology of its opponents, forcing prisoners to reproduce weapons such as siege machines and capitals. Due to the centrality of military culture to Mongol life, the military was prepared for virtually any military scenario. While the Mongols’ tactical and combat abilities were immense, it was the overwhelming emphasis on military life within their culture which made them such an unstoppable force.

Famous Victories, Bloody Victories: The Terror Of The Mongols

The Mongols’ brief and bloody domination of Asia and Europe was achieved through a near-constant series of military victories, which included some of the deadliest battles in human history. This is a by no means extensive list of some of the most notable battles:

Battle Of The Kalka River

One of the most instrumental battles in the Mongol Invasion of Rus, which followed their domination of Central Asia, the Battle of the Kalka River is one of the most notorious examples of Mongol military brutality and superiority. Genghis Khan was preoccupied elsewhere so leadership fell to generals Jebe and Subutai. The Rus forces, initially in disarray due to internal power disputes, united to repel the Mongol rearguard, albeit briefly. The Mongols’ gave the impression of retreat only to regroup and easily overcame the Rus forces along the banks of the Kalka River. With most of the leadership dead or in retreat, they surrendered, only to be executed afterwards. The Mongols returned home, but had ascertained the limited strengths of their foes and easily overcame them entirely shortly afterwards. This is one of the finest examples of the Mongols’ tactical flexibility as well as their brutality.

Battle Of Indus

This was the definitive battle in one of the Mongol Empire’s most important early accomplishments – the annexation of the Khwarezmid Empire. In 1221, the Empire was weakened by repeated incursions with the increasingly aggressive Mongol Empire. His military forces had been significantly depleted and only 30,000 remained in comparison to Genghis Khan’s army of 200,000. Their defensive formation, although initially successful, was quickly outmaneuvered by Genghis Khan’s relentless  attacks, which closed in on multiple directions. This proved to be a major battle in establishing the Mongols as one of the most successful military forces in human history.

Battle Of Mohi

Genghis Khan ascending the throne

Genghis Khan ascending the throne

The definitive battle of the Mongol Invasion of Europe, the Battle of Mohi took place in 1241 and saw parts of Eastern Europe almost completely decimated. Spearheaded by Batu Khan and General Subedai, it was a major military victory which saw the Mongols’ influence expand deep into the heart of Europe. The Hungarians put on a united defence, outnumbering the Mongol forces by at least 20,000. The Mongols once again proved their military superiority, overcoming their lack of numbers with cavalry attacks and explosive bombardments, which shattered an exhausted Hungarian resistance. The Westward expansion stopped their due to the death of Ogodei Khan, causing a retreat to select his successor. Casualty numbers remain unknown but are believed to be extensive on both sides.

Battle Of Zhongdu

Perhaps the most important battle of the Mongols’ conquest of China, the Battle of Zhongdu in 1215 was one of Gengis Khan’s most significant victories and marked the beginning of the conflict between the Mongols and the Jin Dynasty. This was a long and drawn-out conflict which proved to be one of Gengis Khan’s most taxing military incursions. The dynasty defended resolutely for years, but Khan dispatched three separate forces to breach the defences from different points, eventually breaking through the fortifications. The battle took a long time, but the Mongols overcame resistance and seized Beijing and massacred its residents, causing the Jin Emperor Zuanzong to retreat. The damage was already done and the new capital Kaifeng fell 20 years later in 1232.

Galleons, Pirates And Treasure

Galleons, Pirates And Treasure

Christopher Columbus put the Americas on the map in 1492. Shortly after, this ignited over 250 years of treasure hunting and vicious competition with the English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese, who all wanted to claim the gold, silver and other treasures for personal gain. They were willing to sink galleons, kill and do whatever it took to have these riches in their hands. Colombia- Museo del Oro

Museo del Oro in Bogota, an important gold museum that showcases the Pirate’s legacy, from gold, silver and gems to many other treasures that were of extreme importance. Museo del Oro contains close to 34,000 gold pieces, plus 20,000 bone, stone, ceramic, and textile articles belonging to 13 Pre-Hispanic societies: Tumaco, Nariño, Cauca, Calima, San Agustín, Tierradentro, Tolima, Quimbaya, Muisca, Urabá and Chocó, Malagana, Zenú, and Tairona. The Spanish were then faced with the challenging task of transporting their multitude of treasures home.


Panama City – Camino Real

The Camino Real, a mule trail, was established by the Spanish to provide a land road where slaves were the main transporters of gold, silver and other treasures. The trail ran from Panama City, on the Pacific, to Portobelo, on the Caribbean Sea, while trekking through the jungle as well. Upon reaching Portobelo, the treasures were stored there until the Spanish fleet came to retrieve them and return to their final destination, Spain.

It’s known that the mule trains were heavily guarded, which prevented attacks on them, except for one audacious English treasure hunter, Sir Frances Drake, who attacked the mule trains twice. In order to travel the Camino Real, the trail had to be paved. This was accomplished by bushwhacking through the dense, thick rainforest. The trail was made wide enough for two mule carts to be able travel. One cart would bring in necessities while the other cart was left with the treasures.

The Spanish shipped over hundreds of African slaves to pave the trail and while the ones that escaped were called cimarrones and lived up in the hills, the slaves that didn’t escape were forced to drive the mule trains along the treacherous path. There were many obstacles and challenges to overcome while making this ten to fourteen day trek and many were lucky to get out of this alive. From snakes, coral snakes, poisonous frogs and jaguars to malaria and yellow fever, there were no shortage of potential tribulations. Pirate attacks were also another great challenge they faced.

Map of Camino de Cruces by viragoslog blogspot


Often times, the cimarrones, enslaved Africans in Panama, who had escaped from their Spanish masters and lived together as outlaws, were recruited to help the pirates attack the mule trains. They willingly joined in to take revenge against the Spanish. In the 1570s, they allied with Sir Francis Drake of England to defeat the Spanish conquest and raid their riches. When brought to Panama, they intermarried with the Indians and immediately learned the land in order to outsmart the Spanish. It’s estimated that 3,000 of them lived in Nombre de Dios, a town on the Caribbean side.

Their principal settlement was at Vallano. Many lived in large settlements of in hideouts secreted in the uninviting mountains. They frequently organized raids on the Spanish settlements and had threatened to burn down Nombre de Dios. They often stole treasure from the Spanish and hid it in the river. When the Spanish once prepared to send an expedition against them, they constructed gallows on the main road and threatened to hang and decapitate the Spanish if such a mission was carried out.

King’s Warehouse

The King’s Warehouse was located in Portobello and stored all of the treasure. Galleons weren’t dispatched to collect the treasure until the warehouse was stacked to the rafters. During the 16th century, the quantity of treasure that the Spanish exported increased from 400,000 to 16 million pesos. The warehouse was tightly guarded. It’s known that 253 soldiers guarded the warehouse and they were not allowed to move more than a few meters away. The conditions were less than desirable. The soldiers slept where they could. They ate all of their meals here, got drunk and played dice. Only two fleets were sent twice a year. One came from Seville and the other one was from Cadiz. The ‘los galleones’ ship carried the most treasure and was more heavily armed.

Nombre De Dios

Nombre de Dios was a storage town for the vast amounts of gold and silver that the Spaniards brought to the coast on an almost monthly basis. In 1572, Sir Francis Drake, who was an explorer, seafarer, soldier and privateer, traveled to Nombre De Dios, Panama in search of the Spanish treasure being carried from Peru across the Isthmus of Panama. Drake was given a letter of marque, which was a royal commission that would allow him to plunder Spanish ships and ports in the New World. The relationship between England and Spain during the Tudor period was very complicated, and mutual hostilities repeatedly flared into conflict. For many English and Spanish privateers, the only thing distinguishing them from criminal pirates was the letter of marquee. They used the situation to gain riches.. Drake was granted his commission, making the queen herself a shareholder in the expedition. Drake was a notorious pillager and was active in the slave trade. The first Cimarron he encountered was named Pedro Mandiga (or Mandinga), who helped guide Drake and his men across the Chagres River to Spanish outposts.

Sir Frances Drake

Sir Frances Drake

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon, England in 1544. He was the eldest of the twelve sons of Edmund Drake (1518–1585), a Protestant farmer, and his wife Mary Mylwaye. The first son was reportedly named after his godfather, Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. Due to religious persecution during the Prayer Book Rebellion in 1549, the Drake family fled from Devonshire into Kent.

While they were there, his father obtained an appointment to minister to men in the King’s Navy. He was ordained deacon and made vicar of Upnor Church on the Medway. Drake’s father apprenticed Francis to his neighbour, the master of a barque , used for coastal trade transporting merchandise to France.

The ship master was so satisfied with the young Drake’s conduct that, being unmarried and childless at his death, he bequeathed the barque, which is a type of sailing vessel with three or more masts having the foremasts rigged square and only the after-mast rigged fore-and-aft.

In 1572 Drake set sail on his first major independent venture. He planned an attack on the Isthmus of Panama, This was the point at which the silver and gold treasure of Peru had to be landed and sent overland to the Caribbean Sea, where galleons from Spain would pick it up at the town of Nombre de Dios.

Drake left Plymouth on May 24, 1572, with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha and the Swan, to capture Nombre de Dios. In 1573, Drake joined Guillaume Le Testu, a French buccaneer, in an attack on an opulently overloaded mule train. Drake and his group discovered that they had captured around 20 tons of silver and gold. They couldn’t carry all the treasure so they ended up burying some of it. Wounded, Le Testu was captured and later beheaded.

The small band of adventurers lugged as much gold and silver as they could carry back across approximately 18 miles of jungle-covered mountains to where they had left the raiding boats. When they got to the coast, the boats were gone. Drake and his men, disheartened, exhausted and hungry, had nowhere to go and the Spanish were not far behind. Without many options left, Drake rallied his men, buried the treasure on the beach, and built a raft to sail with two volunteers ten miles along the coast to where they had left the flagship.

When Drake finally reached its deck, his men were alarmed at his dishevelled appearance. Fearing the worst, they asked him how the raid had gone. Drake pulled a necklace of Spanish gold from around his neck, which signified the success of the raid and by August 9th, 1573, he had returned to Plymouth. Drake’s seafaring career continued into his mid-fifties. In 1595, he failed to conquer the port of Las Palmas, and following a disastrous campaign against Spanish America, where he suffered a number of defeats, he unsuccessfully attacked San Juan de Puerto Rico, eventually losing the Battle of San Juan.

The Spanish gunners from El Morro Castle shot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake’s flagship, which he survived. However, not more than a few weeks later, in January 1596, he died of dysentery at approximately 55 years of age, while anchored off the coast of Portobelo, Panama, where some Spanish treasure ships had searched for shelter. Following his death, the English fleet withdrew. Before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour. He was buried at sea in a lead coffin, near Portobelo.


"Privateer ship Lynx in Morro Bay, CA privateer-ship-lynx-morro-bay" by Mike Baird

A galleon is a large, multi-deck sailing ship used mainly by European states from the 16th to 18th centuries. The galleon was designed to protect the annual treasure fleets sailing between Spain and the New World. Most galleons weighed 300-500 tons. They held a lot of cargo and were built with three masts called the foremast, mainmast and mizzenmast. They also had tall forecastles and enormous stern-castles, which made them cumbersome and hard to sail.

Most of the sails were square, requiring that the galleons sail with the wind coming from near the stern. The galleons were large enough to hold up to 60 cannons and 200 crew members. The galleons were also known to carry many Spanish soldiers to help fight off pirate boarding parties.

However, the galleons main drawback was that they were heavy and slow. The original galleons used to explore the lands across the oceans rarely surpassed the size of a modern-day fishing boat. Pirate ships could easily catch up to them, get past the cannon fire and come alongside to attack. The early vessels lacked the capabilities that Spain needed. They required seaworthy ships that were capable of making extensive voyages while being weighed down with a wide range of cargo. This led designers to borrow the best characteristics from existing ships to build this dream vessel. They combined elements of the caravel and the carrack, which resulted in the galleon.

This new vessel combined square and lateen sails rigged on three or four masts with a longer ratio of length to beam and castles more integrated with the structure of the ship. On the other side, many of the English privateers, including Francis Drake, used much faster, smaller ships called ‘Race-Built Galleons.’ These became the main ships in the English navy, which had sleek hulls, low structures and powerful cannons. One of the most famous shipwrecks of a galleon was the San Pedro in 1733, wrecked by a hurricane.

The 287-ton Dutch-built ship was owned by Gaspar de Larrea Berdugo and captained by Gaspar López de Gonzales. The ship was full of New World goods including silver, cochineal, indigo, Chinese porcelain, and other common goods. After the hurricane struck, San Pedro passed over the reef before sinking in Hawk Channel, off Lower Matecumbe Key, 1.25 nautical miles south of Indian Key. The vessel was full of water, but almost all of the cargo was rescued and taken to a nearby salvage camp on Indian Key.

Life On Board The Galleon

Although the new galleons that were being built were larger in size, life aboard the galleon was no different. The wealthy or influential passengers and their servants could potentially put the total number of people aboard a galleon at two hundred soldiers and sailors and up to fifty civilians, which made for extremely confined quarters. A typical Spanish galleon had a number of decks: forecastle, upper or weather deck, main deck, lower or orlop deck, poop deck, and quarterdeck. The crew’s quarters were in the bow while the officers and passengers lived in cramped cabins in the waist or center section of the galleon.

The larger galleons also had a surgeon on board. Furthermore, in addition to the crew, there was also a carpenter, sailmaker, cook and cooper. The captain or admiral occupied the Great Cabin, which was more luxurious than the other living quarters. The Great Cabin contained large windows, a bigger space and added comfort. In contrast from the above deck, the crew slept and ate on the gundecks where it was dark and damp with a foul smell. There were also the unsightly insects and rats and foods were often spoiled. The galleon was a delicate structure and although there were threats from their enemies, the most distressing damage was caused by nature, the sea and the wind. Hurricanes and rough seas sank more than one treasure ship during the period the galleons sailed.

Codes Of Conduct In Piracy

It was common that things were handled fairly democratically on a pirate vessel. Their rules included a dress code, no women, and some ships had no smoking. Everything from the rules, the punishment for breaking them to the living arrangements would be decided on with the entire group before departure. They all took an oath that they would not betray their fellow crew members. The pirates were required to sign a document called, The Ship’s Article, which determined the percentage of profit each crew member would receive. Once on the ship there were typically no racial divisions and in some cases, pirates of African descent served as the captains.

If there were disagreements among the pirates included fighting until first blood or in extreme cases, abandoning the person on an uninhabited island, being whipped 39 times and even being killed by firearm. In times of battle, the pirate captain always maintained all power including decision making. After the crew captured the wealth, it was split in a systematic way by rank. The captain received five to six shares, individuals with a senior position like the quartermaster received two shares, the crewman received only one share and the junior position received half of a share.

Captain Morgan

Sir Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer, pirate and admiral of the English Royal Navy who made a name for himself, mainly through his raids in Spanish settlements. His reputation was classified as one of the most notorious and successful privateers in history, and one of the most callous. Captain Morgan’s career spanned over ten years. He traveled to many cities where his intention was to raid each one. Morgan captured and destroyed Puerto Principe, his first stop, where he collected ten ships with 500 men. Portobelo, Panama was his next place of attack. This city was considered the center of Spanish trade due to their warehouses containing the goods and valuables of many wealthy merchants.

Other raids followed in Cartagena, Maracaibo, Gibraltar and he also recaptured the island of Santa Catalina on December 15, 1670 and then on Decemeber 27, he gained possession of the fortress of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean coast of Panama, killing 300 men of the defense force, while leaving only 23 alive. Morgan was diagnosed with “dropsie”, although it was also likely that he contracted tuberculosis in London and died on August 25, 1688.

Cartagena And Colombia

Cartagena is a large port city on the north coast of Colombia. It was discovered in 1533 by Don Pedro de Heredia and was named after the port of Cartagena in Spain’s Murcia region. Cartagena was major port of the Spanish Main but was located near the beginning of the trade route instead of the end. Within a few years of the Spanish arrival a walled military fortress was erected to protect the city against the plundering of English, Dutch and French pirates. Despite the safety measures, the city was attacked multiple times.

There were several pirate attacks on Cartagena, beginning in 1551 when the French pirate Roberto Baal forced Governor Pedro de Heredia to flee. Additional attacks followed. French pirate, Martín Cote arrived in Cartagena demanding a ransom to prevent a total destruction of the city. Maridalo had put up a stiff resistance but the loot taken by Cote was enormous. Francis Drake was the most famous pirate to attack the city. In1568, another English pirate, John Hawkins attempted for seven days to take the city but left empty handed.

By the 1600s, the Spanish began improving their city defenses and many of the fortresses built at this time remain intact today. The improved fortifications did much to stop the continual attacks by organized large-scale attacks by pirates and privateers of nations at war with Spain. The most serious threat to Cartagena after Drake was most likely Captain Henry Morgan’s terminated attack in 1668. However, while Morgan was at Cow Island, his ship inexplicably exploded, which killed approximately between 300 and 900 of Morgan’s men. This defeat deterred him from pushing forward on this attack and chose to raid on the harbor town, Maracaibo. Although this was successful, he earned only a small portion of loot.

Port Royal

Port Royal was the capital of piracy in Jamaica. It was built on a small island off the coast of Jamaica in the harbor across from what is now Kingston. In the 17th century, Port Royal was known throughout the New World as a headquarters for piracy, smuggling and debauchery. It was described as, “the most wicked and sinful city in the world” and “one of the lewdest in the Christian world.” A large amount of taverns and notorious punch houses were staples in Port Royal, which could’ve also been called brothels for attracting a crew of vile prostitutes. The most famous one was Mary Carlton, an actress and thief who had been transported to Jamaica from London in 1671.

Among these less than desirable qualities, Port Royal was also the center for a form of legalized piracy carried out by the buccaneers and privateers. It was believed that if the buccaneers made Port Royal their base, their presence would dissuade the Spanish from recapturing the island. The pirates made no charade of acting legally and they would attack any ship they thought was worth plundering. Eventually, the pirates couldn’t continue to get away with this and authorities needed to take action, which resulted in scores of pirate executions between 1680 and 1830. The most famous pirate to be hanged there was Calico Jack Rackham.

Calico Jack Rackham

John Rackham was commonly known was Calico Jack. He was a Cuban-English pirate captain working in the Bahamas and Cuba during the early 18th century. His nickname was drawn from the brightly coloured calico clothing he wore. Although Calico Jack’s career was short, spanning just four years, he still has a strong place in history. The two main things he was widely known for consisted of overthrowing Charles Vane as captain of the pirate ship, The Treasure.

In 1717, Calico Jack smuggled Anne Bonny to sea disguised as a man. Shortly after, these two were joined by another female pirate, Mary Read. She was Calico Jack’s Lieutenant who revealed her true identity in response to advances from Anne Bonny. These two women were widely feared by the crew and were responsible for the deaths of many sailors including shipmates that crossed their path.

Calico Jack was also known for the design of his Jolly Roger flag, a skull with crossed swords. Rackham made a career of plundering small vessels close to shore.  After they captured ‘The Kingston,’ a small Jamaican vessel, he made it their flagship.  The Kingston had a rich cargo, and guaranteed to be a big score for Rackham and his crew.  However, the Kingston had been taken within sight of Port Royal, where outraged merchants equipped bounty hunters to go after him.  They caught up with him in February 1719, while his ship and the Kingston were anchored at Isla de los Pinos off of Cuba.

Rackham and his men escaped capture because they were on the shore at the time, hiding in the woods.  However, their ship and rich trophy were taken away. In October 1720, Rackham sailed near Jamaica, capturing numerous small fishing vessels, and terrorizing fishermen along the northern coastline.   An armed sloop that was sent by Governor Nicholas Lawes attacked Rackham and his crew and captured them.  They were brought to Jamaica, where Rackham and almost all of his crew members were sentenced to hang.  Rackham was hanged in Port Royal on November 18, 1720.  His body was then displayed on a gallow in an area now known as Rackham’s Cay.

Black Beard And Black Beard’s Tower

Blackbeard's-Statue-by-Bart-HeirdEdward Teach, born in England in 1680, was commonly known as Blackbeard. Teach captured a French merchant vessel and renamed it Queen Anne’s Revenge and equipped the ship with 40 guns.

He became a notorious pirate and his nickname resulted from his thick black beard and frightening appearance.  Blackbeard braided his beard and tied the braids with black ribbons. He stuffed burning rope under his hat to make himself look more vicious and menacing. He scared everyone.

The pirates often determined a ship’s nationality first and then raised that country’s flag on the pirate ship so they could fool them into appearing friendly. This allowed the pirates to closely approach the other ship.  It wasn’t until the very last moment that the pirates raised Blackbeard’s flag.

Many merchant crews would surrender when they saw Blackbeard’s flag and those who didn’t were quickly approached by the pirates.  Typically, their first target was the sailor at the ship’s wheel. Then, while the pilotless ship drifted aimlessly, the pirates captured it with firm hooks, pulled it closer, and jumped aboard.

When the attack ended, the pirates took the passengers and crew hostage and raided cabins looking for coins, gold, silver, and jewelry. Blackbeard was known to repeat this scenario over and over again. In 1718 Blackbeard returned from sea to his favorite hideaway off Ocracoke Island.

While Blackbeard was enjoying his untamed pirate get-together full of drinking, dancing and building bonfires, the governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, received word of this and started to plan how to capture Blackbeard for the very last time.  The end of Blackbeard came when a navy seaman came up from behind and slashed his throat.

pirate-flag-of-Jack-Rackham---Calico-Jack---1682---1720The End Of The Golden Age Of Piracy

Although the Golden Age of Piracy began in the mid 1680s, it was less than a century later that it came to an end in the early 1730s.  Due to increased military presence and international anti piracy laws, this banished almost all of the pirates, which led to the conclusion of the Golden Age of Piracy.  The elimination of piracy from European waters expanded to the Caribbean in the 18th century, West Africa and North America by the 1710s and by the 1720s even the Indian Ocean was a difficult location for pirates to operate.

Piracy became tremendously rare in the Caribbean as European military and naval forces became too widespread and active for any pirate to pursue a lucrative career for long. The British Royal Navy ships endlessly hunted down pirate vessels and were victorious most of the time.  When the pirates were captured, they were put on trial and had to be convicted according to the testimony of witnesses and other hard evidence.

The trials were very lengthy and expensive so in order to make these quicker, seven commissioners were created from colonial and naval officers to try all piracy cases.  The pirates had no legal representation and ultimately led to the execution of 600 pirates. Additionally, the loss of the pirates’ last Caribbean safe haven at Nassau was a crucial element in the end of piracy.


The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade (1501-1867), sold at least 12.5 million black Africans as slaves to work for white land-owners on the other side of the ocean. Of these 1.8 million died at sea. Most of the rest were worked to death within seven years in the sugar cane fields of Brazil and the Caribbean.

The Beginning Of The Slave Trade

The slave trade began in the 15th century shortly after Genoese Antonio de Noli and the Portuguese Diogo Gomes discovered the once uninhabited Cape Verde Islands.  These islands included: Santiago, Fogo, Boavista and Sal.  Additionally, another Portuguese sailor, Diogo Afonso, discovered the Northern Islands of Sano Antao, Sao Vicente and Sao Nicolau.

Two settlements were established when it was determined that Santiago was the most desirable island, both strategically and agriculturally. In the north-eastern part was Alcatraz and in the south was the Ribeira Grande, currently known as “Cidade de Santiago de Cabo Verde.”   New settlers were lured to the Cape Verde Islands by the promise of exclusive trading rights along the West African coast between Senegal and Sierra Leone.

As the new settlers began to plant and reap on the land, they realized they would not be able to handle the entire workload themselves and decided to seek out slaves along the African coast to fulfill these unpaid positions.  This marked the beginning of several centuries of an inhumane slave trade.

Ribeira Grande was known as the main center of trade and also dominated the slave trade between the west coast of Africa, America and Europe for nearly two hundred years.  Additionally, through a hodgepodge of budding races, cultures, plants and animals, the Creole identity was formed here.

The Middle Passage


The Middle Passage, often lasting from one to three months, was frequently called the Triangular Trade, which included a three-part journey. The second part of the journey was the worst. African men, women and children were taken by ship to the Americas, where the conditions on-board were terrible.

The problems started even before setting sail, with violence taking place once the Africans realized that they were being sent far away from home. Some took drastic measures and jumped overboard, either drowning or being consumed by waiting sharks.

According to ship regulations, only 350 people were to be transported at a time, although mainly in the 18th Century, these regulations were defied, by what was termed “tight packers” where some ships carried more than 800 people.

Life On Board The Ship

The slave chain, Little Popo, 1849.

The slave chain, Little Popo, 1849.

Daily life on board the ship was awful. The slaves were stripped naked and branded.  Conditions on board were filthy, cramped and they were often forced to lie in spaces smaller than a grave with agonizing heat.  The slaves were also piled on top of each other in what is called, spoon fashion.

Men were shackled under deck where there was no shortage of malnutrition or diseases, including dysentery and smallpox and the bodies of slaves were frequently covered in lice too. In some cases women and children were given permission to wander around the deck.


Food for African Slaves

The first meal of the day would be served at 9am.  Depending on where you came from – your meals would be different.  For instance, Africans from the Northern part of the Guinea Coast were served boiled rice, millet or cornmeal.   Those from the West African coast were fed stewed yams and if you hailed from the Congo basin you would have been served cassava flour and fruits such as bananas.

Occasionally the slaves would be allowed to have a small serving of raw meat to make sure they remained strong and healthy.  Water was strictly rationed.  No more than half-pint of water was given to each person, dished out in a small pan, called a pannikin.

The slaves were fed an afternoon meal, also known as the second and last meal of the day.  They were served the cheapest form of accessible food, which at the time was boiled broad beans covered with a mixture of palm oil, flour and water.  The taste of these beans left much to be desired and a substantial amount of red pepper, called “slabber sauce,” was used to mask the unpleasant taste.

Physical Activity

Africans Forced to Dance on Deck of Slave Ship, early 19th cent

Africans forced to dance on deck of slave ship, early 19th century.

In order for the slaves to be sold at higher prices, they needed to be in peak physical shape. The slaves, sadly still shackled together, were “danced” on deck to get their exercise in for the day.  Those who refused were whipped with the painful and barbaric cat-o’-nine-tails whip.  It was made up of nine tar covered cords, with a knot at the end of each.  This whip was brutal, able to slash a slave’s skin in only a few thrashes.

Additionally, a crew member would either play the African banjo or a fiddle.  The men were made to jump up and down until often times, their ankles would be raw and bleeding due to the iron chains around them.  In contrast, the women and children were not shackled.  This allowed them to dance to the rhythm of the music being played.  This was their one small chunk of recreation during the day.  It was viewed as an escape, even just for these fleeting moments where they were not lying in the filth and sadness that consumed the majority of their day on the ship.

Bad Weather

Bad weather was considered the worst time of the Middle Passage aboard the ship.  When storms occurred, the slaves were obligated to remain below deck all day and night. The holds were dark, grimy and greasy and reeked of death.  On the other hand, the “tween decks,” filled with both the living and the dead, also contained great amounts of blood, vomit, urine and waste.

One basic human need, food, was interrupted when bad weather struck.  Instead of being fed their usual meals, they were left no choice but to chew on the small crumbs and pieces of spoiled food that they could find.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse was known as “bed warming.”  During the night, either a crew member or even the captain would take a slave woman from the ‘tween decks” to the captain’s chamber or the crew member’s living quarters.  The women were not only beaten but in most cases sexually abused.

Slave Rebellion On Board

Some slaves attempted to escape the torturous conditions by starving themselves, but the crew would not allow this.  They would whip the slaves, torment them with hot coals on their skin and even forced their mouths open, using special instruments to break their teeth.

One of these instruments was called the “speculum oris”, made of wood, and resembled a pair of dividers.  This would be forced into their mouths to pry open the jaws. Once opened, food was jammed down their mouths, causing gagging and vomiting.  Captains would also pour melted lava on slaves who refused to eat.

Some slaves made basic weapons from their chains and shackles and then tried to kill crew members while they were on deck.   The crew, however, would quickly put down these uprisings with their advanced weapons of pistols and rifles.  There were a very limited amount of successful slave rebellions, apart from one of the most notable aboard the Amistad in 1839 when a 25-year-old slave named Sengbe Pieh (or “Cinque” to his Spanish captors) broke out of his shackles and released the other Africans. The slaves then revolted, killing most of the crew of the Amistad, including her cook and captain..

The slaves were in such misery that they resorted to other forms of rebellion such as committing suicide.  Countless numbers threw themselves overboard, while others cut their throats to be free of the unbearable conditions.

Arrival In North America

An imagined picture of a slave auction used as propaganda before the American Civil War. http://www.brh.org.uk/site/articles/pictures-of-the-trans-atlantic-slave-trade-abolitionists-and-maroon-rebels/

An imagined picture of a slave auction used as propaganda before the American Civil War.

Many slaves didn’t live to see the North American shores.  They died during the voyage from overcrowding, diseases such as the outbreak of smallpox and ophthalmia, a blinding disease.  These awful outbreaks could rapidly spread through an entire ship in days.  Sadly, some slaves become insane and once they were found out, their lives were in jeopardy.  Often times, they were brought up on deck where they were either whipped and beaten to death and then disposed of overboard.

Leading up to the days before the ship’s arrival in North America, the slaves that had survived were fed better to appear more appealing to the slave buyers when it came time to sell them, however the abuse was still not over.

Their skin was oiled to create shine and hot tar was used to hide the abuse that left marks of scarred evidence on their bodiSlave Auction Advertes.  It was assumed that if the slaves appeared to have no imperfections on their bodies, their market price would increase.  Baptizing the slaves was also another way to increase their market value.

Out of an estimated ten million men and women who survived the Middle Passage, roughly 5 percent or 450,000 Africans landed on North America’s shores.  Brazil and the Caribbean received approximately nine times as many Africans.

Enslaved Africans In The United States


In the development of the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland, it was crucial to them to use slaves to to perform the hard labor required on the land.

Most slaves worked on plantations and farms for work in cash crop agriculture, growing:  rice, cotton, indigo as well as other crops.  They also worked on tobacco farms in Virginia and Maryland  and others were used in mining and servicing the commercial economy and some put to work as domestic servants.

Caribbean Plantations

Caribbean Sugar Plantations - Slavery in the Caribbean.jpg

Caribbean sugar plantations – slavery in the Caribbean.

The Jarrett Family Plantation

Built in 1794, The Jarrett Family plantation is known as the oldest sugar plantation in Jamaica owned by the Kerr-Jarret family of the Barnett Estates. Nicholas Jarrett made a fortune from the sugar harvested on his plantation.  These two families were united when Major General David Kerr arrived in Jamaica in the 1700s and took a position at this estate as a medical doctor.  He eventually ended up marrying Sarah Newton Jarrett, daughter of Nicholas Jarrett.  These two families formed a dominant alliance of family pride and national pride, which ended up playing a central role in the growth of Jamaica.

Bayleys Plantation, Barbados

Joseph Bailey formed this plantation between 1719 and 1738.  In 1812 it spread over 444 acres and on April 14, 1863, this plantation was home to the biggest slave uprising against white plantation owners. This was led by a handful of African slaves, the most prominent was Bussa and the rebellion is now known as Bussa’s Rebellion. Very little is known about him, except that he was a ranger at the Bayley plantation in St. Philip. A ranger was the head officer among the enslaved workers on an estate. This rebellion was carefully planned and organized by the senior enslaved men and women who worked on several estates and plantations. The uprising started at Bayley’s estate. It was an attempt by the enslaved people to change the society on Barbados. They believed that Barbados belonged to them and wanted their freedom from the plantation owners. Today, Bayleys Plantation is the home and recording studio to musician Eddy Grant.

Morgan Lewis Mill

This was the last sugar windmill to operate in Barbados.  Sugar was the largest commercial export that replaced tobacco in the late 1700’s.  This sugar based economy was sustained by slavery.  Other plantation houses in this area were Sunbury plantation house, Francia house, Drax Hall and Codrington College.  Bussa is also commemorated here with a statue
of himself, 169 years after his rebellion, symbolizing the efforts of his fellow slaves to revolt against slavery and to fight for emancipation.

Betty’s Hope Sugar Plantation

Betty’s Hope was established in 1650 in Antigua and was the first large- scale sugar plantation to function in Antigua.  It was controlled by a small amount of European managers and was an agricultural and industrial venture.  However, it is also where over hundreds of African slaves lived out their lives as the labor force behind this plantation, which brought accolades to the estate.  Even after emancipation in 1834, they continued to work on this estate as freed labor.

Slave Conditions On Plantations

Plantation overseer punishes a slave in Brazil, 1834.

Plantation overseer punishes a slave in Brazil, 1834.

When plantation owners purchased their new slaves, they would change their names, often giving them English, Biblical, Roman or names of famous people.  In order to identify their slaves, they would brand them with estate marks.  Slaves had no rights, from not receiving pay to not being allowed to leave the plantation without their master’s permission.  They were also forbidden to learn basic reading and writing.

When punishing the slaves, no mercy was given to them.  Besides diseases such as dysentery and pneumonia being rampant on the plantations, slaves were harshly punished by cutting their ears and hands off for the most minor offence.  In the most extreme conditions, they were buried alive or hanged.

Additionally, the slaves barely had any personal time, working 18 to 24 hours for five or six months at a time because the sugar cane process could not be disturbed.

Slaves were split into three groups based on how healthy and strong they were.
Group one were the healthiest and fittest slaves.  Their duties included preparing the soil, digging cane holes, planting and fertilizing the canes as well as burning and cutting the sugarcane at harvest time.
Group two contained weaker slaves, who would weed crops, carry manure to the cane fields and supply crushed cane stalks into the furnaces at the sugar factory.
Group three consisted of the young ones, mostly children and their job was to keep an eye on the plantation’s livestock.
Although the female slaves typically worked as a domestic staff member, they were not free from punishment. They were often sexually abused by their masters.

In the Caribbean, slaves were allowed to grow their own crops.  These crops would be food for the slaves and if there was a surplus, they were allowed to sell them in the local markets.  Marriage was another sensitive topic.  In North America, slaves needed permission from their master to marry.  Even if the slaves did get married, they weren’t recognized legally.

Slave Culture


Even amidst the torturous conditions, the slaves were successful in creating a vital culture of their own.  Their culture wielded a weighty influence on all aspects of American culture.   Certain words in the American language contain African roots, such as bogus, bug, phony, yam, tote, gumbo, jamboree, jazz and funky.

Food has been influenced by deep-fat frying, gumbos and fricassees, stemming from West and Central Africa.  Music was also a profound influence on sea shanties and yodelling, as well as spirituals and the use of falsetto.  Africans also played a vital role in the production of crops, including rice and sweet potatoes that had not previously been introduced to the English or North Americans.

Folklore was a way for the slaves to create a sense of separate identity and tried to convey helpful lessons to their children.  The most popular folk-tales were animal trickster stories, like the Brer Rabbit tales, which sprung from similar African stories. These stories taught lessons of powerless creatures who achieved their will through wit and cleverness, not power and authority.

In the Caribbean Islands of Antigua and Barbuda, foods such as eddo, ochre, dasheen, eggplant and bona-vista bean represented their culture.   Additionally, Rastafarianism in an active religious doctrine with African roots in the Caribbean and the Antiguan Creole existing today, also has words originating from West African roots.

Slave Resistance And Rebellion

Day-to-day resistance was the most common form of opposition to slavery.  The enslaved Africans would break tools, feign illness, stage slowdowns and commit acts of arson and sabotage as well as run away, usually short distances to withhold their labor as a way of bargaining with their owners.

The slaves wished for better work conditions, free time they could enjoy, monetary rewards, access to garden plots and the privileges that were automatically given to the white slave owners, such as the freedom to practice burials, marriages and religious ceremonies where approval would not be needed to proceed.

There were several slave uprisings in places such as, Long Island in 1708 and New York City in 1712.  Slaves in South Carolina also staged a rebellion, known as the Stono Rebellion in 1739.  They confiscated weapons, killed whites and burned houses.  In the 18th century, slave revolts continued in Guadeloupe, Grenada, Jamaica, Surinam, San Domingue (Haiti), Venezuela and the Windward Island.

In the early 19th century, revolts against slavery persisted in Richmond, Virginia, Louisiana in Barbados, Charleston, South Carolina, Jamaica and in Southampton County, Virginia.

These revolts could only occur during certain times.  These included when slaves outnumbered whites, in areas such as Jamaica, when masters were absent, during times of economic suffering and when there were disagreements between those who ruled the plantations.  However, the south which had a much larger white population, were committed to suppressing rebellion.

Even though the slaves attempted to stand up for their freedom and rights, oftentimes they were retaliated against in the worst possible ways.  For instance, after a slave rebellion in New York City in 1740, 18 slaves were hanged and 13 were burned alive.

Abolition Of Slavery

The Abolititon of Slavery Poster

In 1787, the U.S. Constitution specified that “The Migration or Importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.”  Consequently, the U.S. abolished its slave trade from Africa, which went into action on January 1, 1808.

Even though slavery was abolished in the U.S., it would continue for another 52 years, until 1860.  This illegal slave trade managed to prosper for numerous decades.  Congress passed a harsher law in 1820, which stated that international slave trading was an act of piracy, which could be punishable by death.  Only one American was executed for this crime. Slaves were still being transported between 1801 and 1867, mainly to Cuba and Brazil.

Slavery continued in the United States until its end in 1865, while  Cuba and Brazil were the last two countries to finally emancipate the slaves, which came in 1886 and 1888.