Effects of colonialism upon Native Americans–1997

Effects of colonialism upon Native Americans


The question of intrusiveness by European powers upon newly “discovered” Native Americans is not a question of which colonial style did or didn’t damage the lands they stumbled upon, but who comparatively was the most harmful.  Focusing on Spain, England, and France will show how deep the impacts of colonialism were.  For example, one of these three countries’ languages is spoken in the majority of North and South America.  Limiting the time frame to the beginning of the colonial period, Spain emerges as the most violent, opportunistic, and ultimately harmful power to colonize the Americas.  They accomplished this feat by utilizing all the assets of found land, particularly free labor.  England used methods that were initially less intrusive on Native American communities and the bulk of genocidal behavior in North America was committed by the United States at a later point.  France was the least intrusive of the three because they sought the consent of natives before declaring them subjects of the French crown.  The free, undeveloped lands of the Americas were ravaged by many nations in the period followed their revelation to Europe, but none was more savage in their domination than the Spaniards.

          England pursued the technique of sending people to settle on new lands and the idea of living in a place as supposed to ruling in a place made English settlers initially the least intrusive. This is not to say that the English had great respect for Native Americans and wanted to live side by side in a diverse community, rather they just didn’t view the indigenous people as conquered.  English settlers established authority the same way their lords had done, by making fences and planting gardens.  This concept is common to all the colonial powers because all “These historic cultural assumptions stemmed from three fundamental things: ‘everyday life’, a common colloquial language, and a shared legal code”.[1]  These three things are important in understanding the way in which different countries behaved in the new world and the subsequent impact on the native population.

          The building of a settlement, starting with a house, was the first and most important thing English settlers did when coming to a new land.  Communication with the natives and acquisition of resources always came second.  Establishing what was meant to be a permanent object, such as a house, showed a clear “intent to remain”[2] that communicated to the natives the intentions of the English.  The Native Americans could have seen these acts as a non-violent encroachment of territory but one that didn’t set off any alarm bells.  With the large amount of uninhabited land in North America, the natives might have foreseen a peaceful cohabitation.  This peaceful cohabitation was not an English aim, but served to pacify the indigenous people and block their knowledge of the inevitable.  The English house in the new world gained both a strong foothold and a delay of real communication with the natives.

          The English system of acquiring ownership of land is the first example of native subjugation and sets a trend whereby a large settlement can be established without force being immediately necessary.  Following the age old laws established in England during enclosure which stated that “when property was not fenced voluntarily, local and even royal officials demanded that English settlers put up fences”[3], and so colonists were quick to demonstrate ownership over specific tracks of land.  The other way English colonists showed ownership was by using the land they claimed for planting a garden or crops.  This was particularly important because becoming self-sufficient by providing their own food relinquished any dependence on native peoples.  It was then very simple to plant settlers and watch them grow over the land.  The garden was therefore a perfect metaphor for the English, not only because they as a people were enamored with it, but also because it reflected their style of conquest perfectly.  Once this “planting” began, the detrimental effects on the native people became more evident.  Indigenous lands became a part of England and because the English did not recognize any Native American claim to land, the natives had to move to accommodate the settlers, or try and fight for their land.  Given the technological advancements of the English over the natives, it was often the former option they pursued.

          The French took possession of unencountered land with the aid of an alliance with indigenous people, whether the natives were aware of it or not.  French colonists decided that it would be good for the crown, Christendom, and the natives themselves if the natives would respond favorably to a French declaration of dominion.  To this end “French speeches persuaded the natives whose emotional responses clearly registered approval”[4].  This “approval” could really have been any numbers of emotions on the part of the natives.  The French came in with lots of pomp and gifts, threw a party, and then proclaimed that the general good mood existed because French rule had begun.  All this was simply a way to legitimize colonialism because of course there was no way for the natives to understand any of the French speeches.  The assumption of an alliance with the natives was very harmful to the natives simply because they had no idea they were now subjects to a new king and also a new religion.  The only thing natives knew was that there were new and silly looking people in town, creating a dangerous atmosphere as the French started to rule their new “subjects”.  Seeking “at least the appearance of approval for their political authority in the new world”[5] was an act staged for the benefit of rulers in France as supposed to one for the benefit of Native Americans.

          The intricate processions and ceremonies the French undertook in a new land were necessary for the French to be legitimate, but did nothing for the indigenous people, save putting on a good show.  The ceremonies were put on for the same reason the English made fences, because that is what everyone did in France.  Processions of prestigious people in France were important in “creating and cementing the political power of French monarchs (among others)”[6].  This carried over to the mentality of colonists who had to first show their authority before exercising it.  The problem again was the language barrier between colonists and natives, making the French ceremonies useless as a declaration of power and dominion, except in their own minds.  In fact the ceremonies could only have added to confusion and misinterpretations, however impressive.

          Spain was the most destructive influence on the natives they encountered because they “created a fully ritualized protocol for declaring war against indigenous peoples”[7].  Instead of a slow encroachment on native territory or a formalized agreement with them, the Spanish stated bluntly that the land and the people themselves were subject to the rule of the Spanish crown and of the pope.  It was also made quite clear that failure to acknowledge Spanish authority would result in death and warfare.  Spain also had different aims than the French or English in that they wanted the native people to work for an increase in Spanish wealth. They were therefore more directly involved in changing the formerly peaceful lives of the people they encountered in the new world.

          The Requirement was a speech read to the indigenous population upon the arrival of Spanish explorers in unknown lands, expecting and enforcing a submission to Catholicism and the crown of Spain.  In this statement, it is expressed that the lands found were actually given to Spain by the pope and so the occupation and use of these lands was perfectly legitimate as long as the requirement was read to the people.[8]  The Requirement was most likely as confusing to the natives as the French speeches and processions were, but the consequences were much more severe for non-obedience.  An important idea in the requirement was that Catholicism was to be spread as well as the knowledge that the natives were now subjects of Spain.  This means that not just the way of living for the Native Americans had to be changed upon punishment of death, but also their way of thinking about the world.  Though the killing of Native Americans was no doubt harmful to their society, the change in ideals is even more harmful to a culture in the long run.  The Spanish did not force all natives to convert because this would hurt tribute incomes, as Catholics did not have to pay tribute.

          This tribute system was not only a strong incentive to conversion but was also “the economic basis of Spanish colonial rule over indigenous peoples of the new world”.[9]  Spain was the only colonial power to impose such a tax, as well as later requiring the natives to work for the conquistadores.  This shows a unique approach to the goal of all colonies; the greater acquisition of wealth for the home country.  This particular technique of immediate and forceful subservience to a new religion and country, taxes, and forced labor was almost as harmful as simply making everyone into Catholic slaves.  Thus Spain set out to make a fortune and if the people of the new world had a problem, they would simply be executed.

          The destructive impact of colonialism on Native Americans in North and South America was evident with all European incursions, none being more detrimental than the rule of the Spanish.  The misleadingly benign settlements of the English and the confusing ceremonies of the French certainly led to many native deaths and displacements, but the greatest change in indigenous culture as a whole came from the actions of Spain.  It is really the intent to change the natives’ way of thinking that was most harmful because even the initial deaths and servitude could be overcome and freedom could be returned, but the destruction of native beliefs and language is something that can not be fixed. 


[1] Seed p.4

[2] Seed p.18

[3] Seed p.21

[4] Seed p.43

[5] Seed p.62

[6] Seed p.50

[7] Seed p.70

[8] Seed p.69

[9] Seed p.82



  1. this shows me no good information change what the website is only good stuff thats all you could think of thats bad then thanks i don’t like this website

  2. I believe this site was very useful and gave good information on what I needed to know and use for my research I will say it had more good things then most websites had.

  3. This post helped me write a paper for one of my classes. Thank you! I’ll make sure to cite you correctly 😉

  4. Thanks for the great article! Definitely drew from this for a Civics paper. (Cited correctly.) Keep up the writing!

  5. uhhh i didnt feel like reading it lol

    • ikr

  6. nothing to what i was looking for…….

  7. who ever wrote this is a genius. love the work ! keep it up;)

  8. How can I cite this?

  9. how can we see the citations in this article?

  10. this pooped on my paper so uhh, next focus more closely on…I don’t know, the actual effects on native populations by European trickery

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