The Fifteenth-century meeting of Amerindians and Europeans was decisive for both, but in opposite ways. For Amerindians, it meant upheavals in cultural and political landscapes; city states such as those of the Incas and Mexicas disappeared, as did a variety of hierarchical chiefdoms; only a few societies survived, incorporated more or less uneasily within new political frameworks. For Europeans, the meeting heralded an enormous impetus for forces already in action -- the centralization of their nation-states and the rise of capitalism; and eventually, the opening of new intellectual horizons.
This meeting has been commonly characterized as an encounter between civilization (European) and savagery (American). But when one tries to define these terms in relation to the cultures involved, their meanings become elusive. The word "civilized" is usually applied to societies possessing a state structure and an advanced technology; the general presumption is that their members must therefore have attained a relatively high degree of refinement in their manner of living. The term "savage" is applied to societies at an early stage of technology, a stage at which they are believed to be dominated by the laws of nature. Its use implies that Amerindian societies did not match the refinements of those of Europe, and that they were more cruel. Neither of these premises stands up under examination; the sophistication of a cultured Peruvian or Mexica of the fifteenth century stemmed from value Systems so different from those of the French, English, or Spanish as to elude comparison; yet we know that it was highly developed. On both sides of the Atlantic, public executions of selected victims were ritually practised. So was public torture. Europeans regarded it as a necessary practice for the administration of justice, using fear to inspire respect for state authority, in the belief that it was the most effective way of controlling certain elements within their own societies. Most Amerindians who followed the practice belonged to non-state societies, and used torture, not against their own people, but against Outside enemies. Their goal was to consolidate their own communities by dominating hostile alien forces. Efforts to establish that one form was civilized while the other was savage could result in some strained exposition as when, in the seventeenth century, the Jesuit Jean-Paul Mercier tried to explain the French use of torture to a Huron.
This study is not about the clash of civilizations; as anthropologist A.I. Hallowell has observed, cultures do not clash -- people do. However, the reactions aroused in such encounters are profoundly influenced by the cultural orientations of the individuals involved. It is with these considerations in mind that I examine some of Europe's responses to the richly varied spectrum of Amerindian societies during the sixteenth and early part of the seventeenth centuries.