HUMN 240
November 22, 2003

First Take-Home Exam

Characteristics of the Pre-Modern World

Religion & Philosophy

The time period that the term “pre-modern world” refers to begins with the Pleistocene epoch and ends at the onset of the 16th century. The Pleistocene, estimated to have been between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, is considered to be the beginning of human history. Human life is said to have begun in the area called the Horn of Africa, located at the easternmost projection of Africa. One of the predominant characteristics of the pre-modern world is the emphasis of theoretical knowledge rather than empirical; in addition, the importance of humankind to the deity. Knowledge was intuitive rather than scientific; concepts were ethereal rather than tangible; mythos and logos were interrelated ways of thinking. Although there was certainly more than one religion in existence, a common belief was that truth was absolute because it came from a supernatural being such as God. The reference to God/Christianity in particular is not meant to dismiss the existence of other religions that were prevalent; in the pre-modern world, truth came from religious faith, whichever religion it may have been. In modernism, the locus of authority changes from the supernatural to humanity.

The conceptualization of others was based on their religion; conceptualization based on race—a brainchild of the modern world and contemporary thought—was a nonexistent idea. Similarly, there was little discussion of equality, because the common belief was the notion that all was predetermined. The idea of the individual self was not an important one throughout much of the pre-modern world; one was recognized more as a component of their social group or community. Church and state were often one and the same; their secularization would not begin to gradually come about until the emergence of the modern world.

Political Organization of Various Centers of Power: Africa

The locus of power in the pre-modern world was in three major locations: Africa, Asia and the Americas. In a sense, all civilizations were essentially based on a surplus of agriculture, which could be used for trade. Barter-and-trade essentially was the key component in the rise and fall of the empires. One of the three most common forms of political organization in the pre-modern world was the band. Bands, which lasted until about 600 B.C.E., were small groups of seminomadic people who gathered food and moved on when the environment no longer supported them. Bands were generally non-hierarchical and there was equality among the people. These seminomadic people oftentimes lived in temporary (or portable) dwellings and practiced seasonal migration, though some had a base camp where they were able to cultivate a small number of crops. Gradually, however, the development and growth of agriculture came into existence around 6000 B.C.E., forming the basis for settled life. This brought about the development of tribal societies, and bands were disbanded. Tribes were generally settled farmers rather than nomadic. Their individual communities were usually integrated into the larger society through kinship ties. Compared to bands, tribal societies were larger and less egalitarian. There existed two types of tribal societies: segmentary lineage and conical clan. Segmentary lineage basically meant a descent group in which smaller (lesser) lineages are included as part of segments of larger lineages. Conical clans were social groups with a common ancestor and were specifically referred to as “conical” because of their hierarchical shape.

State societies in Africa first developed around 6000 B.C.E; by about 600 B.C.E., they were the predominant form of social organization. One characteristic of states (compared to tribes) is that the population has succeeded the bounds of tribal societies. States have a more complex, strong, central government. One of the early state societies was Ghana, which was founded in the sixth century B.C.E. by Soninke peoples. (Ghana, originally the name of a war leader, means “lord of the gold” and was a title for whoever had control over it.) The basis of power for such states was trade, particularly in gold and salt. Also, Ghana’s power came from their skill in working iron; iron smelting had been developed around 1500 B.C.E. Ghana’s government was characterized in part by a secular ruler. It was not a theocracy; the government was divided into two sections: an executive and a judicial. The (often imperial) court system was central to the government. A noteworthy component of the state of Ghana was a powerful standing army (essentially a permanent army of paid soldiers); the concept of a standing army was not developed in Europe until hundreds of years later.

Many residents of Ghana were not Soninke, and some began to rebel, which culminated in a war for independence. Around 1000 C.E., Ghana was destroyed from both internal and external pressures; a revolution was taking place, and nomadic people known as Berbers attacked. (These Islamic Berbers, also known as Almoravids, were a Muslim religious military “brotherhood” from northern Africa that began expansion. They militaristically spread Islam after being converted themselves.) The internal struggle for independence was, in part, a result of the spread of Islam to West Africa; because of it, there was a long struggle between Islamic believers and indigenous religions. (Islam began to penetrate Africa in the 8th century and spread from there.) When the Mandinka people overthrew the Ghana empire, it became Mali. The struggle between Islam and tribal religions continued, and conversion (to Islam) began on two levels. Rulers and leaders often accepted it, but an all-too-common practice was forced conversion, or conversion by the sword. Most of Africa had converted by the 11th century.

The empire of Mali was a powerful state, as well as one of the world’s chief traders in gold at the time. 1312 marked the beginning of the reign of emperor Mansa Musa, who would remain in power through 1337. He was Islamic in faith, and made his famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. En route to Mecca, the emperor constructed hostels for others making the pilgrimage. He also was known for bringing a vast amount of gold and slaves with him on the journey. During the rule of Mansa Musa, cities such as Timbuktu became significant centers of trade, education and culture. Among other things, a great library was constructed in Timbuktu. There were also griots (specialists) who were specifically responsible for preserving history related to the library. The empire had an interest in preserving history. In the empire, there was a surplus of food/agriculture, so specialists (such as goldsmiths) developed. Eventually, when Mansa Musa died, the empire crumbled and was overshadowed by the Songhai empire.

1464 C.E. marked the construction of the Songhai empire. The ruler extended the empire farther than either Ghana or Mali had ever reached, and became the largest and most powerful kingdom in West Africa at the time. Not only that, but having the most powerful cavalry in the world made them the basis of power. Surrounding Mossi states were in competition with the Songhai empire for control. A Moroccan invasion around 1582 accelerated, if not directly led to, the fall of the Songhai empire.

The three empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai were all representative of a process of expansion and state-building that was taking place in West Africa throughout. The basis of trade, and more specifically the control of gold and salt, were all essentially responsible for the rise and fall of each of the three empires. The development of working with metal (including iron smelting), along with the standing army, were both noteworthy factors in the expansion and state-building of West Africa. West Africa was incredibly diverse; it contained over 200 ethnic groups, making for a multitude of different languages, religions, appearances, traditions and social customs.

Political Organization of Various Centers of Power: The Americas

Of course, the history of the Americas predates colonial settlement. It is widely accepted that the first people to come to the Americas arrived between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, traveling over a land bridge known as the Bering Strait from Asia to an area near the southwest tip of Alaska. Between 7000 and 8000 years ago, like in Africa, the three types of social organization were bands, tribes and state societies. Generally the predominant of these three was the tribe, with two exceptions. The first exception was Mesoamerica, where the most common was state societies (also Andean); the second exception was in the Caribbean, where there were no state societies but rather tribal societies of segmentary lineage.

One of the first state societies in the Americas was that of the Olmecs. Their civilization, referred to as the “mother civilization of the Americas,” is estimated to have begun somewhere around 1500 B.C.E. Their society is distinguished in many ways, including the fact that their major “city” was not a true city but a ceremonial center. Only priests, religious leaders and certain workers lived inside the city itself; however, another characteristic the Olmecs are known for is having large centers of population, numbering around 18,000. The Olmecs are well-known for their incredible pottery as well as for being the highest-quality workers in jade in the world at the time. One of the things they are most widely known for, however, is the megalithic stone heads that were carved. The Olmecs were part of the Pre-Classical period, which began somewhere around 3500 B.C.E. The Classic period in general is thought of as a time of peace (almost complete absence of war), serenity and the flowering of art. Government was mostly theocratic, church and state were one and the same and priests were the most important in society. Religiously, gods were thought of as beneficent.

The Classical period saw the gradual disappearance of the Olmecs and the emergence of the Maya, built around first century C.E. The capital was Teotihuacán, considered the first “true” city in the Americas, and the name means “place where the gods dwell.” Like the Olmecs, it was a state society. By comparison they were the most concerned with intellectual endeavors, particularly scientific ones. They made a contribution to the counting of time, and created a calendar so accurate that it has never been surpassed in time-counting. As well, the movements of planets as predicted by Mayan scholars have never been surpassed in their accuracy. The Mayas used ceremonial, day-to-day calendars. The city of Copán was a well-known gathering place for scientists, particularly during the 10th century. The scientists had medical, planetary, surgical and similar knowledge, and Copán was also noted for its observatories.

The Post-Classical period, beginning in 900 C.E., was also about the time of the Middle Ages in Europe. In the Americas, however, it was a time characterized by war; even the gods were portrayed as malevolent rather than beneficent. Priests had a much-diminished role in society as warriors became the most important. Art was also less important during this period. The Post-Classical period began with the development of Toltec civilization in Tula. They formed a warrior aristocracy after the fall of Teotihuacán in 900 C.E., and were influenced by Olmec culture. Around the 12th century the Toltecs were a conical clan; they became a state society around Tula. The Toltecs were polytheistic, mainly centering on the god of peace, Quetzalcoatl (“the plumed serpent”) and Tezcatlipoca (“smoking mirror”). Their religious rituals often included human sacrifice.

The Toltecs were, materially speaking, an advanced culture. They were involved in iron smelting, high-quality stonework, and they also refined art, language, food, pottery and such. They refined life in general, and also developed “refined heritage.” They had considerable scientific knowledge, particularly astronomical. They were in power for about 200 years, until the 13th century, when they were threatened by the Chichimecs, a nomadic warrior group farther north (Chichimec was a collective term for the nomadic people). The Chichimecs were from the Great Chichimeca (the great desert of northern Mexico); the Toltecs objected to the coming of nomadic people, particularly Aztecs. Conflicts in Tula, however, made it easier for the invaders to push into central Mexico; the nomadic Chichimecs brought about the fall of Tula and the Toltec empire, making way for the rise of the Aztec empire.

The Aztecs emerged in the Valley of Mexico, known to them as Anahuac; they built the extraordinary city of Tenochtitlán. Their entire city was essentially built in the middle of water. The Aztecs began to build a huge army, and by 1376, they’d begun to build an empire that would eventually reach to the land of the Maya. Their (the Aztecs’) empire lasted until 1512; they were but one group of a great many, but became the ruling group of almost all around them. Even then, they were in the very tiny minority. Some groups they couldn’t subdue, such as the Tarascan and the Tlaxcalan Indians, but they were a great force. They often made sacrificial victims of the people they conquered. The Aztecs were responsible for the development of chinampa agriculture, which was an innovation in a number of ways, including that it worked with the ecosystem rather than destroying it. Unrelated to the chinampa agriculture, there was a conflict between the nomadic people of the desert and the settled people of the lake city to the south (the Apache versus the Hopi and Navajo, respectively). This is referred to as the “pre-conquest dynamic.”

One other empire of much significance is that of the Incas. The early Inca period began in the 14th century, though the empire’s zenith was between 1493 and 1527.  The Inca empire was in South America and comprised over 3,000 miles (including present-day Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, among others); they called their realm Tawantinsuyo (meaning the “Four Quarters of the Empire,” likely because the empire encompassed four different ecosystems). They ruled over seven million people, despite being in the tiny minority themselves. Their empire was a multi-ethnic one, encompassing over 200 different ethnic groups and the various religions. The traditional capital was centered at Cuzco. In addition to harvesting fish, the staple crop (particularly of the Andes) was the potato. The Incas are known for their large monuments, temples and cities, all of which built without mortar because they were very precise stone-cutters. The most significant aspect of the Incan empire was their extraordinary political integration; they created an empire and held together over seven million people across four ecosystems (desert, seashore, valleys and high Andes). One of the ways in which they integrated their empire was a process of resettlement involving relocation of particular leaders or otherwise important people. A complex system of highways connected every region of the empire. Human messengers also interconnected the empire. Most Incan cities were over 9,000 feet above sea level; one of the most significant cities was Machu Piccu, located high in the Andes.

The Incas went from a tribal society to a state society in less than 100 years, a rate of speed that is practically unheard-of. The newly conquered region was divided into three regions: for the gods, the Inca state and local use. Land was allocated based on need, meaning (more or less) the more kids you had, the more land you got. One of the ways in which the Inca leaders integrated and maintained their empire was by providing public entertainment and distributing food and drink to people. Two main religions existed as the Incas became an empire: one based in the belief that peoples’ ancestors resided in sacred places of the empire (stone, trees, et cetera). They also believed that there was no real separation between life and death, and that their ancestors could help them solve problems of the present. The other belief was a state religion (of divine rule) that held that the Inca was a personification of the sun god Inti. However, people resisted the state religion, choosing their traditional ones instead, which caused stress.

In terms of government, the Inca empire was different from the others. It was more concerned with political administration and keeping control; by comparison the Aztecs were interested in power and domination, but not keeping it. The head of state was also referred to as the Inca. The last of the great emperors was named Huayna Capac. Shortly thereafter, the empire was conquered by the Spanish.


2. Events/Processes on the Iberian Peninsula That Led to Conquest of Americas

Early History to Roman Empire

The first population of the Iberian Peninsula is said to have been during the Pleistocene, specifically after the receding of the last glacier. People were coming to the Iberian Peninsula from two directions: Europe, and directly across Africa. Around 6000 B.C.E., it was populated by bands, and people took refuge in caves; in fact, drawings and murals on cavern walls and ceilings have been discovered in Altamira, Spain. These pictures have been dated from the same approximate time period.

By 3500 B.C.E., inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula had begun to practice agriculture based on wheat. Religion, which seems to have been comparatively rudimentary or abstract, consisted of worship of trees, stones and rivers. By 1500 B.C.E., bands were less frequent and tribal societies had since come into existence. Tribal society reached farther north (around what is today Portugal), and became one large ethnic group, the Lusitani. They were a tribe of warlike people who remained until about 1100 B.C.E. The Phoenicians arrived from what is today Lebanon. They were primarily traders, and they established trade cities along the Mediterranean, the first of such cities being what is today Cádiz. The Phoenicians brought three things of particular importance: the alphabet (a more modern one), math/the concept of zero, and knowledge of iron-making. These were new concepts to the people of the Iberian Peninsula; however, the Phoenicians actually did not have a very significant influence on the people of the various tribes, particularly long-term. The Phoenicians brought gold, spice, perfume, red dye and silks; also, they exchanged wheat for the lead, silver and copper of the Peninsula.

Another of the trade cities that had been established along the Peninsula was in Carthage, or what is today Tunisia; the Carthaginians expelled the Phoenicians from the city of Cádiz and the Iberian Peninsula. They had taken control of Cádiz by the sixth century B.C.E., an accomplishment that caught the attention of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire began to see the Iberian Peninsula as a possible buffer between themselves and the land of the Anglos and Saxons. Rome challenged the Carthaginians for control of the Mediterranean in a trade war of sorts known as the Punic Wars. Rome defeated Carthage in the first Punic War; during the second Punic War, the African general Hannibal attacked Rome with his famous army of elephants. This war was a large factor in creating Rome’s enlarged vision of the Iberian Peninsula as a place that would serve as both a buffer state and strategically important. The third and last Punic War marked the downfall of the Carthaginians; Rome had been victorious and their 200-year control of the Mediterranean began.

Rome divided the new territory into two sections, sometimes called the Western Empire and the Eastern Empire (called Hispania). The Romans built aqueducts; they also built roads and bridges to connect the Peninsula to the rest of the empire, as well as to make passage easier. Rome divided the Peninsula into military provinces, many of which still exist today. Latin became the official language of the Iberian Peninsula (the language of the state), though people in each province continued to speak their own languages. However, their languages were influenced by the Latin language and some of its words. The Roman Empire introduced slavery to the Peninsula; during the Greco-Roman period, roughly three out of every seven people on the Peninsula were slaves. The Romans brought Jews from Palestine to the Iberian Peninsula. Rome had brought its own religion to the Iberian Peninsula; with the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the official religion was established as Christianity around the fourth century C.E. This also began a time of forced conversion (including of Jews). By the first millennium, Rome had massive legions of soldiers; the language of the Iberian Peninsula became further influenced by Latin. The Roman Empire’s influence remained in the Peninsula until the empire’s ultimate fall.

Visigoths to Moors

Around the fourth century C.E., the Visigoths—members of the western division of the Goths, a nomadic people from northern Europe—began making their presence known to the Roman Empire. They overtook Roman control on the Iberian Peninsula and controlled it from the fifth to eighth century; they took the land and made serfs of the people. The Visigoths had been converted to Christianity by the Roman Empire, and they built many churches. They began an extreme persecution of the Jews. They enforced rules against them, one of which stated that Jews could not own land, slaves, serfs or employ Christians. Another such law stated that Jews attempting to convert someone would be put to death. (In the seventh century, an attempt was made to convert Jews to Christians; if they would not do so, they received a thousand lashes.) As the Visigoths forced Jews to convert, they divided the land into “new Christians” and “old Christians,” the former being those who were suspected of masquerading as Christians but actually practicing Judaism. This put an emphasis on outward Christian ritual, as Spanish Catholicism included showing “signs” of being an “old Christian” (wearing large crosses, for example).

In the eighth century (mostly 710-11), the Moors came to the Iberian Peninsula. Existing from India and southern Asia in the east to the Pacific, the Moorish Empire was a multi-ethnic one whose people were united by Islamic belief. The empire lasted 700 years. They were Arabs, and all the people they conquered converted to Islam. They began to spread across Africa and southern Europe, making North, East and South Africa Islamic. There were also the Berbers, who converted in the eighth century, and who were led by their chief Tariq on an expedition to the Peninsula. The Moors eventually defeated the Visigoths and drove them from Toledo, with the help of Jews. The Moors controlled all but the Christian Kingdoms to the north of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors changed the infrastructure and brought new architecture to the Peninsula; they were mostly interested in trade, but reformed agriculture as well. They established irrigation for the first time on the Peninsula.

The Moors’ capital was Córdoba; their objective was mainly to establish political rule. It was a monarchy with an administrative bureaucracy. They established the Convivencia, or “Accord of the Three Faiths,” which brought harmony to the three different faiths. It recognized Christianity and Judaism as monotheistic, and said that people were free to worship any of them, as long as they paid their taxes. Also, the Bible was translated to Arabic for the first time; there was a lot of interchange between the three religions.

Reconquista to Castilian State

The Reconquista (“Reconquest”) took place from 1085 to 1492 C.E. It was a time of the spread of Christianity. There were two main parts to the Reconquest. One was the pressure, which was individuals looking for better land but not military/ideological. This happened in all the Christian Kingdoms. The more significant part, however, was involved the Castilian monarchy; there was a struggle in the Christian Kingdoms for power, and one branch in Castille was strong enough to take over. Gradually Castille, with the monarchy, became the most powerful of kingdoms, and it began to fight the Moors for both military and ideological reconquest. The purpose was essentially to return the land to the Christians (more specifically, to give land to the Castilians). As they moved south, they defeated the Moors. The Berbers began to wage a holy war on the Islamic rulers of the Peninsula, believing that Islam (its rulers and how it was practiced) had become corrupt. The Christians were successful in driving the Moors back as far as Seville; by the end of the century the Moors had been reduced to just Granada—the only place where they still had control on the Peninsula.

The Christian Kingdoms began an even more intense persecution and repression of the Jews. Another “round” of forced conversion took place in the 14th century; those who were converted were termed “conversos.” Over 100,000 such conversions took place. During the Reconquest, only the “old Christians” could aspire to professions related to trades or the church. The only people not suspected of being “new Christians” were those who were originally from the northern Christian Kingdoms. And as Christian forces moved farther south, land was confiscated from people and given to soldiers as a form of payment.

By the 15th century, the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella (of the kingdoms of Aragón and Castille, respectively) also represented the merging of their two kingdoms. The Reconquest was complete in January 1492 when the Moors were driven out of Granada. As a reward for expelling the Moors, the Pope gave Ferdinand and Isabella complete control of the Spanish Inquisition, and gave both of them royal titles. The Reconquista had been little more than one long military campaign. The military crusade was successful; the army was the only occupation for Castilian men. There was an ongoing struggle to impose Castilian as the only language. The Castilian state was ethnocentric, anti-intellectual, militaristic, religiously intolerant, often characterized by “fear of the other.”

The first and most important principle of the Castilian state was that only Christians could take part in the state. Emphasis was on “pura sangre” (“pure blood”), or Christian blood. It was meant to be a form of political unity; only those who had pura sangre could participate in society. People were encouraged to watch their neighbors and report things like not being at mass. If you were called before the Inquisition, and there was enough evidence to suggest you weren’t Christian, the court would force an “auto-da-fé” (“act of the faith”). Basically it meant that you’d be burned alive, and if you survived you were Christian; if you died (as all did), you were not. The Inquisition is believed to have killed 60,000 people this way. If you were asked to make an auto-da-fé, your property could be taken or you could be exiled. All of this was only part of the persecution taking place, however; over the next century, both Moors and their texts were burned. The Edict of Expulsion was promulgated against Jews in April 1492, stating that all those who were not converted to Christianity would be exiled.


In the 11th century C.E., as the Castilians began moving southward, the Lusitani had similar objectives. At one point they waged war on the Castilians to try to become sovereign and independent; they later made an attempt to expel the Moors. In the 14th century, the military order of Avis (and leader of Prince John I) defeated Castille by forging an alliance with England. Prince John eventually became the first king of Portugal, with the objective of driving the Moors back to the African continent. To do so, the Portuguese developed larger, faster boats and took over sailing knowledge/technology brought by the Moors.

By 1415 the Moors were driven back to the African city of Celta. The Portuguese realized that North Africa was the terminus of trans-Saharan gold routes. They later found that the gold itself was in West Africa. However, this resulted in three new objectives: to find and defeat Moors; to develop trade relationships with people who had gold mines; to establish diplomatic relationships with western kingdoms (to form alliances to drive out Moors). By 1480, in Africa, the Portuguese had pushed as far south as what is now Senegal. They also found that they could reach Asia without traveling over European land; rivalry between the Lusitani and the Castilians was heavy, as both knew that whoever reached the new trade routes in Asia would shut the other out of the trades. Basically both the Castilian and Portuguese voyages were for diplomatic, political, economic and strategic reasons.

Columbus / The New World

In 1489, Columbus asked Ferdinand and Isabella to finance a voyage west to Asia. Columbus had previously gone to the other side of the Iberian Peninsula and been turned down when he asked the rulers of the Lusitani (they’d already found a route to Asia). He was turned down by Ferdinand and Isabella, but in 1492, they decided to risk the project. They told Columbus that his goal was not to Christianize people, but simply to find gold, return to Asia and give the gold to the Crown. The Spanish monarchs had earlier realized that with all the Jews and non-Christians expelled, there were no professionals or specialists, so they said that any Christian of pura sangre on the Peninsula would be welcomed if they offered their services to the Crown. Columbus’ voyage was the first step towards the conquest and colonization of the Americas, as well as the decimation of the native populations that lived there. These were all events that led up to the conquest; more events clearly took place after Columbus’ journey that related to the gradual conquest, but they succeeded the conquest, as opposed to helping to initiate it.


3. Comparison/Contrast of Sor Juana and Las Casas

When the works of Bartolomé de Las Casas and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (the latter known better as simply Sor Juana) are compared, they may initially seem to have little in common. They are from different time periods and are arguing for entirely different groups of people who don’t have a lot in common. However, both Las Casas and Sor Juana are taking a side against the predominant opinions of their day.

Main Point

Las Casas and Sor Juana may have similarities in what they wrote about, but their main points differ. Las Casas’ thesis (In Defense of the Indians) is basically that the time for the violent conquest of native people is over. The objective of the Castilian state, he says, ought to be peaceful conversion; his belief regarding the Native Americans is that they ought to be treated with respect and allowed the opportunity to accept Christianity. He backs up his argument with verses from the Bible that point out that all people ought to be treated as equals. He refutes the notion that the Indians are barbarians by saying that such a belief is to question the perfection of God’s creation. He points the finger at the so-called Christians, denouncing them as the true hypocrites and savages. (In “Of the Island of Hispaniola,” a previous writing, he provides a graphic account of the atrocities committed by the Christians who came to the Americas.)

In The Poet’s Answer to the Most Illustrious Sor Filotea De La Cruz, Sor Juana takes a stand (a respectful-sounding, but likely mocking one) against “Sor Filotea,” who is actually the Bishop of Puebla using a pseudonym of another nun. Sor Juana had criticized (in writing) a sermon by well-known pulpit orator Padre Vieyra. The letter was published without her knowledge, and she received a letter from the bishop, who praised her critique but told her she ought to put an end to her secular studies and writing, and instead devote herself fully to her role as a nun. Sor Juana wrote a reply that not only discussed her life and studies, but also promoted the standpoint that women should be allowed to be educated—as well disagree—without criticism. She points out a great number of women throughout history who were highly intelligent, successful, and just to drive the point home, also points out a few historical male figures who were far from perfect. She draws a clear distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and makes it clear that she believes that some of those who are quick to call themselves Christians are often less than upright.

Similarities/Relation of Works to One Another

One of the ways in which the writings of Las Casas and Sor Juana are similar is that both attack those who profess themselves to be Christians but do not act like it. For example, Las Casas asks “who has dared to pronounce a judgment and opinion so un-Christian that it spawns so many cruel wars, so many massacres, so many bereavements, and so many deplorable evils?” (Reader 5) This comes from Chapter One of “In Defense of the Indians”; here Las Casas is discussing the violent nature of the so-called Christians and their inhumane  slaughter of Indians. He cites not only the Bible but Christ himself, saying that the Scriptures condemn cruelty committed against anyone. (In fact, both Sor Juana and Las Casas constantly reference the Bible to argue and substantiate their points. Scripture is central to both of their compositions.)

Another major characteristic common to both authors is their cogent distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Las Casas, at one point, argues against the notion that the natives are barbaric, slow-witted savages by asserting that anyone who would say such a thing is not only disrespectful to God but downright impious. He cites Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The good which is proportionate to the common state of nature is to be found in most men and is lacking only in a few…. Thus it is clear that the majority of men have sufficient knowledge to guide their lives, and the few who do not have this knowledge are said to be half-witted or fools” (10). He uses St. Thomas’ quotation to essentially contend that those who are knowledgeable but not wise (or blind to God’s truth) are the ones who deserve the title of barbarian. Sor Juana also distinguishes between knowledge and wisdom, as well as the danger of being knowledgeable but not wise. Quoting the Holy Spirit, she says “For wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul.” She adds, “For them, more harm is worked by knowledge than by ignorance” (61). She feels that one who is foolish is more dangerous than one who is simply ignorant. She also goes on to say that oftentimes studying can be harmful to those who are foolish, that it is “like putting a sword in the hands of a madman” (61). She says that although both knowledge and the sword can be powerful weapons, putting either in the hands of someone who is foolish or unwise is to give him power that he doesn’t know how to handle, and hence that person becomes powerful but dangerous to himself and others.

Additionally, something noticeable about the two writings is that both authors cite two particular historical figures at one point or another. One of these is St. Thomas; the aforementioned reference to St. Thomas in Las Casas talks about wisdom, knowledge and fools. The mention of St. Thomas in Sor Juana is right at the beginning, where she says that Thomas was silent before his teacher, at one point, on the grounds of having nothing to say that was worthy of his teacher. Sor Juana explains that her reason for keeping quiet is not modesty but, like St. Thomas, she is unable to say anything worthy of her (Sor Filotea) (49).

The other significant figure that both cite is Aristotle. In Las Casas’ writing, one of his arguments against the Indians’ supposed barbarism is that “there are four kinds of barbarians, according to the Philosopher in Books 1 and 3 of the Politics and in Book 7 of the Ethics, and according to Saint Thomas and other doctors in various places” (7). These include people acting against reason or driven by greed, those who have no written language and those with no system of government. When Las Casas refers to “the Philosopher” he is speaking of Aristotle, and mentions him by name on Page 8.

Sor Juana also refers to Aristotle, though it is of less significance: “Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written a great deal more” (60). She explains that she sometimes expresses this when cooking; that making dinner can sometimes allow one to philosophize. In the context in which she comments on Aristotle and dinner-making, Sor Juana has actually been drawing associations between cooking and scientific thought/theory. This is part of her standpoint on the education of women, that they have the capacity (if properly educated) to be very gifted thinkers.

Contrasts/Differences Between Works

When talking about the actual style of writing of Las Casas and Sor Juana, there are marked differences between the two. Without going into discussion about the authors’ backgrounds, it is clear that both compositions are very intelligently written; both exude the impression that their respective author is a well-educated and articulate one. In terms of differences, Las Casas’ style is more succinct and straightforward, while Sor Juana is more loquacious but also extremely eloquent, almost poetic.

Also different between Sor Juana and Las Casas is the tone of the writing. Sor Juana is certainly passionate, and asserts the rights women ought to have, but she is also more discerning at times.  Bearing in mind the time period during which she lived, Sor Juana assumes a more formal, prim-and-proper approach at times. Her opening paragraph makes her appear to be the epitome of humility as she more or less declares herself unqualified to adequately reply to such a well-known individual as Sor Filotea. Actually, although it is unclear as to whether or not Sor Juana actually knew that Sor Filotea was the bishop, her (seemingly exaggerated) humility gives the impression that she is writing very tongue-in-cheek. The most likely explanation is that she is aware she’s writing to the bishop, but addresses it to his nom de plume. At the beginning and the end of her letter she acts as though she cannot contain her reverence and practically tells Sor Filotea to modify her (Sor Juana’s) terms of address if it isn’t respectful enough. Compared to all this, Las Casas is very stern and unyielding; his reproach of the pseudo-Christian behavior has no qualms about confronting them point-blank.

Among the many other differences (and parallels) that exist, one more significant example stands out. Both Las Casas and Sor Juana speak of education, but in a different way. Although one thing that is similar is that both are arguing against prominent, well-respected religious authorities. When Las Casas speaks of education, he is arguing against Sepúlveda, in essence equating the natives to children (in that they are innocent but uneducated) and that they ought to be taught to come to know God. He consistently refers to their mild, peaceful nature and says at one point in their defense by quoting Christ: “See that you never despise any of these little ones” (5).

By comparison, when Sor Juana speaks of education, she is not referring to moral or religious education; she is speaking in terms of academic, cerebral enlightenment. At times, her arguments for equality and women’s rights seem to be tailored specifically to particular groups of women, such as those of the upper class. When she refers to successful (or well-educated) women from history, she almost exclusively cites those who had a particularly well-to-do upbringing or other such position of status. However, she explains her argument for women: “…all this could be avoided if there were old women of sound education, as St. Paul desires, so that instruction could be passed from the old to the young just as is done with sewing and all the customary skills” (62-3).


4. Atlantic Slave Trade; Falconbridge/Equino

Development of Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic Slave Trade was the process of bringing slaves from West Africa to across the Atlantic. Of course, it wasn’t the first slave trade; the Greco-Roman slave trade centuries earlier, for example. The slaves were traded to one of three destinations across the Atlantic: the Iberian Peninsula, the Americas or some offshore Atlantic islands (the Azores, Canary Islands and Madira). The trade began in the 14th century and ended in the 19th. During the 14th century, it was a very small commerce and not very important; the trading peaked during the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 19th century the trade had slowed down to a trickle, and it eventually died out. The number of West Africans that were taken across the Atlantic is so large that conservative estimates say that between 12 and 20 million went to the Americas alone.

One of the reasons for the development of the Atlantic Slave Trade can be dated back to the sixth century C.E., when the process of expansion and state-building in West Africa was taking place. One of the contributing factors involves the fact that, during the times of expansion and state-building (as massive states were being constructed), there were a large number of war captives—so many, in fact, that the number exceeded the capacity of the individual societies to absorb them.

Another reason is the fact that the destruction of the indigenous population of the Americas created a labor vacuum in the Americas, and one of the results of this was that the amount of labor to be done greatly exceeded the number of people who could be made to do it.

Additionally, the development of plantation agriculture (on the Peninsula, Atlantic islands and Americas) for export boiled down to a very simple realization: “We have developed plantation agriculture but require a number of people to do the work.”

One other factor that contributed to the slave trade was the events on the Iberian Peninsula that originally brought the Europeans to the west coast of Africa; at least part of that was the realization that gold itself was in West Africa. This took place shortly after the Moors had been driven back to Africa around 1415; the Portuguese realized that North Africa was the terminus of trans-Saharan gold routes, and later found the gold to be in West Africa. (Also the Portuguese development of a slave trade along the west coast of Africa.) Regarding the Portuguese, originally the emphasis had been on finding gold rather than slaves, but again referring to the development of plantation agriculture, sugar cane (and building fortifications) were the main reasons for the Portuguese change of interest from gold-finding to slave trade. Sugar cane was especially grown on the offshore islands, which sparked their initial interest in slaves: labor was needed, simple as that.

With regard to the Atlantic Slave Trade, the systemic trade as a whole was greater than any of its parts. If any of the above four components had not taken place, the Atlantic Slave Trade would never have come about. All the parts had to come together for it to occur. (Just one factor would not have been enough to initiate anything, especially on this large a scale.) Actually, when the Europeans first came, they initially traded in horses, and later guns. By the 14th century, slavery as in institution in Europe was dying out. The development of feudalism began to come into the picture, however. That was just one form of unfree labor; there were other types such as serfdom. Unfree labor sometimes seems ambiguous a term—slaves were costly. But slavery began to be revived in Europe because of the conquest of the Americas. Slavery never would have been revived otherwise. To add to that, the conquest and control of the Americas and its population was an essential component of Europe’s rise to power.

Nearly three-fourths of the slaves being taken across the Atlantic died during the Middle Passage (the middle leg or passage in the journey from Africa to one’s final destination) because of the harsh conditions. The slaves were boarded onto ships, held beneath the deck and chained together from one person’s ankle to another’s elbow to prevent rebellion. Slaves were chained the whole time, and the crossing took two to three months on average. If someone got ill, they were thrown overboard based on the fact that “extra” slaves were always brought to make up for the ones that would invariably die. To ensure that they got their money’s worth, captains used “packing” of the slaves onto the ship. It would turn out, however, that those who were enslaved would eventually be the first to speak up against the slave trade.


Alexander Falconbridge was not a slave but rather a doctor/surgeon on a slave ship. In 1788 he wrote a short narrative of his experiences called The Atlantic Slave Trade. He certainly sympathized with those on the ships, though he knew he could not (safely) express such feelings while on the ships. He said of the Europeans, “…from whom as a more civilized people, more humanity might naturally be expected” (115), referring to his disdain for the cruel treatment the slaves received. He recalls at least one incident when a slave committed suicide to put an end to the torture. He summarizes, “From these instances I think it may have been clearly deduced that the unhappy Africans are not bereft of the finer feelings, but have a strong attachment to their native country, together with a just sense of liberty. And the situation of the miserable beings above described, more forcibly urges the necessity of abolishing a trade which is the source of such evils, than the most eloquent harangue, or persuasive arguments could do” (116). He essentially says that just a factual account of the horrific treatment ought to be far more effective a device to prove the immorality of slave trade; that just having seen what he has is more powerful an argument than any actual lecture or address could ever do. Why do they deserve this treatment, he says, when it is obvious that they are human? … Falconbridge later became in charge of a British colony for freed slaves, and obviously putting aside his own concerns for a higher call (morality) is evidence that he was willing to not only speak up but take action.


Born in 1745, Olaudah Equiano was a native of the African kingdom of Benin (what is today part of Nigeria); he is best known for his autobiographical book The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. He discusses his country, particularly talking about such aspects as marriage, agriculture and religion/ceremonies. He states that slavery existed in his country: “Sometimes indeed we sold slaves to them, but they were only prisoners of war, or such among us as had been convicted of kidnapping, or adultery, and some other crimes, which we esteemed heinous” (119). He mentions that slavery is a common practice (as is slave-trading), but he also says that those who are enslaved are treated mostly as equals: “With us they do no more work than other members of the community, even their masters; their food, clothing and lodging were nearly the same as theirs, (except that they were not permitted to eat with those who were free-born); and there was scarce any difference between them, than a superior degree of importance which the head of a family possesses in our state” (120-1). Sometimes even slaves have slaves of their own.

In the section “Olaudah Equiano: The Middle Passage (1788)” Equiano talks about experiencing the Middle Passage. He says that he was taken as a slave when he was a boy. He recalls being constantly concerned that he would be killed by his kidnappers, and gives a rather detailed account of the deplorable situation, especially in the hold. The room was grossly overcrowded, he says, and people were afflicted with every manner of problem from illness to strong whipping. And unfortunately, he remarks, slim to none was the chance for people to end their misery by their own hand.

Equiano ultimately bought his freedom and became an active abolitionist. In 1789 he wrote and published his autobiography of his life, focusing on his own life as a slave.

Similarities & Differences

Despite their significant differences, Falconbridge and Equiano share some similarities in their writing. In fact, the style in which Falconbridge writes is from a different viewpoint, but his words are just as straightforward and his portrayals of slave life just as vivid as Equiano’s. Both men discuss the cramped living conditions; Falconbridge points out how the overcrowding is responsible for much illness: “The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies, and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes, which generally carries off great numbers of them” (116). Equiano shares similar sentiments as he recalls life in the hold, saying, “I was soon put under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life … the stench of the hold while were on the coast was so incredibly loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time … but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential” (123).

Compared to Equiano, Falconbridge had much better living conditions. Being a surgeon on the ship, however, allowed him to see firsthand what the slaves were being put through. Both make it clear that attempting to starve oneself was a taboo that would earn little more than a harsh flogging. The two writings concur that the act of suicide, though it would have been preferable, was rarely more than a pipe dream to the slaves onboard. At one point Equiano wishes he could take his own life; Falconbridge observes that those who managed to jump overboard were the lucky few who could “put a more expeditious period to his sufferings” (116). Logic dictates that two main reasons existed for the slave-traders not to want people to take their own lives: first of all, they intended to make their trading as profitable as possible (hence the overcrowding) and more slaves meant more money; secondly, those who committed suicide were committing an act of rebellion, and the crew knew such an event could well inspire others on the ship to do the same or revolt.

Equiano commented on the despondent state of the prisoners throughout, describing not only physical afflictions but emotional, talking about “the shrieks of the women” and “the groans of the dying” (124), reiterating the hell-on-earth state of affairs. Both authors talk about how the kidnapped people grieve for their native land. Falconbridge and Equiano, despite the dissimilarity of their circumstances, are both of the same mind: The inhumanity of the traders on the ships is unlike what they have seen or experienced before. Falconbridge himself states that he would have expected better treatment from those who always claim to be more civilized. Overall, the two men perhaps didn’t have that many differences. Both were advocates of abolitionism. Falconbridge seems to feel that the traders do realize deep down that their black captives are humans—they simply don’t care about it since their primary objective is financial. And they have to be brutal (at least, according to their mindset) because they have to make their slaves not want to risk a mutiny. The number of slaves far exceeded those on the crew. Even the more humane shipmasters practiced physical punishment. When it comes down to it, however, it was simply a regime of fear.


de la Cruz, Sor Juana Inés. “The Poet’s Answer to the Most Illustrious Sor Filotea De La
           Cruz.” 2001 Converging Hemispheres Reader. No ed. Boston: The McGraw-Hill
Companies, Inc., 2001: 49-68.

de Las Casas, Bartolomé. “In Defense of the Indians.” 2001 Converging Hemispheres
Reader. No ed. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2001: 5-11.

de Las Casas, Bartolomé. “Of the Island of Hispaniola.” 2001 Converging Hemispheres
Reader. No ed. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2001: 3.

Equino, Olaudah. “The Life of Olaudah Equino.” 2001 Converging Hemispheres Reader.
           No ed. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2001: 117-24.

Falconbridge, Alexander. “The African Slave Trade.” 2001 Converging Hemispheres Reader.
           No ed. Boston: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2001: 115-6.

Rushing, Dr. Fannie T. Class lecture. Humanities 240. Benedictine University, Lisle. 28 Aug.
           2003 – 7 Nov. 2003.