Saturday, January 17, 2009

Very brief history of El Salvador, part 2

In 1492, as we all know, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and found a new world (to him) of people who thought they were doing just fine without being "discovered." For the native people of the Americas, discovery led to wars, forced conversion, forced labor, forced concubinage and rape, widespread death from newly introduced diseases. It's estimated that between 1500 and 1600 the population of Central America diminished by 90% from all these causes.

In 1524 Pedro de Alvarado, the conquistador of Guatemala, invaded Cuscatlán, present-day El Salvador, and was wounded in a battle with the Pipiles. It took the Spanish 15 years to complete the conquest; in the process, they founded the city of San Salvador (1525) and divided up the land among themselves. During the colonial period, the Spanish introduced livestock, the plough, the water mill, wheat, sugar cane. They exported cocoa, cotton, balsam, and indigo. In the encomienda system of royal land grants, the indigenous people either worked for the dueño (owner) or paid tribute in corn, beans, cotton, honey, wax. During the colonial period - and long after - those with most power were the Spanish or the Creoles, children of Spanish parents born in Central America. Next came the mestizos or ladinos, people of mixed blood who had no right to private property, but were given the better jobs. Finally the indigenous people were the most dominated and exploited.

The Catholic Church was a power parallel to the colonial administration, the center of education and culture, sometimes a power for the good, mediating between the indigenous people and the authorities, but more often demanding conversion, attendance at Mass and work for the church.


  1. Looking forward to your chapter 3.

    Regarding Spanish colonial society, I'd note that the Spaniards were the only European colonizers who widely intermixed with native, and later slave African populations, giving rise to an ethnically mixed population, such as did not exist outside Spanish America. The stratification was more a function of the neo-feudal system of production imported from Spain than of ethnic prejudice, which is what the average American focuses on.

    I would question whether, in a population that became rapidly and overwhelmingly mestizo, mestizos "had no right to private property."

    On the whole, though, not a bad summary.

  2. Thanks for these helpful comments! - I hope I put some disclaimers in: I'm no historian of Central America, relying on the work of others. Very true that the Spanish intermixed widely with both indigenous and African slave populations - however, very few Africans were brought to El Salvador, so that is a very minor element in the population mix here. The statement that mestizos had no right to private property is translated from the Historia de El Salvador published by Equipo Maiz.