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Conquest of the Americas


'They bear no arms, nor know thereof; for I showed them swords and they grasped them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron.' Thus wrote Christopher Columbus of the first natives he encountered in the New World on 12 October 1492.


Arriving in the Bahamas on board one of three lightly armed ships widely used in voyages of exploration, Columbus reached a part of the world unknown to the ancients.


While wrong about so many things, about this Columbus was right: the native peoples of the New World used no iron. Most indigenous Americans employed only stone age technologies, encountering iron weapons and even iron tools for the first time only after Columbus's arrival.


In their previous voyages of exploration to Africa and Asia Europeans had encountered people who, like themselves, used iron weapons and tools. When the natives on San Salvador in 1492 'cut themselves through ignorance' they showed themselves to be completely unfamiliar with the sharp cutting edge that only iron can hold.


This iron edge would be central to the conquest, for iron (sometimes in its purer form, as steel) formed the principal component of powerful swords, knives, daggers, and lances, and a crucial element in crossbows, all of which could be used to inflict deadly injury; it was also the central component of firearms, the arquebus and the cannon.


Finally it constituted the key element of the defensive devices, helmets and cuirasses (metal vests and shoulder protectors), by which Europeans would shield themselves from native weapons.


According to Columbus, the natives carried bows of the same size as those used in Europe, but with longer arrows made of a cane or a reed of sharp wood, sometimes with a fish's tooth at the end.


Indeed, hunting and fishing tools throughout the Americas comprised rods, bones, or teeth; hence iron hooks for hunting and fishing, iron tips for arrows, iron hatchets for cutting timber and iron knives for carving soon became the most sought after trade-goods everywhere in the Americas since they made hunting and fishing for food so much easier than before.


Seventeenth-century Mohawks near Albany, New York, even nicknamed Europeans 'the iron-workers' for this reason. But iron tips for arrows, and iron knives for carving or hatchets for wood cutting could also be used as weapons, eventually changing for ever the way that natives fought wars in the Americas.


At first the Caribbean peoples Columbus met showed greater interest in those weapons most like their own, particularly the iron-reinforced crossbow that shot arrows further and penetrated a target more deeply than conventional bows and arrows. But the advantages of the unfamiliar steel swords were not so immediately apparent.


Upon seeing the Tainos' interest in the crossbow, Columbus drew his sword from the scabbard and showed it to them, saying that it was as powerful as the crossbow. And these two - the sword and crossbow - would be the only weapons used in the Europeans' first military encounters in the Caribbean.