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Spanish Conquests In The New World

Updated on March 12, 2014

The Man Who Discovered A New World

Christopher Columbus wasn't the first European to lay eyes on the Americas, but he was the one that paved the way for successful colonisation.
Christopher Columbus wasn't the first European to lay eyes on the Americas, but he was the one that paved the way for successful colonisation. | Source

Background

The voyages of Christopher Columbus which occurred between 1492 and 1504 opened up a New World, but it soon became exploited by the Old World, with destruction following close on the heels of discovery. Spain’s colonisation of Middle and South America’s pagan cultures was ostensibly a Christianising mission. But those adventurers, who undertook the dirty work of conquest- the conquistadors, were tough, ruthless opportunists in search of booty. After all, these savages were ignorant of the Gospel, and they did moreover possess fabulous quantities of gold.

Prior to the Europeans’ incursions, the Aztecs’ crushing of other Mesoamerican peoples led to the creation of their empire. They had widened their dominions through the Valley of Mexico in a series of conquests from the beginning of the 15th century. Over the same period, the Incas had founded an even larger empire- covering some 2170 miles and conquering civilisations such as the Chimu. On the eve of the Spanish conquest both empires were consolidating their power.

The Serpent God

A portrait of Hernan Cortes, who arrived in the New World in 1519.
A portrait of Hernan Cortes, who arrived in the New World in 1519. | Source

The Coming Doom

It was prophesised that the plumed serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, would one day appear from the eastern ocean in human form. When this happened, the destruction that the priests had been staving off with their animal and human sacrifices could be postponed no longer; the Aztec civilisation would meet its catastrophic end. When Hernan Cortes arrived from Spain in 1519, he was believed to be that serpent god. Yet the myth was of Spanish origin, rather than Mexican origin; it was encouraged by Cortes in order to intimidate the people he was conquering.

That Cortes and his little band of men were able to subdue such an incredibly powerful empire was extraordinary. His courage, charisma and ruthlessness are not in doubt. Nor is the cunning with which he exploited the existing enmities among the native peoples of Mesoamerica.

Invasion Route

A map showing the route that Cortes and his invasion route took.
A map showing the route that Cortes and his invasion route took. | Source

Meeting Montezuma

Cortes and his native ally Malinche meeting the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma.
Cortes and his native ally Malinche meeting the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma. | Source

A Doomed Alliance

The Spanish 'cementing' an alliance with the Tlaxcalteca.
The Spanish 'cementing' an alliance with the Tlaxcalteca. | Source

Alliances And Atrocities

Cortes took Malinche, a Nahua woman whose people were hostile to the Aztecs, as his mistress and interpreter. With her help, he allied with the Tlaxcaltecas in what is now Tlaxcala in Mexico; they felt too threatened by the Aztecs. At Cholula, west of Puebla, Cortes and his men killed the male population, without doubt at the urging of the Tlaxcaltecas who wanted to punish the Cholulans for submitting to Aztec rule. ‘We fought so hard,’ said Cortes, ‘in two hours more than 3000 men were killed.’

This atrocity sent a message to Mexico’s peoples. The scale of the slaughter the Spanish had been able to commit with their steel weapons and their firearms was scarcely imaginable to them. Hence the nervous adulation bestowed upon Cortes and his company upon arrival at the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, though ruler Montezuma II seems to have taken Cortes’s claims to be an ‘ambassador’ at face value. The conquistador repaid his hospitality by taking him hostage. For six months Cortes ruled the empire with Montezuma as his puppet. Then his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado took fright at talk of a revolt and massacred the Aztec nobility. Cortes and his men had to fight their way out of the rebellion that ensued. Montezuma was among those who perished, while Cortes was lucky to escape with 200 survivors.

The Centre Of The Aztec World

A reconstruction of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
A reconstruction of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. | Source

Victory For Cortes

A portrait of the conquistadors entering Tenochtitlan along with the captured Emperor, Montezuma.
A portrait of the conquistadors entering Tenochtitlan along with the captured Emperor, Montezuma. | Source

Unequal Struggles

In the months that followed, Cortes besieged Tenochtitlan, now stricken with smallpox the conquistadors had unwittingly brought with them. Over 40 per cent of the native population died. Under Cuauhtémoc, the nephew of Montezuma, the Aztecs resisted bravely. And they held a number of advantages, as Cortes and his men were aware. Frankly, Cortes acknowledged, they were daunted: ‘They had calculated that if 25,000 of them died for every one of us, they would finish with us first, for they were many and we were but few.’ The city was situated on a series of small islands in a shallow lake, connected to the mainland and to each other by narrow causeways, thus allowing the defenders to focus their efforts more effectively. Even so, it was only a matter of time before the Spanish and their allies prevailed; Tenochtitlan fell on the 13th August 1521.

European firepower and know how had not been enough by themselves to overwhelm the Aztecs, but had given the Spanish attack an extra ‘edge.’

The Other Conquistador

Francisco Pizarro, unlike Cortes was a pretty poor strategist, but was a great improviser. It was this, plus his ability to remain unnatural composure that helped bring down the Inca Empire.
Francisco Pizarro, unlike Cortes was a pretty poor strategist, but was a great improviser. It was this, plus his ability to remain unnatural composure that helped bring down the Inca Empire. | Source

Inca Complacency

In the 1530’s Francisco Pizarro took Peru against still more astounding odds. The Inca king, Atahualpa, had an army of 80,000 to Pizarro’s 128 men. The latter did, of course have weapons never before seen in South America- harquebuses (muzzle loaded firearms) and cannon, as well as steel blade swords. And they had horses, which were ironically making a return to the Americas after a 13,000 year absence. In fact the ancestors of both the Aztec and Inca peoples had wiped them out through over-hunting. Despite possessing these advantages, in the end it was Inca complacency that allowed Pizarro’s party to probe deep into the empire completely unscathed. Triumphant victor of a civil war that had wreaked the Inca Empire for the last three years and with his rival and half-brother captured, Atahualpa saw no reason to take a handful of ‘bandits and thieves’ seriously. The two sides met, eventually at the city of Cajamarca, in northern Peru. The conquistadors kept to their ‘Christian’ commitment by bringing a priest out to preach to the Inca king. When Atahualpa brushed him aside, the Spanish had a pretext for attacking, and opened up with cannon harquebuses. Although their noise and smoke had far greater impact than their penetrative power, the cold steel of the conquistadors cut down the Inca troops, shocked into passivity.

In a few hours of one sided fighting, Pizarro’s men killed 7000 Incas; then they seized Atahualpa. This proved so astonishing an outrage that the watching soldiers could barely believe it was happening. He was their divinity; now he was just a mere prisoner; the Inca state had effectively been decapitated. Holding Atahualpa captive in Cajamarca, the conquistadors demanded an enormous ransom, and then garrotted the king anyway, installing another puppet, Manqo Qapac in his place. Qapac quickly grew disenchanted and slipped away into the mountains. He led a belated fight back, but the Incas were finally defeated in 1536. Once again the courage of the Spanish conquistadors is as staggering as their unscrupulousness; holed up in Cuzco, they saw off a siege by some 40,000 of Qapac’s men.

Fascinating Fact

Hernan Cortes managed to defeat the Aztecs with just 500 Spaniards. While, this is incredible in itself, Francisco Pizarro defeated the Inca Empire with just 128 Spaniards.

A Highly Recommended Book

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond's excellent book gives a definitive and rational explanation as to why European peoples were able to conquer large parts of the world.

 

Aftermath

In just a few years, and with only a tiny commitment of manpower, Spain had gained a vast American Empire. Its riches underwrote Spain’s emergence as a superpower. Other conquistadors took other territories, further expanding Spain’s dominions, including Panama, conquered by Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Francisco de Orellana claimed the Amazon and finally Pedro de Valdivia claiming Chile. Each one of these conquering adventurers became fabulously wealthy. Incredibly, between 1556 and 1783 a single mine- the Cerro Rico (‘Rich Hill’) at Potosi, Bolivia yielded 7000 tons of pure silver which all passed into the possession of the Spanish crown.

While the new European colonists were undoubtedly cruel, their destructiveness was dwarfed by the ravages of the infectious diseases they introduced. In every region of the Americas, epidemiologists estimate that 90 per cent of the population had been killed by disease within just fifty years of the arrival of Europeans.

In 1572, a descendent of the Inca kings, Tupac Amaru attempted to throw out the invaders. But the Europeans prevailed and as a result both Mexico and Peru remained viceroyalties of ‘New Spain.’

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    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Great synopsis of a sweeping period of history. Wonderful use of paintings, maps and photos.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much!

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Ditto - however (magic that word, it strikes fear into the hearts of all but the truly brave!) - Columbus never actually set foot on the mainland of either North or South America. Still, that's just a tiddly detail. You've got the big picture.

      I would add that it's hard to decide whether it was the Inca/Aztec that was the savage, ignorant of the Gospels, or the Spaniards. They were just plain ruthless.

      We relieved them of some of their new-found treasures and were called 'pirates'. The only first we had was tobacco (typical! the humble potato went to Spain first, then the rest of Catholic Europe before moving west to Ireland, and only THEN came to Britain. And what did we do with it? We added battered white fish and called it 'fish'n'chips'! Our contribution to world cuisine on a plate, or in a bag, as most Brits eat the stuff on the move).

      It was Good Queen Bess who got some of the Spaniards' gold, but she didn't spread it around much. Our Frank (Drake, or 'El Draco') was quite adept at playing bowls, which the Spaniards would've been best advised to follow because they couldn't find their way around these islands without wrecking their fleet, sorry, Armada.

      Congrats, JKenny, on a good piece of historical journalism!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Alan, yep, I know Columbus never set foot in either North or South America. He actually landed in the Caribbean and even then he thought he was in India. Which explains why occasionally Native Americans are still called Indians, because that's what he thought they were haha! Thanks for popping by.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Very interesting and thanks for sharing.

      Eddy.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Eddy.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Mind you, the 'Native Americans' aren't all that 'native, are they. They migrated from eastern Asia whilst the land bridge (that became the Aleutians) was still there. Others followed over the ice in winter (I remember it well). By the time Leif Eiriksson and Thorfinn 'Karlsefni' landed in Vinland in the late 10th C the 'Skraelings' (wretches) as they called the locals had probably been there a few hundred years already.

      By the way some Irish monks left their homeland in the 9th C in a large coracle via the Faeroes and Iceland, leaving when the Norsemen turned up (fleeing Harald 'Fair-hair', his high taxes and enforced Christianisation) to go further west. When the Norsemen reached l'Anse Aux Meadows (Newfoundland) there was a tall, pale, white-haired fellow reported amongst the darker-skinned 'Skraelings'. If this could be verified, you know the Irish could claim the USA as their official colony (as opposed to unofficial, being as there already so many of them) - oops... That's letting the cat out of the bag! You're not from Irish stock, are you?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Alan, yes I am, although I'd have to go back five generations to find any actual Irish ancestors. But I'm not really bothered to be honest, after all we're all the same species. Personally I feel about as Irish as the potato haha!

      And yes you're right about the Native Americans, and they've only been there for 13,000 years, as opposed to the San bushmen in southern Africa who've probably lived in the area for more than 100,000 years.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Ultimately Spain lost out from its South American conquests. The effect of all the gold flowing into the country was a stagnation in the economy and the eventual decline of the country. They would have been better off if they had stayed at home. The Aztecs and the Incas would have been so as well.

      That's history for you. It rarely works out for the good.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Very true Chris, all empires are doomed to fail, the further they expand away from their capital the harder they become to govern. It happened with the Romans, the Spanish and the British. If any other empire ever rises, then the same will happen to that.

    • MikeSchultheiss profile image

      Michael Schultheiss 4 years ago from Eugene, OR

      On that note, and I realize I am late to the party here, but I simply have to recommend Peter Turchin's "War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires". It presents a very comprehensive and convincing theory about how frontier pressures and geographical extension lead to a loss of cohesion in large-scale empires.

      One of the things that Turchin talks about is how frontiers, notably imperial frontiers, can create opportunities as well as challenges for smaller-scale "barbarian" peoples living opposite them: the "barbarians" face imperial polities with vastly more capacity, which forces them to become better organized, and yet the empires are generally wealthier as well, which encourages the "barbarians" to trade and to raid.

      Now, if you want a great example of this with Spain's empire in the Americas, look no further than colonial New Mexico and the transformation of the Spanish borderlands in the 18th century! After the Spaniards reconquered New Mexico in the late 17th century (after losing it to the Pueblo Revolt in 1680), they were faced in the early 18th century with pressure from a number of mounted, semi-nomadic or nomadic tribes, including various Apaches, the Navajo, the Utes, and the Comanches. And if you read Hamalainen's "The Comanche Empire", it becomes apparent that the Comanches actually became the dominant group in the region at the expense of Spain and then Mexico!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow! That's some great literature there Mike. Definitely worth checking out. Thank you very much, really appreciate it.

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 4 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Interesting stuff, well presented hub. Just to add that there is also a documentary based on the book you suggest, Guns Germs and Steel.

      Here it is... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyRa5P6xVo8

      Voted up and shared.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Elias, yes I know I've seen it before- both book and documentary are very good and a must watch for any historian. Thanks for popping by.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 4 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Speaking of 'Guns Germs and Steel', and especially the 'germs', Columbus' Spanish followers managed to decimate the islanders in the Caribbean with the common cold, not to mention spreading the pox with a bit of 'how's your father' on the side (those nubile native girls might have looked alluring at first, but would soon have been riddled with sores; the same would have happened to their distant cousins on the mainland).

    • MikeSchultheiss profile image

      Michael Schultheiss 4 years ago from Eugene, OR

      Very true and very tragic, Alan. And when they ran out of Indian people to enslave, the Spanish started importing Africans--as early as 1510.

      Oh, I have to recommend 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. While I don't endorse all of his arguments, most of the material is quite good and very fascinating.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Very true Alan, that's how syphilis came to be so ripe in Europe, thanks to Columbus' randy sailors. Bridges, as they say work in both directions. While Europeans certainly imported a lot of terrible, nasty things we also received equally nasty things in return.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Interesting events to ponder. Thanks for opening the conversation! ;-)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem Bill. Glad you liked it.

    • profile image

      Conquest Studios 2 years ago

      WoW some great stuff in this thanks

    • profile image

      Spanish Proud 23 months ago

      English conquerors massacrated a lot of millions of natives more than the spanish, the evidence is that right now in Australia the original native people are less than the 10% of the population, and in Canada just on the same; even in USA, the original native people are an insignificant percent of the whole population of the country. On the contrary take a look to any of spanish old colonies, Mexico, Filipinas, Sahara, Guinea, all southamerica excepting Argentina, and you´ll make clear the most of the population is still from the original people before arriving the spanish...... By the other hand, the slavery with africans was created by Portugal and it was dued to the simple fact that in the Portugal´s colonies on Africa, it was a very extended costum among the africans from those territories, to sentence a guy to slavery, but when portuguish saw this they started to consider slaves all kind of african, no matter whether a guy was already a slave to other africans or not. The impact of this was just slavery with africans spreaded away all the colonial territories of Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and ENGLAND....., and this is the reason of taking place 3 centuries later the USA ´s Civil War, just because of the slavery stuff.... Anyway english, in History the most important empires acording to its power, duration and legacy for History are only The Roman Empire and The Spanish Empire (the evidence of what I´m saying is that the european culture is based on the roman culture, and that spanish language is currently the second native language most espoken in the world just after chinesse, and that the spanish religion, the Catholic Christianism, is the most extended religion over the world). So english I´m sorry but you´ll never beat the spanish in order to legacy in history..... Adios (that´s, bye bye :-D :-D :-D )

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