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The Conquistadores - History

The Conquistadores - History

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The Spanish were hard pressed to finance the exploration and colonization of the New World. Their solution to use Conquistadores or conquerors to explore and exploit the new world. The Conquistadores were given permission to settle territory and establish settlements. In return they had to send one fifth of any gold or silver back to Spain. The Conquistadores had to finance their own expeditions. If the expeditions failed then they could lose everything. While many of the Conquistadores undertook their voyages for the money, some did it from religious convictions and the opportunity to convert "heathen"s to Christianity. Spain was content for a many years to maintain this system; it allowed Spanish control over the New World to grow and the Spanish treasury to become swollen with gold and silver.

Contested Legacy of the Conquistadors

If we are to better understand the actions of men such as Hernán Cortés, we must place them in the context of a medieval world view that predated the nation state.

In the autumn of 1520 Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, was busy asserting control over a strategic region of central Mexico dominated by a mountain-top fortress. He had recently captured it with the help of thousands of indigenous allies, after suffering a humiliating defeat in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Cortés had reached the city a year before, in November 1519, and had been cautiously welcomed by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma. Relations were cordial for a while, even after Cortés had taken the bold decision to imprison the emperor. Things fell apart when the conquistador’s impetuous friend Pedro de Alvarado gave the order to massacre the Aztec nobility during a ceremony that took place while Cortés was on the Gulf coast dealing with a potential rival.

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Romance of the Conquistadors

We cannot always admire Spain's glory-hunters, but we really should remember them.

Christopher Columbus stands surrounded by traffic at the corner of Central Park, dwarfed by the beetling buildings of Broadway and Eighth. Yet his statue still draws eyes and imaginations, an emblem of all the Americas—Italian trailblazer for the “New Spanish,” carrying their colors and qualities in cargo, and even now arousing deep emotions. Driving distances from New York are measured from Columbus Circle, the first cowboys were gauchos , and the dollar sign is derived partly from the twin pillars of the Spanish gold real .

In this time of the overthrow of icons, it is pleasing to find a major publisher producing a nuanced new study of one of the stock villains of progressive historians. The conquistadors have not (yet) attracted the obtusest attentions of iconoclasts, but they are conventionally portrayed as uber-exploiters, unleashing ecological disaster, genocide, and slavery—a view conveyed by the title of Ronald Wright’s 1992 bestseller, Stolen Continents . Cervantes absolves these casqued pantomime villains of unfair accusations and contextualizes some actual crimes.

While acknowledging the devastating effects of European expansion, he has personal as well as scholarly reasons to rue “the complete absence of any counterbalancing viewpoint.” He is touchingly proud of being a Cervantes, descended from Don Quixote ’s author, a name which recurs in Iberian accounts since even before the Reconquista set the conquistadors’ swaggering template.

He offers essential insights into intra-Catholic intellectual currents often overlooked by Protestant or post-Protestant chroniclers. Quixotically, he also defends the Inquisition. Twelfth-century chiliasts influenced the Franciscan conception of Spain’s king as the “last world emperor” in the 15th century, destined to bring the orb under Christ’s kingship. Those could have been Catholic end-times—the Turks had taken Constantinople, and were surging northwards and west, and the Reformation was roiling Christendom from within.

Chronic bullion shortages impelled searches for new sources, especially after the Ottomans closed off the east. Tantalizing travelogues like those of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, and chivalric romances like Joanot Martorell’s Tirant lo Blanc and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso , were hugely popular. The Portuguese were an example, their caravels creeping inexorably towards India via the Congo and the Cape. Ocean roads lay enticingly open west of Finisterre, leading to lands of gold and legend (and Asia, as they thought)—maybe even the retaking of Jerusalem. To ardent spirits, whether fervent friars or the unsentimental sons of cash-strapped caballeros , Spain seemed suddenly small.

There were fewer than 1,000 conquistadors, chiefly hidalgos from Andalusia and Extremadura. They were experienced soldiers accustomed to winning wealth by war—simultaneously intensely legalistic and with a capacity for childlike wonder—and touchily obsessed with honor and personal liberty. Assuming these prickly provincials survived what Oviedo called the “sepulchre of the open sea,” they found themselves on the edge of an exotic immensity teeming with technicolor terrors—and innumerable “Indians,” from Arawaks to Zapotecs, whose architecture and arts amazed. They were aided greatly by arquebuses, steel swords, and that inadvertent, ignoble ally, smallpox. Horses and dogs helped too—conquistadors looked like centaurs to marveling Mesoamericans, while Ponce de León’s dog was namechecked by Herrera for having “made wonderful havock” among Puerto Ricans.

There is a longstanding “Black Legend” of Spanish empire-builders as uniquely cruel and obscurantist. But Drake admired “The Dons,” even as he torched their towns and chased their treasure ships. Much later, Macaulay noted approvingly that “Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa.” Some Americans were open to a Hispanic Manifest Destiny, W. H. Prescott noting in Conquest of Mexico “the peculiar circumstances of its Conquest, adventurous and romantic as any legend devised by Norman or Italian bard of chivalry.” In 1947, the liberal Spaniard Salvador de Madariaga rhapsodised,

The conquistador is safe in his epic greatness…Above all, they had style—that style which…shows itself in the actions of a Cortés as clearly as in the play of a Shakespeare or in the symphonies of a Beethoven.

“Style” is certainly superabundant, along with bombast, bravery, and murderous mayhem worthy of any medieval romance. Cortés ran his ships aground so there was no way back except through Tenochtitlan. The impulsive redhead Alvarado (nicknamed Tonatiuh after the sun-god) massacred hundreds of religious dancers, precipitating 1520’s “Night of Sorrows” when hundreds of Spanish died. Cortés wept for them but rallied the survivors with a superb “Onwards, for we lack nothing!,” and retook the city the following year. The Aztec defender of Tenochtitlan launched an invincible quetzal-owl warrior as a desperate last ploy—a dyer by trade, who “vanished after dropping from a roof terrace.” Pizarro drew a line in the sand, asking only those to cross it who preferred glory, honor, and gold to ignominious retreat to Panama (only 13 did cross, later mythologized as “The Famous Thirteen”). The Jiménez and Federmann Colombian expeditionaries sank to eating leather and “mangy crippled dogs,” eventually staggering into Bogotá “befuddled and decimated, ill and naked, wearing nothing but makeshift deerskins.” Rich Don Antonio Osorio was reduced to trudging shoeless through Alabaman snow in 1540, wearing only torn blankets, and bearing a scabbard-less sword.

Not content with native adversaries, the Spanish fought enthusiastically among themselves. Cortés was imprisoned twice by the governor of Cuba, and escaped, later turning up at the governor’s house with a crossbow. Balboa was executed. Pizarro was murdered by friends of Almagro (whom Pizarro’s brothers had garroted), knifed repeatedly and finally bashed to death with a water jar, slipping in blood and making the sign of the cross as an assassin shouted “You can go to Hell to make your confession!”

These cultured thugs founded unimaginative towns along Castilian lines, with gridiron streets, a church, town hall, prison and Plaza Mayor —but hearkened hungrily to legends like El Dorado , the great chief dusted with gold each morning which was rinsed away each evening, who lived just over the next horizon. They rationalized dubious deeds with legal ones, like the Requiremento read to newly-encountered tribes, informing them that if they did not submit “we shall make war against you in all ways and manners,” and that any deaths would be “your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours.” Cervantes defends even this ingenious instrument, and stresses the many attempts made to mitigate excesses and grant the natives rights, based on Castilian and Habsburg legal and political traditions, as well as Christian scruples. It was hard for the Crown to impose its will when it took eight months to get a message from old Spain to New, so there grew up a flexible patchwork of viceroyalties, captain-generalships, audiencias and governorships, which allowed abuses, yet may explain why the system survived three centuries.

The Spanish used terror as a tactic, but sometimes it was a vent for anger or fear. At yet other times they showed sympathy for native sufferings. If they could be cruel, so could the locals, and the Spanish always found eager allies. Cervantes gives unusual weight to these allies’ military contributions. He also casts doubt on the stereotypical view of Moctezuma as being stricken by superstitious fear of black-armored, pale strangers arriving from the ominous east in the ill-omened year of I-Reed. The lavishness of his gifts to the Europeans was no demonstration of fatalistic dread, but a rational attempt to buy off dangerous invaders.

Cervantes contextualizes Christian critiques of conquistador activities, notably Bartolomé de Las Casas’ still often-cited A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies . The first official “Protector of the Indians” had a “tendency to embellishment,” profited personally from native gold-miners, and advocated importing Africans to replace the tragically pox-prone Taínos.

The author also addresses post-colonial critiques of Christianity. If the Church often erred, was it really worse than tearing out living hearts on reeking altars before casting them down the gore-stained sides of pyramids? What were pious friars to make of Aztec equivalents with dirty robes, necklaces of teeth, long fingernails, and long hair clotted with human blood—or locals who regarded the devil as just another deity? Some strove to align New World cosmology with Biblical teachings, but “noble savages” and “natural religion” were hard to reconcile with realities. There were zealous inquisitors, but other monks protected the natives, and won them to Christianity by persuasion and co-option of customs, as evidenced in today’s Día de los Muertos .

Always ambiguous, old Spain proved ultimately ungrateful. Newly wealthy returning New Worlders were sneered at as vulgar peruleros . Ill-equipped for quiet lives and despising the coming world of commerce, aging conquistadors kept up late-medieval resentments, made bad investments, and walked away from comforts on new chimerical quests. Cortés was socially snubbed, and died embittered. Alvarado was crushed by his own horse while suppressing a revolt. Jiménez died in debt Federmann passed away in prison at just 37 Benalcázar was sentenced to death.

Yet another Cervantes told Philip II that the conquistadors were “impoverished, humiliated, out of favor and ostracized,” while Bernal Díaz bemoaned in old age that only he and five others were still alive, and they were all poor. It seems a shabby end for glory-hunters, a bad return for gold-hungry grandees, but who else in history has had such adventures or amassed such cultural capital? We cannot always admire them, but we really should remember.

Derek Turner is author of the novels A Modern Journey , Displacement , and Sea Changes , and reviews for journals including The Spectator , Country Life , Irish Times, and Quadrant .

Cortés 𠆍iscovers’ Mexico

Cortés and his crew reached Mexico in February of 1519. They dropped anchor at Tabasco, where he gained intelligence from locals about the land he desired to conquer. They also gave him gifts in the form of 20 women. One of them, Marina, became his interpreter and they had a son, Martín, together.

Cortés landed in Veracruz next, where his men elected him chief justice. According to some accounts, he sunk all but one of his ships before sending the intact one back to Spain. There would be no retreat for his men, only conquest.

Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado

As Coronado was returning to Mexico, another Spanish expedition stumbled into present-day Texas.

Hernando De Soto and his men set out from Florida in search of large cities and abundant treasure, but the expedition found neither of these things. In the Spring of 1542, right in the midst of his explorations, De Soto fell ill and died, leaving Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado in charge of the expedition. After burying De Soto on the Mississippi River, Moscoso and his men abandoned the search for riches and decided to head west to Mexico. They marched into Ais and Caddo territory in present-day East Texas where the Spanish soldiers attacked Caddo towns and stole the American Indians&rsquo food stores to feed themselves. One Caddo cacique, or chief, ordered his men to guide the Spaniards into another, less well-stocked band&rsquos territory. When Moscoso discovered the trick, he had the guides hanged, and then turned back for the Mississippi River soon after.There they built several small boats, sailed down the Mississippi River, and followed the Gulf Coast to Mexico. Upon reaching Mexico in September 1542, Moscoso reported the expedition&rsquos failure to locate any of the large, wealthy cities De Soto sought. His account, combined with Coronado&rsquos failure to locate any of the supposed cities of gold, reinforced Spain&rsquos decision not to further explore the northern frontier.

Who Were the Spanish Conquistadors?

Spain was once an immensely powerful empire with interests in the New World. The Spanish conquistadors were mainly explorers and soldiers.

In the 1500s Spain was at the height of its glory. Gold and silver poured in from its colonies and Spain was the most powerful state in Europe. This era of Spanish history was as grand as the adventures of ancient Greeks and Romans, and the conquistadors were at the heart of Spain’s success. The word ‘conquistador’ means conqueror, and that’s what these men did in what is today the southern United States, Mexico, Central and South America.

The voyages of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan’s successful circumnavigation of the globe from 1519–22 whetted the imperialist appetite of the Spaniards, who wanted to get a piece of the lucrative spice trade from Asia. Being a conquistador was dangerous, but the possibilities for wealth seemed endless.

How the Conquistadors Began Their Voyages

The Spanish conquistadors laid the groundwork for the expansion of European colonization, and changed the course of history. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas had split the world into two spheres of influence. The route east of the Cape of Good Hope was reserved for Portugal, while newly discovered lands to the west across the Atlantic were for Spain (with the exception of Brazil which was under Portuguese control).

Christopher Columbus never reached Cathay (China), Japan or India, but he did make it to the major islands in the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Cuba. These places didn’t have the exotic spices coveted by Europeans, but the conquistadors who followed Columbus in the next few years found a world unknown to the rest of Spain. It was full of other treasures, and ripe for the picking.

What Motivated the Conquistadors to Leave Spain?

The conquistadors left Spain for three reasons. They were looking for gold, land, and souls to convert to Christianity. The Spanish certainly had enough experience with staging conquests after the Reconquista, the centuries-long but successful retaking of the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic Moors. They had the necessary tools to travel across the Atlantic and lots of desire to expand Spanish rule. Many conquistadors felt it was the only chance to succeed economically if they went to the New World.

What the Conquistadors Brought to the New World

They brought sophisticated weapons, at least by sixteenth century standards. The Spanish made fine swords and armor. They brought Catholicism, a religion the Indians didn’t understand. The conquistadors also brought something far more perilous than any man-made weapon.

How did the Spanish overwhelm their enemies? One critical factor was disease. Smallpox was a huge killer and the Indians had no protection from influenza, typhus or measles. These invisible microbes sickened and then killed millions of people. Most of the conquistadors were immune to these illnesses, and unknowingly carried them. This made them seem superhuman, and to the Indians they weren’t men at all but gods.

Notable Conquistadors

In one of the most pivotal moments in human history, Hernán Cortés met Montezuma, the supreme ruler of the Aztecs, in 1519. Not long after this famous encounter between two men of very different worlds, the Aztec Empire was brought to its knees. Francisco Pizarro followed a similar path to that of Hernán Cortés, and changed the face of South America when he conquered the Incas. Juan Ponce de León was credited as the first European to set foot in Florida. He is primarily remembered for his search for the Fountain of Youth.

The Legacy of the Conquistadors

The majority of conquistadors weren’t kind or generous. They used a combination of ruthless ambition, religious piety and political disunity within native tribes to achieve their goals. Since they were so far from Spain, they did what they liked. Pánfilo de Narváez, Pedro de Alvarado, and Hernando de Soto developed reputations for extreme cruelty while they searched for riches. The military prowess of the conquistadors was impressive, but their legacy remains dark.

God, Glory and Gold – The Motivation of the Spanish Conquistadors

What motivated the Spanish Conquistadors is often neatly broken down into three basic factors: God, glory and gold. While it is hard to fault this concept it is nonetheless a hugely simplistic point of view. Each Conquistador had his own reasons for travelling to an unknown and hostile land few were forced to go and each soldier was motivated by his own personal goals.

By looking at the Hernan Cortés expedition, as will be done here, the concept of God, glory and gold can both be supported and expanded upon. The few hundred brave men who went with Cortés into the heartlands of the Aztec Empire were by no means uniform in their goals or ideals. While most were motivated by God, glory and gold to some extent, the influence of each one varied depending upon the individual.

Personal Wealth and the Quest for Aztec Gold

That the Conquistadors were in search of personal wealth is undeniable. The quest for Aztec gold was at the forefront of the Cortés expedition and the reason why many soldiers willingly joined the campaign. If gold did not come their way then silver, textiles, jewelry and other treasures were never far from reach. Bernal Diaz, Conquistador and later chronicler of the expedition, frequently details the gifts (of varying value) offered to his party in The Conquest of New Spain.

Potential personal wealth also resided in the possibility of claiming land. While some of the upper ranks in the expedition, Cortés included, were already landowners in New Spain or back in their homeland, others were landless soldiers with much to gain and very little to lose. Settling in a Spanish-controlled New World as a landowner offered its own distinct benefits.

The Conquistadors, Religion & the Spread of the Catholic Faith

The Cortés expedition went to great lengths to establish the Catholic faith in the lands through which they passed. At times, in contrast to the otherwise careful handling of the native population by Cortés, the destruction of native religious idols was carried out in order to promote the Catholic faith. Crosses were also erected in potentially hostile territory and sermons and teachings were given to the local populace by way of translator.

The Cortés expedition, however, was largely a military undertaking. It can be argued that religious motives were largely a pretext for the actual purpose of the campaign, the quest for Aztec gold. In order to maintain the support of both the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, the cunning Cortés would have felt the need to give the expedition a religious angle.

That said, the Conquistadors were highly religious men who bore witness to sacrifices, cannibalism, idolatry and acts of sodomy throughout their journey through the New World. Bernal Diaz makes it quite clear that his companions were horrified by much of what they saw. That Cortés and his men may have felt compelled to promote their own faith in light of native religious practices is not beyond reason.

The Conquest of New Spain in the Name of the King

Cortés certainly paid heed to his King but he took his own advice more than that of any other man, certainly while in the New World. He often consulted with the senior members of his expedition but he was, by and large, a man under his own command. Cortés’ early years seem to reflect this independent streak, a character trait that was to grow as the man matured.

However, Cortés always portrayed himself as the envoy of his King, particularly when dealing with Montezuma. The royal fifth (the portion of booty to be given to the crown) may have been a little light on occasion, but Cortés and his Conquistadors had little reason to be overtly disloyal to Spain.

The Conquistadors, Glory & Honor

Warfare has long been associated with concepts such as “glory” and “honor”. It is doubtful whether any Conquistador could be seen as driven principally by a desire for glory, although glory can be seen as a driving force behind the Cortés expedition. Whatever charges can be raised against the conduct of the Conquistadors, their bravery cannot be questioned.

Historian Irving Albert Leonard highlights this Spanish notion of glory: “This Spanish preoccupation with the abstract quality of Glory, which was closely identified with military distinction, probably crystallized during the more than seven centuries of intermittent warfare against the Moors”. If glory itself was a motivating factor for the Spanish Conquistadors, it would certainly help to explain their numerous acts of almost foolhardy bravery.

History of the Conquistador

Spain became richer and richer as wealth flowed like water from the newly found Americas. The ruthless Conquistadors were hated by the people for cruelty, greed as well as barbarity. However, the audacity and courage with which they brought the major empires under their control was unbelievable.

While Pedro de Alvarado and Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire, Francisco Pizarro was successful in conquering the Incan Empire.

The Conquistadores were not the officially organized military forces. They entered into warfare more on their own accord and had to organize horses, material supplies and weapons on their own. The rapid Spanish conquest and subsequent formation of colonies in the New World resulted in many civilians dying out of various diseases like measles, chicken pox and small pox for which they did not have any natural defenses. People died of illness more than enemy attacks.

A large number of people expired due to smallpox by the time the Spanish conquistadores invaded the Incan empire. The folk healers of those times tried their best to relieve the pain faced by the people but were not very successful. Around 1540, when the Conquistadors invaded what is called as New Mexico today, complaints of new diseases cropping up and leading to high fatality rates were on the rise.

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4 Rodrigo de Bastidas

Rodrigo de Bastidas was known as &ldquoSpain&rsquos best and noblest conquistador&rdquo for his selfless actions and generally humane treatment of the indigenous Americans. Unlike most of the conquistadors, Bastidas was well educated and more of a businessman than a soldier. In June 1500, Bastidas set off on an expedition, financed entirely with his own money, to explore unknown parts of the New World. The Spanish king agreed that Bastidas could keep whatever valuables he found as long as he gave the king 25 percent of the net profits.

Bastidas&rsquos voyage resulted in the discovery of Panama, and the crew collected hordes of gold and pearls along the way. In early 1502, however, both of his ships sunk off the coast of Haiti. Although his men weren&rsquot able to save all of the cargo in time, they did rescue the gold and pearls. The native slaves onboard, unable to escape because they were wrapped in chains, drowned when the ships sank.

The conquistadors then made their way to Santo Domingo (the modern capital of the Dominican Republic). Once there, Bastidas was arrested for breaking the terms of his license, which only granted him the right to trade with the natives in the areas he personally discovered.

After he was taken back to Spain, the charges were dropped, and Bastidas was given royal honors, including the title of governor. He took his family to go live in the New World, settling in Santo Domingo as a cattle rancher. In 1524, he set up the city of Santa Marta, the first European settlement in Colombia. While he and his men were surveying the region, they found a village called Tarbo.

Bastidas wanted good relations with the natives, so he refused to let the colonists take any gold. The chief of Tarbo gave Bastidas about 600 pesos worth of gold, which he spent on the colony instead of distributing to his men.

Growing tired of Bastida&rsquos demands to treat the natives well, over 50 of his men conspired to murder him. They broke into his house one night and tried to stab him to death. Although he initially survived the attack, Spain&rsquos most generous conquistador succumbed shortly afterward to his wounds. All of the conspirators were eventually executed.

Spanish Conquistadors: Motives

The motives of the conquistadors were diverse, but mainly concentrated on 3 reasons

  • The first and primary reason was wealth and power. They did not care too much for the people who were poor and those who gained the most fame were not what one would consider missionaries. Cortes conquered the Aztecs and in doing so secured himself a fortune. Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas and in doing so became wealthy.
  • The second reason was to spread Christianity. At this point in Spanish history most of the people claimed to be Catholic and were zealous. They believed it was their duty to bring Christianity to pagans. Unfortunately, they did so in such a cruel way that it did not echo the message of Christ. If the pagans did not give in they were brutally destroyed. While it was not Spain&rsquos intent to oppress the pagans the conquistadors acted in ways that they believed were best. The lack of accountability meant that the many people were driven from their homes and lost their culture, religion and families.
  • Thirdly was economic reasons. The Spanish Main became a place of trade and made Spain an economic powerhouse.

Each of these reasons would result in the building of a Spanish Empire.

1. The Great Lady

In the heat of battle, a wearied Aztec fighter looked up to see a vision of the Virgin Mary. But this was no heavenly creature: it was a ruthless female conquistador. Maria de Estrada was one of the few women who traveled as a conquistador to the New World. Nicknamed the Great Lady, she fought alongside her husband in every battle including the epic La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sadness”) when the conquistadors’ retreated from the Aztec capital in 1520. She was likely the first white woman in the Americas.


Watch the video: BBC Conquistadors 2of4 The Conquest of the Incas Full Documentary Films (August 2022).