Conquistadors

When men in Spain heard that there was a New World full of treasures ripe for taking, they excitedly traveled to the Americas. They were called conquistadors, and their story was not of glory, adventure, and heroism, but colonization, enslavement, and genocide. Let's explore the famous Spanish conquistadors and separate fact from fiction!

Conquistadors Conquistadors

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    16th Century Conquistadors

    During the 16th century, many conquistadors sailed to the Americas. They would go to different parts of the Americas and attempt to defeat the indigenous people. The conquistadors did all of this for Gold, Glory, and God, as they said. They wanted the riches that North America had to offer, the fame of defeating an empire, and the blessing of spreading Christianity to the New World.

    Conquistador: Definition

    Conquistadors were a historical figure that emerged from the Age of Discovery as the colonization of America by Europeans started. It refers to people from different backgrounds, originally with ties to the Spanish Crown but not exclusively, who led military incursions with the purpose of subduing the indigenous peoples of the New Continent and other regions, like Africa, Asia and Oceania, and benefit from their exploits by treasures, land, and titles.

    The term comes from the Spanish conquistador, meaning "conqueror." This etymology denotes their original purpose, however, many of them tried their luck as governors and administrators.

    Famous Spanish Conquistadors

    When thinking of conquistadors, two had the most significant impact on the New World: Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro. Cortes defeated the Aztecs and Pizarro the Incas. Let's take a closer look at these two men.

    Hernán Cortés

    Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519 with the plan to establish New Spain. The only issue was that Mexico already had an empire, the Aztecs. The Aztecs were not happy with Cortés' arrival, there is a myth that they thought the Spaniards were gods, but this is untrue. King Montezuma II understood that the conquistadors had superior weapons and tried to avoid confrontation.

    Conquistadors, Hernan Cortes, StudySmarterFig 1: Portrait of Hernán Cortés

    Montezuma sent gifts of gold to Cortés. The Aztec way of saying, "I see that you are here now go away." Cortés saw the gold and wanted more. With the help of Malitzin (also known to the Spanish as La Malinche or Doña Marina, her Catholic name), Cortés made his way to the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Cortés gave Montezuma gifts and then captured him.

    Who was Doña Marina?

    Doña Marina was the daughter of two Caciques, lord or lady, of Paynala (an Aztec town). When her father died, her mother remarried and had a son. Her step-father and mother sold her to a different indigenous group and faked her death so that their son could become Caciques. Marina was eventually gifted to Cortés, who saw potential in her. Marina was able to translate for Cortés, find him allies in tribes who disliked the Aztecs and teach him the customs of the Aztecs. Some historians call her a traitor, but it was her people who betrayed her first.

    Cortés forced Montezuma to pledge loyalty to the Spanish king and become a figurehead. Eventually, Cortés had to leave Tenochtitlan. He placed his officer Pedro de Alvarado in charge before he left. During a religious ceremony, Alvarado and his men slaughtered several Aztec warriors taking part in the rituals.

    Figurehead:

    A ruler with no real political power.

    When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan in 1520, it was in an uproar. Montezuma was killed during a faceoff between the conquistadors and the Aztecs. Cortés and his men barely managed to escape the city. Doña Marina helped Cortés ally himself with the Aztec's enemies. In 1521 they returned and laid siege to the city for 93 days.

    Siege:

    A siege involves a military action to prevent a city from receiving supplies, aid, or fleeing the sieged site.

    Conquistadors, Tenochtitlan, StudySmarterFig 2: Tenochtitlan

    The Spanish did not realize it, but the Aztecs were dying inside the city. The conquistadors had given them smallpox. With the population inside the capital sick and starving, Cortes defeated the Aztecs and then renamed the territory New Spain, thus marking an end to the greatest empire in North America.

    Francisco Pizarro

    Before Francisco Pizarro arrived in Incan territory, smallpox had already had its toll on the indigenous population. The Incan emperor, Huayna Capac, died of smallpox. He had named his son Ninan Cuyuchi heir. Unfortunately, Ninan Cuyuchi died shortly after. The Incas entered a civil war, with Atahualpa becoming emperor in 1532. The following year, Pizarro began his attack on the Incan empire.

    Pizarro took a page from Cortés's book and planned to meet with Atahualpa in the city of Cusco. Atahualpa was captured, and the nobles who attended the meeting were killed. The emperor offered to trade an entire room filled with gold and silver for his freedom. It took several months, but the Incans delivered the ransom.

    Conquistadors, Francisco Pizarro, StudySmarterFig 3: Francisco Pizarro

    Once the invaders received the ransom, Pizarro would have Atahualpa burned at the stake as a heretic. The conquistadors told Atahualpa that they would not burn him if he converted to Christianity. The emperor agreed and became a Christian.

    Many historians believe he only did this so that he could buy time to rebel against the Spaniards and take back his kingdom. His intentions were unknown because the conquistadors strangled him to death after he converted. The last Incan emperor died in 1533.

    The Spaniards were chased from the city and had to wait for reinforcements before continuing. Diego de Almara joined Pizarro to conquer the Incas. De Almara decided he did not need Pizarro and the Spanish soldiers began to fight each other. Almara was killed in 1538 and Pizarro in 1541. The last Incan emperor, Túpac Amaru, was executed in 1545 by the viceroy of Peru, Francisco de Toledo.

    Viceroy:

    A person who rules a colony on behalf of his king/queen.

    Spanish Conquistador Atrocities

    More significantly, with the genocide of the Incas and Aztecs, the world lost much of its past. The population was decimated, and those who survived became dispossessed on their own land. Conquistadors destroyed most of their cities, books, architecture, and way of living as the Europeans wanted to erase all non-Christian imprints of their societies, which practically was their entire culture. They were forced to convert to Catholicism, and their original language faded away. The Conquistadors destroyed these civilizations for Gold, Glory, and God.

    When Pizarro killed Atahualpa, he melted down the Cusco gold and took it. Not only did he steal the gold, but he destroyed the craftmanship of the Incas as he did not see value in it.

    Even the arrival of Spaniards in the New World was terrible for the indigenous people. The Spaniards carried diseases they were immune to, but the native population was not. These diseases devastated populations of indigenous people.

    We have testimonies by the conquistadors themselves as well as by missionary friers, like Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas advocated for the rights of indigenous people; at the same time, he believed forced labor should be imposed on the population of African descent.

    Conquistadors,  Bartolomé de las Casas, StudySmarterFig 4: Bartolomé de las Casas

    Casas wrote that the Spaniards were particularly cruel to indigenous people. They were mutilated, raped, and murdered almost without consequences. If an indigenous person killed one Spaniard, then one hundred indigenous people would be brutally murdered. If the indigenous people ran away or hid, then the Spanish would hunt them down with man-killing dogs. These are only some of the horrors suffered by the indigenous people.

    Black Conquistadors

    The Spaniards gave some enslaved Africans a choice: join us or remain enslaved. These men were made into soldiers. Seldom enslaved people become conquistadors. Nonetheless, articipating in the subduing of indigenous people earned the black men their freedom. Few African men refused the offer and were able to escape and join rural communities or become pirates. Let's look at two famous black conquistadors.

    Juan Garrido

    Juan Garrido is the most famous of the black conquistadors. Garrido was a member of the group of conquistadors that captured Puerta Rico and Cuba. Later, he would join Cortés in the capture of Tenochtitlan. Garrido would join several other expeditions and be awarded a pension, land, and lucrative job positions. He even joined Cortés on an expedition to California.

    Conquistadors, Aztec warriors and Spanish conquistadors, StudySmarterFig 5: Conquistadors Retreat from the Aztecs

    Juan Valiente

    On the first half of the 15th century, Juan Valiente–an enslaved person bought by Alonso Valiente, a Spaniard–wanted to be a conquistador, so he arranged with Alonso. Juan could be a conquistador if he sent all of his earnings to Alonso. Juan had to carry the notarized agreement at all times, or he would have been arrested as a runaway.

    Encomienda:

    A grant from the Spanish government allowed someone in America to claim a group of Native Americans as their own and force that group to pay them.

    After four years, Alonso tried to contact Juan for payment. Juan had an encomienda, his land, and a wife. He refuse to give it all away to Alonso. Juan attempted to buy his freedom from a Spanish officer, but the officer took his money and ran. Before Juan could try again, he was killed in a battle.

    Conquistadors - Key takeaways

    • Conquistadors were exploring for Gold, Glory, and God.
    • The most prominent of conquistadors were Cortés and Pizarro:
      • Hernán Cortés defeated the Aztecs.
      • Francisco Pizarro defeated the Incas.
    • The conquistadors committed atrocities to subdue indigenous people.
    • Black conquistadors were often freed slaves.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Conquistadors

    How did the conquistadors defeat the Aztecs? 

    The conquistadors defeated the Aztecs by seizing the city of Tenochtitlan while the people within died of diseases contracted from the Spaniards. 

    Who were the conquistadors? 

    Conquistadors were men deployed by Spain to the New World to conquer, find riches, and spread Christianity. 

    When did conquistadors come to America? 

    Conquistadors began going to America shortly after Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Caribbean islands in 1492. 

    When did the Spanish conquistadors arrive in the Americas? 

    Conquistadors began going to America shortly after Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Caribbean islands in 1492. 

    What did the conquistadors do to the natives? 

    The conquistadors committed horrible atrocities against the natives including but not limited to enslavement, mutilation, and genocide.

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