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Conquistadores: Spanish Conquests of South & Central America

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  • 0:02 Conquistadores
  • 1:20 Balboa in Panama
  • 2:10 Cort?s in Mexico
  • 3:42 Alvarado in Guatemala
  • 4:42 Pizarro in Peru
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the Spanish conquistadores who marched through the New World and helped to establish Spain's empire. We will focus especially on the conquistadores of South and Central America.

Who Were the Conquistadores?

For several centuries, Spain had been striving to free their country from the domination of the Muslim Moors. Finally, after a ten-year siege at Granada, Spain claimed victory in 1492, the same year Columbus landed in America. By this time, centuries of fighting had developed a class of military men who were obsessed with honor and status, zealous in their Catholic faith, and reluctant to settle down to a life of commercial or manual labor. When these men found themselves out of a job in Spain, they turned their attention to the New World, where they became known as the conquistadores.

The New World was the perfect place for the conquistadores to exercise their military prowess. There were vast regions to explore, gold and silver to discover, and natives to conquer and control. From about 1513 to 1540, the conquistadores and their armies swept across Central and South America leaving death, destruction, and slavery in their wake, but gaining a wealthy empire for Spain. Let's meet a few of the most famous conquistadores and see how they contributed to Spain's conquest of the American continents.

Balboa in Panama

Vasco Núñez de Balboa was born in 1475. His family was poor, and he received very little education. At age 15, Balboa traveled to the New World and farmed on the island of Hispaniola. He quickly moved up in the world, and in 1513, he led an expedition through the dense rainforests of Central America (modern Panama).

On September 27, Balboa became the first Spaniard to see the Pacific Ocean, which he promptly claimed for Spain. He also claimed a fortune in pearls, gold, and slaves as well as all the land touching the newly discovered ocean. Balboa's achievement didn't prevent him from making enemies, and the explorer was executed for treason in 1519.

Cortés in Mexico

Unlike Balboa, Hernando Cortés was born into a Spanish noble family in 1485 and received a good education. He journeyed to the New World in 1502 and served as a soldier, which would prove to be excellent training for his future exploits. In 1519, the Spanish governor sent Cortés to found a colony in Mexico, which was already occupied by the powerful Aztec people and governed by Montezuma II.

At first, Montezuma sent ambassadors and lavish gifts to Cortés. This turned out to be a big mistake, for it only intensified the conquistador's longing for Aztec gold. Montezuma welcomed the Spanish into his capital city of Tenochtilán, but Cortés soon wore out his welcome. On June 30, 1520, the fed-up Aztecs attacked the greedy Spaniards and forced them out of the city. Cortés retreated to regroup but returned later and lay siege to the city, which fell on August 13, 1521.

The Spanish slaughtered thousands of Aztecs, and Cortés stepped into the role of governor of New Spain, as Mexico was now called. Like Balboa, Cortés made enemies in high places. They envied the conquistador's power and spread nasty rumors about him. After losing the king's trust, Cortés was recalled to Spain, where he died at his home in 1547.

Alvarado in Guatemala

Pedro de Alvarado was one of Cortés' right-hand men. Born about 1485 to a family of minor nobility, Alvarado arrived in the New World about 1510, participated in Cortés' campaign against the Aztecs, and rose to the rank of mayor of Tenochtilán. Soon, however, Alvarado turned his attention to the south.

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