This lesson will discuss the conquistadors of the New World. It will highlight Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro. It will also explain the encomienda system and its impact on the native populations.
Background of the Conquistadors
History has given us several characters whose names are synonymous with power, military conquest, and even brutality. Just to name a few, there's Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and the infamous Napoleon. Today's lesson, although about a group of people, introduces us to another example, the Spanish conquistador.
To begin, the Spanish word conquistador means conqueror. In order to understand the conquistadors of Spain, we have to take a small step back into Spanish history. At the end of the 15th century, Spain was finally successful in ridding the Iberian peninsula of Muslim rule.
This victory came at the end of nearly 800 years of fighting, and was named the Spanish Reconquista. Once the Reconquista was complete, and there were no more infidels to fight, Catholic Spain needed somewhere else to purify. Soon, she set her sights on converting the inhabitants of the New World to her precious faith, and for this task, she sent many of the warriors of the Reconquista. Oddly, the explorers sent to do her bidding are not known to history as missionaries or even evangelists. Instead, history gives them the name conquistador or conqueror. This alone tells us a whole bunch about their dealings with the new world.
As we discuss these dealings, we'll highlight Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, arguably the two most famous conquistadors of Spain. We'll also discuss the encomienda system, a doctrine of sorts that Spain enacted over the Americas they ravaged.
Let's get the ball rolling with Hernan Cortes. Known in most history books as simply Cortes, this conquistador was born into a noble family. He was a charismatic leader who quickly climbed the ranks of the Spanish military. Upon the request of some higher ups, Cortes was chosen to lead an expedition into Mexico. His mission was to establish a Spanish colony in mainland Mexico. Although only accompanied by 600 men, Cortes quickly conquered the area of Tobasco and founded the town of La Villa Reca de la Vera Cruz.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cortes took great interest in the social customs and traditions of the locals he encountered. One such custom was the practice of polytheism or the belief in many gods. According to Aztec tradition, one of these gods would one day return to the earth. Oddly, this god was to be of light skin, with light eyes and red hair. In other words, they were looking for a god who looked European. Many historians believe this may be why the Aztec people were originally accepting of Cortes. They thought he was a god, and this really worked in Cortes' favor. On a side note, if Cortes was so interested in spreading Catholicism, don't you think he would have cleared up the whole mistaken-identity-deity-thing? Hmmmm.
By 1519, Cortes attacked the city of Tenochtitlan, taking the Aztec leader, Montezuma, captive. All pretenses of evangelism and friendship vanished as each side traded victories. Although the conquistador and his men were greatly outnumbered, they had one secret weapon. They carried the advantage of germs and diseases, which the natives had no immunity towards. In the end, the Aztec people succumbed to Cortes, his men, and his diseases, like measles and small pox. In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was captured and destroyed. In its place, the Spaniards built Mexico City. As the Aztecs' capital was buried, so was their ancient culture and civilization.
Similar to Cortes, Francisco Pizarro did his part to ravage and pillage for Spain. Unlike Cortes, Pizarro was not of noble birth, a fact that makes his success as a military leader very rare, if not also admirable. Despite his lack of formal training or a rich dad to pave his way, Pizarro is thought to be one of the most brilliant military strategists of his time, participating in expeditions all over South and Central America.
Pizarro was the embodiment of everything conquistador. By the 1520s, he had received the title of Governor and Captain General. These positions of esteem gave him complete authority over the regions he explored and conquered for Spain. Although these titles brought real prestige, the thing which gained Pizarro his place in history was his journey into the area of Peru and the Incan Empire.
Just like the Aztecs, the poor Incans mistook the invading Pizarro for a deity. Taking advantage of the Incans trust, Pizarro captured the Incan ruler, Atahualpa, and held him for ransom. After the Incans coughed up the ransom, Pizarro executed, rather than returned, their ruler. (I'm guessing, just guessing, Pizarro skipped over the 'Thou shall not lie' part of the Bible in his morning reading that day!) However, by the time the Incans came to their senses, things had gone from bad to worse. Along with a veritable smorgasbord of diseases, Pizarro also had firearms on his side. The conquistador also rallied the Incans' native enemies to join him in the fight.
After rounds of battle, the Incan people finally succumbed to Pizarro. The conquistador's men, firearms, and diseases finally brought this ancient people to their knees in the year 1532.
The Encomienda System
After going over Cortes' and Pizarro's dealings with the native inhabitants of the New World, you'll probably not be surprised when I tell you the survivors the conquistadors left behind didn't fare all that well. The Spaniards continued to exploit the native survivors, using them as abused workers in service of the Spanish throne and their own pocket books.
The general attitude of the conquistadors toward the natives was one of disdain. Seeing the native inhabitants as savage and pagan, the Spanish government enacted the encomienda system in the New World. Within this system, the Spanish crown gave a person, usually an explorer or a conquistador, natives to care for and almost own. Ironically, the encomienda system was not a grant of land, but a grant of people. However, the conquistadors also helped themselves to the land.
Theoretically, this whole thing was to protect the natives from other tribes and to teach them the Catholic faith. Since the basis of this system was formed from religious motives, its primary purpose was to indoctrinate these lost pagans into the Catholic faith of Mother Spain. However, we need to remember that men like Pizarro took total authority over the lands they conquered. Although the encomienda system did have its roots in religion, these men were across the sea from Spain, and they behaved however they pleased. By the time the system was in the hands of the conquistadors, it had degraded into nothing more than systematic oppression and exploitation. Under the encomienda system, the natives were required to pay tribute to the Spanish conquistadors in return for protection and wait for it...religious instruction!
As if losing their land and freedom wasn't enough, the natives were now stripped of their culture and religion. Adding insult to injury, they had to foot the bill for this abuse! Although the encomienda system was replaced by a set of new laws in the mid-16th century, the term still signifies the exploitation of the Americas.
Even with the repeal of the encomienda system, the damage to the native populations was done. Through their dealings with the conquistadors, their ancient empires were destroyed, and their cultures were nearly erased. Their populations were devastated by war and imported disease, while their survivors were forced into back breaking slavery.
Cortes and Pizarro, although perhaps the most famous, were not the only conquistadors to ravage the New World. Although they are normally referred to as explorers, the name conquistador also fits the bill. There was Balboa who is credited with being the first European to glimpse the Pacific. Along with Coronado who explored the area of New Mexico. To this we can also add Juan Ponce de Leon who sought the fabled Fountain of Youth, and Hernando De Soto who was the first European to stand upon Florida.
Regardless of their names and the savagery they visited on the Americas, the conquistadors played a huge role in the history of Spain and Europe, causing a huge turn in the pages of history. Within years of their arrival in the Americas, Spain was making enormous profits off their colonies, controlling most of the gold and silver of the New World. As money poured into the Iberian Peninsula, it bled into Northern European trade and the banking systems of Germany and Italy. Wanting to grow their own coffers, countries, like England and France, soon set their own ships to sail, looking to gain their own piece of the New World.
By the time you finish this lesson, you will be able to:
- Define conquistador and how the Spanish Reconquista contributed to the rise of conquistadors
- Explain who Hernan Cortes was and his contribution to history
- Explain who Francisco Pizarro was and likewise how he conquered for Spain
- Discuss how conquistadors exploited the survivors and how the Enconmienda System was utilized