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European Exploration & Colonization in Latin America

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Starting in 1492, the arrival of Europeans in present-day Latin America irrevocably changed the region's history. This lesson examines the impact of European colonization, technology, and disease on the region.

The Arrival of Europeans in the Americas

A depiction of Spanish sailors rowing ashore to meet indigenous onlookers
Spanish arrive

If you were a member of an indigenous tribe living on the Caribbean island of San Salvador in 1491, you could not have known that your world was on the verge of being changed forever. Christopher Columbus' arrival in San Salvador on October 12, 1492 marked the beginning of the European conquest and colonization of the Americas. Europeans had advanced technologies in the form of gunpowder weaponry and steel. But most important of all, Europeans were aided by silent allies in the form of deadly Eurasian diseases, such as smallpox, influenza, and measles. It was a combination of these factors that paved the way for European success.

European Technological Advantages

This picture depicts the forces of Francisco Pizarro attacking the Incan emperor Atahualpa and his escort.
Spanish armies attack

The Spanish conquistadors, and the European armies that would follow them, were among the most technologically advanced armies of their age. They used intimidating weapons and armor and employed sophisticated, terrifying tactics. At long-range distances, the conquistadors used crossbows, arquebuses (guns with long barrels), and small cannons. European gunpowder weaponry of the sixteenth century could not kill people in great numbers, but its noise and impact had the power to intimidate. Gunpowder weaponry inspired terror, but steel was the most important technology the conquistadors possessed. At close range, conquistadors used spears, halberds, and swords made of steel. Many conquistadors wore steel armor, and they were supported by armored cavalry. The Spanish technological advantage was on full display in numerous battles with Aztec and Incan forces. For example, in 1532, the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, managed to fend off an army of 80,000 Incan warriors with 169 Spaniards without suffering a single casualty.

But military technology alone does not tell the entire story of how the Spanish were so successful. Conquistadors often came from lower social classes and did not always have access to a complete set of steel armor. Furthermore, traversing humid, treacherous terrain in heavy steel armor was difficult; the armor rusted and was incredibly heavy. Indigenous armies also adjusted to Spanish tactics by, for example, deploying looser formations to mitigate the effects of gunpowder weaponry. Finally, conquistadors took advantage of infighting among the indigenous empires to weaken their military forces and to add to the Spanish numbers. For these reasons, we cannot explain the Spanish conquest in military terms alone.

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