John Florens | Nov 13, 2023

Table of Content


The term Spanish conquistadors refers generically to the Spanish soldiers and explorers who, from the end of the 15th century and during the 16th century, conquered and settled large tracts of territory in the Americas and the Philippines, incorporating them into the dominions of the Spanish monarchy. The exploration and conquest of America took place during the so-called Age of Discovery, which followed the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.

The conquistadors founded numerous cities, including on sites with pre-existing pre-Columbian settlements. In addition to the conquests, the Spanish conquistadors made significant explorations in the Amazon rainforest, Patagonia, the interior of North America and the Pacific Ocean.

From the local perspective of Latin American left-wing activists on the native peoples of the Americas, the Spanish conquests are often understood as an invasion and plundering of the territories, and the exploitation of the populations therein.

The chroniclers of the time usually describe the Conquest of America as a heroic epic. The extent of the territories it covered and the short period of time in which it took place are unparalleled in the history of European conquests. Other chronicles, such as the testimonies of the indigenous peoples and of some Spanish friars, have presented the Conquest of America as a morally questionable event, motivated by the exploitation of natural resources and characterized by a military and cultural invasion that ended up extinguishing a large part of the vernacular traditions of the discovered continent.

The conquest, however, had both material and spiritual motivations, being one of the great objectives of the Spanish monarchs the evangelization of the indigenous peoples of America. It was also different from other European conquests because it incorporated, for the first time in history, a legislation for the protection of the indigenous peoples. The Laws of Burgos of 1512 established the condition of free man of the indigenous people, with the express prohibition of being exploited, without prejudice to the obligation to work in favor of the crown as subjects of the same. Later the New Laws of 1542 were promulgated, Laws and ordinances newly made by His Majesty for the government of the Indies and good treatment and conservation of the Indians that revised the system of encomiendas granting a series of rights to the indigenous inhabitants to improve their living conditions.

Historians of different origins and periods have praised or criticized the Conquest of America depending on their point of view. Rarely has the Conquest been described with a reasonably neutral view. The American journalist Charles C. Mann says:

For his part, Fray Bernardino Sahagún enunciated:

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas considered the Conquest of America as one of the "wonders" of the world. However, he also defined it as "the destruction of the Indies":

Some historians consider these claims to be distorted and somewhat exaggerated. Many northern European chroniclers initially relied on the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas to create a propaganda aimed at staining and belittling the name of Spain and the Spanish. This is what is known as the Black Legend, created by certain countries that are enemies of Spain to create animosity against it.

The Spanish Reconquest

Historians John H. Elliot and Francisco Morales Padrón emphasize how little regard the conquistadors had for their own lives when undertaking their military campaigns and the conviction they had for success. After the eight centuries of Christian Reconquest of Muslim territories in Spain, the Spaniards had forged a knightly morality in pursuit of a transcendental mission.

Before entering into combat with his 177 men against the 40,000 Incas of Cajamarca, the conquistador Pizarro said.

The writer Juan Sánchez Galera mentions that the Spaniards were also imbued with the European Renaissance culture that depicts man as a being with values and capable of deciding his own destiny. This vision is contrary to materialism, where everyone is worth according to what he has and not what he is as a person.


Francisco Morales Padrón emphasizes spirituality. The cultures of the Americans, like that of the Spaniards, were profoundly theocentric. In that case, it was not fundamental who possessed more or less men but who benefited more from Heaven. And it is a reality that the Spaniards gave the Indians the impression that the Christian god was on their side and many Indians lost their reasons to continue fighting.

Aztec religion was fatalistic. The gods were usually worshipped to prevent them from becoming enraged and the world from ceasing to function. To avoid these catastrophes, human sacrifices were made to the gods. In Tenochtitlán alone, more than 20,000 human sacrifices were performed annually. In 1521, after the conquest of the city by Hernán Cortés, 140,000 human heads were found piled up in a pile of offerings. The victim of the human sacrifice had his heart removed and his blood smeared on the walls of the temple and his corpse was thrown down the pyramid to be eaten by the attendees. Religious cannibalism was so widespread that anthropological studies have shown that part of the protein diet of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan came from there.

In addition, among the indigenous peoples there were mythologies often common among different peoples who agreed that someday people would appear from the other side of the sea on floating houses with white skin and beards who would put an end to their old cultures and create a new and superior one. Among the Aztecs this myth was related to Quetzalcoatl, among the Incas to Viracocha and for the Muiscas it was related to Bochica. Other peoples made assumptions that the Spaniards, like their horses, were immortal.

The Spaniards then waged a religious war, convincing the natives that their god was true and that the gods they worshipped were nothing more than stone figures, and explaining to them that it was better for them to live as Catholics than to maintain their traditional beliefs. Cortés went up to the temples in front of the Aztecs and destroyed the altars with a hammer and destroyed all the statues in the cities where he advanced, demonstrating that this was of no divine consequence. In the same way Pizarro destroyed the sanctuary of Pachacámac. When Hernán Cortés set out to visit the great temple of Huichilobos, several days after his arrival in Tenochtitlan, the emperor Moctezuma was waiting for him at the top of the pyramid. The emperor offered him a group of priests to carry him on their shoulders, but Cortés refused and climbed the 114 steps on foot with his companions. When Moctezuma told him "Sir, you will be tired, after climbing this great temple of ours", Cortes replied "Neither I nor those who come with me are tired in anything".


In his printing house in Frankfurt the Protestant and Flanders engraver Theodore de Bry published engravings of Spaniards committing atrocities in America. The Spaniards are often shown with arquebuses in front of the Indians who were practically unarmed and at the mercy of these atrocities. However, most of the American continent was conquered with only 16 arquebuses: 13 carried by Hernán Cortés' troops and 3 carried by Pizarro's troops when he entered Cajamarca.

The Spaniards carried few firearms. They mostly possessed melee weapons such as swords, daggers, spears and halberds. arquebuses could not be made by a good blacksmith, but came from an industry and were expensive to create, so most colonists could not afford them. The Spanish soldiers did have firearms, but they were in Europe earning a good salary and very few wanted to leave everything to go to the New World. The Spaniards who did carry arquebuses soon realized that they were completely ineffective against the aborigines because they attacked by surprise and the firearms required several minutes before firing the first shot, because although it could take only 30 seconds to load the bullet and clean the cannon, it was necessary to light the fuse. To light the fuse as many times as you wanted to shoot first you needed to have something with fire and then there were no matches, so you had to make fire with stones to light rope with which to light the fuse. It was this process of obtaining fire before the first shot that delayed the process for several minutes. The arquebus was a somewhat heavy weapon and for this reason it was sometimes used for a stick of one and a half meters to support it called a fork. Once the arquebus was loaded, on top of the fork and ready to fire, the men prayed to Santa Barbara so that the gunpowder would not be wet, which was common in the old black gunpowder with a large amount of salts in its composition.

Firearms were effective in the European battles of the XVI century, where two compact armies faced each other in an open field. In the time a Spaniard was preparing to fire the first shot, an Indian could fire 20 arrows, and for all the reasons mentioned above, they were neither abundant nor did they help much in the conquest.

A weapon that was quite common among Spanish soldiers was the crossbow. This weapon was invented in the Roman Empire and perfected in the Middle Ages. In the European battlefields of the first half of the 16th century it was very common among Spanish soldiers. However, it was not very common among the Spaniards in America, because although it could be manufactured by a good craftsman and was always ready for the first shot in short distance battles and skirmishes, it was not considered as useful.

One weapon that was present in America was the falconete, which is a bronze cannon that was usually fixed to the sterncastle of ships and was sometimes removed from the ship and carried on the back of a mule or on a person's back and unloaded for use. These cannons fired iron balls of about 3 centimeters in caliber. They were used successfully and effectively by Hernán Cortés in Tenochtitlán and by Pizarro in Cajamarca. Sometimes the Spaniards exchanged the iron ball for a good handful of arquebus bullets. They were useful to shoot against groups of Indians. In the count that Cortés made in Cozumel he carried four falconetes and Pizarro counted on a falconete in Cajamarca.

However, the factors that were really decisive were swords, spears, pikes, axes, daggers, knives, bows, crossbows, armor, dogs and horses. The cuirass gave security to the soldier in close combat.

Although the Indians did not know iron or steel, they had a great ability to work stone, especially agate and obsidian. An agate-tipped arrow could pierce the armor of a conquistador at less than 30 meters. They made the edge of their wooden swords with embedded obsidian and flint flakes and these, according to the chronicles, could cut off the head of a mule with a single stroke. Instead of breastplates, they protected themselves with "escaupiles", which Hernando Colón describes as padded cotton breastplates. The refined textile technology of the Andean civilizations, which allowed fabrics of up to 500 threads per inch structured in successive layers, allowed them to develop efficient armor of quilted fabric (the escaupil) that was finally adopted by the Spaniards, abandoning their helmets and metallic breastplates, since these were not suitable for tropical climates, both for the heat it gave to the wearers and for the corrosion they suffered.

The main weapon of the Andean armies was the slingshot, made of fabrics, with which they threw stones heated to red-hot, wrapped in cotton and pitch. Using these weapons the Quechuas razed Cuzco, occupied by the Spaniards in 1536.

The Indians had more military potential than might be supposed. The wars against the Mapuches, in present-day Chile, cost 30,000 Spanish casualties in the first century of conquest.

Horses and other animals

The cavalry assault had been a military technique since the time of Alexander the Great. The horse also allowed to gallop into the thick of the enemy, giving blows and causing a large number of casualties. On the other hand, the horse provided great ease of maneuver and movement to retreat after the charge. Cortes had 16 horses in Cozumel and Pizarro in Cajamarca had 67 horses.

The introduction of the horse by the Spaniards allowed them in some cases to move quickly and launch rapid attacks. However, in mountainous and jungle areas, the Spaniards were less technologically adapted than the indigenous cultures, which used the llama and special techniques to build roads and bridges adapted to that type of terrain. In some cases, the native peoples, mainly in North America, Araucania, the pampas and Patagonia, appropriated the horse and developed training and riding techniques, which became a decisive factor in repelling the conquistadors. The Spaniards also used prey dogs to track and attack Indians and slaves in the jungle and forests.


The Aztecs and the Incas were technologically more backward than the Spaniards. They knew the wheel, but did not know practical ways to use it, and they did not have the knowledge to create metal alloys, although they had good communication networks and were skilled in lithic and noble metal manufacturing. They also did not know how to sail.

The knowledge of metal was mainly applied to the elaboration of religious, artistic and symbolic objects, as well as domestic utensils for daily use. Only the Quechua and Purépecha made copper and bronze weapons, but these did not reach the sharpness and hardness of iron or steel.

Human Resources

Hernán Cortés with 508 men conquered Tenochtitlán, a city with a quarter of a million inhabitants, capital of the Aztec Empire, which had 10 million men. Francisco Pizarro had only 177 men when he won the battle of Cajamarca against 40,000 Incas, an important city of the Inca Empire, which had 16 million inhabitants. Jiménez de Quesada conquered New Granada with less than 700 soldiers. Pedro de Valdivia began the occupation of Chile with 12 men and ended it with about 150. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca explored and laid the foundations for the peaceful conquest of the entire South of the current United States with only 2 companions.

On the other hand, the original civilizations had the numerical advantage, although disunity and enmity among the indigenous peoples played in favor of the Spaniards. In all cases the indigenous nations whose conquest the Spaniards sought to conquer outnumbered the Spaniards: on average the peninsular Spaniards never exceeded 2% of the population of America. However, it was common for Spanish conquistadors to form alliances to form large armies. The army with which Hernán Cortés attacked Tenochtitlán was composed of 200,000 soldiers, of which less than 1% were Spanish. However, at the tactical level the Spanish were far superior to the Aztecs and Incas. While the Indians tried to capture prisoners to sacrifice to their gods with a ritual objective, the Spaniards used to kill the enemy in the melee with a strategic objective, which together with their more effective weaponry caused great mortality among the natives.

Another fundamental factor was the ability of the conquerors to ally themselves with indigenous peoples, taking advantage of the existing enmity between some peoples, either by supporting one of the sides in a civil war, as in the case of the Inca Empire, or by allying with the groups subdued by the kingdom to be conquered, as in the case of the Aztec Empire.

The discontent of the indigenous peripheral populations subdued by the city-states and the conviction that the way of life of the Spaniards was better than the one they had had until then, led these populations to join the Spaniards. In some cases, more than 90% of the troops that the Spaniards counted on were Native Americans. Among other cases, Cortés had the help of the Totonacs, Cempoala and the Tlaxcalans, while Núñez de Balboa had 12 great caciques, among them Dabaibe, Careta, Cheru, Nacarao and Micoya. Pedro de Heredia conquered Colombia with the help of the cacique Hinaldo. Pizarro had the help of the Huancas in the conquest of Peru. Before the arrival of Francisco Pizarro, the Incas were already in a civil war. For the conquest of the Rio de la Plata they had the help of the Guarani.

The writing

Jared Diamond explains that the Spanish deceptions into which Atahualpa and Montezuma fell were due to the fact that the Spaniards belonged to a literate society that, thanks to writing, had at its disposal an enormous body of knowledge about human behavior and history.


Authors such as Jared Diamond summarize the causes of Pizarro's victory (paradigm of the Spanish conquest) in "military technology based on firearms and steel and horses, infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia, European maritime technology, the centralized political organization of European states, and writing".

The American writer Charles Mann says that Spain "would not have defeated the (Aztec) Empire if, while Cortés was building the ships, Tenochtitlán had not been ravaged by smallpox in the same pandemic that later devastated Tahuantinsuyu. The great city lost at least a third of its population to the epidemic, including Cuitlahuac". However, before the smallpox epidemic reached Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs and their allies were defeated at the Battle of Otumba by a contingent of Spaniards and Amerindian allies far inferior in numbers and in pitiful physical condition after suffering the defeat of the Noche Triste.

Something similar happened with the Inca Empire, defeated by Francisco Pizarro in 1531. The first smallpox epidemic was in 1525 and killed, among others, Emperor Huayna Capac, father of Atahualpa. New smallpox epidemics were declared in 1533, 1535, 1558 and 1565, as well as typhus in 1546, influenza in 1558, diphtheria in 1614 and measles in 1618. Dobyns estimated that 90% of the population of the Inca Empire died in these epidemics.

However, there may also have been diseases specific to the Americas that depleted the population. A study by the personal physician of Philip II of Spain, Francisco Hernández de Toledo, who performed autopsies, speaks of an epidemic in 1576. In some people there was gangrene in the body and the victims had blood coming out of their ears. Hernandez knew about smallpox and typhus and when he arrived in the New World and learned that this disease was not one of the European diseases. Drawings made by the Aztecs themselves reveal the symptoms produced by this disease, which the Aztecs themselves called cocoliztli. In 1545 and the following years 15 million people died and in 1570 2 million died, which may correspond to two epidemics. Prior to those times there were long periods of drought followed by heavy rains, indicating that this may have been the condition for the virus to thrive in mouse populations and mutate to be transmitted to humans. This disease did not do too much damage to the Spaniards, claiming victims mainly among the priests, who were always very close to the indigenous people.

Just as many Indians perished from diseases brought by the Spanish, tropical diseases such as "barquía" or "modorra" caused the death of between 30% and 50% of some Spanish expeditions.


The decisive factor in the defeat of the American civilizations was the fall of their leaders and emperors, although possibly the demographic collapse played a role. Among researchers and social sectors there is no consensus on the causes of this collapse, some attributing it to genocide, others to the introduction of new diseases and a third group to a combination of both causes. The North American researcher H. F. Dobyns has calculated that 95% of the total population of America died in the first 130 years after the arrival of Columbus. For their part, Cook and Borak, of the University of Berkeley, established after decades of research, that the population in Mexico decreased from 25.2 million in 1518 to 700,000 people in 1623, less than 3% of the original population. In 1492 Spain and Portugal together did not exceed 10 million people.

There is no consensus that the demographic collapse of the original American population was the main cause of its military defeat. Each case was particular. However, Steven Katz has said in this regard:

However, there was never a will to carry out a total extermination of the indigenous population on the part of the Spaniards, but what they initially intended was to subjugate the population in order to exploit the resources and their labor force. This was the case at least until the promulgation of the Laws of Burgos and other Indian law, which showed a serious concern on the part of the Crown to protect the subjugated Indians from abuses.

The Alexandrine bull of 1493 meant the papal recognition of the ownership of the lands recently discovered by the Kings of Spain, subject to the conversion of the Indians to Christianity. In Europe a conception of the Indians as genus angelicum or "angelic people" was created. After the first voyages, some Indians were brought to Spain and their thin complexion, their simple ways of life and their apparent naivety made everyone think that in America there would be a prompt civilization and evangelization. In Spain, an idealized and sweet conception of the Indians began to be created based on this first impression.

Of course, there was nothing to suggest from the outset the violent customs of these Indians, who were also at war in the Americas and habitually engaged in practices such as cannibalism. In fact, in 1512 the Spaniards were only able to settle in the Caribbean islands due to indigenous bellicism.

Fernando the Catholic commissions a theological and juridical study to the Dominican Matías de Paz and the jurist Juan López de Palacios, who conclude that it is illicit to make war to the Indians to force them to conversion but that this war can be just if the caciques and chiefs prohibit the free conversion of the subjects or it is necessary the war to demolish the inhuman customs when they refuse to abandon them. Twenty years later Francisco de Vitoria and Domingo de Soto reached the same conclusions.

As the conquest progressed, the Indians abandoned their old customs and began to convert to Christianity, although war was often resorted to without, in the opinion of some, being necessary. For this reason, a Royal Order of 1526 stipulates that any military expedition must be accompanied by legitimized clergymen to avoid abuse. In 1549 the continent was practically pacified and the rest of the work was considered to be almost exclusively the responsibility of the missionaries.

Francisco de Vitoria, of the University of Salamanca, elaborated juridical and theological theories on the rights of the person, being a firm defender of the rights of the Indians. In 1573 Philip II prohibited armed conquest in America and entrusted civilization to friars and teachers.

The European colonization of America began at the end of the 15th century after Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 under the patronage of the Catholic Monarchs. From then on, the Spanish Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the British Empire, the French Empire and the Dutch Empire conquered and colonized the continent, the Spanish being the most extensive empire.

The Spanish Empire was the first to carry out the conquest, and settled mainly in North America, Central America and the Andean area of South America (Aztec and Inca empires, respectively). Spain was soon joined by Portugal, claiming territorial rights over Brazil by virtue of the Treaty of Alcáçovas, the Bulas Alejandrinas and the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Spain was the power that imposed the greatest colonial presence in America. It took possession by force of the two great empires existing in America at that time. Spain took possession of the entire West Coast of North America up to the Strait of Georgia, the Rocky Mountains and the Florida peninsula, as well as all of Central America, the Caribbean and South America, with the exception of an Atlantic coastal area that later became Brazil and the Guianas. During this expansion, the Spanish Empire defeated the Aztec and Inca Empires, and also fought and dominated the territories of different American tribes.

England established thirteen colonies on the East Coast of North America and a good part of Canada, in addition to conquering some Caribbean islands from Spain, such as Jamaica.

France occupied what is now French Guiana in South America (still under its dominion), Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, some Caribbean islands, and the Canadian region of Quebec. In the 18th century, the Spanish ceded to France the western half of Hispaniola; present-day Haiti.

The Netherlands established colonies in North America (New Amsterdam, later New York), northern South America (Dutch Guyana, now Suriname) and some settlements on Caribbean islands (Netherlands Antilles and Aruba).

Spanish Conquest and Anglo-Saxon Conquest

The English conquest began a century later than the Spanish conquest. In the 17th century, the powerful musket and the flintlock were a great improvement in firearms that the English took advantage of.

The Anglo-Saxon conquerors fought with an advantage of 2 to 1 to occupy North America in 200 years and the Spanish conquistadors subdued by force three times as much territory in 4 times less time and with a numerical inferiority of 300 to 1, although in the conquest of New Spain they always counted on a very good quantity of indigenous allies that, in some particular cases like the siege of Tenochtitlan, reached &&&&&&&&&0100000.&&&&&010100 000 allies.

The Anglo-Saxon conquerors did not integrate the subjugated peoples into their society, limiting themselves to exterminating the local population and then occupying their territories, where they transferred the entire European way of life. The Spaniards would form a new society in America by merging European culture with indigenous cultures, similar to the case of the Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxon colonization was made up of Protestant expatriates who were not tolerated by the Anglicans in Britain and who brought their customs and their women, so they marked their possessions and then expelled the natives. On the contrary, the Spaniards did not create a society differentiated by ethnicity because hardly any women traveled to America in the early days. The Spaniards joined the natives and baptized them, forming a mestizo people, although not peacefully, with cases of rape and forced marriages by the Spaniards.

In Australia there were an estimated one million Aborigines when the first British arrived, while in 1901 there were 93,000 left. The Aborigines of Tasmania were worse off as they were exterminated, partly by disease, but also by a technique called "black cordon" which consisted of a line of 2,200 soldiers covering the entire width of the island while shooting at the Aborigines as they advanced. Until the 1960's it was well regarded and legal in Australia to take Aboriginal children to bring them home to work as domestic servants if they were girls or to work in the fields if they were boys.

The Spanish presence in America has been closely related to the conquistadors' search for gold. Certainly, the legends about the Seven Cities of Gold of Cíbola in North America and El Dorado in South America motivated some expeditions, such as those of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and Francisco de Orellana.

Although the most frequent reality was much more prosaic, because the conquistadors were not so much looking for mythical golden cities as for the conquest of lands that could bring them wealth: mineral deposits, labor, fields... Christopher Columbus had already found gold in Hispaniola and Central America, so the existence of gold was a fact. However, it was later discovered that the most abundant precious metal in America was silver, and the Spaniards extracted it for centuries from Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

From the end of the 15th century onwards, the Spanish (especially Andalusians and Extremadurians), aware that the world was now bigger, decided to emigrate to a place that would provide them with great prosperity. The gold nuggets that had arrived from the Caribbean were enough to encourage a "gold fever" that increased interest in going to the New World. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, in his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain) said:

Precious metals were not the only possible business in the New World. For example, the conquistador Juan Ponce de León made his fortune trading in yucca bread.


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  2. Conquistadores españoles
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  4. ^ Mary Hill, Gold: The California Story
  5. ^ Vanhanen, Tatu (1997). Prospects of democracy: a study of 172 countries. New York: Routledge. p. 112. ISBN 0-415-14405-1.
  6. ^ "Ferdinand Magellan". History. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 3 December 2019.
  7. ^ "Fiebre amarilla". Archived from the original on 18 March 2012. Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  8. Sahagún, op. cit., p. 29
  9. De las Casas, Bartolomé. Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias. (ver texto)
  10. a b Sánchez Galera, op. cit., p. 176
  11. Vitus Huber: Beute und Conquista. Die politische Ökonomie der Eroberung Neuspaniens (= Historische Studien. Band 76). Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2018, ISBN 978-3-593-50953-2, S. 170, 238.
  12. Daniel Deckers: Männer, die in Sümpfen sterben. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25. März 1997, abgerufen am 18. September 2023.
  13. Jared Diamond: Arm und Reich. Die Schicksale menschlicher Gesellschaften. 5. Auflage. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2009, S. 69–81.
  14. Кофман А. Ф. «Рыцари Нового Света». Как покорялась Америка Архивная копия от 25 февраля 2020 на Wayback Machine. — М., 2006. — C. 37-38.

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