The Spanish Conquistadors tend to be a controversial topic. Many view them as brutal and believe what they did to the natives to be barely human. While some view them as heroes who blazed a trail for the New World. They would become infamous and wealthy and it all occurred because of the rise of the Ottoman Empire.
There is a good chance that the path to the New World would have never been found by some of the famous explorers if it had not been for the blockade of the Silk Trade Route. With the Ottoman Empire in complete control of the Middle East and some of Eastern Europe under their control it was impossible to trade with India, which meant that the valuable spices were blocked.
Christopher Columbus opened up the New World for exploration. Although the Vikings arrived in the New World close to 500 years before they kept it a secret and as a result it stayed dormant until 1492. Upon Columbus’s arrival there were two empires that existed in the Americas:
- The Aztecs
- The Incas
Each would greet the Spanish Conquistadors and each would fall to them. The first empire to fall would be the Aztecs in 1519 to Hernan Cortes and the Incas in 1533 to Francisco Pizarro. Cortes and Pizarro were able to use the same tactic to defeat both of the empires. They each recruited other tribes that sought to free themselves from their rule. Each was able to defeat vast empires with only a handful of men. Although it was not an empire at this point the remnants of the Mayan civilization would eventually be conquered as well. With each of the two empires falling the Spanish grew wealthier and established a New World empire of their own that would extend from South America into the Western part of present day United Stated and Canada.
During this time of great wealth the Spanish Main became a place for privateers and pirates. With so much wealth flowing out of Caribbean each of the European powers tried to establish a colony there. The Spanish Conquistadors, English, Dutch and French all had colonies and were often at war with each other. Eventually Great Britain would gain an advantage with the defeat of the Spanish Armada and begin to slowly take control of the New World. Spanish influence would diminish and two new powers would surface with England and France. These two nations would engage in bloody wars for many years eventually resulting in the Seven Years’ War that ended with the British taking control of Quebec. Soon after, the 13 original Colonies declared Independence and enlisted the European Allies of the French and Spanish. At this point the Spanish had little power and controlled little of the Caribbean. The American Colonies went on to win the American Revolutionary War and begin a new nation.
With the arrival of a new nation that was a great experiment many of the old empires were forgotten and replaced by classic European empires such as Greece and Rome. Spanish control faded also and soon the new nation purchased Florida. The age of the Spanish Conquistadors had been over for some time, but their influence cannot be denied. Their conquest of two of the largest empires in the world set the stage for European exploration which would lead to the United States of America.
Spanish Conquistadors: Motives
The motives of the conquistadors were diverse, but mainly concentrated on 3 reasons
- The first and primary reason was wealth and power. They did not care too much for the people who were poor and those who gained the most fame were not what one would consider missionaries. Cortes conquered the Aztecs and in doing so secured himself a fortune. Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas and in doing so became wealthy.
- The second reason was to spread Christianity. At this point in Spanish history most of the people claimed to be Catholic and were zealous. They believed it was their duty to bring Christianity to pagans. Unfortunately, they did so in such a cruel way that it did not echo the message of Christ. If the pagans did not give in they were brutally destroyed. While it was not Spain’s intent to oppress the pagans the conquistadors acted in ways that they believed were best. The lack of accountability meant that the many people were driven from their homes and lost their culture, religion and families.
- Thirdly was economic reasons. The Spanish Main became a place of trade and made Spain an economic powerhouse.
Each of these reasons would result in the building of a Spanish Empire.
Spanish Conquistadors: Military Tactics
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas they were vastly outnumbered by the natives. The Spanish military never rose past 2% of the native population during this time, yet they were able to conquer the largest empires of that time. They accomplished these great feats by many means.
Firstly, the technology the conquistadors used was superior to the technology of the natives. They fought most nude troops with weapons made of wood and lesser metals. Their armor was made of steel and iron which made it difficult for the natives to pierce. Their swords were often considered the greatest of European craftsmanship and could run a man through quite easily. Gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century had created a greater reliance on well-trained heavy infantry.
Secondly, to bolster their numbers they allied themselves with other natives. This was certainly one of the reasons that the Aztecs and Incas fell so quickly. Cortes raised an army of 200,000 men and less than 1% of the army was Spanish. The Incas and Aztecs were harsh to the native tribes which allowed the conquistadors to take advantage and bolster their numbers while also having superior technology. The Europeans would often use a tactic called divide and rule which systematically separated large enemies into smaller factions. By defeating one small faction at a time you weaken the large enemy. It is effective in conquering a larger enemy and by prohibiting smaller entities from forming alliances.
Thirdly, war in Europe had raged for centuries after the fall of Rome. This resulted in men being well-trained and well-educated in warfare. Europe had some of the best soldiers in the world and they knew how to kill men and how to devastate populations. They were unmerciful and unforgiving. They would kill men, women and children to establish absolute fear. The natives knew war, but their tactics were sophomoric and based on their religious beliefs. They would not fight to kill, but to capture. After capturing the army they would sacrifice them to their gods. These tactics were ignorant and allowed the Spanish to easily crush them.
Fourthly, The Spanish brought with them their germs and disease. The diseases ran through the natives and killed many. The Aztecs were devastated with smallpox and did not have the antibodies to fight them off. While men died from disease in Europe many of these conquistador armies were hardened men whose bodies had fought the disease off, therefore it did not devastate them like it did the natives.
Fifthly, The Spanish had trained animals for war for centuries. The Spanish Mastiff was a full armored war dog that was fearless and unleashed against nude troops. These dogs had been trained to kill men and were highly effective in intimidating native armies. Also and most notably, the Spanish introduced the use of horses to the natives which allowed them great mobility and were highly effective.
Lastly, the culture of these two civilizations were different. The natives had a hunter-gatherer mentality and wars were often fought over long periods of time with many rituals. Their resources such as metals and animals were used to support their hunter-gatherer culture and not war. The Europeans were war-like people and had used their resources to progress in war. Their dogs, metals and innovations were typically put to use in war which resulted in a strong military. When the two civilizations collided the natives did not stand a chance.
Below is a list of famous Conquistadors and Explorers.
- Christopher Columbus
- Amerigo Vespucci
- Juan Ponce de Leon
- Ferdinand Magellan
- Hernan Cortes
- Francisco Pizarro
- Vasco Nunez de Balboa
- Francisco Vasquez de Coronado
- Hernando de Soto
- Don Juan de Onate
- Panfilo de Narvaez
- Cabeza de Vaca