Conquistadors Comparing and Contrasting Standards

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Conquistadors - Comparing and Contrasting


  • 9-10.RH.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

  • 9-10.RH.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source

  • HS. 19. Evaluate how points of view, self-interest, and global distribution of natural resources play a role in conflict over territory.

The Return of the Sun God (Hernan Cortes)

As a teenager Hernan  Cortes knew that he wanted to be a great adventurer. His parents tried shipping him off to the University of Salmanaca in central Spain to get their wild child to settle down and become a lawyer. But their hopes were dashed after two years when Cortes flunked out and returned home. Cortes had plans of his own to become a soldier and head to the New World in search of gold.

A cousin was already headed to the colony of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Cortes was eager to be on the next boat bound for the New World. Had it not been for getting himself injured by falling out the second story window of a married woman he would have left Spain in 1502. Instead, he was forced to wait for another four years until a second opportunity presented itself.

The island of Hispaniola had already gone through radical changes when the 19 year old Cortes arrived at the busy port of Santo Domingo. The island was full of men like Cortes who came from petty noble families seeking to make a name for themselves. These men were not used to doing physical labor— and were not about to start now. Instead, they recreated a mini version of European feudalism right here in the Caribbean. Cortes was given land and became a citizen of Hispaniola.  Using Indian slave labor, he quickly turned the rainforest into a profitable plantation. But the farm life was not for Cortes.

Despite his wealth and slaves Cortes wanted more. After a successful expedition to conquer the natives of Cuba he was given a government job documenting the gold and slaves being sent back to the Spanish crown. In addition to a cushy job Cortes was given even more land, even more slaves, and gold mines; but Cortes had his sights on a bigger prize: the Mexican mainland. Cortes had heard stories of an advanced civilization (the Mayans) with huge stone temples and palaces from Spanish expeditions returning from the Yucatan.

More importantly, the place was loaded. The richest gold strike in the New World had been found there just a few years earlier. Cortes was virtually foaming at the mouth to get his chance to claim this civilization for Spain. But Diego Vasquez, the governor of Cuba and close personal friend of Cortes, had plans of his own to become governor of the Yucatan territory and forbade Cortes from sailing.

Cortes and Vasquez, both headstrong and ambitious men, locked horns.  Needless to say this rivalry put a damper on their friendship. When Vasquez tried to prevent him from going to Mexico, Cortes went anyway despite a warrant for his arrest

In March of 1519, Cortes and his crew landed on the Yucatan coast where he met up with a Spanish priest who had come on an earlier failed expedition. The priest, Jernoimo de Aguilar, had been shipwrecked and taken as a hostage of the Maya. Aguilar watched as five of his comrades were sacrificed and eaten, and somehow he managed to escape, was enslaved by another village and after eight years of servitude had been set free. For the past few months Aguilar had been hiding in the jungle when he crossed paths with Cortes.

Lucky for Cortes too, for the priest spoke Chontal Maya and for the rest of the expedition served as the official interpreter. Continuing along the coast, the Cortes crew reached the site of the modern-day city of Vera Cruz, he was greeted with an attack by the Tabasco tribe (from which the hot sauce takes its name). With 500 men, 200 Cuban slaves, a few cannons, and six horses, he was vastly outnumbered by warriors armed with arrows and spears. According to a Spanish foot soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo “the whole bank was thick with Indian warriors, carrying their native arms, blowing trumpets and conches, and beating drums.”  Cortes decided to do the opposite of what most soldiers would do in a similar situation –he charged. The Spanish with their shiny metal armor, riding animals that looked like large deer (minus the antlers, of course), and their weapons that spit smoke and fire soon had the Indians retreating into the cornfields. Cortes realized he had the most powerful weapon on his side: fear. The Indians had never seen horses or guns before and Cortes would use this fear of these strange weapons to his advantage over and over again. Cortes ordered his men to give chase, killing anyone they found.

The Aztec emperor Moctezuma had no doubt gotten word of these strange white men marching through his land. The emperor sent out a party to find out what these strangers wanted. Cortes replied that he had come in peace, his only intention was to trade with the Aztecs and meet with the emperor on behalf of Spain. Cortes wasn’t about to show his cards yet, after all.  Gifts of cotton cloth, exotic feathers, and trinkets were exchanged for Spanish wine, metal tools, and food. When the Aztecs brought painters to record what they saw, Cortes decided to make the most out of it. He ordered his men to parade on horseback with swords drawn and cannons firing. The Aztecs were clearly impressed. But Cortes wasn’t interested in trinkets and bird feathers. He told the Aztecs that he had “a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold”. We just call it good ol’ fashioned greed. Moctezuma had no intention of allowing the strangers anywhere near his capital city. He tried to buy Cortes off with gifts of gold but this backfired, big time. Cortes was more encouraged than ever that he had found the legendary kingdom of gold.

Dona Marina gives inside info...

Moctezuma was very confused, Omens were very important to the Aztec and they were not to be taken lightly. Yet Moctezuma was no fool and he knew these men were no gods. He sent gifts of precious feathers, gold, and jewels and waited to see what they would do (mistake #1). Waiting would be Moctezuma’s biggest mistake. Before leaving the coast, Cortes ordered his 11 ships to be sunk preventing his soldiers from turning back to Cuba. There was only one direction to go - Tenochtitlán.

The Spanish had with them a secret weapon more useful than any gun or horse. Her name was Malinche. But after she converted to Christianity, she became known as Dona Marina. Dona Marina could speak Chontal Mayan and Nahuatl–- the language of the Aztecs—and later learned Spanish. She told Cortes how many Aztec soldiers there would be, the layout of the city, even the Aztec's fears and superstitions that could be used against them. The love affair between Hernan Cortes (who had a wife back in Spain by the way) and Dona Marina began a journey that brought down an empire.

Why would she do this? Because Dona Marina was not an Aztec, but a Nahua, who had been enslaved by the Tabasco people. The Aztec Empire was practically brand new (less than 100 years old) and had come to control Central Mexico by bloody conquest, human sacrifice, and heavy taxes on the people they conquered. Many people who lived in the Aztec Empire were more than willing to switch sides against their Aztec masters. One of these people were the Tlaxcalans who would become the most important of all of Cortes's Indian allies. Cortes knew that he couldn’t take on the mighty Aztec Empire head on. Instead, he decided to use the old divide and conquer routine.

As Cortes marched towards the capital city, he recruited other soldiers who had no love for the Aztecs. By the time he came to the outskirts of Tenochtitlán, his army of 500 had grown to thousands. But compared to the 200,000 soldiers in the Aztec army, they were still vastly outnumbered. Cortez had one more card to play.

Infectious diseases introduced with Europeans, like smallpox and measles, spread from one Indian tribe to another, far in advance of Europeans themselves, and killed an estimated 95% of the New World's Indian population.

-Jared Diamond

Soon the Aztec capital city would be under the control of the Spanish and Cortes, and Spain would become the wealthiest nation in the world.

The Conquest of Peru (Francisco Pizarro)

You might be thinking that Cortez just got lucky with the whole God legend, the small pox, and having an emperor who was indecisive. Surely, that wouldn't happen again! The year is 1532, and another Conquistador named Francisco Pizarro is about to make his debut into history.

In 1513, Pizarro is a young man when he joins an expedition led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa who trekked through the jungles of Panama to become the first European to catch sight of the Pacific Ocean. Pizarro had heard rumors from other explorers (this is why you shouldn't gossip) of a vastly rich and sophisticated empire high up in the Andes Mountains called Viru (Peru). 

Pizarro was born in Spain, the illegitimate son of a soldier. His family was too poor to send him to school and so he never learned to read nor write. Also, being illegitimate in those days meant you did not inherit your father's property (not that there was much to inherit). Pizarro set out for the Americas and he became a brave and ruthless soldier.

Pizarro is so inspired by the story of Cortez that he decides that he too will set out on the American mainland to find another city of gold like Tenochtitlán. In 1524 he tries to trek down Central America to find this city of gold. Bad weather, a lack of food, and skirmishes with hostile Indians (one soldier had his eye shot out with an arrow) forced him to turn back. Pizarro, tried a second time and this too failed. His third attempt in 1532 would be the one that lands him in the history books.

He and a small band of 200 conquistadors (among the group was another famous name- Hernando de Soto) who would terrorize (explore) the Southeastern United States. The group landed on the coast of Ecuador. From there they made their way into the rugged Andes Mountains, one of the tallest in the world. Like Cortez, Pizarro's timing could not be more perfect (for him, but not the Inca). The Inca are recovering from a civil war fought between two brothers after their father (the former Inca leader) had died. Atahualpa came out the victor and claimed the throne of the Inca Empire which was seated in the city of Cuzco.

The people of the Americas did not ride animals and so trained runners carried messages through the mountains. This is how news of the Spaniard's arrival reached Atahualpa's camp in 1532.

Some people claimed that these strangers with fur on their faces (beards), wearing pots on their heads (helmets) and riding strange beasts (horses) were gods come down on earth. Legend says that bad omens were predicted by Incan priests of disaster and the end of the empire. Atahualpa, by historical accounts, knew that these men were not gods. Atahualpa was camped in a valley with 80,000 men and so he told his messengers to invite the strangers to meet him. He sent them gifts of foods, gold, and silver. Atahualpa was not being generous; he was luring Pizarro into a trap.

After all, what could 200 men do against the mighty Incan army?  Atahualpa arranged a meeting place at a nearby town where 35,000 of his soldiers waited in the mountains. When Pizarro greeted the emperor he told him (through translators) that the Spanish King Charles was the only true King, that the Christian God was the only true God, and Pizarro then handed the emperor a copy of the Bible. Atahualpa threw the Bible to the ground and the Spanish fired their muskets (harquebusiers) and the two cannons that they brought with them. The Inca army became confused and frightened and in the chaos Pizarro had his horsemen charge the fleeing soldiers who had never seen such strange weapons and animals. It must have been a terrifying experience for Indians armed with arrows and spears.

The success of the Spanish was in their weapons which were foreign to the Inca. Even though the Spanish had superior technology like canon, crossbows, guns and horses, what won the battle was fear. By the end of the battle, 1,500 Incan soldiers lay dead while the Spanish suffered only a few minor wounds. Most importantly, Atahualpa had been captured and was now held hostage by Pizarro and his men. For months Atahualpa was held captive, giving orders under Pizarro's direction. The Incan generals were too afraid for their emperor's safety to attack. Atahualpa gave Pizarro 13,000 pounds of gold and silver in exchange for his freedom. After getting the gold Pizarro went back on his word (shocking I know) and put the emperor on trial for treason and worshipping false gods. He was sentenced to be burned alive unless he converted to Christianity and then he would only be strangled to death. Atahualpa converted and was strangled in front of his subjects. The Incan Empire fell quickly thereafter, as gold-seeking conquistadors and colonists rushed in to settle the new colony of Peru.

Complete the following on a separate sheet of paper:

  • How were a "handful" of Spaniards able to bring down the mighty Aztec and Inca Empires?

  • What were the similarities and differences between the conquest of the Incan Empire, and the conquest of the Aztec Empire? (Do this by completing a Venn Diagram)

  • How did resources (i.e. gold), self-interest, and differing points of view play a role in these conflicts?

*Information provided by “Go Social Studies Go 2013”

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