Spain in America Spanish Conquistadors



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Spain in America
Spanish Conquistadors

Known as conquistadors (kahn KEES tuh dawrs), these explorers received grants from the Spanish rulers. They had the right to explore and establish settlements in the Amer­icas. In exchange they agreed to give the Spanish crown one-fifth of any gold or treasure discov­ered. This arrangement allowed Spanish rulers to launch expeditions with little risk. If a conquista­dor failed, he lost his own fortune. If he succeed­ed, both he and Spain gained wealth and glory.

As one conquistador explained, "We came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich." The story of how the conquistadors de­stroyed the most powerful empires of the Ameri­cas and went on to build a new Spanish empire is one of the most astonishing in history.
Cortes Conquers the Aztec

When Hernan Cortes landed on the east coast of what we now know as Mexico in 1519, he was looking for gold and glory. He came with about 500 soldiers, some horses, and a few cannons. Cortes soon learned about the great Aztec Empire and its capital.

In building their empire, the Aztec had con­quered many cities in Mexico. These cities were forced to give crops, clothing, gold, and precious stones to the Aztec as tribute. Cortes used the re­sentment of the people of these cities to his ad­vantage. With the help of Dona Marina, a Mayan woman who acted as his translator, he formed alliances with nearby cities against the Aztec.

Cortes marched into the Aztec capital in November with his small army and his Native American allies. The Aztec emperor Montezuma welcomed Cortes and his soldiers and provided them with food and a fine palace. However, Cortes took advantage of the Aztec's hospitality and made Montezuma his prisoner. In the spring the Spaniards heard rumors of rebellion. To crush any spark of resistance, they killed Montezuma and many Aztec nobles. The Aztec had had enough. They rose up and drove the Spaniards from their city. Cortes, howev­er, was determined to retake the city. He waited until more Spanish troops arrived, then attacked and destroyed the Aztec capital in 1521. The Aztec Empire disintegrated, and Spain seized control of the region.


Pizarro Conquers Peru

In 1530 the conquistador Francisco Pizarro sailed down the Pacific coast of South America with about 180 Spanish soldiers. Pizarro had heard tales of the incredibly wealthy Inca Empire in present-day Peru. In 1532 Pizarro captured the Inca ruler and trapped much of the Incan army in a square sur­rounded by walls. An Incan historian describes what happened:


"All the Indians were inside like llamas. There were a great many of them and they could not get out, nor did they have any weapons…The Spaniards killed them all - with horses, with swords, with guns… From more than 10,000 men there did not escape 200.”
A few months later, the Spanish falsely ac­cused the Inca leader of crimes and executed him. The Inca were used to obeying commands from their rulers. Without leadership they were not able to fight effectively. By 1535 Pizarro had gained con­trol of most of the vast Inca Empire.
Why Spain Succeeded

The conquistadors' victories in Mexico and Peru were quick and lasting. How could Cortes and Pizarro, with only a few hundred Spanish soldiers conquer such mighty empires?

First, the Spanish arrived with strange weapons-guns and cannons-and fearsome an­imals. They rode horses and had huge, ferocious dogs. To the Native Americans, the Spanish seemed almost like gods. Second, many Native Americans hated their Aztec overlords and assist­ed the conquistadors in overthrowing them.

Finally, disease played an extremely large role in the Spanish conquest. Native Americans had no immunity to the diseases the Europeans had, unknowingly, brought with them. Epidemics of smallpox and other diseases wiped out entire communities in the Americas and did much to weaken the Aztec's and Inca's resistance. In Mexico, a Spanish friar recalled, "More than half the population died. They died in heaps, like bedbugs."

Juan de Onate was sent from Mexico to gain control over lands to the north and to convert the natives. In 1598 ornate founded the province of New Mexico and intro­duced cattle and horses to the Pueblo people. Spain, however, remained much more inter­ested in its colonial empire to the south. The West Indies, Mexico, and South America provided the silver and gold that made Spain wealthy.
Spanish Rule

The Spanish governed their colonies the way they governed their own country­ from the top down. They divided their new lands into five provinces. The wealthiest were New Spain (Mexico) and Peru. The Spanish king estab­lished a Council of the Indies that met in Spain and made laws for the colonies. He also appoint­ed a viceroy as his representative in each province. Spanish law called for three kinds of settle­ments in the Americas-pueblos, missions, and presidios. Pueblos, or towns, were established as centers of trade. Missions were religious commu­nities that usually included a small town, sur­rounding farmland, and a church. A presidio, or fort, was usually built near a mission.


Social Classes

A complex class system developed in Spain's empire in the Americas. The upper class consist­ed of people who had been born in Spain, called peninsulares. The peninsulares owned the land, served in the Catholic Church, and ran the local government. Below them were the creoles, people born in the Americas to Spanish parents. Lower in the class structure were the mestizos, people with Spanish and In­dian parents. Still lower were the Native Ameri­cans, most of who lived in great poverty. At the very bottom were enslaved Africans. Men dominated the society, and a woman's place was in the home.


Native Americans

In the 1500s the Spanish government granted each conquistador who settled in the Americas the right to demand taxes or labor from Native Americans living on the land. This system turned the Native Americans into slaves. Grueling labor in the fields and in the gold and silver mines took its toll. Many Native Americans also died from malnutrition and disease.

A Spanish priest (Bartolome de las Casas) condemned the cruel treatment of the Native Americans. He reported abuses to the authorities in Spain and pleaded for laws to protect the Native Americans. The priest claimed that millions had died because the Spanish "made gold their ultimate aim, seeking to load themselves with riches in the shortest possible time”. Because of the priest's reports, in 1542 the Spanish government passed the New Laws, which forbade making slaves of Native Ameri­cans. Although not always enforced, the laws did correct the worst abuses.
The Plantation System

Some Spanish settlers made large profits by exporting crops and raw materials back to Spain. In the West Indies, the main exports were tobacco and sugarcane. To raise these crops, the Spanish developed the plantation system. A plantation was a large estate run by the owner or a mana­ger and farmed by workers living on it. The Span­ish used Native Americans to work their plantations. In his effort to help the Native Americans, Las Casas suggested replacing them with enslaved Africans - a suggestion he bitterly regretted later. He thought the Africans could endure the labor better than the Native Americans.


The Slave Trade

The Spanish quickly took up Las Casas's idea and began importing enslaved Africans. By the mid-1500s the Spanish were bringing thousands from West Africa to the Americas. The Portuguese did the same in Brazil. The Africans who survived the brutal ocean voyage were sold to plantation owners. By the late 1500s, plantation slave labor was an essential part of the economy of the Spanish and Por­tuguese colonies.


The Columbian Exchange

The voyages of Columbus and other ex­plorers brought together two parts of the globe that previously had had no contact: the con­tinents of Europe, Asia, and Africa in one hemi­sphere and the Americas in the other. The contact led to an exchange of plants, animals, and dis­eases that altered life on both sides of the Atlantic. Scholars refer to this as the Columbian Exchange.


New Ways of Life

Europeans brought horses, cattle, pigs, and chickens. These new animals changed the diet and lifestyle of many Indian cultures. In turn the Americas provided many new foods-such as corn, tomatoes, beans, squash, potatoes, and chocolate-that made the European diet more nutritious and varied.



Recall that Europeans brought many diseases to the Americas that Native Americans had no immunity to. As a result many died of smallpox, influenza, measles, and other diseases. When Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492, more than 3 million Native Americans lived there. Fifty years later only about 500 remained.
Please thoroughly answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper:


  1. Define Columbian Exchange.




  1. Explain how the Spanish, with so few soldiers, were able to conquer empires. What similarities were there between the ways the Spanish conquered America and the European conquered Africa, almost 400 years later?




  1. Why didn’t the Spanish continue enslaving the Native Americans?




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