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Conquests and Colonization

Conquests and Colonization

The voyages of exploration that began in 1492 provided the Crown of Castile with a unique opportunity to take the lead role in the process of westward expansion and the creation of New World empires. No such intentions, of course, were in evidence when, in August 1492, Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) sailed out of the port of Palos in southwestern Spain in search of a sea passage to the Orient.

There being no reason to believe that Columbus would reach lands other than the fringes of Asia, he and his sponsors, the Catholic monarchs Isabella (1451–1504) and Ferdinand (1452–1516), envisaged no more than the establishment of a chain of fortified trading posts similar to the feitorias pioneered by the Portuguese in Africa. Staffed by salaried crown employees, the Spanish factoría was to serve as the means through which to obtain high value goods (principally, it was hoped, gold and spices) without the need to settle the land and exploit it directly.

However, early reports of the potential of the Indies, the name by which Spain's New World possessions came to be known, and especially of the large island of Hispaniola (now occupied by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), with its large population as yet to be exposed to Christian teachings, were sufficient to persuade Isabella and Ferdinand to redefine their objectives, and abandon the trading-post model in favor of that which was more familiar to Castilians, namely, occupation and settlement.

Columbus's second expedition, undertaken in 1493, consisted of more than one thousand men of varied trades and occupations, supplied with all the necessities, including agricultural stock, to found a colony capable of providing the resources for continued exploration of the surrounding area. Most of this first wave of emigrants either died or returned to Spain broken and disillusioned by the harsh reality of life on Hispaniola. But as news of the discoveries spread from Seville through Andalusia, Extremadura, and eventually throughout Castile, thousands of men, motivated in part by a spirit of adventure, but attracted above all by the prospect of untold wealth, made their way across the Atlantic, steadily increasing the Spanish presence and providing a pool from which future expeditionary leaders would draw to man further voyages of exploration within the Caribbean and beyond.

Hispaniola was soon to be overshadowed by Cuba and especially by the mainland territories of the Aztecs and Incas. But the occupation and settlement of this, the first permanent European colony in the Western Hemisphere, was crucial in enabling Spain to formulate the policies and practices that were to make possible the acquisition of an empire and to develop the institutions through which it was to be governed for the following three centuries.

One such practice was that whereby the Spanish Crown, unwilling to take direct control of, or invest heavily in, the incorporation of new territories, relied on entrepreneurial individuals to organize, finance, and undertake the exploration, conquest, and settlement of unexplored regions, in exchange for wide-ranging political and economic privileges, or mercedes. These agreements took the form of a contract or license called a capitulación, which stipulated the duties and responsibilities of the expeditionary leader, as well as the privileges he could expect to enjoy in the newly subjugated area.

Principal among these duties and privileges were the military title of adelantado, the governorship of the territory concerned, and preferential rights over its economic resources so as to enable him to pay off his investors, reward his followers, and derive a handsome profit for himself. To this end, the crown also sanctioned the introduction in the Indies of another key institution—that of repartimiento, later to become the encomienda. Literally a distribution to selected individuals of designated groups of Indians for the purpose of labor and tribute, repartimiento served as the means whereby new territory was secured, its economic potential developed, and its most "deserving" conquerors and early settlers appropriately rewarded.

The notion of reward for services originated in the reconquista (reconquest), the centuries-long advance against the Muslims within the Iberian Peninsula, and was successfully extended to the colonization of the Canary Islands beginning in 1479. In the New World, it proved a crucial method for promoting, at minimal cost to the crown, the speedy occupation of the vast territories that were to comprise Spain's empire in America.

Over the decades that followed Columbus's first landing in the Bahamas in October 1492, dozens of conquistadores, many but not all of whom were minor nobles or hidalgos who saw military service on behalf of the crown and the Christian religion as the most promising route to social advancement, led bands of followers of lesser social status (soldiers, sailors, blacksmiths, bakers, tailors, and scribes, among others) into the waters surrounding Hispaniola and onto the mainland beyond. The lure of wealth and control of Indians being the principal incentives for participation in expeditions of conquest, new areas that failed to yield sufficient resources to satisfy the high expectations of its conquerors and first settlers, the arrival of large numbers of emigrants ambitious for wealth and status of their own, or even rumors of the existence of richer and more densely populated lands elsewhere, invariably stimulated further exploration. In this way, each territorial gain served as a launching pad for another advance into the surrounding area: Those who endured the hardships of the Atlantic crossing and the discomforts and dangers of an unfamiliar and hostile environment did so not in the expectation of new opportunities for work, but to live on the fruits of the labor of others. Over time, as Spaniards consolidated control over the most rewarding and densely populated parts of the hemisphere, capitulaciones declined in utility, but they continued to be employed late into the colonial period as a method for extending Spanish domination over the peripheries of empire.

Critical to the Spaniards' fortunes were the responses of local indigenous populations. Thus, the early occupation and settlement of Hispaniola were facilitated by the initially amicable reaction of the Taíno peoples. Surprised by the unexpected arrival of men so different from themselves, and unaware of the long-term implications of a development for which nothing in their prior experience had prepared them, those Taíno caciques (chiefs) with whom Spaniards first made contact were sufficiently curious about, and impressed by, the newcomers and their glass and metal objects not only to engage in trade but to offer hospitality and protection.

Resistance mounted as the real objectives of the Spaniards were gradually revealed and as the Taíno began to experience the consequences of colonization—enslavement, forced labor, the destruction of crops by European livestock, and the impact of European diseases to which the indigenous peoples of the Americas, having developed in isolation from the rest of the world, had no acquired immunity. For the peoples of Hispaniola and neighboring islands, disease was to be the most devastating effect of conquest: Within a few decades of contact, their populations had been virtually wiped out by repeated outbreaks, the most damaging of which were smallpox, measles, and influenza. Sporadic resistance notwithstanding, the initial welcome offered by Hispaniola's caciques, combined with the continuing assistance of at least some among their number, permitted the Spaniards to establish a firm and permanent foothold on the island without a full-scale conquest of the kind that would subsequently be necessary almost everywhere the Spaniards went on the mainland.

The conquest of mainland peoples proved considerably more costly. Nevertheless, within just a few years of landing on the coasts of Mexico (1519) and Peru (1532), Spanish conquistadores under the leadership of Hernán Corteés (ca. 1484–1547) and Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541) respectively, had taken possession on behalf of the Spanish Crown of the large, rich, and densely populated empires of the Aztecs and the Incas. A number of factors came together in the early sixteenth century to deliver the Spaniards quick and decisive victories.

First, Corteés and Pizarro, though they began their conquests more than a decade apart, were immeasurably advantaged by the political situation prevailing in the Aztec and Inca empires at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. Both empires had come into being over a period of approximately a century prior to contact through the incorporation by conquest or intimidation of weaker neighboring groups. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, both empires were driven by internal discontent, attributable in large part to the resentment of subject peoples deprived of their former autonomy and required to pay tribute to their imperial overlords.

For those under the dominion of the Aztecs, tribute could include the provision of sacrificial victims to the god Huitzilopochtli, upon whom the survival of the universe was thought to depend. Among the Incas, such tensions were further complicated by division within their own ranks arising from a bitter war of succession between the half-brothers Atahualpa (d. 1533) and Huascar (d. 1532), caused by the death of their father and Sapa Inca (emperor), Huayna Capac, in the mid-1520s. The emperor was an early victim of a smallpox epidemic that spread through native trade routes years before Europeans penetrated Inca-controlled territory.

Internal divisions within the Aztec and Inca empires proved absolutely critical to the Spaniards. Some native groups, clearly aware of the ways in which the numerically insignificant but militarily powerful Europeans could aid their struggle against imperial domination, made the decision to ally with the newcomers in the belief that a combined Spanish-Indian force offered them the best chance of regaining their independence.

Such alliances between Spaniards and resentful subject peoples within Aztec and Inca domains were made possible by the initial vacillation of the emperors Motecuhzoma (Montezuma, ca. 1466–1520) and Atahualpa—a second factor that was to have a decisive effect on the course of the conquests. Motecuhzoma, though fully informed of the activities of the Spaniards who had disembarked on the Mexican coast, made the decision to await developments before responding to a threat he did not yet fully understand. Why he hesitated remains a matter of debate, but the consequences of his inaction are well known. The delay in confronting a Spanish force comprising fewer than six hundred men enabled Cortés to make contact with the Totonacs of Cempoallan and, even more importantly, the independent kingdom of Tlaxcala, from whose peoples Cortés obtained intelligence, as well as the manpower and material resources that would make possible the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

In Peru, Atahualpa made a similar error of judgment. Having recently emerged victorious from civil war, the new emperor was sufficiently curious about the identity of the Spaniards, and confident of his ability speedily to dispatch a mere 168 men, to allow Pizarro to enter Inca territory in safety. The Inca failure to react quickly enough proved their undoing. Taking advantage of the surprise caused by horses and firearms, Cortés and Pizarro seized the emperors by force, in both cases provoking confusion, destabilizing the leadership, and delaying a concerted response. For Pizarro, the success of his daring act proved especially significant, for he was to gain not only the support of groups determined to overthrow Inca rule, principal among whom were the Huanca and Cañari, but also of the supporters of the recently defeated Huascar.

However crucial the seizures and subsequent deaths of Motecuhzoma and Atahualpa, these events marked only the beginning of the conquests of the Aztec and Inca empires. Both peoples had strong traditions of warfare, as well as large, well-trained, professional armies that had enabled them to control extensive territories and dominate millions of subject peoples. Both the Aztecs and Incas quickly overcame their initial hesitation, readily adapting to new circumstances, alien weapons, and forms of fighting entirely different from their own. Both fought on home ground, ensuring regular access to supplies and reinforcements. And both proved formidable and fanatical adversaries, capable of driving the Spanish to the limits of their endurance and inventiveness.

Sixteenth-century Spaniards, however, had a further, technological, advantage which, though certainly not the most decisive factor in their victories, aided their search for allies and gave them an important edge over their enemies at crucial points in their conquests. In the final battle for the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, for example, the large vessels, equipped with artillery, that were built by the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies allowed them to take control of the lake waters surrounding the city at precisely the time when its inhabitants were also suffering the effects of a devastating smallpox epidemic, rendering further resistance ineffective.

The degree of centralization that characterized the Aztec and Inca empires meant that, once the native leadership structures had collapsed, the transfer of power to the Spanish was relatively swift. The process of consolidating control over the outlying reaches of the empires, and the extension of Spanish domination beyond their perimeters, now propelled further expeditions or entradas into the unknown. At the same time that the Spanish Crown encouraged the ambitious and adventurous to seek new opportunities for wealth and glory, however, it sought also to limit the powers of conquerors and first settlers. In addition, though it sometimes failed in these objectives, the Spanish Crown sought to protect its native vassals from excessive exploitation and bring about their conversion to Christianity.

see also Christianity and Colonial Expansion in the Americas; Colonization and Companies.


Cieza de Leoó, Pedro. The Discovery and Conquest of Peru. Translated and edited by Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. Translated and edited by Anthony Pagden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

Deagan, Kathleen, and José María Cruxent. Columbus's Outpost Among the Taínos: Spain and America at La Isabela, 1493–1498. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Columbus. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Góngora, Mario. Studies in the Colonial History of Spanish America. Translated by Richard Southern. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. New York: Harcourt, 1970.

Lockhart, James, and Stuart Schwartz. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Phillips, William D., Jr., and Carla Phillips. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Thomas, Hugh. The Conquest of Mexico. London: Hutchinson, 1993.

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