Introduction to the Conquest of the Americas (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)

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Introduction to the Conquest of the Americas (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)

The Spanish conquest of the Americas began witlessly as a quest for a western route to Asia. What Christopher Columbus, sailing under the auspices of Queen Isabella of Castile, encountered in 1492 were not the Indies but islands off a continent later dubbed North America.

To gain the immeasurable wealth in gold, silver, and precious stones the region yielded, Spain took advantage of its superior weaponry and the deadliness of its diseases (the indigenous populations had no immunity to smallpox and other European illnesses carried to the Americas by the colonizers). In a short time, the Caribbean islands became Spanish colonies economically based on plantations and mines.

In 1518, an expedition sent by the governor of Cuba landed on mainland Mexico, even richer in gold than the islands. Inland lay the empire of the Aztecs, founded in the fourteenth century by three Aztec cities: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Tenochtitlan, a city on an island in Lake Texcoco, came to dominate this trio.

Hernán Cortés led the 1519 expedition that would defeat this empire. Through bloodshed and clever persuasion, he exploited the social fractures that existed in Mexico, gaining allies among the malcontent subjects of the Aztecs. The Aztec leader Moctezuma reluctantly greeted the strangers—whom he believed might possibly be gods—and, after much dithering, willingly if not happily surrendered himself into Spanish captivity.

By giving himself to the Spanish, Moctezuma surrendered the trust of his subjects. The Aztecs besieged the Spanish quartered in the city. In the summer of 1520, Moctezuma was killed and the Spanish escaped from Tenochtitlan in a bloody debacle known as La Noche Triste (“Sorrowful Night”).

A short while later, the decisive victory achieved at the battle of Otumba boosted Spanish morale. Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan in 1521 and, after months of siege against which the new emperor Cuauhtémoc bravely held out, destroyed the city and its empire. Cortés thus founded Spanish Mexico.

The Aztecs were the first group to be vanquished, but they were by no means the last. Spanish forces conquered Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and beyond. Francisco Pizarro (Cortés’s cousin) and Pedro de Alvarado destroyed the Peruvian empire of the Incas.

Foundations for the imperial Inca period were laid centuries before, but the empire had been expanding aggressively for about a hundred years by the time the Spaniards arrived in 1531. After the battle of Cajamarca in 1532 and the execution of the Inca emperor Atahualpa, Pizarro and his men went on to reap the rewards of discord within the empire. They defeated the headless state and installed a brief succession of puppet emperors, native figureheads for the newly founded Spanish colony.

The second of these Peruvian emperors, Manco Inca, rebelled. Having founded a new kingdom called Vilcabamba, he and his successors harassed the Spaniards, who were also fighting among themselves. With the execution of the last Inca ruler, Tupac Amaru, Vilcabamba vanished in the jungle.

Events in Central and South America were paralleled by those in North America. The introduction of European agriculture and other technologies—and European diseases—allowed the English, French, and Dutch to gain toeholds, and then firm footing, among the indigenous cultures of the eastern seaboard. These regions became colonies, rich not in gold but in other resources such as timber. Harvesting these goods made the European nations and their colonies wealthy, even as it impoverished and all but destroyed the indigenous American populations. This combination of wealth and sacrifice laid the foundations from which would later rise such independent nations as Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Chile.

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Introduction to the Conquest of the Americas (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)

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Introduction to the Conquest of the Americas (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)