Spain was once an immensely powerful empire with interests in the New World. The Spanish conquistadors were mainly explorers and soldiers.
In the 1500s Spain was at the height of its glory. Gold and silver poured in from its colonies and Spain was the most powerful state in Europe. This era of Spanish history was as grand as the adventures of ancient Greeks and Romans, and the conquistadors were at the heart of Spain’s success. The word ‘conquistador’ means conqueror, and that’s what these men did in what is today the southern United States, Mexico, Central and South America.
The voyages of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan’s successful circumnavigation of the globe from 1519–22 whetted the imperialist appetite of the Spaniards, who wanted to get a piece of the lucrative spice trade from Asia. Being a conquistador was dangerous, but the possibilities for wealth seemed endless.
How the Conquistadors Began Their Voyages
The Spanish conquistadors laid the groundwork for the expansion of European colonization, and changed the course of history. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas had split the world into two spheres of influence. The route east of the Cape of Good Hope was reserved for Portugal, while newly discovered lands to the west across the Atlantic were for Spain (with the exception of Brazil which was under Portuguese control).
Christopher Columbus never reached Cathay (China), Japan or India, but he did make it to the major islands in the Caribbean, including the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Cuba. These places didn’t have the exotic spices coveted by Europeans, but the conquistadors who followed Columbus in the next few years found a world unknown to the rest of Spain. It was full of other treasures, and ripe for the picking.
What Motivated the Conquistadors to Leave Spain?
The conquistadors left Spain for three reasons. They were looking for gold, land, and souls to convert to Christianity. The Spanish certainly had enough experience with staging conquests after the Reconquista, the centuries-long but successful retaking of the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic Moors. They had the necessary tools to travel across the Atlantic and lots of desire to expand Spanish rule. Many conquistadors felt it was the only chance to succeed economically if they went to the New World.
What the Conquistadors Brought to the New World
They brought sophisticated weapons, at least by sixteenth century standards. The Spanish made fine swords and armor. They brought Catholicism, a religion the Indians didn’t understand. The conquistadors also brought something far more perilous than any man-made weapon.
How did the Spanish overwhelm their enemies? One critical factor was disease. Smallpox was a huge killer and the Indians had no protection from influenza, typhus or measles. These invisible microbes sickened and then killed millions of people. Most of the conquistadors were immune to these illnesses, and unknowingly carried them. This made them seem superhuman, and to the Indians they weren’t men at all but gods.
In one of the most pivotal moments in human history, Hernán Cortés met Montezuma, the supreme ruler of the Aztecs, in 1519. Not long after this famous encounter between two men of very different worlds, the Aztec Empire was brought to its knees. Francisco Pizarro followed a similar path to that of Hernán Cortés, and changed the face of South America when he conquered the Incas. Juan Ponce de León was credited as the first European to set foot in Florida. He is primarily remembered for his search for the Fountain of Youth.
The Legacy of the Conquistadors
The majority of conquistadors weren’t kind or generous. They used a combination of ruthless ambition, religious piety and political disunity within native tribes to achieve their goals. Since they were so far from Spain, they did what they liked. Pánfilo de Narváez, Pedro de Alvarado, and Hernando de Soto developed reputations for extreme cruelty while they searched for riches. The military prowess of the conquistadors was impressive, but their legacy remains dark.
- The Essential World History by William B. Duiker, Jackson J. Spielvogel, Cengage Learning, 2006
- Conquistador – Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy, Bantam 1st edition, 2008
- Francisco Pizarro – Conqueror of the Incas by Barbara A. Somervill, Compass Point Books, 2006