God, Glory and Gold – The Motivation of the Spanish Conquistadors

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First Landing of Columbus on the Shores of the New World; painting by Dióscoro Puebla (1862)

What motivated the Spanish Conquistadors is often neatly broken down into three basic factors: God, glory and gold. While it is hard to fault this concept it is nonetheless a hugely simplistic point of view. Each Conquistador had his own reasons for travelling to an unknown and hostile land; few were forced to go and each soldier was motivated by his own personal goals.

By looking at the Hernan Cortés expedition, as will be done here, the concept of God, glory and gold can both be supported and expanded upon. The few hundred brave men who went with Cortés into the heartlands of the Aztec Empire were by no means uniform in their goals or ideals. While most were motivated by God, glory and gold to some extent, the influence of each one varied depending upon the individual.

Personal Wealth and the Quest for Aztec Gold

That the Conquistadors were in search of personal wealth is undeniable. The quest for Aztec gold was at the forefront of the Cortés expedition and the reason why many soldiers willingly joined the campaign. If gold did not come their way then silver, textiles, jewelry and other treasures were never far from reach. Bernal Diaz, Conquistador and later chronicler of the expedition, frequently details the gifts (of varying value) offered to his party in The Conquest of New Spain.

Potential personal wealth also resided in the possibility of claiming land. While some of the upper ranks in the expedition, Cortés included, were already landowners in New Spain or back in their homeland, others were landless soldiers with much to gain and very little to lose. Settling in a Spanish-controlled New World as a landowner offered its own distinct benefits.

The Conquistadors, Religion & the Spread of the Catholic Faith

The Cortés expedition went to great lengths to establish the Catholic faith in the lands through which they passed. At times, in contrast to the otherwise careful handling of the native population by Cortés, the destruction of native religious idols was carried out in order to promote the Catholic faith. Crosses were also erected in potentially hostile territory and sermons and teachings were given to the local populace by way of translator.

The Cortés expedition, however, was largely a military undertaking. It can be argued that religious motives were largely a pretext for the actual purpose of the campaign, the quest for Aztec gold. In order to maintain the support of both the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, the cunning Cortés would have felt the need to give the expedition a religious angle.

That said, the Conquistadors were highly religious men who bore witness to sacrifices, cannibalism, idolatry and acts of sodomy throughout their journey through the New World. Bernal Diaz makes it quite clear that his companions were horrified by much of what they saw. That Cortés and his men may have felt compelled to promote their own faith in light of native religious practices is not beyond reason.

The Conquest of New Spain in the Name of the King

Cortés certainly paid heed to his King but he took his own advice more than that of any other man, certainly while in the New World. He often consulted with the senior members of his expedition but he was, by and large, a man under his own command. Cortés’ early years seem to reflect this independent streak, a character trait that was to grow as the man matured.

However, Cortés always portrayed himself as the envoy of his King, particularly when dealing with Montezuma. The royal fifth (the portion of booty to be given to the crown) may have been a little light on occasion, but Cortés and his Conquistadors had little reason to be overtly disloyal to Spain.

The Conquistadors, Glory & Honor

Warfare has long been associated with concepts such as “glory” and “honor”. It is doubtful whether any Conquistador could be seen as driven principally by a desire for glory, although glory can be seen as a driving force behind the Cortés expedition. Whatever charges can be raised against the conduct of the Conquistadors, their bravery cannot be questioned.

Historian Irving Albert Leonard highlights this Spanish notion of glory: “This Spanish preoccupation with the abstract quality of Glory, which was closely identified with military distinction, probably crystallized during the more than seven centuries of intermittent warfare against the Moors”. If glory itself was a motivating factor for the Spanish Conquistadors, it would certainly help to explain their numerous acts of almost foolhardy bravery.

Sources:

  1. Bernal Diaz – The Conquest of New Spain, Penguin Classics, 1963, ISBN 9780140441239
  2. Irving Albert Leonard – Books of the Brave, University of California Press, 1949, ISBN 0520079906