The Spanish Conquest of the New World

Hernán Cortés

Spain’s soldier-explorers, the Conquistadors, overthrew the two most powerful native kingdoms of the New World – the Aztec kingdom of Mexico and the Inca realm in Peru. Neither kingdom could withstand the shock of invasion by steel-clad Spanish troops, some of them mounted on trained workhorses which no Indian had ever seen before. When a rider was unhorsed, the natives actually thought the animal had broken in half and were appalled that both halves kept on fighting.

This awesome reputation helped tiny Spanish armies, often less than two hundred men, to conquer vast native populations. Their classic method was to march on the native capital, form an alliance with rebel natives, and then seize the supreme ruler. In Mexico it was the Emperor Moctezuma; and in Peru, the Inca Atahualpa. This was exploration by conquest – swift and destructive, but out of it arose the great Spanish Empire in Central and South America.

Hernán Cortés 1485-1547

Conqueror of Mexico, Cortés was a born leader and a man prepared to take enormous risks. After landing in Mexico he burned his fleet behind him so that his men had no possibility of retreat. Then, striking into totally unknown country, he over-awed Moctezuma, ruler of the Aztec empire. When the Aztecs resisted the invasion, Cortés defeated them quickly and ruthlessly and established a Spanish government.

Francisco Pizarro c. 1474-1541

Said to have once been a swineherd, Pizarro went to the Americas as a soldier of fortune. After campaigning in Panama, he decided to explore southward, and in 1531 landed on the coast of Peru with 180 men and 27 horses. Crossing the mountains, he captured the Peruvian ruler, the Inca Atahualpa, and ransomed him for a roomful of gold, worth about £3 million. The Spaniards then ransacked Peru, which Pizarro ruled as governor. But after quarrelling with his lieutenants, Pizarro was murdered and Peru passed to direct Spanish rule.

Francisco de Orellana c. 1511-1546

In 1540 Orellana and some fifty Spanish soldiers crossed the Andes and reached the headwaters of the Amazon River. Building a boat from forest trees and using nails made from old horseshoes, they hung it with awnings to ward off Indian arrows. Plagued by insects and dangerous snakes, and fighting off Indian attacks, Orellana and his men were the first to navigate the huge river called the Amazon, after a tribe of warrior women.

El Dorado – The Golden Man

One dream above all lured the Spanish conquistadors deeper into Central America: the legend of El Dorado – the Golden Man. El Dorado was rumoured to be the priest-king of an immensely wealthy Indian tribe. Once a year, so the story ran, the king’s body would be smeared with gum and his attendants would blow gold dust on him through tubes until he glistened like a living statue of gold. No El Dorado quite so splendid really existed, but the conquistadors did not give up their dream. They searched Ecuador, Columbia, and even the upper Amazon for this dazzling phantom.


  1. Balchin, J (2005) To the Ends of the Earth : Journeys of the Great Explorers: From the Equator to the Poles. Arcturus Publishing.