10 Spanish Exploration and Conquest

As news of the Spanish conquest spread, wealth-hungry Spaniards poured into the New World seeking land and gold and titles. A New World empire spread from Spain’s Caribbean foothold. Motives were plain: said one soldier, “we came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich.” Mercenaries joined the conquest and raced to capture the human and material wealth of the New World.

The Spanish managed labor relations through a legal system known as the encomienda, an exploitive feudal arrangement in which Spain tied Indian laborers to vast estates. In the encomienda, the Spanish crown granted a person not only land but a specified number of natives as well. Encomenderos brutalized their laborers with punishing labor. After Bartolome de Las Casas published his incendiary account of Spanish abuses (The Destruction of the Indies), Spanish authorities abolished the encomienda in 1542 and replaced it with the repartimiento. Intended as a milder system, the repartimiento nevertheless replicated many of the abuses of the older system and the rapacious exploitation of the native population continued as Spain spread its empire over the Americas.

El Castillo
El Castillo (pyramidd of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá, photograph by Daniel Schwen, via Wikimedia Commons

As Spain’s New World empire expanded, Spanish conquerors met the massive empires of Central and South America, civilizations that dwarfed anything found in North America. In central America the Maya built massive temples, sustained large populations, and constructed a complex and long-lasting civilization with a written language, advanced mathematics, and stunningly accurate calendars. But Maya civilization, although it had not disappeared, nevertheless collapsed before European arrival, likely due to droughts and unsustainable agricultural practices. But the eclipse of the Maya only heralded the later rise of the most powerful native civilization ever seen in the Western Hemisphere: the Aztecs.

Militaristic migrants from northern Mexico, the Aztecs moved south into the Valley of Mexico, conquered their way to dominance, and built the largest empire in the New World. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they found a sprawling civilization centered around Tenochtitlan, an awe-inspiring city built on a series of natural and man-made islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco, located today within modern-day Mexico City. Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325, rivaled the world’s largest cities in size and grandeur. Much of the city was built on large artificial islands called chinampas which the Aztecs constructed by dredging mud and rich sediment from the bottom of the lake and depositing it over time to form new landscapes. A massive pyramid temple, the Templo Mayor, was located at the city center (its ruins can still be found in the center of Mexico City). When the Spaniards arrived they could scarcely believe what they saw: 70,000 buildings, housing perhaps 200,000-250,000 people, all built on a lake and connected by causeways and canals. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Cortez’s soldiers, later recalled, “When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land, we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments … Some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? … I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.”

From their island city the Aztecs dominated an enormous swath of central and southern Mesoamerica. They ruled their empire not through a decentralized network of subject peoples that paid regular tribute–including everything from the most basic items, such as corn, beans, and other foodstuffs, to luxury goods such as jade, cacao, and gold–and provided troops for the empire. But unrest festered beneath the Aztec’s imperial power and European conquerors lusted after its vast wealth.

Map of Tenochititlan
This sixteenth-century map of Tenochtitlan shows the aesthetic beauty and advanced infrastructure of this great Aztec city. Map, c. 1524, Wikimedia.

Hernan Cortes, an ambitious, thirty-four year old Spaniard who had won riches in the conquest of Cuba, organized an invasion of Mexico in 1519. Sailing with 600 men, horses, and cannon, he landed on the coast of Mexico. Relying on a native translator, whom he called Doña Marina, and whom Mexican folklore denounces as La Malinche, Cortes gathered information and allies in preparation for conquest. Through intrigue, brutality, and the exploitation of endemic political divisions, he enlisted the aid of thousands of native allies, defeated Spanish rivals, and marched on Tenochtitlan.

Aztec dominance rested upon fragile foundations and many of the region’s semi-independent city-states yearned to break from Aztec rule while nearby kingdoms, including Tarascans to the north, and the remains of Maya city-states on the Yucatán peninsula, chafed at Aztec power.

Through persuasion, and maybe because some Aztecs thought Cortes was the god Quetzalcoatl, the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán peacefully. Cortes then captured the emperor Montezuma and used him to gain control of the Aztecs’ gold and silver reserves and its network of mines. Eventually, the Aztecs revolted. Montezuma was branded a traitor and uprising ignited the city. Montezuma was killed along with a third of Cortes’s men in la noche triste, the “night of sorrows.” The Spanish fought through thousands of indigenous insurgents and across canals to flee the city, where they regrouped, enlisted more native allies, captured Spanish reinforcements, and, in 1521, besieged the island city. The Spaniard’s eighty-five day siege cut off food and fresh water. Smallpox ravaged the city. One Spanish observer said it “spread over the people as great destruction. Some it covered on all parts—their faces, their heads, their breasts, and so on. There was great havoc. Very many died of it … They could not move; they could not stir.” Cortes, the Spaniards, and their native allies then sacked the city. 15,000 died. The temples were unmade. After two years of conflict, a million-person strong empire was toppled by disease, dissension, and a thousand European conquerors.

Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, “Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops,” 1848. Wikimedia.

Further south, along the Andes Mountains in South America, the Quechuas, or Incas, managed a vast mountain empire. From their capital of Cuzco in the Andean highlands, through conquest and negotiation, the Inca built an empire that stretched around the western half of the South American continent from present day Ecuador to central Chile and Argentina. They built steppes to farm fertile mountain soil and by the 1400s they managed a thousand miles of Andean roads that tied together perhaps twelve million people. But like the Aztecs, unrest between the Incas and conquered groups created tensions and left the empire vulnerable to foreigners. Smallpox spread in advance of Spanish conquerors and hit the Incan empire in 1525. Epidemics ravaged the population, cutting the empire’s population in half, killing the Incan emperor Huayna Capac and many members of his family and sparking a bloody war of succession. Inspired by Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizzaro moved South and arrived amid an empire torn by chaos. With 168 men, he deceived Incan rulers and took control of the empire and seized the capital city, Cuzco, in 1533. Disease, conquest, and slavery ravaged the remnants of the Incan empire.

After the conquests of Mexico and Peru, Spain settled into empire. A vast administrative hierarchy governed its new holdings: royal appointees oversaw an enormous territory of landed estates and Indian laborers and administrators regulated the extraction of gold and silver and oversaw their transport across the Atlantic in Spanish galleons. Meanwhile Spanish migrants poured into the New World. 225,000 migrated during the sixteenth century alone, and 750,000 came during the entire three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Spaniards, often single, young, and male, emigrated for the various promises of land, wealth, and social advancement. Laborers, craftsmen, soldiers, clerks, and priests all crossed the Atlantic in large numbers. Indians, however, always outnumbered the Spanish and the Spaniards, by both necessity and design, incorporated native Americans–unequally–into colonial life.

An elaborate racial hierarchy marked Spanish life in the New World. Regularized in the mid-1600s but rooted in medieval practices, the Sistema de Castas organized individuals into various racial groups based upon their supposed “purity of blood.” Various classifications—often elaborately arrived at—became almost prerequisites for social and political advancement in Spanish colonial society. Peninsulares—Iberian-born Spaniards, or Españoles–occupied the highest levels of administration and acquired the greatest estates. Their descendants, New World-born Spaniards, or criollos, occupied the next rung and rivaled the peninsulares for wealth and opportunity. Mestizos–a term used to describe those of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage–followed.

Like the French later in North America, the Spanish tolerated and sometimes even supported interracial marriage. There were simply too few Spanish women in the New World to support the natural growth of a purely Spanish population. The Catholic Church endorsed interracial marriage as a moral bulwark against bastardy and rape. As early as 1533, King Carlos I declared that any child with Spanish blood “to the half” was entitled to certain Spanish rights. By 1600, mestizos made up a large portion of the colonial population. By the early 1700s, more than one-third of all marriages bridged the Spanish-Indian divide. Largely separated by wealth and influence from the peninsulares and criollos, however, mestizos typically occupied a middling social position in Spanish New World society. They were not quite Indios, or Indians, but their lack of limpieza de sangre, or “pure blood,” removed them from the privileges of full-blooded Spaniards. Spanish fathers of sufficient wealth and influence might shield their mestizo children from racial prejudice, and a number of wealthy mestizos married Españoles to “whiten” their family lines, but more often mestizos were confined to a middle-station in the Spanish New World.

Slaves and Indians occupied the lowest rungs of the social ladder. After Bartolome de las Casas and other reformers shamed the Spanish for their harsh Indian policies in the 1530s, the Spanish outlawed Indian slavery. In the 1550s, the encomienda system of land-based forced-labor gave way to the repartimiento, an exploitative but slightly softer form of forced wage-labor. Slaves labored especially on Spain’s Caribbean plantation islands.

Many manipulated the Casta System to gain advantages for themselves and their children. Mestizo mothers, for instance, might insist that their mestizo daughters were actually castizas, or quarter-Indians, who, if they married a Spaniard, could, in the eyes of the law, produce “pure” criollo children entitled to the full rights and opportunities of Spanish citizens. But “passing” was an option for the few. Instead, the massive native populations within Spain’s New World Empire ensured a level of cultural and racial mixture–or Mestizaje–unparalleled in British North America. Spanish North America wrought a hybrid culture that was neither fully Spanish nor fully Indian. The Spanish not only built Mexico City atop Tenochtitlán, but food, language, and families spilled across racial barriers. In 1531, a poor Indian named Juan Diego reported that he was visited by the Virgin Mary, who came as a dark-skinned Nahuatl-speaking Indian. Reports of miracles spread across Mexico and the Virgen de Guadalupe became a national icon for a new mestizo society.

Our Lady of Guadalupe
Our Lady of Guadalupe is perhaps the most culturally important and extensively reproduced Mexican-Catholic image. In the iconic depiction, Mary stands atop the tilma (peasant cloak) of Juan Diego, on which according to his story appeared the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Throughout Mexican history, the story and image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a unifying national symbol. Mexican retablo of “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” 19th century, in El Paso Museum of Art. Wikimedia.

From Mexico, Spain expanded northward. Lured by the promises of gold and another Tenochtitlán, Spanish expeditions scoured North America for another wealthy Indian empire. Huge expeditions, resembling vast moving communities, composed of hundreds of soldiers, settlers, priests, and slaves, with enormous numbers of livestock, moved across the continent. Juan Ponce de Leon, the conqueror of Puerto Rico, landed in Florida in 1513 in search of wealth and slaves. Cabeza de Vaca joined the Narvaez expedition to Florida a decade later, was shipwrecked, and embarked upon a remarkable multi-year odyssey across the Gulf of Mexico and Texas into Mexico. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and it remains the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the present-day United States.

But without the rich gold and silver mines of Mexico, the plantation-friendly climate of the Caribbean, or the exploitive potential of large Indian empires, North America offered little incentive for Spanish officials. Still, Spanish expeditions combed North America. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado pillaged his way across the Southwest. Hernando De Soto tortured and raped and enslaved his way across the Southeast. Soon Spain had footholds–however tenuous–across much of the continent.

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American History I by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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