During the 16th century, Spain and Portugal were the dominant superpowers. Their ships sailed to all corners of the globe. They explored new lands and met strange people. They discovered civilizations unknown to Europeans and brought exotic goods back to Europe, which generated much curiosity in the imperial courts as well as the streets. Their activities were driven by many things, but chief among them was greed. The desire to enrich their patrons and themselves meant that violent encounters would be a necessary evil in the acquisition of new territories and rich plunder. From these requirements, a new breed of explorer/soldier evolved. These soldiers were the conquistadors (conquistadores), and they enforced Spain and Portugal’s desires across the world.
Where Did the Conquistadors Come From?
The armies of conquistadors were anything but uniform. Although most of their recruits were from the Iberian Peninsula, many were drawn from other parts of Europe as well as Africa. These young men were often artisans looking for wealth and fame. They underwent specialized training in combat that was long and arduous. Many conquistadors also were given special education in mathematics, theology, writing, Latin, Greek, and history after they joined, and there were many opportunities for upward mobility. The conquistadors drew from all sections of society, from low-class laborers to relatively well-off hidalgos (nobles). Many Native Americans also became conquistadors, fighting for the Spanish against their local rivals.
The Catholic religion also played a major part in the lives of the conquistadors, and many Dominican and Franciscan friars joined the conquistador expeditions, offering religious services to their compatriots and acting as missionaries, converting the people of the Americas.
The Conquistadors as Conquerors: Hernán Cortés
By far, the most famous conquistadors in common memory are the ones that toppled the powerful and vast empires of the Aztecs and the Incas. Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro are the names associated with these respective conquests.
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Hernán Cortés’ fortunes began after the conquest of Cuba by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, who became a powerful acquaintance of Cortés after being declared the governor of New Spain in 1511. These were a handful of islands in the Caribbean and not the sprawling territories of the mainland. Cortés rose in prominence to become the mayor of Cuba and eventually mounted an expedition to the mainland in 1519. His relationship with Velázquez, however, had deteriorated over the years, and Velázquez decided to remove Cortés from the expedition. Cortés ignored this command and set sail anyway, thereby becoming a wanted criminal.
With 500 men, 11 ships, and a few cannons, Cortés won several battles against the natives in the region. At this point, one of the prizes of his conquests was a native woman, La Malinche, who would become his mistress and bear him a son who would be the first child born of a European father in the Americas.
During his march on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, Cortés and his conquistadors made allies and committed massacres, ensuring he was known to the Aztecs as being particularly powerful. When he arrived in Tenochtitlán, he was welcomed by the Aztec king Moctezuma II who did so in order to better understand his enemy. However, the plan backfired for the Aztec King as the conquistadors massacred Aztec nobles and holed themselves up in the city with Moctezuma as their hostage.
Moctezuma II was eventually stoned to death by his own people, and the conquistadors had to make a hasty escape during the night, narrowly avoiding being overrun and slaughtered. In 1521, Cortés returned and besieged the city, which fell to starvation and disease. Tenochtitlán was destroyed, much to the delight of the Native Americans who had served under its brutal rule, as well as Cortés and his conquistadors, who became unimaginably wealthy with all the loot. Cortés’ fame spread far and wide. His status as a criminal was overturned, and he was granted the title of marquess.
The Conquistadors as Conquerors: Francisco Pizarro
Another famous conqueror from Spain was Francisco Pizarro, who brought down the Inca Empire a decade after Cortés had done so to the Aztecs. Coincidentally related to Hernán Cortés, Pizarro was born an illegitimate child and had very little education; he grew up illiterate. Nevertheless, Pizarro gained monumental success after his journey to the New World as a conquistador in 1509. He impressed the right people, and after a few years of service, became the mayor of the new settlement of Panama City.
Pizarro led three expeditions to the south to look for riches. The first expedition was a disaster. Pizarro and his men, battling starvation, inclement weather, and hostile natives, returned to Panama. The second expedition also met with difficulties and was recalled. Pizarro and no more than thirteen of his men ignored this command, and continued with their expedition, finding evidence of the Inca Empire, vast riches, and friendly natives.
Despite the promising evidence, the governor of Panama refused Pizarro a third expedition, so Pizarro set sail for Spain to appeal to the royal court. He was successful in his attempt, impressing upon King Charles I and Queen Isabel to allow him to return. The third expedition left with just 180 men, but upon arrival at his destination, he was joined by another thirty men, including another famous conquistador, Hernando de Soto.
The King of the Inca, Atahualpa, invited the group of conquistadors to his fortress as he saw little threat from such a small force of men. Pizarro, however, was inspired by the actions of Cortés. The conquistadors brazenly demanded the conversion of the Incas to Christianity. Naturally, Atahualpa refused, and this gave Pizarro the excuse he needed.
During a display of Inca dancing, Pizarro and his men grabbed the element of surprise, capturing Atahualpa and murdering his honor guard. What followed was a massacre as the conquistadors defended their position against an enemy ill-prepared for the superiority of Spanish arms and armor. Thousands died, and Atahualpa was held for ransom in a 22 by 17 feet room, which the Spanish demanded be filled to the ceiling with gold. Despite fulfilling the ransom, Pizarro’s second in command, Diego de Almagro, executed the Inca king.
Pizarro would thereafter rule as governor of New Castile while De Almagro was appointed governor of New Toledo. The two came into a dispute over the limits of their territory and went to war. Pizarro defeated De Almagro and had him executed. In 1541, Pizarro was assassinated by De Almagro’s son, who was, in turn, caught and executed a year later.
Conquistadors as Explorers: Hernando de Soto
Despite their name (conquistador means “conqueror”), the conquistadors were also driven by a desire to explore and document new realms unseen by the eyes of Europeans. However, it must be said that the desire to explore was tied to the desire to find gold. The most famous of these conquistador explorers was Hernando de Soto, who explored much of the Southwestern United States.
Although born into nobility, the de Soto family was poor, and Hernando traveled to the New World to seek his fortune. He participated in the conquest of Central America and became renowned as a skilled fighter, horseman, and tactician who was ruthless in his exploitation of native villages. He later joined Francisco Pizarro in his conquest of the Incas, and Pizarro made de Soto one of his captains.
After the conquest of Peru, de Soto found success as lieutenant governor of Cuzco before applying to accompany Diego de Almagro in his conquest of the southern portion of the Inca Empire (now Chile), but de Almagro refused him, and de Soto decided to return to Spain.
Gathering hundreds of men from Spain and Portugal, de Soto set sail again for the New World, this time to explore North America. In 1539, de Soto landed in Florida and found a Spaniard named Juan Ortiz, who had been living with the Mocoso people. Ortiz joined de Soto’s expedition as an interpreter. For the whole expedition, de Soto used the tactic of convincing the locals that he was a god, which had varying degrees of success.
De Soto and his men not only explored but came into conflict with many of the native tribes. The conquistadors showed little mercy and took many enslaved people for labor as well as sexual gratification. They came into contact with the Timucuan people with whom they fought several battles. Showing no mercy, the conquistadors massacred the Timucuan.
In 1540, the expedition turned north, traveling through what is now Georgia and South Carolina. De Soto then headed into the Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina, and Tennessee but still could not find any sources of gold.
While camping in the Coosa Chiefdom in the Mississippian area, de Soto and his men made demands of more women and servants. When Chief Tuskaloosa refused, they took him hostage, and the Native Americans finally gave in to the conquistadors’ demands.
However, the conquistadors would pay heavily for their arrogance. While on their way to receive supplies on the Gulf of Mexico coast, they were attacked by the Mobilian tribe under Tuskaloosa. The conquistadors fought for nine hours, killing thousands of Mobilians, but at the cost of 200 dead conquistadors, hundreds more wounded, and the loss of many of their horses and much of their supplies. It was a complete disaster, and de Soto knew that if he met up with other Spaniards on the Gulf Coast, as was his prior plan, word would reach Spain, and his expedition would be recalled in shame.
Without changing tack, de Soto continued in the same fashion. The following year, he demanded 200 porters from the Chickasaw, who refused and attacked the Spanish at night, killing 40 of them and destroying the remainder of their equipment. The Chickasaw could have ended the expedition there, but they decided to spare the conquistadors who, without equipment, began to wander aimlessly.
In 1542, de Soto died of a fever. The struggling expedition returned to Mexico City and was considered an absolute failure. Not only did de Soto lay the foundations for intense animosity between the Native Americans and further European arrivals, his troops brought with them disease that ravaged the local populations.
By modern standards, and even in their own time, the conquistadors were violent and ruthless, with little regard for the lives of those Native Americans who stood in their way of fortune. Above all, the conquistadors were driven by an almost unquenchable greed for wealth, and they left death, destruction, and misery in their wake.
However, the conquistadors were also thrill-seeking adventurers, and through their exploits, they produced stories of new worlds, new people, danger, and heroism. Their quests capture our imaginations today, much the same as they would the people of Spain and Portugal five hundred years ago.