Spanish Conquest of the New World

By Archdruid

Modern Mexico is a land of many influences. The majority of the populace is descended directly from the natives who inhabited the land long before European contact in the late fifteenth century, but they speak the language and worship the god of their conquerors. The Spanish who defeated the natives were themselves a multi-faceted people, bearing the cultural traits of both the Visigothic warriors who established kingdoms in Spain when Rome fell and the Islamic Moors and Berbers who later controlled the bulk of the Iberian Peninsula. The religion transported across the Atlantic by the Spanish was Christianity, specifically a militant form of Catholicism that developed during the conflict with the Muslims. As a people and culture the Spanish had been at war for seven centuries [1], and once the Muslims were expelled from Granada in 1492, this militaristic heritage had no obvious outlet. The rest of Europe was Christian, and Spain had a weak economy after centuries of warfare; without some economic boost, the Spanish would never compete with the other European powers. The Spanish turned to exploration, and upon the discovery of the Americas, conquest. When the Portuguese first began their colonial expansion in Africa, they encountered peoples whose weapons and methods of warfare were similar to their own. Technologically, there were differences in the quality of their weapons, but not in the types of weapons themselves. African spears were similar to Portuguese spears, and African warfare was similar to Portuguese warfare in that battles were fought primarily to be won, with prisoners an occasional commodity. Because they lacked a decisive technological advantage, suffered from diseases to which they had no biological resistance, and were severely outnumbered, the Portuguese met with only limited success in their military excursions. Not so for the Spanish in the Americas. The earliest Spanish expeditions into Mexico met with dramatic success. Never before had so mighty an Empire as that of the Aztecs been felled by so small a group of men. It took only 600 Spanish and some native allies to demolish one of the greatest empires in the new world. Their successes in Mexico and the rest of Central America led the Spanish to explore further, and soon after they once again achieved the seemingly impossible. Francisco Pizarro successfully led a similarly small group of Spanish soldiers and mercenaries against the even larger and more advanced Inca Empire. The three foremost factors in the Spanish conquest were technology, disease, and the religion of the natives. Since the Spanish success against the Aztecs directly resulted in further expeditions into South America, this essay will focus on the Mexican conquest, with the South American Inca being included where appropriate.

One of the common arguments regarding the Spanish defeat of the Aztecs is that the Aztec ruler, Montezuma, was incompetent. His cautious treatment of the invaders who made their intentions clear from early encounters has been argued to have led directly to the downfall of his empire, but rarely are Montezuma’s motives examined. It seems incomprehensible that a ruler of 5 million would allow 600 men [2] to end his reign so abruptly and with such consequences. Several scholarly opinions have been put forth on the topic, but it seems clear that it was his religion that motivated his actions (or lack thereof). Spanish sources consistently place much of the blame on Montezuma, and a somewhat less biased written history by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish monk who wrote in both Nahuatl (the Aztec language) and Spanish, based on interviews with surviving Aztec nobles also indicates that Montezuma was a failure but gives substantially more information regarding his motivations [3]. Montezuma was an exceedingly pious man, and there was a long held legend among the Aztecs that their god Quetzalcoatl would soon return from the east [4]. According to Sahagun, Quetzalcoatl was pale skinned and bearded, and Montezuma almost immediately treated Cortez as the god himself. Montezuma’s belief spread among the natives, and the addition of horses and cannons, neither of which had been seen before [5], only added to their terror. The gods were of vital importance to the Aztecs. Popular theory has long held that they waged Flower Wars, so named for their goals of training warriors and capturing victims for sacrifice rather than killing or conquering a rival people, although this theory has of late come under attack [6]. The Spanish, for their part, had no compunction about abusing the native mythology: “In order to preserve this myth, the Spaniards would bury immediately any man or horse that died so that no knowledge of it would reach the Indians. [7]

A key aspect of the Spanish success in the Americas was the technological difference between themselves and the natives. Unlike the Portuguese, who encountered African peoples with iron weaponry, the Spanish had every advantage in their excursions. Where the Africans were in some cases capable metalworkers, there is no evidence that the Aztecs were capable of producing bronze in any quantity prior to the Spanish conquest, although they made use of both copper and tin in some quantity [8]. The Spanish, by contrast, were using some of the best steel in Europe. In addition to this, their cannons proved devastating to the natives, doing as much damage psychologically as they did physically. To natives who had never seen such things, the sound and power of these weapons was immense, and there are records of the natives fainting at the mere sight and sound of such weapons [9]. So fearful of the Spanish weapons were the Aztecs that the Emperor Montezuma repeatedly sent wise men and sorcerers to attempt to stop the Spanish advance towards his city, which amounted to the only effort by Montezuma to attack the Spanish. The sorcerers returned to him reporting failure, which only heightened his fears and, by extension, those of his people [10]. Even the lesser projectile weapons of the Spanish, crossbows, proved themselves deadly effective, and Cortez’ force is listed by Bernal Diaz, a Spaniard writing after the fact, to have contained 27 cavalry, 80 crossbows, and 80 musketeers [11].

It is well known to most historians that disease played a key role in the European conquest of the Americas. When the Portuguese attempted to establish themselves in Africa, they were seriously afflicted with native diseases such as Malaria. The Spanish, on the other hand, encountered no such disease, but brought several with them from Europe. From the earliest infestation of smallpox in 1520 [12] the fate of the natives was decided. For the following 100 years, the 20 million natives of Mexico died in droves, and by 1618 there were only 1.6 million left [13]. So drastic were the effects of disease that entire villages were depopulated, entire cultures eradicated, and a whole new hemisphere left open for European settlers to establish themselves en masse. Hernando De Soto, a Spanish explorer, in his 1540 march through the American Southwest, encountered numerous villages entirely abandoned due to the onset of disease prior even to the Spanish arrival in the area [14]. Three diseases primarily devastated the Aztecs after the Spanish arrival. The first was smallpox, and then measles, and finally a rather mysterious epidemic often associated with a form of typhus [15]. The third disease is mysterious insomuch as it did not appear until 1576, and while it did not affect Europeans to the same extent as the natives, most forms of typhus would. It has thus been theorized that the third disease (known to the natives as matlazahuatl) may have been of American origin, but of similar nature to diseases known to Europeans [16]. The disease situation was further compounded by native ceremonial traditions. Spanish witnesses report that the corpses of sacrificial victims were sometimes eaten, and while these sources may be regarded as somewhat suspect, there is evidence that certain organs, at the very least, were eaten [17]. If the Spanish sources are taken at their word, human sacrifice and cannibalism were both practiced on a large scale, and this most certainly would have contributed to the spread of a myriad of diseases. Unlike some of the other practices supposedly embraced by the natives (such as sodomy), reports of sacrifice and cannibalism are almost universal among first-hand accounts, and as such are quite likely to have occurred. Regardless of the validity of these accounts, however, the fact remains that disease quickly overtook the continents, and no people suffered so much from disease as did the Inca of South America. Around 1526, smallpox arrived in the Andes, five years ahead of the Spanish themselves. The disease killed both the emperor of the Inca and his successor, which led the empire into a devastating civil war even as the people continued to perish from disease [18]. Francisco Pizarro and 128 Spaniards then conquered the greatest and most populous empire the Americas had yet seen.

After considering the evidence, it can clearly be seen that the three factors most decisive in the conquest of the New World were technology, disease, and the religion of the natives. Native allies also played some role, but not to nearly the extent of the factors examined in this essay. Without a technological advantage, the natives’ numerical superiority would have proved an insurmountable obstacle to the Spanish. Without the devastating impact of disease, the Spanish would have faced an Incan empire at the peak of its strength, rather than the diminishing shadow of an empire they eventually conquered. Without the specific myths and legends in their native religion, the Aztecs may have responded to the Spanish hostility with violence rather than fear, and Cortez would have found his small party ambushed and annihilated by superior numbers long before it reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, rather than worshipped and sent gifts by the Aztec emperor himself. Wherever one of these failed, the other two were so drastically influential that the fall of the native empires was assured. The legacy of the New World’s brutal subjugation lives on even today. In many areas, particularly among the former Spanish colonies, good government and economic success remain elusive, despite the achievements of their ancestors. In Peru, especially, the native Inca prior to the Spanish colonization were a brilliantly successful developing civilization that, in hindsight, is often compared to that of the Romans for their relative religious tolerance and infrastructure construction. If not for the Spanish arriving when they did, the Inca would almost certainly have continued their rapid development and success, leading to a very different western hemisphere. The descendants of the Spanish colonists today form an elite class within their former colonies, and it is only in very recent years that some non-violent progress has been made. In particular, the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia is a signal of hope. President Morales is the first indigenous leader to win an election in Bolivia, an achievement not yet matched by native peoples even in supposedly more advanced (but more recently colonized) countries such as Canada or the United States. Despite some hopeful progress governmentally, many South and Central American countries still face rebel insurgencies of varying political ideologies, almost all of which have their origin in the racial separation between the wealthy political elite descended mostly from European colonists and the poverty-stricken indigenous populations. In addition to social problems, most Central and South American nations suffer economic difficulties. In Bolivia, for example, the primary source of income is the coca plant, which some major western powers have tried to discourage due to its use in the narcotic cocaine. In Venezuela, on the other hand, oil dominates the economy and makes the elite even more wealthy, while the poor continue to suffer. Until the legacy of the colonial powers can be overcome, these situations are likely to remain at the forefront of Central and South American affairs for many years to come.

1. Eliseo Vivas, The Spanish Heritage, American Sociological Review Vol 10, No 2, 1942, p. 185
2. Diamond, Jared E, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York, Norton Company, 1999) 210
3. Sara E Cohen, How the Aztecs Appraised Montezuma, The History Teacher Vol 5, No 3, 1972, p. 23
4. T. Esquivel Obregon, Factors in the Historical Evolution of Mexico, The Hispanic American Historical Review Vol 2, No 2, 1919 p. 139
5. Cohen, 26
6. Frederic Hicks, ‘Flowery War’ in Aztec History, American Ethnologist Vol 6, No 1, 1979, p. 87
7. Cohen, 27
8. George Brinton Phillips, The Metal Industry of the Aztecs, American Anthropologist Vol 27, No 4, 1925 p 551
9. Cohen, 26
10. Cohen, 29
11. George Raudzens, War-Winning Weapons: The Measurement of Technological Determinism in Military History, The Journal of Military History Vol 54, No 4, 1990, p. 412
12. Diamond, 210
13. Diamond, 210
14. Diamond, 211
15. Sherburne F. Cook, The Incidence and Significance of Disease among the Aztecs and Related Tribes, The Hispanic American Historical Review Vol 26, No 3, 1946, p. 321
16. Cook, 321
17. Michael Harner, The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice, American Ethnologist Vol 4, No 1, 1977, p. 120
18. Diamond, 211