Early Latin America
Author: Allen Pikerman
Date: 2002

Spaniards And Portuguese: Background To Conquest

The peoples who inhabited the Iberian peninsula had long lived at the
frontier of Mediterranean Europe. The peninsula had known many inhabitants -
Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Goths - and during the Middle Ages it
had become a cultural frontier between Christianity and Islam. Conflict along
that frontier created a strong tradition of military conquest and rule over
peoples of other beliefs and customs - a tradition that became part of the
Iberian experience. A number of Christian kingdoms had emerged. Of these the
most important were Portugal on the Atlantic coast, and in the center of the
peninsula, Castile, the largest of all. By the mid-15th century, the religious
and ethnic diversity in these kingdoms was being submerged by a process of
political and religious unification. In 1452, the marriage of Ferdinand - the
Prince of Aragon - and Isabella - the Princess of Castile - brought the crowns
of Aragon and Castile into close alliance, and in 1492 with the fall Granada,
the last Muslim kingdom, the cross had triumphed throughout the peninsula.
Political savvy and religious fervor moved Isabella. Immediately upon the fall
of Granada, Isabella (now Queen of Castile) ordered the Jews of her realm to
convert or leave the country. As many as 200,000 may have left, severely
disrupting some aspects of the Castilian economy. It was also in 1492, with
the Granada War at an end and religious unification established, that Isabella
and Ferdinand were willing to support the project of a Genoese mariner named
Christopher Columbus, who hoped to reach the East Indies by sailing westward
around the globe.

Iberian Society And Tradition

Spanish and Portuguese society had a number of distinctive features that
would become part of the American ventures. Like many Mediterranean people
they were heavily urban, with many peasants not scattered across the
countryside but living in small towns and villages. The desire to live in an
urban setting helped set up a pattern of Spanish cities amid a largely Indian
countryside in many parts of the Americas.

Emphasis on nobility ran strong in Iberian society, and many Spanish and
Portuguese commoners who came to America as conquerors sought to recreate
themselves as a new nobility, with Indians as their serfs. Few former Iberian
peasants wanted a life of farming in the New World. Patriarchal ideals were
also heavily emphasized, though women had an active role in family life. The
patriarchal family was readily adapted to Latin America, where large estates
and grants of Indian laborers, or encomiendas, provided the framework for
relations based on economic dominance. The Iberian peninsula maintained a
tradition of holding slaves - part of its experience as an ethnic frontier -
in contrast to most of medieval Europe, and African slaves had been imported
from the trans-Sahara trade. The extension of slavery to America built upon
this tradition.

Portugal and Castile were well launched by the 15th century on political
centralization and the creation of a professional bureaucracy. Legally trained
bureaucrats formed the basis of Iberian rule in Latin America in a process
worth comparing with China and other great empires. Religion and the Church
served as the other pillar of Iberian politics; close links between Church and
state resulted from the reconquest of the peninsula from the Muslims, and
these links, including royal nomination of Church officials, were also
extended to the New World.

Spanish and particularly Portuguese merchants also shaped traditions that
became relevant in the American colonies. Portugal had been pushing down the
African coast since 1415, establishing forts for commercial exchange rather
than outright colonies. In the Atlantic islands, however, more extensive
estates were established, leading to a slave trade with Africa and a highly
commercial agricultural system based on sugar. Brazil would extend this
pattern, starting out as a trade factory but then shifting, as in the Atlantic
islands, to plantation agriculture.

The Conquest Of The New World

The period from 1492 to about 1600 witnessed a remarkable spurt of human
energy in destruction and creation. During roughly a century, vast areas of
two continents and millions of people were brought under European control. The
bases of an economic system that linked these areas to an emerging Atlantic
economy were created, and a flow of immigration and commerce was set in
motion. These processes were accompanied and made possible by the conquest and
destruction of many Indian societies and the transformation of others, as well
as by the introduction in some places of forced immigrants, the African
slaves. Mexico and Peru, with their large sedentary populations and mineral
resources, attracted the Spaniards and became, after the short initial
Caribbean stage, the focus of immigration and institution building. Other
conquests radiated outward from the Peruvian and Mexican centers.

The Caribbean Crucible

The Caribbean experience served Spain as a model for its actions
elsewhere in the Americas. From this crucible the foundations of the empire
were forged. After Columbus's original voyage in 1492, a return expedition in
the next year established a colony on the island of Santo Domingo
(Hispaniola). From there and from Spain, expeditions carried out new
explorations and conquests. Puerto Rico (1508) and Cuba (1511) fell under
Spanish control and by 1513 settlements existed in Panama and on the northern
coast of South America.

In the Caribbean, Columbus's attempt to keep the Mediterranean and West
African model of trade forts, private investment under royal contract, and a
trade in gold and slaves proved unworkable, and a more extensive colonization
pattern quickly developed. The agricultural Taino Indians of the islands
provided enough surplus labor to make their distribution to individual
Spaniards feasible, and thus began what would become the encomienda, or grants
of Indians to individual Spaniards in a kind of serfdom. Gold hunting,
slaving, and European diseases rapidly depopulated the islands, and there was
little left there to hold Spanish attention by the time of Hernan Cortes's
conquest of Mexico. A few strongly fortified ports, such as Havana, San Juan,
and Santo Domingo, guarded Spain's commercial lifeline, but on the whole the
Caribbean became a colonial backwater for the next two centuries until sugar
and slaves provided the basis of its resurgence.

In the short period of 40 years between the first voyage of Columbus and
the conquest of Mexico by Cortes, the Caribbean served as a testing ground.
Iberian-style cities were established. Spaniards had to adapt them to American
realities. Hurricanes and Indians caused a number of towns to be moved or
abandoned, but the New World also provided opportunities to implant new ideas
and forms. Unlike cities in Europe, Spanish American cities were usually laid
out according to a grid plan or checkerboard form with the town hall, major
church, and governor's palace in the central plaza. Spanish conquerors and
administrators applied classical models and rational town planning ideas to
the new situation. Using the Caribbean experience, the model of town
foundation was carried throughout the Americas, and in 1570 Spain issued a
basic set of instructions for setting up towns. Conquest came to imply

A move from the private control of Columbus and his family to royal
administration was marked by the creation of administrative institutions: the
governorship, the treasury office, and the royal court of appeals, or
audiencia, staffed by professional magistrates. Spanish legalism was part of
the institutional transfer. Notaries accompanied new expeditions, and a body
of laws was developed based on those of Spain and augmented by American
experience. The Church, represented at first by individual priests and then by
contingents of missionaries such as the Dominicans, participated in the
enterprise and by 1530, a cathedral was being built on Hispaniola with a
university to follow. The new area had to be provisioned and its commerce
regularized. The Genoese participated in this process at first, but by the
turn of the century the Board of Trade (Casa de Contratacion) was operating in
Seville and Spanish merchants were fully involved.

Rumors and hopes stimulated immigration from Spain, and by the 1510s this
included larger numbers of Spanish women. Also, Spanish and Italian merchants
began to import African slaves to work on the few sugar plantations that
operated on the islands. The arrival of both Spanish women and African slaves
represented a shift from an area of conquest to one of settlement. The same
process would be noted elsewhere in the Indies. The gold hunting phase had
given out in the islands by the 1520s and was replaced by the establishment of
ranches and sugar plantations. The adventurous, the disappointed, and the
greedy repeated the pattern. Expeditions spun off in new directions, repeating
the processes already set in motion, although in each case drawing on the
experience already gained.

Among these experiences was the virtual annihilation of the Indians of
the Caribbean. Depopulation of the laboring population led to slaving in other
islands, and in a sadly remarkable period of 30 years or so, most of the
Indian population had died or been killed. The fewer, less sedentary, and more
warlike Caribs of the lesser Antilles (whom the Spanish accused of cannibalism
and who were thus always subject to enslavement) held out longer because their
islands were less attractive to European settlement. The pattern of European
concentration on areas of denser Indian populations was already forming. The
destruction of the Indians led to further expeditions toward the mainland; it
also caused a transformation of the islands' economies toward activities like
sugar production, which called forth the African slave trade.

As early as the 1510s the mistreatment and destruction of the Indians led
to attempts by clerics and royal administrators to end the worst abuses. The
activities of men such as the Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas
(1484-1566), a conquistador turned priest, initiated the struggle for justice
that was also to repeat itself elsewhere in the Indies. He became an ardent
supporter of conversion through kindness and peaceful means, an opponent of
forced labor, and an advocate of Indian rights. His position actually won some
support from a Spanish crown interested in limiting the power of the emerging
conquistador aristocracy.

Expeditions, formed by a cross section of Spanish society, leapt from
island to island. Leadership was personalist, investment was private, and
division of spoils was made on a shares basis. An expedition's successful
leader quickly sought to ignore the authority of whomever had sent him out and
asked for direct power in the king's name. By the time Cortes looked upon the
Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the techniques of conquest and settlement were
already well established. Where the Indian peoples and cultures were more
resilient, their impact on the subsequent societies was greater than in the
Caribbean, but the process of contact was similar.

By the time of the conquest of Mexico in the 1520s and Peru in the 1530s,
all the elements of the colonial system of Latin America were in place. Even
in Brazil, which the Portuguese began to exploit after 1500, a period of
bartering with the Indians was slowly replaced by increasing royal control and
development of a sugar plantation economy. There, as in the Caribbean, Indian
resistance and subsequent depopulation led to the importation of African

Conquests And Conquerors

No other race can be found that can penetrate through such rugged lands,
such dense forests, such great mountains and deserts and cross such broad
rivers as the Spaniards have done ... solely by the valor of their
persons and the forcefulness of their breed.

These words, written in the 16th century by Pedro Cieza de Leon, one of
the conquistadores of Peru, underlined the pride of the Spaniards in their
accomplishments. In less than a century, a large portion of two continents and
islands in an inland sea, inhabited by millions of people, was brought under
Spanish control. Spanish expeditions, usually from 50 to 500 men, provided the
spearhead of conquest, and in their wake followed the women, missionaries,
administrators, and artisans who began to form civil society.

The conquest was not a unified movement, but rather a series of
individual initiatives that usually operated with government approval. After
Columbus's settlement of Santo Domingo, the conquest of the Americas was
two-pronged: One prong was directed toward Mexico and the other aimed at South
America. From Santo Domingo, expeditions moved to Cuba and then on to Mexico.

We can use the well-documented campaign in Mexico as an example of the
conquest. In 1519 Hernan Cortes, a man of some education and considerable
ability as a leader, led an expedition of some 600 men to the coast of Mexico.
After hearing rumors of a great kingdom in the interior, he destroyed his
ships to leave no route of retreat, established a base at Veracruz on the
coast, and then began to strike inland. A number of pitched battles were
fought with towns subject to the Aztec Empire, but after gaining these
victories, Cortes was able to enlist the Indians' support against their
overlords. With the help of the Indian allies, Cortes eventually reached the
great Aztec island capital of Tenochtitlan. By a combination of deception,
boldness, courage, ruthlessness, and luck, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II was
made a captive and then killed. Cortes and his followers were forced to flee
the Aztec capital and retreat toward the coast, but with the help of the
Aztecs' traditional enemies, Tenochtitlan was cut off and besieged. Although
the Aztec confederacy put up a stiff resistance, disease, starvation, and
battle brought the city down. The Aztec poets later remembered:

We are crushed to the ground,
we lie in ruins.
There is nothing but grief and suffering
in Mexico and Tlatelolco,
where once we saw beauty and valor.

By 1521, the Spaniards had broken organized Aztec opposition and were
beginning to construct their capital, the city of Mexico, on the ruins of
Tenochtitlan. By 1535 most of central Mexico with its network of towns and its
dense, agricultural populations had been brought under Spanish control as the
kingdom of New Spain. From there, the Spanish pushed their conquest southward
into Guatemala and Honduras and northward into the area of the nomadic Indians
of North-central Mexico.

The second trajectory of conquests led from the Caribbean outposts to the
coast of northern South America and Panama. From Panama, the Spaniards
followed rumors of a rich kingdom to the south. In 1535, after a false start,
Francisco Pizarro led his men to the conquest of the Inca Empire, which was
already weakened by a long civil war. Once again, using guile and audacity,
fewer than 200 Spaniards and their Indian allies brought a great Indian empire
down. The Inca capital of Cuzco, high in the Andes, fell in 1533, but the
Spanish decided to build their major city, Lima, closer to the coast. By 1540
most of Peru was under Spanish control, although an active resistance
continued in remote areas for another 30 years.

From the conquests of the sedentary Indians' densely populated areas,
such as Mexico and Peru, where there were considerable surpluses in food and
potential laborers, Spanish expeditions spread out in search of further riches
and strange peoples. The conquest of the sedentary Chibcha Indians of New
Granada (modern Colombia) in northern South America took place between 1536
and 1538, carried out by expeditions from both the Caribbean and Peru. Spanish
expeditions penetrated the zones of semisedentary and nomadic peoples who
often offered stiff resistance. Expeditions from Mexico moved into the
northern frontiers inhabited by the nomadic Chichimecs. From 1540 to 1542 in
one of the most famous expeditions, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, searching
for mythical cities of gold, penetrated what is now southwestern United States
as far as Kansas. At the other end of the Americas, Pedro de Valdivia
conquered the tenacious Araucanian Indians of central Chile and set up the
city of Santiago in 1541, although the Araucanians continued to fight long
after. Buenos Aires at the southern end of the continent, founded by an
expedition from Spain in 1536, was abandoned because of Indian resistance and
only refounded in 1580. Expeditions like that led by Gonzalo Pizarro
(1541-1542) penetrated the Amazon basin, and others explored the tropical
forests of Central and South America during these years, but there was little
there to attract permanent settlement. By the 1550s a string of settlements
had been created from Venezuela to Argentina and Chile. By 1570 there were 192
Spanish cities and towns throughout the Americas, one-third of which were in
Mexico and Central America.

The Conquerors

We can make some general statements about the conquerors and the
organization of conquest. Leadership in the conquests was based on reputation
and past achievement. The captains led by force of will and personal power.
"God in the sky, the king in Spain, and me here," was the motto of one
captain, and sometimes absolute power could lead to tyranny. Usually, an
agreement was drawn up between the leader of the conquest and the
representatives of the Spanish crown that granted authority for the expedition
in return for a promise to pay one-fifth of all treasure or other gains to the
crown. Men signed up on a shares basis; those who brought horses or who had
special skills might get double shares. Rewards were made according to the
contract, with premiums paid for special service and valor. There was a
tendency for leaders to reward their friends, relatives, and men from their
home province more liberally than others, so that after each conquest there
was always a group of unhappy and dissatisfied conquerors ready to organize
for a new expedition. As one observer put it, "if each man was given the
governorship, it would not be enough."

Few of the conquerors were professional soldiers; they represented all
walks of Spanish life, including a scattering of gentlemen. Some of the later
expeditions included a few Spanish women such as Ines Suarez, the heroine of
the conquest of Chile, but such cases were rare. In general, the conquerors
were men on the make, hoping to better themselves and serve God by converting
the heathen at the same time. Always on the lookout for treasure, most
conquerors were satisfied by grants of Indians who could be taxed or put to
work. They took a distinct pride in the fact that they were not paid soldiers,
but rather volunteers who risked their lives for king and Church. These
adventurous men, many of humble origins, came to see themselves as a new
nobility entitled to dominion over a new peasantry - the Indians.

The reasons for Spanish success were varied. Horses, firearms, and more
generally steel weapons gave them a great advantage over the stone technology
of the Indians. This technological edge, combined with effective and ruthless
leadership, produced remarkable results. Europeans were also aided by the
silent ally, epidemic disease, which sometimes even preceded a conquest and
weakened the Indian resistance. Finally, internal divisions and rivalries
within Indian empires and their high levels of centralization made the great
civilizations particularly vulnerable. It is not accidental that the Indian
peoples who offered the stiffest and most continuous resistance were usually
the mobile and tough nomadic tribes rather than the centralized states
composed of a sedentary peasantry.

By about 1570, the age of the conquest was coming to a close and the
generation of the conquerors was replaced by bureaucrats, merchants, and
colonists as the institutions of colonial rule and the basis of the economy
were regularized. The transition was not easy. In Peru a civil war erupted in
the 1540s, and in Mexico there were grumblings from the old followers of
Cortes, but when viceroys were established in the two main colonies and law
courts were created in the main centers, the presence and effectiveness of
royal government greatly increased. Spanish America became a colony rather
than a conquest.


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