A warrior class of Spain that defeated the Muslims and conquered Latin America during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the seventh century CE, followers of the prophet Mohammed swept out of North Africa and invaded Spain. The Christian Spaniards were quickly overrun and driven into the mountainous provinces of Castile and Leon. Grimly, the Spanish Christians gathered their strength and struck back against the Muslims. This engendered a centuries-long war known as the Reconquista, the reconquest. To fight this war, the Spanish kings came to depend more and more on feudal heavy cavalry made up of aristocrats. These men were known as hidalgos; over time they also became known as conquistadors, or conquerors.
In early 1492, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, the city of Grenada, fell to King Ferdinand and the Christians, and the Reconquista was at last over. This, how- ever, brought up an old and reoccurring problem: What does a nation do with its military when the wars are over? Thousands of Spaniards knew no other art than war. Their entire lives had been devoted to the enterprise, and to expect them to turn to peaceful pursuits, such as agriculture or business, was naive at best. King Ferdinand found it increasingly difficult to control these bellicose fellows. Bands of unemployed soldiers began to wander the countryside, following popular captains and taking what-until then-had been freely given: the best of everything. Ferdinand had a serious social problem on his hands. Then, in early 1493, one of his admirals, Christopher Columbus, returned from a voyage of exploration and reported finding a strange new world, which might be India, China, or even Japan. This news was a godsend to Ferdinand, who recognized in it the answer to what to do with his unemployed soldiers.
The New World (despite Columbus’s insistence, it was not India, China, or Japan) became a beacon for the Spanish soldiers, for it offered them the chance to serve the mother country, spread the true faith, and possibly get rich in the process. This lure of “Glory, God, and Gold” proved almost irresistible. Soon the New World was teeming with heavily armed professional soldiers who proudly called themselves conquistadors.
Although some of the conquistadors were aristocrats and nobles, most were either young men from noble but poor backgrounds or common soldiers. What they all shared was a thirst for adventure, a dislike of discipline, and a great capacity for greed. Noble or commoner, all conquistadors were passionately individualistic; indeed, they raised individualism almost to a cult status. Their lust for power and wealth made them fierce rivals, and they frequently spent as much time fighting each other as they did the Native Americans. On the other hand, they also saw themselves as “bands of brothers” facing an unknown and hostile world. They were proud, daring, and reckless almost beyond belief, and their capacity for enduring heat, cold, hunger, and pain became legendary. The courage and hubris necessary for a few hundred of these men to march into the midst of hundreds of thousands of native warriors and demand their surrender is almost incomprehensible, as is the cruelty of which they were capable: They came to the New World with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other, and many of their deeds, committed ostensibly in the name of a benevolent religion, are horrifying in the extreme.
The weapons and training of the conquistadors were typical of late fifteenth-century Europe. Horses were always in short supply because of the difficulties in transporting them across the Atlantic. Consequently, cavalry was usually a minor arm in the conquistador forces, although it was very impressive psychologically to the Native Americans, who were terrified by this new, to them unknown, animal. Most conquistadors were heavy infantry, wearing iron cuirasses (breastplates) and helmets, as well as tassets to protect their thighs. Some wealthier men might have more complete arm and hand protection, and a few even wore suits of plate mail, although this was almost always restricted cavalry. The conquistadors’ weapons were rapiers and two-handed broadswords, pikes and halberds, crossbows and match- lock muskets, and a few cannons. In battle they always tried to seize the initiative, utilizing their superior weapons and defensive armor to shock and demoralize the natives, thus rendering them almost incapable of self-defense. When fighting along- side their own native allies, the conquistadors formed an irresistible spearhead on the attack, easily punching a hole in the enemy’s lines through which their allies would pour, exploiting the flanks and rear of the enemy and breaking their formations. These simple tactics proved successful time and again in the conquest of the New World. The conquistadors’ success is not surprising: Technologically speaking, the Spanish were almost 2,000 years in advance of any New World civilization. None of the Native American peoples whom the Spanish encountered had developed iron working or the wheel, and without iron and steel weapons and armor, they were doomed.
Disease was also a very important factor in the defeat of the native populations. Native Americans had no immunity to diseases such as measles, smallpox, and the “Black Death” (bubonic plague). These diseases killed millions of them and left the survivors almost powerless to defend themselves from the Spanish onslaught. To many Native Americans, it seemed that their very gods had turned against them.
The true conquest of the New World began in 1519 when Hernan Corte’s landed on the coast of Mexico with 550 men and 16 horses. He had heard rumors of a powerful tribe known as the Aztecs who ruled a vast and rich empire located to the west of Cuba in the interior Valley of Mexico. From their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which was built in the middle of a lake, the Aztecs, under their emperor Montezuma, controlled perhaps 11 million subject people. However, many of these people resented Aztec rule and, seeing Corte’s as a possible savior, they allied with the strange newcomers. Playing on Aztec beliefs that he might be a god, Corte’s boldly entered Tenochtitlan and captured Montezuma. Although he was driven from the city by a new emperor, Corte’s received reinforcements, and in 1520 renewed his assaults.
Corte’s’s men built a fleet of small galleys on the shores of the lake and, with their Indian allies, instituted a siege of Tenochtitlan. An epidemic of smallpox was raging in the city, and-besieged from within and without-the Aztecs stood little chance. By 1521 Tenochtitlan had fallen, the conquest of the Aztec Empire was complete, and Corte’s had literally become a king by his own hand. The surviving Indians found themselves virtual slaves, forced to labor in the silver mines and on the great estates of their new masters.
In 1530, another daring conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, set off to investigate rumors of another vast empire far south of Mexico. In present-day Peru he discovered the Incas, and used Corte’s’s methods as a blueprint for his own conquest. Although he had only 150 men, they boldly marched into the heart of the Inca nation to the capital city of Cajamarca. There they demanded an audience with the great Inca ruler Atahualpa. Although Atahualpa was backed by thousands of his professional soldiers, Pizarro and his 150 men seized the emperor and proceeded to slaughter over 7,000 Inca nobles and retainers with- out the loss of a single Spaniard. They then offered to ransom Atahualpa for a room full of gold and silver. Although it required several months, the ransom was finally assembled in 1533, at which point Pizarro ordered Atahualpa strangled. The Inca Empire, deprived of its rightful ruler and most of its nobles and administrators, died with Atahualpa. Within two years the Inca people were subjugated, just as the Aztecs had been by their new overlords. Although Pizarro became rich and was named governor of Peru by the king, he did not outlive Atahualpa by much. In 1541 he was assassinated in his palace in Lima by rivals.
Other Spanish conquistadors explored the Americas searching for more rich empires to topple. In 1513 Ponce de Leon searched the swamps and everglades of Florida for the Fountain of Youth, a mythical spring reputed to cure ills and rejuvenate those who drank its waters. Hernando De Soto explored the Mississippi River valley in 1539-1542. Francisco Coronado set off to find the Seven Cities of Gold in 1540, and explored and claimed most of present-day Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, and northern Texas. Other conquistadors pushed up the Pacific coast and established settlements in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although these men failed to find any more Aztecs or Incas, they did help Spain claim an American empire that in time would prove more valuable than the gold of Mexico and Peru. All of this took place in a remarkably short time; within 40 years the great conquest was over. But because of the conquistadors, the world, for good or ill, would never be the same again.
References: Descola, Jean, The Conquistadors, trans. Malcolm Barnes (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1957); Fuentes, Patricia de, The Conquistadors: First Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Orion, 1963); Innes, Hammond, The Conquistadors (New York: Knopf, 1969).