Hispano HA-200

Serge Jamois

The Hispano HA-200 Saeta was a 1950s Spanish two-seat advanced jet trainer produced by Hispano Aviación. It was later developed into the Hispano Aviación Ha-220 “Super Saeta” which was given an attack capability.

The Hispano HA-200 Saeta is a twin-engined two-seat jet trainer aircraft produced by the Spanish manufacturer Hispano Aviación, developed with help of the famous Willy Messerschmitt. The HA-200 was operated by the Spanish Air Force (designation: E.14) and the Egypt Air Force. The HA-220 Saeta is a single-seat ground-attack aircraft variant for the Spanish Air Force (designation: C.10 & A.10).

Helwan of Egypt produced 90 HA-200B, designated Helwan HA-200B Al-Kahira, for the Egypt Air Force under license.

Hispano HA-200 Saeta and HA-220 Super Saeta (Spain) First flown in 1955, the Saeta is an advanced flying and instrument trainer and is currently operated by the air forces of Spain (designated E. 14) and Egypt. The HA-200A was the initial production version for Spanish service, powered by two 3.92 kN (880 lb st) Turbomeca Marbore IIA turbojet engines and armed with two 7.62 mm machine-guns and underwing rockets. The HA-200B is similar but armed with one 20 mm cannon. This version was produced for Egyptian service, being built in Spain and under license in Egypt as the Al-Kahira. The improved HA-200D for Spanish use has uprated equipment and heavier armament. The HA-220 Super Saeta was first flown in 1970 and is a single-seat specialised ground attack version powered by two 4.71 kN (1,058 lb st) Marbore VI turbojet engines. It is operated by the Spanish Air Force as the C. 10-C. Data (HA-220 Super Saeta): Engines as above Wing span (over tip-tanks) 10.93 m (35 ft 10 in) Length 8.97 m (29 ft 5 in) Max T-0 weight 3.700 kg (8,157 1b) Max level speed 700 km/h (435 mph) Range 1,700 km (1,055 miles) Armament can be equipped with a variety of guns, rockets and bombs on two under fuselage and four underwing attachments.


The End of Granada I

High up against the steep walls dropping straight down to the river Darro, to the north of the palatine city of the Alhambra, the palaces occupied by Boabdil as reigning sultan were well protected by the nearly vertical embankments. Next to these was the mexuar, or administrative area for the Nasrid kingdom, which was entered from the public square and is described for us by Ibn al-Jatib, the vizier of sultan Muhammad V, in 1362. The mexuar had two patios, one where the council of viziers met, and another which housed the royal chancellery, where the royal secretariat’s writing office was located. This office occupied a place of great importance in Granada’s political and cultural life, as the court secretaries were a group of luminaries who wrote not only documents of propaganda and legitimisation but also literary works in prose and verse. All correspondence, official letters, legal and diplomatic documents and private communications were written on the legendary red paper of the Nasrid chancellery. Although white was the most usual colour for paper, as it is today, medieval Muslim craftsmen knew how to make paper of different colours. Red represented the Nasrid dynasty, and documents issued in this shade were appropriate for the lord of the Alhambra, the red fort.

On 16 December 1489 Boabdil wrote a letter on the crimson paper, signed in his own hand and sealed with his seal, addressed to the viziers, sheiks and dignitaries of the settlement of Ugíjar and the farmholdings of the Alpujarran village of Picena, asking for their support. What happened at Baza, he wrote, was the will of Allah, and its loss filled Muslims with pain and diminished western Islam. But now, he stated, Muslims must consider the consequences of how they behave, and reflect with all their good judgement on their situation and future. They must cease their changes of heart and hasten towards what is good with strong resolve and diligence. Boabdil told them that he had agreed an amnesty with the Christians for two years extending to all his people, and urging them to recognise his authority. He encouraged them to exalt their holy cause and confess their absolute unity in private and in public. The sultan’s tone is persuasive and moralising, but also inspiring and affectionate, as he instructs them to accept what he calls ‘goodness and peace’. Just over a month after this letter had been sent, something happened to change his opinion about the amnesty. Early in January 1490, Boabdil sent his trusted vizier, al-Mulih, to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella to enter into talks with them. The subject of those talks is not specified, and it may have related to the recently agreed truce, although some believe it related to the potential handover of Granada. Al-Mulih returned with a letter from the royal couple, and accompanied by two young officers, who seem to have been charged with the task of negotiating for the city itself. One of the men was Gonzalo de Córdoba, aged thirty-seven, who had been inside Granada before when he had provided support for Boabdil against El Zagal, and had also been at the Battle of Loja, where he had apparently persuaded the sultan to surrender the town. Gonzalo had patched up relations between Ferdinand and Boabdil and renewed the secret pact in which the latter was to be rewarded for fighting against his uncle with the gift of a dukedom or a high-ranking title. The other man was Martín de Alarcón, who had been in charge of the arrangements for Boabdil’s imprisonment at Porcuna when he was first captured by the Castilians in 1483, from which time forward Boabdil had been the pawn of Castilian policy. Both men were well known to the sultan, although they were both associated with very negative experiences for Boabdil, which should have made him suspicious.

In his letter of reply to Ferdinand and Isabella, dated 22 January 1490, Boabdil suggested that it would be best to send his representative back to court to speak in person to the monarchs. According to Hernando de Baeza, the sultan realised that the Castilian negotiators were shifting the terms of their agreement and sent a nobleman from his household to the Castilian court at Cordoba to clarify matters. Boabdil was horrified at their response, which we can deduce was along the lines that the Muslims must surrender their arms and the city at once. This, of course, broke the pact of peace and contravened the truce signed with the Christians. Boabdil, now a man of thirty who knew his own mind, was no longer the inexperienced young sultan of 1482. He had been betrayed, imprisoned and maligned, and his son was still held hostage by the Castilians. The new demand must have seemed one betrayal too many. His immediate reaction was to provoke war, but his closest advisers warned against this, and suggested he should send his messengers back a second time. He heeded their advice and sent Aben Comixa, the senior constable of Granada, accompanied by a very good friend of Hernando de Baeza, a merchant called Abrahim Alcaiçí. They returned very unhappy, and confirmed that the Christians had no intention of keeping their word over what had already been agreed twice with the sultan. The news got out and the city was in an uproar. The stage was set once again for war.

The perception of Boabdil as the covert friend and ally of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile has done much to foster the idea that the Muslim leader was a traitor to his people, but it is not borne out by the textual evidence. At no time in their long association did either man pay anything but lip service to the idea of an affectionate, chummy relationship between the two. In their lengthy official correspondence, Boabdil’s letters begin and end with effusive expressions of subservient respect, admiration and solicitude which might lead us to think that he was overly compliant with the wishes of the Catholic Monarchs, until we realise that this flowery rhetoric was a standard part of formal letter-writing style in Arab tradition. The communications sent by the Christians were only slightly less demonstrative and familiar, again in keeping with the habitual language of official letters in the more sober Castilian language.

More revealing of Ferdinand’s true motivation is his letter to the Mameluk leader Qa’it Bey, with whom he had made a temporary alliance against the Ottoman Turks from 1488 to 1491. The Spanish sovereigns described the war against Granada as if it had marginal religious motivation. They wrote of Granada as a vassal kingdom, part of the Castilian crown, which had failed to fulfil its obligations to them, and made out that the war was a punishment of the rebels, nothing more. Those who were willing to surrender were guaranteed the preservation of their faith and freedom in their religious practices. This quite blatantly contradicts the way the war was spoken of inside Castile and by the Christian chancellery, who presented it as a crusade against the enemies of the faith. Queen Isabella’s obsession with winning the war was apparently rooted in her deep Christian beliefs and piety. With crusading zeal, she longed to destroy the last remnants of Muslim power, and resented the presence of a potentially hostile kingdom of different race and religion. But her aim was political unity, fuelled by a desire to build a sense of nation and enlist the support of her people. It was obviously helpful for the alliance with the Mameluks not to show hostility towards Islam, and so the Castilians craftily harked back to the original vassaldom of the Nasrids to the Christians approved by Muhammad I in 1236. As no formal peace treaty had been signed between Boabdil and Ferdinand, only truces, this ancient agreement was still legally valid from the Christian perspective. This version of the situation as it was presented to Qa’it Bey implies that one major reason for war was the acquisition of money and power, masquerading as a religious motive. Another strategic purpose was to take the southeast of Spain from a power closely linked to the feared menace of the Turks, who might recover their strength and join with Granada in the future. So Christian Spain was sending a clear message to the Mameluks that they would do well to keep Ferdinand and Isabella as allies and not enemies.

These political and military manoeuvres reveal the cunning and duplicity of Ferdinand. The notorious Florentine diplomat and writer Machiavelli, who was a great admirer of the Catholic king, stated in his work The Prince that great campaigns and striking demonstrations of personal abilities brought great prestige to a prince. He had Ferdinand in mind. As a young man, the Aragonese prince had been clever and likeable, and, like Boabdil, was an excellent horseman and hunter. The historian Fernando del Pulgar spoke of him as having ‘such grace that everyone who talked to him wanted to serve him’. But his shrewdness was obvious even then – his motto was ‘Like the anvil, I keep silent because of the times’. All his life he had frequented the halls of power. Aged just nine, he had been his father’s deputy in Catalonia, and became its lieutenant at sixteen. He was the ideal successor to his father on the throne of Aragon, which he took over in 1477, brought up in that kingdom, but also having Castilian blood as second cousin of his wife Isabella, which made it easier to unite the two kingdoms by their marriage. In spite of this, he was a womaniser and had at least three illegitimate daughters, all relegated to convents. Historians tell us that Ferdinand was easy-going but also ruthless, devious and more cynical than his wife. The modern historian Hugh Thomas states in his book Rivers of Gold that his instincts were those of a calculating machine rather than a man of passion. And there were the prophecies by the clergy that he would be the king who would win back the Holy Land for Christendom. The dramatic impact of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 had renewed the crusading zeal of western Europe, reflected in the popularity of the chivalric novels of the late fifteenth-century such as Tirante the White and Amadeus of Gaul, whose mixture of chivalry and violence chimed with contemporary warfare. There was a sense, as we have seen, that Ferdinand was the man for the moment, and his successes at the siege of Malaga and the taking of the seemingly impregnable Ronda had been personal triumphs. His eye was firmly on the big prize of Granada, whose conquest would make him and Isabella rulers of virtually the whole of Spain.

Boabdil was up against a man who was obsessively ambitious, immensely powerful and an expert military strategist. He knew how to take advantage of the newest trends in warfare developed in the mid-fifteenth century, which included new weapon capabilities, tactics and administrative advances. During the course of this century almost every European army had adopted the gunpowder weapons so successful in siege operations during the Granadan war. Siege artillery had been used in Spain before the fifteenth century: Sultan Isma’il I was reported to have captured the town of Huéscar in 1324 and Baza in 1325 using gunpowder artillery, and we know that the Spanish Muslims used cannon against the Castilian army of Alfonso XI at the siege of Algeciras in 1342. One big mistake by the Nasrids was failing to advance the use of gunpowder artillery in their military strategies. Instead, they left this to the Christians. Ferdinand modelled his siege artillery on the French weapons which had been used in the 1450s, and appointed a French Master of Artillery. The triumphs he had in the war up till 1490 would not have happened without gunpowder technology.

At the same time, Ferdinand’s naval blockade on al-Andalus gave him control of the straits of Gibraltar, the narrow stretch of water between Spain and Africa which either allowed or prevented invasion. Regular Spanish patrols made it impossible for the north African Muslims to make contact with Granada. The third prong of the Christian king’s military strategy was the tala, or devastation of crops, throughout the kingdom of Granada, but most cruelly in the vega surrounding the city itself. To besiege a population and destroy their food supplies at the same time is a deadly combination which Ferdinand used remorselessly. The first tala of the year, on 21 May 1490, destroyed the crops of the vega, whose castles at La Malaha and Alhendín had just been taken by his army.

Despite the threatening situation, Boabdil was in no mood to relinquish his kingdom. Granada was still formidable because of its position and defences, shielded to the east by the great mountain range of the Sierra Nevada and encircled by massive towers and walls of great strength and solidity facing the vega. The sultan had a change of heart and abandoned the dangerous diplomatic game he had been playing for years. Courageously, he launched an attack on the town of Padul, recently acquired by Ferdinand from El Zagal, as soon as the Castilians had withdrawn from the tala in June 1490. The assault was successful and, against the odds, he managed to recapture the town and surrounding area, as well as the castle of Alhendín. No doubt elated by these victories, he went to war against the coastal town of Adra, which was won back with the help of north African volunteers, but a further attack on the coastal town of Salobreña failed in September, as the Muslim army had to hurry back to Granada, where the Christian army was reported to be heading. Boabdil was trying to rebuild his kingdom with modest victories, and probably hoping to open up links from Granada to the outside world now that vital food supplies from the vega were practically non-existent. A chain of seaside bases might provide a tenuous life-line to allow food and other supplies to reach them from north Africa, and a link across the mountain tops to the outside world might also enable a limited amount of provisions and men to get through to Granada. During the rest of 1490, a kind of stalemate was reached. The Castilians didn’t launch a full-scale offensive, but raided and skirmished, with minor successes, and destroyed the crops of the vega for a second time in September. Boabdil refused to surrender, although it was now that his uncle decided to leave his endangered estate and cross over to Oran.

By 1491 the writing was on the wall. Granada lived in fear and hardship, while frantic, secret negotiations went on behind the scenes. In April, once the better weather came, Ferdinand led his army once more towards Granada and intended to stay there until the city surrendered. On 26 April, the army camped near the fountain of a small town called Ojos de Huéscar, known as Atqa to the Muslims, just six miles west of Granada. Here they were joined once more by Queen Isabella and her ladies in waiting: the queen supervised the military preparations and inspected the encampment dressed in full armour. There is a story that she wished to get a closer view of the Muslim city, so the king and queen went to Zubia, a nearby village, and sat at a window which gave an unbroken view of the beautiful Alhambra. The feeling of being spied on by an enemy moving ever closer was too much for the Granadans to endure, and they burst out of the city gates, dragging several pieces of artillery with them, and assaulted the lines of Spanish soldiers stationed between the village and the city to protect the king and queen. The Castilians pursued them back to the city gates and a large number of Granadans were killed before they could regain safety.

The Christian army remained within striking distance of Granada throughout June and July, when Ferdinand made a remarkable decision. Seeing they might well still be in the same position as winter approached, he ordered an entire new town to be constructed on the site of the encampment. Extraordinary as this decision seems, Ferdinand was a man who had been undaunted by re-engineering mountain pathways to accommodate his troops and artillery: his plan was put into immediate action, and his soldiers became artisans. Neighbouring villages were razed to the ground to provide materials for the new buildings, which were erected in just eighty days. Where there had been temporary tents there was now permanent stone and mortar in the form of dwelling houses, plus stables for 1,000 horses. The town had the shape of a rectangular gridiron with two spacious avenues intersecting at right angles in the centre in the form of a cross, 400 paces long by 300 wide, with imposing portals at each of the four points. Inscriptions on blocks of marble recorded the relative share of labour of men from various cities in the work.

While the town was under construction Isabella had been lodged in a magnificent silk tent owned by the Marquis of Cádiz. One night a gust of wind blew over one of the lamps, which set fire to the loose hangings inside, and the blaze spread to nearby tents. It happened in the early hours when the sentinels had fallen asleep, but the Queen and her children managed to escape unharmed, although many jewels, precious silks and brocades were lost, and she had to borrow clothes from her friends. When the buildings were finished and painted in gleaming white, a mayor was appointed, a man called Francisco de Bobadilla, a war hero and commander of the military Order of Calatrava, one of the semi-religious brotherhoods whose members had played a key role in the fighting against the Muslims. The army wanted the town to be named after the queen, but she declined the honour and named it Santa Fe, Holy Faith, as a token of trust in their Christian divinity. If you visit Santa Fe today, it looks much the same as it did in 1491. The church of Santa María de la Encarnación, built later, in the sixteenth century, bears the words ¡Ave María! and a lance sculpted in memory of a Christian nobleman, Hernán Pérez del Pulgar, who had gone to Granada at dead of night in the winter of 1490 via a secret tunnel, to pin a parchment bearing those words upon the entrance to the mosque with his dagger. It was an act straight out of the pages of chivalric romance, and suggests that many Christian knights fought for fame and glory as much as anything else. Most of the monarchs’ advisers, secretaries and treasurers also went to Santa Fe, which was set up as a court as well as a military headquarters. In October 1491 Isabella actually summoned Columbus there, where he stayed all autumn, an unintentional witness to the events unfolding in nearby Granada.

The End of Granada II

In the autumn of 1491 the brazen presence of Santa Fe, with its estimated army of 80,000 men, was a huge psychological blow to the Granadans, as it proclaimed the unflagging determination of the enemy to overpower them. The Nubdhat gives us the Arab perspective on what was happening at this time. The author describes constant fighting between Christian troops and the Granadans, with the enemy gaining all the smallholdings in the area except for Alfacar. He describes bitter fighting for this town and its surrounding area, which was defended with great tenacity by the Muslims who feared that if it also was lost to the Christians, the siege of the city of Granada would then be formalised. There was great loss of life here and in other similar localised fighting. What comes over is the courage and ferocity of the Muslim defence – not content with armed combat, they made nocturnal incursions into the enemy camp, taking advantage of the darkness, or they attacked them on the road, stealing all they could find, including horses, mules, asses, cows and sheep. As a result of this, there was a great deal of meat available in the capital, although it was sold at a high price to the few who could afford it. The Nubdhat states that, during these months of fighting, the Muslim nobility all perished save for a handful of men. Around this time many Granadan Muslims departed for the region of the Alpujarras, driven by fear and hunger. The route to and from the Alpujarras across the Sierra Nevada enabled good supplies of corn, wheat, oil, raisins and other foods to reach the capital, yet the situation inside was becoming more critical, with food and manpower scarce. As winter approached, snow fell in the mountains, cutting off the route and with it the food supplies, so many Granadans were reduced to begging. At the same time, the Christians controlled the vega and prevented the Muslims from ploughing and sowing. Their situation was desperate.

All the time that Ferdinand and Isabella were at Santa Fe, they were pressing Boabdil to hand over the city and leave for the Alpujarras himself, which they had promised on oath that they would grant him for himself and his descendants. The terrible reality of what Boabdil had been forced to agree to eight years before, after his capture at Lucena, resulting in a pact in which his son would be held hostage by the Catholic Monarchs until such time as he handed over Granada to them, was looming large. Perhaps he had thought that it would never happen, that he could put it off indefinitely. That was certainly what he had been attempting to do as the Christians lay in wait on his doorstep, as we can see in a letter to him from Ferdinand in response to the sultan’s latest amendments to the truce, which clearly amounted to delaying tactics. Ferdinand says that he has received Boabdil’s letter and one from his representatives Aben Comixa and al-Mulih, ‘which undoubtedly displeases me because such new demands as you make seem too much to ask and are very unlikely to be granted, and if it was not because I wanted to honour and favour you, I would not have replied to you’. He continues by insisting that Boabdil forget such thoughts, because it is very harmful to be so far from any conclusion, and ‘such delay cannot be of any advantage. I am certainly not pleased, and it is not my responsibility, but rather the blame is yours and those of your city … I would never have believed,’ he goes on, ‘that things would have got to the state they are now in. It has all been uprising and anger and discord, and none of it in my service.’

A parallel correspondence went on between Boabdil’s trusted aide al-Mulih and the influential secretary to Ferdinand and Isabella, Hernando de Zafra. The formulaic language that creates a veneer of mutual respect and care between the two opposing monarchs is echoed in the letters of their representatives, but it can’t cover up the underlying tension between the two parties. The royal secretary tells al-Mulih that his bosses the Catholic Monarchs know he is good and honest, and has the right intentions, while urging him to steer negotiations towards the quickest outcome ‘because otherwise the misfortunes and harm arising for you from any delay will increase’. This letter relates to Ferdinand’s own missive about the sultan’s stalling tactics, and Zafra is trying to get round al-Mulih, although his seemingly friendly tone contains a veiled threat. Al-Mulih is not fooled for one minute, and gives as good as he gets. Addressing Zafra as ‘Special lord and true friend’, he reminds him that when Aben Comixa was in Seville with him, the Christian king and queen were inclined to show great largesse to Boabdil, without any capitulation or obligation to capitulate. The series of letters between the two men are complex and involved. They reveal the intrigues, betrayals and secrecy of this time, when both sides were suspected of treachery, when messengers were liable to present false information, and when conspiracy was rife. Clearly, the correspondence between these two royal officials was deemed to be secret, despite which al-Mulih suggests to Zafra that when he needs to write something really confidential he should ‘put it in a small pocket inside a letter, in case it is necessary to read the letter out before the governor, or in case the sultan wants to know what it says. In this way,’ he says, ‘their secrets will be safe.’ This may have been a ruse to create a sense of confidence and conspiracy between the two, but there is a story that Boabdil distrusted al-Mulih, and almost had him killed. Even the most trusted advisers were liable to be untrustworthy. It is also unquestionable that Zafra used bribery. In a document dated 24 November 1491, just before the capitulations were signed, he recounts an extensive list of fine fabrics given as gifts amounting to over half a million maravedis, to reward minor betrayals by Muslims of their own people. Shockingly, Boabdil’s own siblings and negotiators appear among them.

There is good reason to believe that Boabdil’s mother, who now lived in the Dar al-Horra palace specially built for her in the Albaicin, had some influence on the decisions made in these dark days of the Nasrid kingdom. Hernando de Baeza suggests that Aixa, the queen mother, who had great spirit, fought with all her might against any agreement with the Catholic Monarchs. Whenever a communication from them arrived for Boabdil, she vehemently advised her son to hold firm and die as a king, like his ancestors. As a result, Boabdil began to keep quiet about his dealings with the Christians in case his mother found out. One day the sultan discovered a plot by Ferdinand to draw out the Granadans by starting a skirmish outside the city, which would allow them to enter through the open gates while the guards were being distracted. Luckily, a Muslim spy found out and told Boabdil, who told his knights in turn. They agreed to muster as many men as they could and go out to fight the Christians, rather than let such a great city be taken in such a way.

Boabdil got up early the next morning and anointed his body, which was the custom among the Muslims when their lives were in danger. He called for his arms and put them on in the presence of his mother and sister, then kissed his mother’s hand and asked for her blessing. He hugged his sister and kissed her on the back of her neck, hugged his wife and kissed her on the face, and also his daughter. This was the ordinary routine each time he went to battle, but on that day he asked his mother and the other women to forgive him for any trouble he had caused them. His mother was scandalised and alarmed and asked him why he had spoken like that. Boabdil replied that it was right for him to do so, upon which his mother grabbed him and begged him to tell her where he was going and what he was going to do. She began to cry, and the other women followed suit, and they wept so loudly it was as if he were already dead. Aixa was still holding on to her son, and wouldn’t let go until he told her what he had agreed with the Christians. When he told her she cried: ‘Who are you commending your sad mother, wife, children, sisters, relatives, servants, and the entire city and the other towns under your command to? What account will you give Allah of giving the order for us to die by the sword and lance, leaving the others captive? Think about what you are doing, because great tribulation brings wise advice.’

Boabdil replied: ‘My lady, it is much better to die once, than to live, and die many times.’ ‘That’s true,’ his mother said, ‘if only you die and everyone else is saved, and the city is liberated. But such a grave miscalculation is a very bad decision.’ The sultan asked her to let him go, as his knights were waiting for him, but she wouldn’t release her hold on him until he had sworn on the Koran he carried with him not to put himself in danger and for his men not to leave the city gates. Boabdil went out into the field and ordered the people to be kept inside the city so that what was planned in the Christian camp could not take place. For this reason, says Baeza, many people thought that the queen mother had advised her son to make an arrangement with the Christians to allow his family and all Granadan citizens to cross over to north Africa.

By November conditions had deteriorated in the city owing to food shortages which affected the rich and poor alike, and it was clear to the citizens that the enemy intended to wear Granada down through hunger and not by force of arms. Baeza describes the heart-rending sight of Moorish women with their babies in their arms begging in the streets for food. The suffering became so great that desperate people gathered in gangs, shouting that the sultan must get the help of the Christians, and if he wouldn’t, then they would. All this reached Boabdil’s ears, and he felt it deeply. The Nubdhat tells us that a meeting of all the eminent men of the city was called, both public and private individuals, religious leaders, treasury officials, governors and artisans, as well as what remained of valiant Granadan knights, and many common people – in other words, all those who passed for wise and intelligent citizens. They gathered together and insisted on an audience with the emir, to whom they made clear the dire situation of the inhabitants, describing their extreme hunger and the severe lack of food and other essentials. The city is large, they told him, so if the food that was usually imported was barely enough for their needs, what would happen now that nothing was being imported because the supply routes to the Alpujarras were blocked? They also told him of the great number of brave knights who had perished, the lack of general maintenance, the impossibility of ploughing and sowing crops, and the number of children who had died in recent fighting. ‘None of our Muslim brothers who live on the Moroccan coast come to our aid,’ they added, ‘in spite of the pleas we have sent to them. Meanwhile our enemies have built a whole town to attack us better – their strength is growing and ours is weakening, they get help from their country, while we have no help at all.’

They pointed out to Boabdil that winter was upon them, and the enemy forces were temporarily dispersed and weakened owing to the bad weather, so that hostilities had been suspended for a while. They put it to him that if they entered into dealings with the enemy now, he would accept their proposals and agree to their demands, but if they waited till the spring, when the Granadans would be even weaker and more impoverished, their requests wouldn’t be heard. Boabdil listened carefully, and replied: ‘Do what you think is best, and try to come to a unanimous agreement in line with your interests.’ This was a measured response, unlikely to provoke the wrath of the ulama or the patriots, and shrewdly appeared to give the decision-making power to his people. The last thing the Nasrid ruling class wanted was to be trapped in a destructive conflict caused by the very patriotic spirit they had encouraged among their people. In the end this group of noteworthy men, in consultation with the Granadan inhabitants, agreed to send a request to Ferdinand to open discussions about the fate of their city. What they didn’t know, although some of them suspected it, was that negotiations had been taking place in secret for some time between both parties with a view to surrendering Granada to the Christians. These secret plans meant that Boabdil was able to avoid a much more tragic, bloody and inevitable outcome to the conflict, however much the partisans of resistance militated against them.

The correspondence between Hernando de Zafra and al-Mulih reflects the tense situation between the two opposing sides. Both men underline the importance of secrecy in the negotiations, and it is evident that the Muslims were using every delaying tactic they could think of to defer the final date of any surrender. Zafra wrote to al-Mulih:

Dear brother and great friend, on the basis of what you write about one of your emissaries, I suspect that he may not have the best interests of my king or yours at heart, and is seeking all kind of delays to take things along another path. This will not have a good end, as he is not looking at things as they are, nor remembering that the son of his king is still captive, nor that the latter is in hourly peril of his life.

The ever-present threat of harming Boabdil’s son if the Catholic Monarchs didn’t get their own way resurfaces here; Zafra’s comments show the veiled menace and continual suspicion cast over all dealings between Boabdil and Ferdinand, and their representatives, even when they claim to respect each other.

One Sunday in November Boabdil sent a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella in which he answered their request for a firm date for the surrender of the city. His initial suggestion of a date in May 1492 had been greeted with rage by the Christian Monarchs, and with corresponding apparent amazement on the part of the sultan at their reaction. So in this letter Boabdil backpedalled and proffered the end of March instead, when he would hand over ‘the two alhambras’, meaning the palaces as well as the fortress. He knew only too well that at this stage there was no way back, and surrender was inevitable, but he did all in his power to secure the best possible deal for his family and his people. Boabdil’s chancellery prepared a long document on behalf of the sultan setting out his proposals for the surrender of Granada. These replaced any provisional documents drafted previously. The terms, he asserted, were such that when Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to them, he would undertake the handover. First and foremost, on the day that they received the Alhambra, they must release Boabdil’s son, still prisoner in Moclín, and hand him over to his father, along with all the other hostages and their servants, without delay. The release of the prince Ahmed was almost certainly always Boabdil’s central preoccupation and had been so from the time his son became a hostage.

There followed a long series of practical conditions and religious stipulations. In essence, all Granadan Muslims should be allowed to keep their religion, mosques and leaders, and the muezzin’s call to prayer should continue, for all time. No Christian should be allowed to enter a mosque, nor be ordered to stay in a Muslim house, but at an inn, as they did under Muslim rule. Muslim figures of authority should be honoured, and any lawsuits between Muslims were to be judged by qadis and Muslim law alone. There was to be no forced religious conversion of Muslim children, and no married Muslim woman could convert until the statutory legal time had passed; nor could any elches, or Christians who had converted to Islam, be persecuted or forced to reconvert. Nor should any Muslim be forced to bear a distinguishing mark of any kind. Boabdil also stipulated that Jews living in Granada should have the same rights as Muslims under the terms of the surrender.

The practical conditions demanded that all Muslims should be allowed to keep their possessions for all time, including arms and horses; only a Muslim lawyer could pass judgement on their inheritances, and no punishments could be inherited. All Muslim merchants must be able to trade freely as in ‘tiempo de moros’, the time of the Moors, both in Granada and elsewhere in Spain, and Muslims were to live free of taxes for five years. Those Muslims who wished to leave for north Africa were to have freedom of movement overseas, as well as in Spain, taking all their possessions, with a five-year window in which to depart, and within which to return if they wished. Their property was to be sold by procurator after their departure, if necessary. All Muslim captives were to be released upon surrender of Granada, along with the hostages, and all Christian captives would be released at the same time. No Christian would have the right to speak cruelly of the past.

Boabdil’s desire to preserve the religious life and customs of his people, both present and future, and to negotiate a situation which would allow them the greatest possible freedom and tolerance is plain to see. He was sensitive to their feelings and took pains to try to avoid any sense of the inferiority of Muslims under Christian domination, as his stipulation about unkind words shows. The practice of Islam, and its material manifestations of the mosque, minarets and muezzins, were paramount, as was the aljama or Moorish quarter of the city, from where Muslim lawyers, judges and community leaders operated. Boabdil’s inclusion of the minority group of the Granadan Jews in the terms of surrender, where he states that they ‘should benefit like us from these terms’, is particularly poignant when just months later, in the spring and summer of 1492, all Jews, not just those from Granada, would be expelled from their native Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

The sultan’s personal stipulations related to money, land and people. He requested 30,000 castellanos for himself, plus 10,000 castellanos each for his aides, the governors Aben Comixa and al-Mulih. Castellanos were the gold coins minted by the Castilians, especially Ferdinand and Isabella, each worth 485 maravedis, the silver or gold coins used in everyday transactions, until they were struck in copper for distribution in the New World after 1492. The sums Boabdil asked for were substantial. He also asked for all the fortresses within his jurisdiction and that of his two governors. All Muslim captives from the kingdom were to be returned within three months of surrender, starting with one hundred on the day of handover itself. The Christians, who were suspicious of an uprising, had demanded hostages over the period of transition, and Boabdil offered fifty people to act as hostages, to be handed over by Aben Comixa on the agreed day of the surrender for a period of three days while the enemy received the Alhambra and made the necessary arrangements there. He reiterates the obligation of the Catholic Monarchs to hand over his son and the other hostages, as well as the total of 50,000 castellanos, on the fated day. The details of these stipulations were set out in a long document to the Christian rulers by al-Mulih, who was even able to add a touch of humour in asking for some mules, one of which, he wrote, should be tall and broad in order to accommodate Aben Comixa, who must have been a man of generous proportions.

Ferdinand and Isabella’s response to these petitions was to use Boabdil’s text, but to reformulate it, subtly adjusting the terms to suit their purposes. The artfulness of drawing up the terms of surrender lay in satisfying Boabdil’s requirements while leaving the path open for the conversion of the Muslim population, and the reconversion of elches back into the Catholic faith. The devil was in the detail. Boabdil’s version expressly mentions the voice of the muezzin, who climbs the minaret of the mosque five times a day to call the faithful to prayer, maintaining a tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The words of the call proclaim ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger’, a statement of a blasphemous nature to the Christian church. The clause finally approved by the Catholic Monarchs was subtly adjusted and refers to retaining mosques and the call to prayer, without mentioning the voice of the priest. His voice would no longer be permitted to be heard over the city of Granada.


Disembarkation of the Spanish tercios in the Terceiras islands (26 july 1583) (detail). Fresco by Niccolò Granello, Sala de las Batallas, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, Spain.

THE STRUGGLE FOR THE AZORES, 1582-3 The map on the right highlights the strategic importance of the Azores as a stopping-over point and provisioning base for returning Spanish treasure fleets and Portuguese spice carracks. In hostile hands, the Azores would not only have deprived the Spanish and Portuguese of a vital place of refuge, but would have been perfect bases for corsairs. The routes of outbound Spanish and Portuguese vessels were further south to take advantage of prevailing winds and current patterns.

Although it might easily have been otherwise, the Ottoman-Habsburg struggle for Mediterranean dominance now trailed off into stalemate. Uluj Ali Pasha’s capture of Tunis and La Goletta in 1574, although operationally brilliant, yielded modest strategic dividends. For its part, Spain commanded inadequate resources for major offensive action, but, in the absence of a significant threat, adopted an aggressive posture. Alvaro de Bazan’s galleys ravaged the North African coast with impunity in 1576, showing that war could still cost the Turks. But as the threat diminished in the Mediterranean, Spain’s difficulties in the Netherlands grew apace. At the same time, the Ottomans nervously eyed their eastern frontier, where 1577 began a thirteen-year war with the Safavids. That same year, Sultan Murad III concluded an armistice with Philip of Spain that would be periodically renewed until the negotiation of a definitive peace in 1587.

But Spain was not the only Catholic nation with crusading impulses and Mediterranean ambitions, and in 1578 the young Portuguese king, Sebastian, led an army into Morocco to overthrow the sharif, an Ottoman surrogate, and install his own client. The Moroccans were as well supplied with gunpowder weapons as the Portuguese and as skilled in their use, and won a crushing victory on 4 August at Alcazarquivir. Sebastian died in the battle, and his entire army, including the cream of the Portuguese nobility, was killed or captured. The Portuguese throne fell by default to Cardinal Henry, ageing and in ill health, the last legitimate descendant of the Avis line. These developments were noted with alacrity by Philip of Spain, who had a solid claim to the throne through his mother, a Portuguese princess. Henry died in February 1580, having spent much of Portugal’s treasure to ransom (idalgas, members of the nobility captured at Alcazarquivir. Philip had used the intervening years to good advantage, discreetly negotiating his terms of succession with Henry, arriving at an arrangement that preserved Portugal’s empire and governmental institutions and secured the acquiescence of the nobility and wealthy merchants.

There was, however, considerable anti-Spanish sentiment among the ordinary Portuguese, and Sebastian’s illegitimate cousin, Dom Antonio, a wealthy friar, proclaimed himself king with considerable popular support. Philip responded by invading Portugal and dispatching envoys to Portugal’s imperial possessions to press his case. The invasion had two arms: an army driving on Lisbon from the east through Estremadura, and a smaller force working its way along the southern coast with naval support. Philip again displayed his skill at selecting subordinates, assigning the main force to the Duke of Alba, ageing but still widely respected; the southern army to the Duke of Medina Sidonia; and naval command to Bazan, getting on in years but thoroughly competent. It was Philip’s finest hour as commander-in-chief. Henry’s expenditure for ransoms had left little for defence; the Spanish moved swiftly and, in Alba’s case, with remarkable restraint. The Spanish forces united and, after a short, stiff fight – Alba’s last battle, and perhaps his best – Lisbon surrendered on 18 July 1580. Dom Antonio fled north and on 23 October left the country aboard an English ship.

Philip’s lieutenants had left Portuguese governance intact, and internal resistance evaporated. The Indies and Brazil accepted Spanish rule, the latter with some enthusiasm in the light of French designs on its trade. Of the Portuguese empire, only the Azores, excepting the island of Sao Miguel, held for Dom Antonio, a matter that quickly aroused interest in London and, of greater import, Paris. That interest was heightened when a small Spanish expedition that had been sent in 1581 to reclaim the islands was repulsed. This was a serious matter, for the Azores were vital to the operation of convoys from both the East and West Indies; the Flota de Tierra Firme, Flota de Nueva Espana and Carriera das Indias, the treasure and spice convoys, used them for watering and provisioning on their way home and as a rendezvous point for their escorts. They were a perfect base from which to prey on Habsburg commerce.

Sensing opportunity, Catherine de Medici, dowager queen of France, resolved to support Dom Antonio’s claim and, in the spring of 1582, dispatched an expeditionary force under Philip Strozzi of some 60 ships, half of them large, carrying 6-7,000 soldiers, the largest French maritime expedition until the age of Louis XIV: Sailing with the implicit blessing of Queen Elizabeth, it included several English ships. Alive to the danger, Philip dispatched a fleet under Bazan. Consisting of 2 large Portuguese warships, 19 armed merchantmen and 10 transports carrying 4,500 soldiers, it met Strozzi’s force on 24 July 1582. After an indecisive encounter, the two fleets met two days later, some 18 miles south of Sao Miguel, in a fierce engagement named after the island’s capital, Punta Delgada. The French initially had the advantage of the wind and attacked the Spanish rear with superior forces, but Bazan doubled with his van, precipitating a melee. Although the French enjoyed advantages in terms of weatherliness and, initially, in order, the Spanish prevailed by sheer hard fighting. The galleon San Mateo, the focal point of the battle, was assailed by no less than seven French ships, including Strozzi’s Capitana (flagship), in an action that ultimately drew in Bazan’s Capitana. While the major warships on both sides were amply provided with cannon, it was a battle of boarding and counterboarding that was decided by small arms, edged weapons and valour. The French lost ten ships, including Strozzi’s flagship, which was boarded and captured. Strozzi himself took a Spanish arquebus ball and died a captive aboard Bazan’s Capitana.

Punta Delgada was the first major naval engagement fought far from any continental landmass and would be the last until the battle of Midway in 1942. Although modern historians have largely ignored Punta Delgada, the English sea dog Sir William Monson was quite right to cite its importance. Although French adventurers and Dom Antonio’s partisans still held the Azores, save for Sao Miguel, Punta Delgada was decisive. Bazan returned the next year with a massive armada: 5 galleons, 2 galleasses and 12 galleys, together with 79 sailing ships, 30 large and the rest small, carrying some 15,372 soldiers. Uniting his fleet at Sao Miguel on 19 July 1582 – the galleys sailed independently, arriving eleven days ahead of the rest – Bazan directed his force at Terceira, the largest of the Azores in French hands. After a careful reconnaissance, he selected the least heavily defended of three feasible beaches and mounted a model amphibious invasion, the galleys providing fire support for infantry carried ashore in small craft. Bazan’s account of the action has a strikingly modern tone:

… receiving many cannonades … the [flag] galley began to batter and dismount the enemy artillery and the rest of the galleys [did likewise] … and the landing boats ran aground and placed the soldiers at the sides of the forts, and along the trenches, although with much difficulty and working under the pressure of the furious artillery, arquebus, and musket fire of the enemy. And the soldiers mounting [the trenches] in several places came under heavy arquebus and musket fire, but finally won the forts and trenches.

With Spanish infantry ashore in superior numbers resistance on Terceira collapsed, the other islands following suit. Dom Antonio got off with his skin and little else. The Azores held for Spain, and the Indies convoys continued unhindered. Flushed with victory, Bazan advised his imperial master that England could be invaded by sea. Thus stimulated, Philip asked his commander in Flanders, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, about the feasibility of such a project. Parma was unenthusiastic, preferring a surprise attack across the Channel to Bazan’s proposal to invade from Iberia; Parma did not, however, rule it out.

Gonzalo Pizarro marching with a thousand dogs!

Gonzalo Pizarro y Alonso was a Spanish conquistador and younger paternal half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire.

Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco, brought as many as a thousand dogs with him in an expedition begun in Peru in 1541. This may be the largest assembly of attack dogs in history, but the Spanish had dogs they could use in battle against the natives.

Gonzalo Pizarro received the news of his appointment to the government of Quito with undisguised pleasure; not so much for the possession that it gave him of this ancient Indian province, as for the field that it opened for discovery towards the east,—the fabled land of Oriental spices, which had long captivated the imagination of the Conquerors. He repaired to his government without delay, and found no difficulty in awakening a kindred enthusiasm to his own in the bosoms of his followers. In a short time, he mustered three hundred and fifty Spaniards, and four thousand Indians. One hundred and fifty of his company were mounted, and all were equipped in the most thorough manner for the undertaking. He provided, moreover, against famine by a large stock of provisions, and an immense drove of swine which followed in the rear.

It was the beginning of 1540, when he set out on this celebrated expedition. The first part of the journey was attended with comparatively little difficulty, while the Spaniards were yet in the land of the Incas; for the distractions of Peru had not been felt in this distant province, where the simple people still lived as under the primitive sway of the Children of the Sun. But the scene changed as they entered the territory of Quixos, where the character of the inhabitants, as well as of the climate, seemed to be of another description. The country was traversed by lofty ranges of the Andes, and the adventurers were soon entangled in their deep and intricate passes. As they rose into the more elevated regions, the icy winds that swept down the sides of the Cordilleras benumbed their limbs, and many of the natives found a wintry grave in the wilderness. While crossing this formidable barrier, they experienced one of those tremendous earthquakes which, in these volcanic regions, so often shake the mountains to their base. In one place, the earth was rent asunder by the terrible throes of Nature, while streams of sulphurous vapor issued from the cavity, and a village with some hundreds of houses was precipitated into the frightful abyss!

On descending the eastern slopes, the climate changed; and, as they came on the lower level, the fierce cold was succeeded by a suffocating heat, while tempests of thunder and lightning, rushing from out the gorges of the sierra, poured on their heads with scarcely any intermission day or night, as if the offended deities of the place were willing to take vengeance on the invaders of their mountain solitudes. For more than six weeks the deluge continued unabated, and the forlorn wanderers, wet, and weary with incessant toil, were scarcely able to drag their limbs along the soil broken up and saturated with the moisture. After some months of toilsome travel, in which they had to cross many a morass and mountain stream, they at length reached Canelas, the Land of Cinnamon. They saw the trees bearing the precious bark, spreading out into broad forests; yet, however valuable an article for commerce it might have proved in accessible situations, in these remote regions it was of little worth to them. But, from the wandering tribes of savages whom they occasionally met in their path, they learned that at ten days’ distance was a rich and fruitful land abounding with gold, and inhabited by populous nations. Gonzalo Pizarro had already reached the limits originally proposed for the expedition. But this intelligence renewed his hopes, and he resolved to push the adventure farther. It would have been well for him and his followers, had they been content to return on their footsteps.

Continuing their march, the country now spread out into broad savannas terminated by forests, which, as they drew near, seemed to stretch on every side to the very verge of the horizon. Here they beheld trees of that stupendous growth seen only in the equinoctial regions. Some were so large, that sixteen men could hardly encompass them with extended arms! The wood was thickly matted with creepers and parasitical vines, which hung in gaudy-colored festoons from tree to tree, clothing them in a drapery beautiful to the eye, but forming an impenetrable network. At every step of their way, they were obliged to hew open a passage with their axes, while their garments, rotting from the effects of the drenching rains to which they had been exposed, caught in every bush and bramble, and hung about them in shreds. Their provisions, spoiled by the weather, had long since failed, and the live stock which they had taken with them had either been consumed or made their escape in the woods and mountain passes. They had set out with nearly a thousand dogs, many of them of the ferocious breed used in hunting down the unfortunate natives. These they now gladly killed, but their miserable carcasses furnished a lean banquet for the famishing travellers; and, when these were gone, they had only such herbs and dangerous roots as they could gather in the forest.

At length the way-worn company came on a broad expanse of water formed by the Napo, one of the great tributaries of the Amazon, and which, though only a third or fourth rate river in America, would pass for one of the first magnitude in the Old World. The sight gladdened their hearts, as, by winding along its banks, they hoped to find a safer and more practicable route. After traversing its borders for a considerable distance, closely beset with thickets which it taxed their strength to the utmost to overcome, Gonzalo and his party came within hearing of a rushing noise that sounded like subterranean thunder. The river, lashed into fury, tumbled along over rapids with frightful velocity, and conducted them to the brink of a magnificent cataract, which, to their wondering fancies, rushed down in one vast volume of foam to the depth of twelve hundred feet! The appalling sounds which they had heard for the distance of six leagues were rendered yet more oppressive to the spirits by the gloomy stillness of the surrounding forests. The rude warriors were filled with sentiments of awe. Not a bark dimpled the waters. No living thing was to be seen but the wild tenants of the wilderness, the unwieldy boa, and the loathsome alligator basking on the borders of the stream. The trees towering in wide-spread magnificence towards the heavens, the river rolling on in its rocky bed as it had rolled for ages, the solitude and silence of the scene, broken only by the hoarse fall of waters, or the faint rustling of the woods,—all seemed to spread out around them in the same wild and primitive state as when they came from the hands of the Creator.

For some distance above and below the falls, the bed of the river contracted so that its width did not exceed twenty feet. Sorely pressed by hunger, the adventurers determined, at all hazards, to cross to the opposite side, in hopes of finding a country that might afford them sustenance. A frail bridge was constructed by throwing the huge trunks of trees across the chasm, where the cliffs, as if split asunder by some convulsion of nature, descended sheer down a perpendicular depth of several hundred feet. Over this airy causeway the men and horses succeeded in effecting their passage with the loss of a single Spaniard, who, made giddy by heedlessly looking down, lost his footing and fell into the boiling surges below.

Yet they gained little by the exchange. The country wore the same unpromising aspect, and the river-banks were studded with gigantic trees, or fringed with impenetrable thickets. The tribes of Indians, whom they occasionally met in the pathless wilderness, were fierce and unfriendly, and they were engaged in perpetual skirmishes with them. From these they learned that a fruitful country was to be found down the river at the distance of only a few days’ journey, and the Spaniards held on their weary way, still hoping and still deceived, as the promised land flitted before them, like the rainbow, receding as they advanced.

At length, spent with toil and suffering, Gonzalo resolved to construct a bark large enough to transport the weaker part of his company and his baggage. The forests furnished him with timber; the shoes of the horses which had died on the road or been slaughtered for food, were converted into nails; gum distilled from the trees took the place of pitch; and the tattered garments of the soldiers supplied a substitute for oakum. It was a work of difficulty; but Gonzalo cheered his men in the task, and set an example by taking part in their labors. At the end of two months a brigantine was completed, rudely put together, but strong and of sufficient burden to carry half the company,—the first European vessel that ever floated on these inland waters.

Gonzalo gave the command to Francisco de Orellana, a cavalier from Truxillo, on whose courage and devotion to himself he thought he could rely. The troops now moved forward, still following the descending course of the river, while the brigantine kept alongside; and when a bold promontory or more impracticable country intervened, it furnished timely aid by the transportation of the feebler soldiers. In this way they journeyed, for many a wearisome week, through the dreary wilderness on the borders of the Napo. Every scrap of provisions had been long since consumed. The last of their horses had been devoured. To appease the gnawings of hunger, they were fain to eat the leather of their saddles and belts. The woods supplied them with scanty sustenance, and they greedily fed upon toads, serpents, and such other reptiles as they occasionally found.

This is not the place to record the circumstances of Orellana’s extraordinary expedition. He succeeded in his enterprise. But it is marvellous that he should have escaped shipwreck in the perilous and unknown navigation of that river. Many times his vessel was nearly dashed to pieces on its rocks and in its furious rapids; and he was in still greater peril from the warlike tribes on its borders, who fell on his little troop whenever he attempted to land, and followed in his wake for miles in their canoes. He at length emerged from the great river; and, once upon the sea, Orellana made for the isle of Cubagua; thence passing over to Spain, he repaired to court, and told the circumstances of his voyage,—of the nations of Amazons whom he had found on the banks of the river, the El Dorado which report assured him existed in the neighborhood, and other marvels,—the exaggeration rather than the coinage of a credulous fancy. His audience listened with willing ears to the tales of the traveller; and in an age of wonders, when the mysteries of the East and West were hourly coming to light, they might be excused for not discerning the true line between romance and reality.

He found no difficulty in obtaining a commission to conquer and colonize the realms he had discovered. He soon saw himself at the head of five hundred followers, prepared to share the perils and the profits of his expedition. But neither he, nor his country, was destined to realize these profits. He died on his outward passage, and the lands washed by the Amazon fell within the territories of Portugal. The unfortunate navigator did not even enjoy the undivided honor of giving his name to the waters he had discovered. He enjoyed only the barren glory of the discovery, surely not balanced by the iniquitous circumstances which attended it.

One of Orellana’s party maintained a stout opposition to his proceedings, as repugnant both to humanity and honor. This was Sanchez de Vargas; and the cruel commander was revenged on him by abandoning him to his fate in the desolate region where he was now found by his countrymen.

The Spaniards listened with horror to the recital of Vargas, and their blood almost froze in their veins as they saw themselves thus deserted in the heart of this remote wilderness, and deprived of their only means of escape from it. They made an effort to prosecute their journey along the banks, but, after some toilsome days, strength and spirits failed, and they gave up in despair!

Then it was that the qualities of Gonzalo Pizarro, as a fit leader in the hour of despondency and danger, shone out conspicuous. To advance farther was hopeless. To stay where they were, without food or raiment, without defence from the fierce animals of the forest and the fiercer natives, was impossible. One only course remained; it was to return to Quito. But this brought with it the recollection of the past, of sufferings which they could too well estimate,—hardly to be endured even in imagination. They were now at least four hundred leagues from Quito, and more than a year had elapsed since they had set out on their painful pilgrimage. How could they encounter these perils again!

Yet there was no alternative. Gonzalo endeavored to reassure his followers by dwelling on the invincible constancy they had hitherto displayed; adjuring them to show themselves still worthy of the name of Castilians. He reminded them of the glory they would for ever acquire by their heroic achievement, when they should reach their own country. He would lead them back, he said, by another route, and it could not be but that they should meet somewhere with those abundant regions of which they had so often heard. It was something, at least, that every step would take them nearer home; and as, at all events, it was clearly the only course now left, they should prepare to meet it like men. The spirit would sustain the body; and difficulties encountered in the right spirit were half vanquished already!

The soldiers listened eagerly to his words of promise and encouragement. The confidence of their leader gave life to the desponding. They felt the force of his reasoning, and, as they lent a willing ear to his assurances, the pride of the old Castilian honor revived in their bosoms, and every one caught somewhat of the generous enthusiasm of their commander. He was, in truth, entitled to their devotion. From the first hour of the expedition, he had freely borne his part in its privations. Far from claiming the advantage of his position, he had taken his lot with the poorest soldier; ministering to the wants of the sick, cheering up the spirits of the desponding, sharing his stinted allowance with his famished followers, bearing his full part in the toil and burden of the march, ever showing himself their faithful comrade, no less than their captain. He found the benefit of this conduct in a trying hour like the present.

I will spare the reader the recapitulation of the sufferings endured by the Spaniards on their retrograde march to Quito. They took a more northerly route than that by which they had approached the Amazon; and, if it was attended with fewer difficulties, they experienced yet greater distresses from their greater inability to overcome them. Their only nourishment was such scanty fare as they could pick up in the forest, or happily meet with in some forsaken Indian settlement, or wring by violence from the natives. Some sickened and sank down by the way, for there was none to help them. Intense misery had made them selfish; and many a poor wretch was abandoned to his fate, to die alone in the wilderness, or, more probably, to be devoured, while living, by the wild animals which roamed over it.

At length, in June, 1542, after somewhat more than a year consumed in their homeward march, the way-worn company came on the elevated plains in the neighborhood of Quito. But how different their aspect from that which they had exhibited on issuing from the gates of the same capital, two years and a half before, with high romantic hope and in all the pride of military array! Their horses gone, their arms bioken and rusted, the skins of wild animals instead of clothes hanging loosely about their limbs, their long and matted locks streaming wildly down their shoulders, their faces burned and blackened by the tropical sun, their bodies wasted by famine and sorely disfigured by scars,—it seemed as if the charnel-house had given up its dead, as, with uncertain step, they glided slowly onwards like a troop of dismal spectres! More than half of the four thousand Indians who had accompanied the expedition had perished, and of the Spaniards only eighty, and many of these irretrievably broken in constitution, returned to Quito.

The few Christian inhabitants of the place, with their wives and children, came out to welcome their countrymen. They ministered to them all the relief and refreshment in their power; and, as they listened to the sad recital of their sufferings, they mingled their tears with those of the wanderers. The whole company then entered the capital, where their first act—to their credit be it mentioned—was to go in a body to the church, and offer up thanksgivings to the Almighty for their miraculous preservation through their long and perilous pilgrimage. Such was the end of the expedition to the Amazon; an expedition which, for its dangers and hardships, the length of their duration, and the constancy with which they were endured, stands, perhaps, unmatched in the annals of American discovery.

War Against the Ottoman [and French] on Sea

Barbarossa’s fleet wintering in the French harbour of Toulon, 1543. (by: Matrakçı Nasuh)

French King Henry II renewed his father’s policy of alliance with the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, to mount joint operations of the French, Turkish and corsair fleets in the western Mediterranean. For both sides, these naval campaigns had the same strategic aim, to weaken imperial and Spanish power, but they had significantly different views on tactics. Destructive raids to garner booty and slaves were standard practice for the Turks and corsairs, but the French were often hoping to have the cooperation of local people. These differences meant that, even though the imperial fleet – still under the command of Andrea Doria, now aged well over eighty – was outnumbered, their joint enterprises did not give the French and Turkish fleets lasting superiority in the seas off the coast of Italy. On the whole, collaboration with the Turks proved counterproductive for the French in Naples and in Tuscany, and not as helpful as the French hoped in the war in Corsica.

In 1552, after raids on the Neapolitan coasts, the Turkish fleet waited from mid-June to mid-July off Naples for the French to join them. Contrary winds foiled an attempt to sail to Piombino and Elba, but chance brought a notable victory on 8 August in a night attack on Doria’s fleet, as he was transporting troops to Naples, unaware of the position of the Turks. Two days later, they left for the eastern Mediterranean, ten days before the arrival of the French fleet under Polin, baron de La Garde with Salerno on board. The French followed them, and overwintered with them in the east In early July 1553, the combined forces of 130 Turkish vessels under the corsair Dragut and 24 French galleys and three frigates returned to the coasts of Naples. Salerno insisted the people should not be harmed. In the end, he was able to have the population in areas where he had partisans spared, although other places were not so fortunate. In 1557, when an attack on Naples by land was being discussed, Salerno would tell Henry his Neapolitan friends had sent to warn they would not assist him if he came with a Turkish fleet, because of the harm that had been done in the past.

La Garde persuaded Dragut to sail for Tuscany, where the fleet was welcomed at Port’ Ercole on 9 August 1553. While the French prepared the force of 4,000 men Termes was to take from Siena to fight the Genoese in Corsica, Dragut pillaged Elba. The fleets transported the troops to Corsica, where the Turks blockaded the eastern coast of the island, while the French fleet attacked the west. When Bonifacio surrendered on 15 September, the Turks massacred the Genoese garrison and sacked the town. Frustrated because he could not enslave the inhabitants, Dragut exacted a ransom of 30,000 écus for them from the French, and then left. Disappointed by what he felt were meagre pickings from the expedition of 1553, Dragut brought his fleet into Italian waters only briefly in 1554, and refused to help the French in Corsica or in Tuscany. In 1555, an Ottoman fleet under a new commander, Piali Pasha, came to support the French besieging Calvi in Corsica, and disembarked 3,000 men for an unsuccessful assault on 10 August. A second unsuccessful assault, on Bastia, followed and then Piali received orders to leave. This was the last significant joint operation of the French and Turkish fleets. Another was planned in 1558, but Piali Pasha refused to attack any of the targets the French had in mind.

When unencumbered by their French allies, the Turks made the terrible raids for which they were so feared, ravaging, burning and enslaving. It was to deny them a potential base in Tuscany, as well as to deprive the French of their main supply route for the places they held onto in Sienese territory, that Marignano went to besiege Port’ Ercole in late May 1555. His attacks were combined with Doria’s fleet, which was patrolling off Tuscany, anticipating the arrival of the Turks. The French had surrounded Port’ Ercole with several forts, and it took until 18 June to capture them all and secure the town. When the Turkish fleet arrived in Tuscan waters in mid-July, it was feared they might seize Piombino instead, but the raiding parties put ashore were driven off. Elba, however, suffered another attack before the fleet left for Corsica.

The defence of Elba (since 1548) and of Piombino (since 1552) was entrusted to Cosimo de’ Medici, and he devoted much effort to building fortifications on Elba, constructing a stronghold at Portoferraio in which the people of the island could take refuge when the Turks or corsairs threatened. Cosimo hoped his possession would be permanent, but he would be disappointed. The activities of the Turkish fleet, and of the French in Tuscany, had given new strategic importance to Tuscan harbours. When Cosimo eventually succeeded in obtaining Siena from Philip in 1557, he had to give up Piombino and some ports on the Sienese coast.


What made Corsica a target for the French was its potential as a naval base, impeding the sea routes between Spain and Italy, and providing safe harbours and ship’s timber for galleys and supplies of food and fresh water for their crews. The island’s maritime significance was still greater for the Genoese, who were determined to keep it. In itself, Corsica was poor, and it was in a state of semi-permanent rebellion against the Genoese, who governed it through their iconic financial institution, the Casa di San Giorgio. A leading rebel, Sampiero Corso, was with the French, and his contacts and supporters helped the Turkish and French fleets to conquer all the island except for the town of Calvi within a month of their arrival in mid-August 1553. La Garde wrote to the Genoese, blaming the Turks for the attack. The French would not occupy the island, he said, if the Genoese would undertake to be neutral between France and Spain. Henry was annoyed that the Genoese refused to discuss neutrality, preferring to set about recovering the island by force.

By the time the Genoese had gathered their forces and sent them to Corsica in November under the command of Andrea Doria, Dragut’s fleet had left. Doria sent a squadron of galleys to relieve Calvi, disembarked the troops near San Fiorenzo and began to lay siege to it. Cosimo had sent around 2,500 troops and four galleys in support of the Genoese, and imperial troops also came from Naples and Lombardy, while a French naval squadron bringing reinforcements from Marseilles was dispersed by a storm. Yet the Genoese did not find reconquering the island as easy as the French had found taking it to be. There were heavy losses, mostly from disease, in the siege camp at San Fiorenzo, before the fortress finally surrendered on 16 February 1554. Andrea Doria was resolute, but so physically infirm he could not leave his cabin on his galley. He would have to return to Corsica repeatedly over the next few years; his failure to dislodge the French damaged his already diminished standing in Genoa still further. By late 1554, however, the Genoese had retaken most of the island. French hopes for help from Dragut were not realized, and their efforts were also hindered by mistrust of Sampiero Corso and by the inevitable complications attendant on reliance on a faction leader in an island so riven by factional disputes. On the other hand, they were aided by the abiding unpopularity of the Genoese with many Corsicans, a sentiment fostered by the reprisals against civilians by imperial troops in response to the guerrilla tactics of the rebels. By 1555, the Genoese held the eastern part of the island which had in the past generally been more under their control, and the French held the western side, where the powerful clans were dominant. The French offensive, aided by the Turkish fleet, in 1555, besieging Calvi and Bastia, did not break the stalemate. Henry ordered another push in early 1556, instructing his lieutenant in the island to seize as much territory as possible, before the general truce that Philip and Charles were seeking was concluded. When this truce of Vaucelles came into effect in mid-February 1556, leaving each side in possession of the territories they held at that moment, a large part of Corsica was in French hands.

The Spanish Conquest of Mexico



To the victor go not only the spoils, as the old saw would have it, but also the opportunity to tell the story of a victory without fear of contradiction. The Spaniards and generations of historians, including even the renowned William Prescott, have presented the Conquest of Mexico by a handful of brave and resourceful soldiers as the inevitable consequence of the cultural superiority of European over native cultures. As the Aztec scholar Inga Clendinnen has forcefully put it, “Historians are the camp-followers of the imperialists.” Thanks to a closer and more critical reading of the sources, we can now see that there was considerable rewriting and often blatant distortion of the course of events, even with such otherwise impeccable figures as Father Sahagún. Particularly untrustworthy are the self-serving letters of Hernán Cortés to his sovereign Charles V, since that wily commander was acting illegally and without royal permission throughout his campaigns on Mexican soil.

In the history partially fabricated by the Spaniards, the Aztecs’ terrible destiny had been preordained in the weak and vacillating figure of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, held spellbound by a series of sinister omens, and by the myth of the “returning god-ruler”: that Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl had come back in the person of Cortés himself. According to these accounts, now held in suspicion by specialists in Aztec culture, strange portents had appeared to the terrified monarch in the final ten years of his reign. The first of these was a great comet “like a tongue of fire, like a flame, as if showering the light of the dawn.” Then, in succession, a tower of the Great Temple burned mysteriously; the water of the lake foamed and boiled and flooded the capital; and a woman was heard crying in the night through the streets of Tenochtitlan. Two-headed men were discovered and brought to the ruler, but they vanished as soon as he looked at them. Worst of all, fisherfolk snared a bird like a crane, which had a mirror on its forehead; they showed it to Motecuhzoma in broad daylight, and when he gazed into the mirror, he saw the shining stars. Looking a second time, he saw armed men borne on the backs of deer. He consulted his soothsayers, but they could tell him nothing, but Nezahualpilli, King of Texcoco, forecast the destruction of Mexico.

Inflicting great cruelties on his magicians for their inability to forestall the doom that he saw impending, the Aztec monarch was said to be dumbfounded when an uncouth man arrived one day from the Gulf Coast and demanded to be taken into his presence. “I come,” he announced, “to advise you that a great mountain has been seen on the waters, moving from one part to the other, without touching the rocks.” Quickly clapping the wretch in jail, he despatched two trusted messengers to the coast to determine if this was so. When they returned they confirmed the story previously told, adding that strange men with white faces and hands and long beards had set off in a boat from “a house on the water.” Secretly convinced that these were Quetzalcoatl and his companions, he had the sacred livery of the god and food of the land offered to them, which they immediately took back with them to their watery home, thus confirming his surmises. The gods had left some of their own foods in the form of sweet-tasting biscuits on the beach; the monarch ordered the holy wafers to be placed in a gilded gourd, covered with rich cloths, and carried by a procession of chanting priests to Tula of the Toltecs, where they were reverently interred in the ruins of Quetzalcoatl’s temple.

The “mountain that moved” was in reality the Spanish ship commanded by Juan de Grijalva, which after skirting the coast of Yucatan made the first Spanish landing on Mexican soil in the year 1518, near modern Veracruz. This reconnaissance was followed up in 1519 by the great armada that embarked from Cuba under the leadership of Hernán Cortés. The peoples of the Gulf Coast, some of whom were vassals of the Aztec Huei Tlatoani, put up little resistance to these strange beings, and Cortés soon learned of their disaffection with the Aztec state and with the heavy tribute that they had been forced to pay. On their way to the Valley of Mexico and the heart of the empire, the conquistadores met with opposition from the Tlaxcallans; after crushing these fierce enemies of the Triple Alliance, Cortés gained them as willing allies; the Tlaxcallans would come to play a key role in the overthrow of Mexican civilization.

A figure crucial to Cortés’s plans was his native interpreter and mistress, known to history as La Malinche. This beautiful and intelligent woman was of noble birth, and had been presented to Cortés by a merchant prince of coastal Tabasco. Much of his success in dealing with the Aztecs must be attributed to the astuteness and understanding of this remarkable personage. But misunderstandings nevertheless seem to have been the rule in the confrontation and clash of these two cultures. For instance, far from being held in thrall by a view of Cortés as the returned Quetzalcoatl, Motecuhzoma appears to have dealt with him as what he said he was, namely, an ambassador from a distant and unknown ruler. As such, Cortés had to be treated with respect and hospitality. Welcomed into the great capital and even into the royal palace, Cortés chose to take his host captive, to the chagrin and disgust of the Huei Tlatoani’s subjects.

The dénouement of this tragic story is well known. Learning that a rival military expedition under Panfilo Narváez had been sent to Veracruz by his enemy the governor of Cuba, with orders for his arrest, Cortés moved down to the coast and defeated the interlopers. On his return to Tenochtitlan, he found the capital in full revolt. During the uprising, Motecuhzoma was killed – the Spaniards being the likely perpetrators – and the booty-laden conquistadores were forced to flee the city by night, with great loss of life.

Thus ended the first phase of the Conquest. Withdrawing to the friendly sanctuary of Tlaxcallan, the invaders recovered their strength while Cortés made new plans. Eventually, both armies met in a pitched battle on the plains near Otumba, a confrontation in which Spanish arms triumphed. Then, joined by his ferocious allies from Tlaxcallan, Cortés once again marched against Tenochtitlan, building an invasion fleet along the shores of the Great Lake. The siege of Tenochtitlan began in May 1521, and ended after a heroic defense led by Cuauhtemoc, the last and bravest of the Aztec emperors, on 13 August of that year. There then ensued a blood bath at the hands of the revengeful Tlaxcallans that sickened even the most battle-hardened conquistadores. Although Cortés received Cuauhtemoc with honor, he had him hanged, drawn, and quartered three years later. The Fifth Sun had indeed perished.

How was it that a tiny force of about 400 men had been able to overthrow a powerful empire of at least 11 million people? First of all, there is little question that the weaponry of these men of the Renaissance was superior to the essentially Stone Age armament of the Aztecs. Thundering cannon, steel swords wielded by mounted horsemen, steel armor, crossbows, and mastiff-like war dogs previously trained in the Antilles to savor the flesh of Indians – all contributed to the Aztec downfall.

A second factor was that of Spanish tactics. The Spaniards fought by rules other than those that had prevailed for millennia in Mesoamerica. To the Aztecs, as Inga Clendinnen has noted, “battle was ideally a sacred duel between matched warriors”; in fact, before the Aztecs waged war on a town or province, they would often send them arms to make sure that the contenders were so matched. The “level playing field” meant nothing to the Spaniards, whom the Aztecs perceived as cowards – they shot their weapons at a distance, avoided hand-to-hand combat with native warriors, and took refuge behind their cannons; the Spaniards’ horses were held in far higher estimation! Equally incomprehensible and thus devastating to the Aztecs’ defense was the Spanish policy of wholesale terror, so well exemplified by the act of Cortés in cutting off the hands of over fifty Tlaxcallan emissaries admitted in peace into the Spanish camp, or the massacre of vast numbers of unarmed warriors at the order of the terrible Pedro de Alvarado, while they were dancing at a feast.

Thirdly, the role played by thousands upon thousands of seasoned Tlaxcallan warriors – the deadliest enemies of the Triple Alliance – can hardly be overlooked. Not only were they vital to the defeat of the Aztec empire, but they continued to serve as an auxiliary army in the conquest of the rest of Mesoamerica, even participating in the takeover of the highland Maya states.

But most significant of all was that invisible and deadly ally brought by the invaders from the Old World: infectious disease, to which the New World natives had absolutely no resistance. Smallpox was apparently introduced by a black who arrived with the Narváez expedition of 1520, and ravaged Mexico; it had decimated central Mexico even before Cortés began his siege. Along with measles, whooping cough, and malaria (and perhaps yellow fever as well), it led to a terrible mortality that must have enormously reduced the size and effectiveness of Aztec field forces and led to a general feeling of despair and hopelessness among the population. Given these four factors, it is a wonder that Aztec resistance lasted as long as it did. The completeness of the Aztec defeat is beautifully defined in an Aztec lament:

Broken spears lie in the roads;

we have torn our hair in our grief.

The houses are roofless now, and their walls

are red with blood.

Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,

and the walls are splattered with gore.

The water has turned red, as if it were dyed,

and when we drink it,

it has the taste of brine.

We have pounded our hands in despair

against the adobe walls,

for our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead.

The shields of our warriors were its defense,

but they could not save it.

M. Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears: Aztec Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, pp. 137-8. Beacon Press, Boston 1966.

New Spain and the Colonial world

Within the space of about three years following the fall of Tenochtitlan, most of Mexico between the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the Chichimec frontier had fallen to the Spaniards and their grim Tlaxcallan allies. During this period, there were a number of native revolts (such as occurred among the Tarascans), but these were quickly suppressed. This vast territory became organized as New Spain, with a viceroy responsible to the Spanish king through the Council of the Indies.

The conquistadores had not been ordinary soldiers, but adventurers expecting riches. To placate them, the Crown granted them encomiendas, in which each encomendero would receive tribute payments from vast numbers of Indians; in return, the encomendero would ensure that their souls would be saved through conversion to Christianity. In time, this led to incredible abuses against the natives, and in 1549 a new system, repartimiento, was substituted, in which the natives were theoretically supposed to get fair wages for their labor. However, through the cupidity of their Spanish overlords and bureaucratic abuse, repartimiento swiftly turned into a system of forced labor.

Almost immediately following the Conquest, Mexico’s social, economic, and religious life were transformed; even the landscape suffered immense changes. The fate of the elite class that had ruled the old pre-Spanish cities was twofold: many of them disappeared altogether, and with them the elite culture that they had created, while others – perhaps more pliant – were given titles by the new regime and used as tribute and labor gatherers; it was these latter who were significant agents of acculturation, as they were converted to the new religion and learned the Castilian language.

The great native cities and towns of Mexico were leveled, along with thousands of pagan temples, to be replaced by urban settlements laid out on the grid pattern favored by the authorities in urban America. The old calpoltin became barrios, and the calpolli temples parish churches.

The economic transformation of Mexico began with the introduction of chickens, pigs, and the herd animals so important to life in the old country, cattle, horses, sheep and goats (the two latter contributing to the destruction of the landscape through overgrazing); iron tools and the plow; European fruit trees; and crops like wheat and chickpeas (the Spaniards initially spurned native foods such as maize and beans). The repartimiento system led to the growth of vast haciendas, at first dependent upon forced labor; after abolition in later centuries, this was transformed into debt bondage, a state of affairs that was to last until the Mexican Revolution. New Spain proved to be the Spanish empire’s richest source of silver, and hundreds of thousands of natives were put to work in the silver mines under the most terrible conditions.

In line with the doctrine promulgated by the papacy – that the New World natives had souls and thus must not be enslaved but converted to the True Faith – the conquistadores were truly serious about conversion. This task was placed in the hands of the mendicant orders, and twelve Franciscan friars duly arrived in the newly founded Mexico City (built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan); as they walked unshod and in patched robes through the city’s streets, the native population was truly awestruck by their poverty and sincerity. The Franciscans viewed the Indians with paternalistic kindliness, and saw them as raw material on which to fashion a new, Utopian world, free from the sins that were so apparent in the Spanish settlers. They quickly learned Nahuatl, and began early to instruct the sons of the native nobility in Christian values and learning. Naturally, they came into frequent conflict with the encomenderos. Other orders soon followed – Augustinians, Dominicans, and eventually the Jesuits.

Conversion, though, was often only skin deep and, later on in the sixteenth century, the secular and religious clergy came to recognize this. The basic similarity between many aspects of the Aztec religion and Spanish Catholicism has led to a syncretism between the two that persists today in the more indigenous parts of Mexico: there truly were (and often are) “idols behind altars.” The Church’s attempts to stamp out paganism, however, were hampered by the exemption that Indians had from the investigations of the Inquisition, and many old beliefs and practices flourished, particularly in the field of medicine.

Away from the mines and the great haciendas, many Indian communities preserved their self-sufficiency, and had their own lands. These were known as “Repúblicas de Indios,” and were organized on the Spanish cabildo system of town administration. On top was an elected governor, in early years often a native noble. Below him were alcaldes (judges for minor crimes or civil suits) and regidores (councillors who legislated laws for local matters). At first, all electors were from the nobility, but as this dwindled, the commoners or macehualtin took over. Under the friars’ tutelage, native communities had adopted the religious confraternities so important to Spanish life, and these became intertwined with the cabildo system: one advanced in this civil religious hiearchy through a series of cargos, or burdensome offices, that became more and more costly as one achieved ever higher rank and honor. One can see such a hierarchy in many indigenous communities today.