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Definition: Conquistadors (Spanish, from conquistar ‘conquer’) from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The adventurers who created a Spanish empire in Central and South America in the 16th century. They included Hernán Cortés, who subdued the AZTECS of Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro, who destroyed the INCA of Peru.

Summary Article: Conquistadors
from Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607-1890, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Term used in reference to the Portuguese and Spanish soldiers, explorers, and adventurers who brought much of the Americas under the control of the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal from the late 15th century through the 17th century. Meaning literally “the conqueror,” the term “conquistador” referenced the kinship that the Spanish explorers felt with those who had accomplished the reconquista (“reconquest”) of Spain from Muslim Moorish control in 1492. Many conquistadors were initially poor, as tradition prohibited Spanish noblemen from engaging in manual work. Some were escaping the religious prosecution of the Spanish Inquisition. Areas in the New World that came under Spanish and Portuguese control included Mexico, most of South and Central America, parts of the Caribbean, and much of the present-day United States.

The Spanish and Portuguese fought for control over these new colonies. This rivalry was finally settled under papal arbitration in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. This treaty divided the territory conquered outside of Europe between the Spanish Crown and the Portuguese along a north-south meridian running 1,100 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. The territory to the east would belong to Portugal, and the land to the west would belong to Spain. In 1506 Pope Julius II officially sanctioned this division. This opened the way for Spanish exploration and colonization in the New World except for Brazil, most of which fell under Portuguese dominion.

The Spanish conquest of the Americas began in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, an Italian by birth. The Caribbean regions were conquered first, but these did not provide sufficient treasure to make the conquerors rich. Juan Ponce de León secured the island of Puerto Rico, while Diego Velázquez took Cuba. Hernán Cortés became the first significantly successful conquistador. He overpowered the Aztecs during 1520–1521 and brought Mexico under Spanish rule. Francisco Pizarro was responsible for conquering the Incas in South America. In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan's discovery of the straits at the tip of South America led the Spanish conquistadors to the Pacific and Asia. Miguel López de Legazpi, who arrived in the Philippines in 1565, opened the way for the Spanish conquest in the Pacific. In North America, conquistadors Hernando de Soto and Francisco Coronado had extensive and devastating contact with native populations.

The conquistadors brought with them European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles, and typhus, which were disastrous to the Native American populations who had no immunity to them. European diseases in many cases wiped out between 30 percent and 90 percent of the native populations. In respect to the Aztecs and the Incas, the diseases badly weakened their populations, which had significantly outnumbered the Spanish, and aided the Spanish conquistadors in their effort to colonize the Americas.

The legends of immeasurable wealth located in golden cities (such as El Dorado) enticed many Spanish adventurers to leave for the Americas. Oftentimes they came back empty-handed; however, those who did manage to bring precious metals back to Spain propagated the impression of seemingly endless sources of gold and silver in the New World. Over time the Spanish monarchs, relying too heavily on these imports and engaging the country in extensive foreign wars, overstretched the Crown's budget to the point of bankruptcy. This undermined the Spanish and European economies and led to rampant inflation in Spain.

Seventeenth-century painting of the conquest of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City) by Hernán Cortés in 1521. (Library of Congress)

Native American populations suffered greatly at the hands of the conquistadors. Wanton killings, enslavement, rape, torture, and other abuses perpetuated the stereotype of Spanish cruelty that came to be known as the Black Legend. This term referred to the infamous Spanish Inquisition and later to the behavior of the Spanish conquistadors in the colonies. Early Protestant historians, describing the period of Spanish colonization, often depicted the Spanish conquistadors as being fanatical, cruel, intolerant, and greedy, in the process perpetuating the Black Legend.

Accounts of the mistreatment of the natives by the conquistadors contributed to the passage of the Spanish colonial laws, known as the New Laws, in 1542. They were designed to protect the rights of Native Americans and to prevent the exploitation of indigenous peoples by the conquistadors. The enslavement of the natives in the New World colonies came under further scrutiny in the Valladolid Debate of 1550–1551. This debate sought to determine whether Native Americans had souls, as white Europeans were believed to possess. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar, argued that the full humanity of the natives was evident because they indeed did possess souls. The Jesuit priest Juan Gines de Sepulveda, however, maintained that the indigenous peoples in the New World did not have souls and therefore could be enslaved. King Charles I of Spain (r. 1516–1556; Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during 1519–1558), when confronted with this debate, ordered an end to the aggression against the natives and also ordered a jury of eminent scholars to hold a hearing on the subject. The jury ruled in favor of treating the natives as human beings, who were presumed to have immortal souls. This ruling did little to change Spanish colonial policy, however, as most conquistadors ignored or circumvented the royal edicts, which were virtually unenforceable at such a distance from Spain.

Before attacking native populations, the conquistadors would often read to them a document known as the Requirement. The document provided an overview of world history, with the focus on Christianity as propagated by the Catholic Church, and demanded that the indigenous peoples accept the king of Spain as their supreme ruler on behalf of the pope and allow missionaries to introduce them to the Christian Gospel. This document came into being after the Catholic Church in Spain had asserted that the wars against Native American peoples were unjust and immoral. In contrast to the Moors, who were Muslims and rejected Christ as the Messiah, the indigenous people in the colonies had never come into contact with Christianity. For the conquistadors, the Requirement served as a loophole to put the native populations in a position in which they would reject Christianity and could therefore be attacked without facing the wrath of the Catholic Church or the king.

Often by force, the Native Americans were gradually converted to Christianity. In so doing, the conquistadors purged most native cultural practices. Oftentimes, however, the natives would blend their traditional customs and beliefs with Catholic traditions. In contrast to religion, the Spanish language was not normally imposed on the conquered populations. After the heavy damage sustained by Spain during the Peninsular War (1808–1814) and decades of imperial overstretch, Spain was unable to maintain its colonies. This led to a wave of independence movements in its New World colonies during the first part of the 19th century.

See also

Missionaries; Ponce de León, Juan; Slavery among Native Americans; Spain

  • Hakim, Joy. The First Americans. Oxford University Press New York, 1993.
  • Jones, Mary Ellen. Christopher Columbus and His Legacy: Opposing Viewpoints. Greenhaven San Diego, 1992.
  • Wood, Michael. Conquistadors. University of California Press Berkeley, 2000.
    Copyright 2011 by Spencer C. Tucker

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