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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 The Encyclopedia of War

The Spaniards who invaded the Americas in the sixteenth century—known then and since as los conquistadores, “the conquerors” — were “bad” and “cruel,” led by “great tyrants.” Encountering Native Americans, who were “gentle lambs and sheep,” the conquistadors became “like fierce wolves and tigers and lions.” Or such was their characterization by the Dominican firebrand fray Bartolomé de Las Casas. His imagery caught on: he had the ear of the Spanish king, Emperor Charles V, who in 1542 approved sweeping new laws to protect his Native American subjects. Denunciations of conquistador methods were penned by others (a 1557 play by Michael de Carvajal called conquistadors “marauding wolves” and “human beasts of prey”), and anti-conquistador tales became so commonplace in the rest of Europe that the phenomenon acquired a name, the Black Legend (Las Casas 2003; Jáuregui 2008).

However, the Black Legend was a hatchet job driven by European religious and political rivalries; few that believed it had set foot in Spanish America. In Spain, its European possessions, and its overseas provinces—which in the sixteenth century seemed to multiply with such rapidity across the Americas, spreading even to east Asia, that global domination was hardly out of the question—most believed that the conquest wars were “just.” This was the term used by its defenders, from famous jurists such as Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who debated Las Casas at court, to Bernardo de Vargas Machuca, an obscure conquistador who wrote books defending “the conquest” and denounced the Dominican's writings as “contemptible.” The violence that marked the invasion, conquest, and settlement of the Americas was justified because native peoples were deemed barbarous, idolatrous (that is, not Christian), and bellicose; as Vargas Machuca put it, “it is common knowledge that the Spaniard neither desires nor seeks war, as the Indian does, constantly instigating betrayals and uprisings” (Lane 2010). By the seventeenth century the conquest had become reduced to a set of great protagonists (Christopher Columbus, Hernando Cortés, Francisco Pizarro), momentous encounters (Cortés and Aztec emperor Moctezuma, Pizarro and Inca emperor Atahuallpa), and crucial battles (the siege of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán) — celebrated and glorified in popular paintings, histories sponsored by the crown, plays, and public festivals.

Conquistador reality was neither of these extremes and yet at times it was both of them. As one of the great watersheds in human history, the Spanish Conquest was a complex, varied, and consistently misunderstood and misrepresented phenomenon. It did not comprise a single war or even a series of clearly defined wars; neither was it advanced primarily through regular, pitch battles. It was neither intentionally genocidal nor easily justified, although at certain moments it may have seemed that way or had that effect. While both sides committed atrocities, a common conquistador tactic was the use of display violence — such as the enslavement or massacre of civilians, the dismemberment of captured warriors, and the torture or public burning of leaders. The combination of conquest violence and the sweep of epidemic diseases from the Old World devastated native populations.

Spanish conquest in America, 1492–1542.

The dramatic military encounters of the 1520s and 1530s marked the core period of the Spanish Conquest, but in totality it was a sporadic, protracted, incomplete series of events from the 1490s to 1810s. Only in the later centuries was the conquest typically directed by the crown (a rare early exception, an example of later patterns, is the crownsubsidized 1565 Florida expedition led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés). In the sixteenth century, the conquest was primarily forged not by armies of the king but by armed entrepreneurs, who formed their own “companies” of exploration and conquest, driven by personal and local goals, not a centralized imperial agenda. While powerful patrons played important investment roles, company “captains” primarily funded expeditions and expected to reap the greatest rewards. The spirit of commercialism infused conquest expeditions from start to finish, with participants selling services and trading goods with each other throughout the endeavor. For them, war was a necessary evil, fighting a temporary means to a peaceful end — albeit an end in which Spanish settlers lorded it over tribute-paying native subjects. The image of conquistadors as crazed by goldlust, by an “epidemic of gold” (Carvajal's phrase), is a Black Legend stereotype. Conquistadors sought gold and silver for practical reasons: precious metals were the only non-perishable easy-to-ship item of value that could pay the merchants and creditors who funded conquest campaigns. Conquistadors “were neither paid nor forced but went of their own will and at their own cost,” in the words of one of them, Francisco de Jérez (Restall 2003: 3).

Although the conquistadors are often misleadingly referred to as soldiers — and they were certainly armed, organized, and experienced in military matters — they typically acquired their martial skills not from formal training but from conflict situations in the Americas. There were some notable exceptions (Pedrarias Dávila fought in Granada and North Africa before invading Central America), but most expedition members were recruited in recently founded colonies; for example, among the Spaniards who participated in the capture of Atahuallpa at Cajamarca, at least two-thirds had prior conquest experience and more than half had spent at least five years in the Americas.

Conquistadors were typically in their late twenties or early thirties, with the average conquistador age being 27. They tended to be from southwestern Spain; a third were from Andalusia, a quarter from Extremadura, a quarter from Old Castile. Their origins mattered, as they sought opportunity through informal patronage networks based on family and hometown ties. They were usually semi-literate, ranging from men of considerable learning to those who could not even sign their names. Among the ten captains who led the 1532–1534 invasion of Peru, including the four Pizarro brothers, four were literate, three were semi-literate (they could sign their names), and three were illiterate (including Francisco Pizarro). Conquistadors were typically trained in a particular civil trade or profession — seldom a military one. A third of the Spaniards who participated in the capture of Atahuallpa in 1533 later stated their occupation as artisan — including tailors, horseshoers, carpenters, trumpeters, a cooper, a swordsmith, a stonemason, a barber, and a piper-crier. The first conquest company into Yucatan in 1527 consisted of the same kinds of artisans, along with the usual professional men — lawyers, merchants, physicians, a couple of priests, and a pair of Flemish artillery engineers.

The lack of formal training for war was paralleled by a lack of formal ranking; Spanish forces in Europe at this time were led by commanders from the high nobility and organized into various ranks. In contrast, conquistador groups were headed by captains, the sole named rank and one that varied in number. The record of the division of spoils at Cajamarca listed the men in two categories only, gente de a caballo (men on horseback) and gente de a pie (men on foot). A man could move from one category to the other by buying a horse (or losing one).

Just as conquistadors were not soldiers in a formal army, there was no official uniform, so each company member dressed according to his occupation, status, and wealth — with adjustments made during the course of an expedition. Basic dress consisted of leggings, pull-over tunics, and an unadorned cloak. The better-off wore an outer garment such as a doublet or jerkin, trimmed with silk or fur if possible. These typically had buttons from the neck down, with fitted waists and small skirts; styles varied, and evolved during the sixteenth century (the doublet eventually became the modern jacket). Spaniards rapidly replaced or altered European dress during conquest campaigns, out of two necessities: clothing from Spain was scarce and expensive; and American climates required adaptation for survival's sake. Wool, flax, and linen gave way to cotton; heavy doublets gave way to the xicolli and the tilmatli, the short jacket and rectangular cape worn by Aztecs and other central Mexicans (or the cotton ponchos of the Andeans); shoes and boots gave way to sandals.

Beginning in the late sixteenth century, drawings and paintings of conquistadors tend to show the invaders as well armored. The conquest painting series and screens that were popular in seventeenth-century Mexico often depict entire conquistador companies in full body armor and helmets. But such paintings are laden with anachronisms and imagined details. Earlier evidence suggests that Spaniards seldom wore armor, that such armor was primarily limited to iron breast-plates, and those were carried with the supplies to be put on only at the onset of battle. From the 1520s on, Spaniards adopted the ichcahuipilli of the Aztecs. This quilted cotton vest was designed to protect the torso from the obsidian weapons used by native Mesoamericans, and it was more appropriate to the American climate and more readily available than iron armor. Round, iron shields were brought from Spain, but were less common than wooden and leather ones, which could be more easily made in the Americas or replaced by native shields. Likewise, iron helmets were less common than flat caps, skullcaps, and simple war hats. The elegant, crested helmet called the morion, typically shown on the head of Cortés and other conquerors in later paintings, did not become common in Europe until the 1540s and was never worn by conquistadors.

The most common, useful, and effective weapon used by the conquistadors was the broadsword. Spaniards who fought native warriors in the 1520s and 1530s typically wielded blunt-tipped three-footers. Some carried broadswords five or six feet long, which were swung with two hands and could devastate massed native warriors. Spanish accounts frequently describe long battles in which native forces suffer high casualties while inflicting only wounds on the invaders. Issues of exaggeration aside, such outcomes were possible because of the disparities in length and durability between Spanish steel swords and native weapons made of wood and obsidian.

Less important, but still significant, were the 12-foot lances that Spaniards also used as pikes. These could be easily made in the field, using recycled iron tips. The allied native warriors that accompanied Spaniards on almost every expedition soon learned to make and use these lances. Still, they were less useful than in Europe, because native enemies had no cavalry. Similarly, the European crossbow was often highly effective and relatively easy to repair in the Americas. But its use was restricted to small units of bowmen, who tended to be outnumbered many times over by skilled archers among the native allies.

Less useful than the lance and crossbow was the matchlock. It first appeared in the Americas within a few years of Columbus's first voyage across the Atlantic, barely a decade after its invention, and colonial-period accounts make much of its impact on native warriors. But the matchlock of the conquistador era was a clumsy, unreliable weapon ill-suited to the tropics. Mostly known as the harquebusb — arcabuz or escopeta in Spanish — this long-barreled gun required dry powder, often misfired, and took longer to reload than an Aztec, Maya, or Inca archer took to unleash dozens of arrows. Again, later paintings are misleading, as they sometimes show conquistadors with muskets — a more useful handgun matchlock that was not invented until the 1550s. Probably the harquebus's greatest virtue in the conquest wars was its psychological impact, a display weapon that could be deployed selectively to impress and terrify the enemy. This was also true — but on a larger, more dramatic scale — of the cannon. Even small cannon made a deafening sound, spat fire, and could throw a ball some two thousand yards; Spaniards claimed that natives were petrified by the cannon's apparent ability to harness the power of thunder and lightning. But, like the matchlock, their utility in combat was highly limited.

The conquistador must primarily be defined as a Spanish man, both in terms of historical context and cultural type. But there were three additional categories of conquistadors who formed significant portions of that context, and who did not only conform to some extent to the type, but consciously laid claim to its characteristics, reputation, and privileges. In order from fewest to most significant, these were, first, conquistadoras. A few fighting Spanish women found fame — such as Inés Suárez, who wielded a sword in Chile in the 1540s, or Catalina de Erauso, who dressed as a man and joined conquest companies as a disguised transvestite in early seventeenth-century South America. But Spanish women were rare in most companies, fighting ones even rarer. Far more common were, second, black conquistadors. These were slaves and freemen, Africans and mixed-race AfroSpaniards, initially numbering in the dozens, but sometimes in the hundreds from the 1520s on, even equal to Spanish numbers. Although black conquistadors tended to be ignored in Spanish accounts, they were not only ubiquitous but much valued as fighters. Survivors filed petitions for rewards just as other conquistadors did, helping historians to reconstruct the lives of men like Juan Valiente, Juan Garrido, and Sebastián Toral.

Third, conquest companies that survived and succeeded consistently did so because of native allies or “Indian conquistadors.” These comprised forces in the thousands or tens of thousands, always outnumbering Spaniards many times over, ubiquitous in conquest campaigns. Maya, Zapotec, and other native noblemen in Mesoamerica often claimed the Spanish title of conquistador. In Mesoamerica and the Andes, native elites that had allied with Spanish invaders won certain privileges in the new colonial system. Their role was crucial, as without the many thousands of indigenous soldiers who fought as indios amigos, the Spanish conquistadors would not have lived to found colonies in the Americas.

SEE ALSO: Aztec warfare; Civilians in war; Military Revolution, the (1560–1660); Philip II of Spain (1527–1598); Prisoners of War, Treatment of; Siege Warfare (early modern); Spanish Army of Flanders; Spies and Spying; Túpac Amaru Rebellions (1572, 1780–1782).

  • Jáuregui, C. A. (2008) The Conquest on Trial: Carvajal's Complaint of the Indians in the Court of Death. Pennsylvania State University Press University Park.
  • Lane, K. (2010) Defending the Conquest: Vargas Machuca's Apologetic Discourses, trans. Johnson, T. . Pennsylvania State University Press University Park.
  • Las Casas, B. de (2003) An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies, ed. Knight, F. , trans. Hurley, A. . Hackett Indianapolis.
  • Restall, M. (2003) Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford University Press Oxford.
  • Further Reading
  • Cortés, H. (1986) Letters from Mexico, ed. Pagden, A. . Yale University Press New Haven.
  • Díaz del Castillo, B. (2009) The History of the Conquest of New Spain, ed. Carrasco, D. . University of New Mexico Press Albuquerque.
  • Erauso, C. de (1996) Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, trans. M. Stepto; G. Stepto. Beacon Press Boston.
  • Lockhart, J. (1972) The Men of Cajamarca: A Social and Biographical Study of the First Conquerors of Peru. University of Texas Press Austin.
  • Lockhart, J.; Otte, E. (1976) Letters and People of the Spanish Indies. Cambridge University Press Cambridge.
  • Matthew, L.; Oudijk, M. (Eds.) (2007) Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica. University of Oklahoma Press Norman.
  • Pohl, J. (2001) The Conquistador, 1492-1550. Osprey Oxford.
  • Restall, M. (1998) Maya Conquistador. Beacon Press Boston.
  • Matthew Restall
    Wiley ©2012

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