Conquistadors (play /kɒn.ˈkwɪstədɔr/; Spanish: [koŋkistaˈðor]; "conqueror") were Spanish[1][2] soldiers, explorers, and adventurers who brought much of the Americas under the control of Spain in the 15th to 16th centuries, following Europe's discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The two perhaps most famous conquistadors were Hernán Cortés who conquered the Aztec Empire and Francisco Pizarro who led the conquest of the Incan Empire. They were second cousins and both of them were born in Extremadura as well as many of the conquerors who were from Spain.

Conquistadors in the Americas resembled a volunteer militia more than than a regular organized military in that they had to supply their own materials, weapons and horses. Some were supported by governments, such as Hernán Cortés, who was funded by Spain.

Authors like Tzvetan Todorov and Jared Diamond have highlighted the short time required for the Spanish conquest and establishment in the Americas. Exposure of these previously remote populations to European diseases caused many more fatalities than the wars themselves, and severely weakened the natives' social structures. The Europeans brought small pox, chicken pox, and measles to South America. Recent genetic studies on the skeletal remains of native peoples found that while many hundreds of thousands were killed by violence, an even higher number died from disease. Some estimate that up to 85% of the drop in population was due to illness (see population history of indigenous peoples of the Americas)[citation needed]. Many oral stories maintain that the Indians saw this as a sign of a lack of faith in their old customs. The people in the Americas were not previously exposed to the variety of European diseases that caused their eventual demise. The diseases moved much faster than the advancing Spanish. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Incan empire, a large portion of the population, including the emperor, had already died in a smallpox epidemic. When Francisco Coronado and the Spanish first explored the Rio Grande Valley in 1540, in modern New Mexico, many of the chieftains complained of new diseases that affected their tribes. The Spanish curanderos (folk healers) recognized the symptoms and attempted to relieve some of the ailments.

Recently developed tree-ring evidence shows that the illness which lead to decline of the population in Aztec Mexico was not only a result of European diseases, but also a result of a great drought which occurred in the 16th century, and which led up to and continued through to the arrival of the Spanish conquest.[3][4] This has added to the body of epidemiologic evidence indicating that epidemics of cocoliztli were indigenous fevers transmitted by rodents and aggravated by the extreme drought. The epidemic of cocoliztli from 1545 to 1548 killed an estimated 5 to 15 million people, or up to 80% of the native population. The cocoliztli epidemic from 1576 to 1578 killed an estimated, additional 2 to 2.5 million people, or about 50% of the remaining native population.[5][6]

The Laws of Burgos, created in 1512–1513, were the first codified set of laws governing the behavior of Spanish settlers in America, particularly with regards to Native Americans. They forbade the maltreatment of indigenous people, and endorsed their conversion to Catholicism. The laws were never truly enforced and had little impact.[7] In the 16th century perhaps 240,000 Europeans entered American ports.[8][9] By the late 16th century American silver accounted for one-fifth of Spain's total budget.[10]


Spanish advantages

The conquerors were professional warriors, using modern tactics, firearms, combat dogs, and cavalry tactics against unprepared groups.[contradiction] The Companies would often specialize in forms of combat that required longer periods of training that was not available in the form of a mobilized militia.

Professional Iberian conquering armies were mostly mounted conquistadors of veteran mercenary soldiers of Iberian or European origin. The native allied troops were largely composed of infantry equipped with armament and armor depending in their tribal origin.

During the 1650s, most troops were mercenaries. However, after the 17th century, most states invested in better disciplined and more politically reliable permanent troops. For a time mercenaries became important as trainers. This allowed the earliest professional military to serve during wartime. Such mercenaries typically formed at the ends of periods of conflict. Jared Diamond summarizes the causes of the Pizarro's victory in the Andean region as "military technology based on guns, steel weapons, and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; the centralized political organization of European states, and writing".[11] The significance of writing is the cause of the errors of judgment of Atahualpa and Moctezuma, which led them to be deceived by the Spaniards, who belonged to a literate society. This allowed the conquerors to have at their disposal a huge body of knowledge about human behavior and its history, something that no native nations possessed.

The strongest war dogs, broad-mouthed breeds of mastiff specifically trained for battle, were used against almost nude troops. The Spanish conquistadors used armoured dogs that had been trained to kill and disembowel when they invaded the land controlled by South American natives.[12]

While technological and cultural factors played an important role in the victories and defeats of the conquistadors, one fatal factor was the disease brought from Europe, especially smallpox. In an unknown number of cases, diseases first contracted from Europeans by indigenous people were carried to distant tribes and villages. This typical path of disease transmission may have entirely or partially destroyed Indian nations before the conquistadors had actually entered those distant nations.

Another key factor leading to the domination of the Americas was the ability of the conquistadors to manipulate the political situation between local indigenous peoples. For instance, by supporting one side of a civil war, as in the case of the Inca civilization, or allying with natives who had been subjugated by more powerful neighboring tribes and kingdoms, as in the case of the Aztec civilization.


Militarily, conquistadors had various advantages over the native peoples, most notably firearms and steel. While the indigenous peoples had the advantage of established settlements, determination to remain independent and large numerical superiority, which in many cases was a decisive factor in the defeat of the conquistadors,[citation needed] European diseases combined with advanced military technology and divide and conquer tactics ultimately overcame the native populations.

Throughout the conquest, the numbers of people within the indigenous nations greatly exceeded the Spanish conquistadors; on average the Spanish population never exceeded 2% of the native population. The Spanish conquistadors commonly allied with natives to bolster their numerically inferior ranks with thousands of indigenous auxiliaries. The army with which Hernán Cortés besieged Tenochtitlan was composed of 200,000 soldiers, of which fewer than 1% were Spaniards.[13]:178

Although many American civilizations had developed methods for working soft metals, including gold, silver, bronze, tin and copper, this knowledge was applied mainly to the development of religious and artistic objects, as well as some household utensils for everyday use. Few metals were used by native populations for military applications. One exception was that the Quechuas and P'urhépecha developed weapons of copper and bronze, but these could not match the hardness or durability of iron and steel. Most cultures used weapons of wood, flint and obsidian. Most conquistadors had limited access to steel armor and helmets as the more common mail and leather were worn by the Spanish and were an important factor in their success. However, many indigenous cultures had used woven grasses and leathers as similar protection for centuries. In fact, mostly the mounted conquistadors (the cavalry) used steel breastplates and armor during Cortés' campaign against the Aztecs. The varying climate between coastal and mountain regions and high heat and humidity of Central and South America made wearing such heavy iron and steel items mostly impractical,[13]:123 and the humidity caused a significantly faster rate of corrosion than in Europe.

In their first contacts with native peoples, firearms and especially arquebuses were very formidable weapons due to the great impression on morale because of the noise, flash and smoke. Tactically, their effectiveness was limited due to the lengthy reload procedure. Logistically, the conquistadors had difficulty maintaining the weapon, with its availability usually in the single digits for most Spanish parties. The weapons and armor of steel and iron proved to be much more effective militarily. A Spanish sword made from Toledo steel was considered the pinnacle of craftsmanship and a well trained knight could be a dominant foe. To the Spanish, a sword represented their chivalry, honor, and devotion as Christian Knights. When they took control of a nation, the conquistadors usually banned possession of steel swords by the subjugated peoples for civil obedience.[citation needed]

The animals introduced were another important factor. On the one hand, the introduction of the horse to the American continents by the Spaniards allowed them greater mobility and the use of horses and other domesticated pack animals unknown to the Indian cultures. However, in the mountains and jungles, the Spaniards were less able to traverse Amerindian roads and bridges made for pedestrian traffic, which were sometimes no wider than a few feet. In many cases, in places such as Argentina, New Mexico and California, the Spanish taught the indigenous people horsemanship, cattle raising, and sheep herding, and they soon excelled at these new skills. This later became a disputed factor in native resistance to the Spanish and their use of the new techniques. The Spaniards were also skilled at breeding dogs for war, hunting and protection. The introduction of the Mastiff, wolf hound and sheep dog was unexpectedly effective as a psychological weapon against the natives, who, in many cases, had never seen domesticated dogs, though many indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere did, indeed, have domestic dogs; these include, but are not limited to: the current Southwestern US, Aztec and other Central American nations and peoples, the inhabitants of the Arctic/Tundra regions (Inuit, Aleut, Cree), and possibly some South American groups. During the conquest of the Americas, Spanish conquistadors used Spanish Mastiffs and other Molossers in battle against Native Americans, like the Taínos, Aztecs, or Mayans. These specially trained dogs were feared by the Indians because of their strength and ferocity.

The Spanish methods of war were similar to those of other European powers, but were more organized and directed within the terms and laws of a just war, considered at all times better than the Indian's with regard to warfare. While Spanish soldiers went to the battlefield to kill their enemies, prominent indigenous peoples like the Aztecs and Mayas preferred to capture enemies for use as sacrificial victims to their own gods—a process called "flower war" by later Spanish historians.


One factor in the defeat of the American Indian civilizations was their demographic collapse. There has been debate among researchers as to the cause of that collapse. Some identify genocidal acts by the Europeans as the main cause. Some attribute it to the introduction of new diseases and still others to both factors. Scholars now believe that, among the various contributing factors, epidemic disease was the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the Native Americans because of their lack of immunity to new diseases brought from Europe.[14] The American researcher HF Dobyns estimates that 95% of the total population of the Americas died in the first 130 years.[15] Cook and Borak of the University of California at Berkeley claim that the population in Mexico declined from 25.2 million in 1518 to 700 thousand people in 1623, less than 3% of the original population.[16] In 1492, the combined populations of Spain and Portugal did not exceed 10 million people.[13]:136 There is some consensus that the demographic collapse of the original population of the Americas was the main cause of its military defeat.[citation needed] One factor often overlooked is that there were few strong diplomatic relationships among the vast and greatly dispersed indigenous peoples of the Americas. Most peoples lived in isolated communities, with only limited trade contact and no regular communication. Limited trading was the only constant contact between most New World cultures.

Disease devastating the native population is commonly cited as the primary reason for this decline in population. This happened with the Inca Empire, defeated by Francisco Pizarro in 1533. The first epidemic of smallpox was recorded in 1529 and killed the emperor Huayna Capac, the father of Atahualpa, as well as a large portion of the population. New epidemics of smallpox broke out in 1533, 1535, 1558 and 1565, as well as typhus in 1546, influenza in 1558, diphtheria in 1614 and measles in 1618.[13]:133 Dobyns estimated that 90% of the population of the Inca Empire died in these epidemics.[17]

Notable conquistadors

See also


  1. ^ Mary Hill, Gold: The California Story
  2. ^ Vanhanen, Tatu (1997). Prospects of democracy: a study of 172 countries. New York: Routledge. p. 112. ISBN 0415144051. 
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ [2]
  5. ^ [3]
  6. ^ [4]
  7. ^ Laws of Burgos, 1512-1513
  8. ^ "The Columbian Mosaic in Colonial America" by James Axtell
  9. ^ The Spanish Colonial System, 1550-1800. Population Development
  10. ^ "Conquest in the Americas". Conquest in the Americas. 
  11. ^ Diamond, Jared (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel. p. 80. ISBN 0-393-31755-2. 
  12. ^ Stannard, David. American holocaust: the conquest of the New World. 
  13. ^ a b c d Mann, Charles (2006). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Madrid: Taurus. 
  14. ^ Whether several diseases from "the New World" (America) struck Europe shortly after Columbus's voyage is also debated among scholars. Goodling, Stacy. "Effects of European Diseases on the Inhabitants of the New World". 
  15. ^ Dobyns, H. F.. American population dynamics in Eastern North Americas. Knoxville (Tenn.): University of Tennessee Press. 
  16. ^ Cook, S. F.; Borah, W. W. (1963). The Indian population of Central Mexico. Berkeley (Cal.): University of California Press. 
  17. ^ Dobyns, H. F. (1983). Their number become thined: Native American population dynamics in Eastern North America. Knoxville (Tenn.): University of Tennessee Press. 

Further reading

  • Chasteen, John Charles (2001). Born In Blood And Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.. ISBN 9780393976137. 
  • Innes, Hammond (2002). The Conquistadors. London: Penguin. ISBN 9780141391229. 
  • Kirkpatrick, F. A. (1934). The Spanish Conquistadores. London: A. & C. Black. 
  • Wood, Michael (2000). Conquistadors. London: BBC Books. ISBN 9780563487067. 

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