Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian




Antigua & Barbuda Argentina Bahamas Barbados Belize Bolivia
Brazil Chile Colombia Costa Rica Cuba Dominica
Dominican Republic Ecuador El Salvador Grenada Guatemala Guyana
Haiti Honduras Jamaica Mexico Nicaragua Panama
Paraguay Peru Puerto Rico St. Kitts & Nevis St. Lucia St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Suriname Trinidad & Tobago Uruguay Venezuela    

A History of Latin America and the Caribbean



Chapter 2: The Age of the Conquistadors, Part I

1492 to 1650




This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Christopher Columbus
What Colombus Really Discovered
Population At First Contact
The Conquests of Ahuitzotl and Moctezuma II
Huayna Capac
From Hispaniola to Mexico, and the Discovery of Brazil
"Pioneers Take the Arrows"
The Conquest of New Spain
The Conquest of Central America and Western Mexico
The Conquest of Peru, Act 1
The Conquest of Peru, Act 2
Go to Page Navigator

Part II

The Conquest of Peru, Act 3
Colonizing Paraguay
Filling In the Gaps
Miners, Traders and Raiders
The Conquest of Peru, Act 4
The El Dorado Dream
The Church Comes to Latin America
The Colonization of Brazil
French and English Inroads in the Caribbean
Spain Comes To the End Of the Line
Population Figures After the Conquest, and the Columbian Exchange


Christopher Columbus

or, 1492 and All That


Christopher Columbus(1) was born in the Italian city of Genoa, in 1451. When he grew up he became a sailor; this was one of the most exciting jobs available, in an age when Europe had just started building sailing ships that could carry large cargoes across the open sea. His first voyage was a commercial expedition to the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, and it was successful enough to convince Columbus that sailing was for him. Then in 1476, he had his first experience with the Atlantic, when he went with five ships heading from Genoa to England. Unfortunately they were attacked by French privateers, six miles off the coast of Portugal. Columbus was on one of the ships sunk in that battle, and he escaped by swimming to shore and holding onto a piece of wreckage from the ship. After he recovered, he joined another sailing adventure, the Portuguese exploration of the African coast. Rising through the ranks, he eventually became captain of one of the ships that discovered the Congo River and Angola, on the 1482 expedition of Diogo Cão.

Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus.


The ultimate goal of these expeditions was to find a way around Africa to the rich markets of Asia. In 1487 Bartholomew Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, but still was only halfway to the destination. Africa was so big that many observers became skeptical; maybe a ship captain could sail around it, but he would probably never earn a profit doing so.

Now if you believed the world was round(2), there was an alternate route. How about sailing directly to the Orient, by going due west across the Atlantic? In 1477, as part of his service for Portugal, Columbus visited Iceland, so he probably heard that the Vikings had discovered habitable lands to the west. Most geographers dismissed a westward voyage as unfeasible, not because they were afraid of falling off the edge of the earth, but because the distance was too great. Five thousand miles of open sea was the most fifteenth-century ships could manage, and the figure involved in sailing from Europe to the eastern coast of Asia was (correctly) thought to be more than ten thousand miles. Nevertheless, Columbus found an expert, Paolo Toscanelli of Florence, who thought that the distance might be as low as 3,000 miles.(3) After doing the calculations himself, he changed the figures a bit, combining the largest estimation of Eurasia’s size with the smallest estimation of the earth’s circumference. That reduced the distance to 2,400 miles, allowing a ship a safety margin in case it had to return without finding anything. Then, unable to afford a ship by himself, he went to the rulers of western Europe to sell his plan.

Columbus succeeded because he was a great salesman, as well as a great sailsman. For more than a decade he traveled between the courts of western Europe. First he went to the king of Portugal(4), who said no to the idea in 1484; the Portuguese thought that Columbus had miscalculated the distance between Europe and Asia, and they already had enough going on in Africa to keep them busy. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain were more interested, and they gave him an allowance to live on, but they did not grant him an audience until 1486, and then they said no as well. Next, he sent his proposal back to Portugal, which said no again in 1488; to King Henry VII of England, who said no in 1489; and to King Charles VIII of France, who did not listen at all. In 1490 he started talking with the Spanish court again, but it could not spare any ships until the war against the Moors of Granada ended. Granada fell on the first day of 1492, so after that victory Queen Isabella finally said yes.

By August Columbus was ready to go.(5) The queen had entrusted him with ninety sailors and three tiny ships: the Santa Maria (100 tons), the Pinta (60 tons) and the Niña (50 tons). Of the three, only the Santa Maria had decks; the others were open to the elements (fortunately they had good weather on the journey west). No merchants, missionaries, settlers or soldiers went on the voyage; this would be strictly a scouting expedition. First they sailed to the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands were a valuable advance base, the last place where Spanish ships could stop for repairs or supplies, before crossing the ocean to Africa or the Americas. Indeed, earlier in the fifteenth century the Portuguese had set up their own island bases (on the Azores and Madeira), for the same purpose.

From the Canary Islands, the ships set forth into the Atlantic on September 6. The trip took five weeks. On the way Columbus kept two ship’s logs; the “official” log showed lower daily mileage figures than the secret log, where Columbus entered his true estimates of the distance covered. This ruse was done to keep the crew morale up.

In early October they saw some migrating birds flying west-southwest. Assuming the birds knew where the nearest land was, Columbus altered his course to follow them. Three days later, at 2 A.M. on October 12, the lookout on the Pinta sighted land. It was one of the outermost islands in the Bahamas(6), and here Columbus met his first Americans. Convinced that his theories were right, he decided he was somewhere in the East Indies (Indonesia), and called the natives “Indians,” something Native Americans have been trying to get over since.

Columbus makes landfall, 1492.

Columbus arrives in the New World.


The Indians, who had probably arrived in the Bahamas just a few years earlier, explained to Columbus that there were bigger islands to the south. Armed with this knowledge, he threaded his way through the Bahamas to reach Cuba(7), and sailed along the northern coast of Cuba to Hispaniola. Hispaniola contained an estimated 100,000 inhabitants, half the Indian population in the Caribbean at that time, and these friendly natives gladly traded their gold for some glass beads. Then on Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria ran aground on a coral reef, so Columbus built a fort from the flagship’s timbers, named it La Navidad, left behind twenty-three men to garrison the fort, and finished his exploration of Hispaniola’s north coast. Finally on January 18, 1493, he set sail for home, bringing back various Caribbean goods, parrots, and six Indians. On the way he went through one of the worst storms of the decade (an out-of-season hurricane?), before returning to a joyous reception at the Spanish court.(8)

Back in Spain Columbus reported that he had discovered some previously unknown islands in Southeast Asia; surely the great nations Marco Polo wrote about couldn’t be far away. In the meantime, the new discoveries needed colonizing. Accordingly, in the fall of 1493 he led a second expedition west, with seventeen ships full of 1,200 eager volunteers. He picked the perfect course; this time he crossed the open sea in twenty-one days instead of thirty-three. Making landfall in the Lesser Antilles, he proceeded to Hispaniola, only to find his original colony destroyed; while he was away, the natives had gotten tired of constant demands for gold, and killed everyone in the fort. He built a second outpost nearby, named Isabela, and this one proved too strong for the local tribes to eliminate. Indeed, within a couple of years, the Spaniards of Isabela had established their rule over the whole island.(9) As for Columbus, he went off to do more exploring. He followed the inhospitable southern coast of Cuba, but not all the way to the island’s western tip, so he decided this was a peninsula of the Asian mainland. Next he explored Jamaica and the southern shore of Hispaniola before returning to Spain. Wherever he went he also found Indians, but these were so poor they were scarcely worth robbing. The dream was fading.

This showed in the type of colonists Columbus brought on his third journey west (1498); he had to scrape the prisons of Spain to find enough people willing to go with him. For this journey he steered a more southerly course than before, going down to the Cape Verde Islands before heading across the ocean. He made landfall at Trinidad, the southernmost Caribbean island, and briefly explored the large landmass next to it. The size of the Orinoco River told him that the uncharted land was big enough to be a continent. Then he made for Hispaniola, for the crown had appointed him governor of the colony.

None of the three Columbus brothers were successful administrators. The local Indians, resenting the forced labor imposed on them and how the Spaniards took their women, revolted and were exterminated. The Spaniards were just as mutinous, because they did not like serving under a foreigner, so they did their best to make a difficult job impossible. Nevertheless, Christopher Columbus was partially responsible for the colony's troubles. When a royal commissioner came in 1500 to investigate complaints, he was so shocked by what he saw that he shipped all three brothers back to Spain in irons. The Spanish government also decided to grant licenses of exploration to other captains besides Columbus. In 1499 Alonso de Hojeda, Peralonso Niño, and Juan de la Cosa led expeditions to explore the coast of Venezuela and open up trade with the inhabitants. From Venezuela came rumors of great wealth in the land to the west, so in 1501 Rodrigo Bastidas and Juan de la Cosa explored the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story for the Columbus brothers. Though twenty-three witnesses testified that the brothers had committed the abuses they were charged with, they had also done too much to make Spain a great nation, so the Spanish monarchs issued pardons, and hired Christopher Columbus one more time--but only as an explorer, not as a governor. His fourth and last voyage (1502-04) took him through familiar waters until he reached the north shore of Honduras. Here he met--and passed up--the best opportunity of his career; his ships encountered a boatload of Indians in unusually fine dress, with cotton robes and well-crafted jewelry. They were Aztecs on their way home, but instead of following them to Mexico, Columbus went east, going down the Central American coast as far as Panama.

In Panama, one of his four ships got stuck on a sandbar, when it was parked in a river and the water level went down; another was abandoned because it was no longer seaworthy. Columbus tried to reach Hispaniola with the two remaining ships, but they were so full of holes from shipworms that they were leaking badly, and a storm blew them to Jamaica, an island that did not have any Spanish settlements yet. He managed to buy a canoe from the natives, and sent one of his crewmen on it to Hispaniola with a call for help. On Jamaica the natives were friendly at first, but as you might expect, tensions grew while the expedition was marooned there. At one point Columbus had to put down a mutiny, and the natives stopped giving his men food, when all they got in return were bells and other trinkets. Fortunately Columbus had an almanac, which told of a lunar eclipse coming up, and on that night (February 29, 1504), he called the native chiefs and told them that God was displeased with them for cutting off the food supply, and the Almighty would show His anger by removing the moon from the sky. The Indians had probably seen lunar eclipses before, but they couldn't have known what caused them, so when they saw a “bad moon rising,” they panicked and gave Columbus what he demanded; Columbus went into his tent and prayed until the moon returned to its former self, and than he said God was in a forgiving mood. So the next time you read a story where the hero is saved by an eclipse (e.g., Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), know that it's not entirely fiction, and the author may have heard of Columbus pulling that trick. Anyway, a relief caravel from Hispaniola finally arrived in June to pick up the men, six months after they had been stranded. The following November, Columbus was back in Spain.

Top of the page


What Columbus Really Discovered


By this time it was clear to most Europeans, especially the crewmen on the expeditions, that the Caribbean Sea was closed on the west, and this was no short cut to the Orient. However, it was not clear to the commander. Columbus thought Central America was the Malay peninsula, and that China was just over the horizon. It took another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, to explain what was really going on. Between 1497 and 1504, first employed by Spain and then by Portugal, Vespucci led several expeditions to explore the coast of the continent south of Trinidad. Vespucci was the first to realize that this land was not an incidental discovery, but the most important discovery of all. Moreover, this exotic place, with its strange plants and animals, and jungles full of naked cannibals, could not be Asia, or any other known country. As he put it, “I have found, in these southern lands, a continent. . . . One can, with good reason, name it the New World.” This idea convinced a German geographer, Martin Waldseemüller, to name the new continent after him = America.

Waldseemüller’s book, which was published in 1507, contained a map of the world that showed two oceans—not one—between Europe and Asia (a lucky guess--no European since Marco Polo had seen the Pacific), with "America" between those oceans. At this point, only the South American continent was called “America”; all the lands to the north were shown as islands, and simply called “the Indies.” It took until the 1520s for Europeans to realize there was a North American continent as well.

Waldseemüller must have decided after publishing the book that it was a mistake to name a whole continent after one man, because with his next world maps, drawn in 1513 and 1516, he did not use the name "America" anywhere. Too late--the name had been quickly accepted after other cartographers saw the first map, and like the name Columbus gave to the natives, it has been used ever since.

Okay, now you know the origin of the name "America," and you can probably guess who Colombia was named after. What about Venezuela? Well, the coastline that Alonso de Hojeda, Amerigo Vespucci, and Juan de la Cosa were exploring was a swampy jungle, especially around the Orinoco River delta. The local Indians (the ones we called naked cannibals earlier) tended to live in huts on stilts over the water, and used canoes to get around. The three explorers all agreed that this part of the New World looked a lot like Venice, so they named it Veneziola, "Little Venice." Translate that from Italian to Spanish to English to get "Venezuela."

Actually, the comparison is absurd when you recall what Venice has besides water and boats. Today Venice is mainly a tourist attraction, but throughout the Middle Ages, Venice was a commercial and naval power to be reckoned with. The Fourth Crusade made it the richest city in Europe; its wealth came from looting Constantinople and trading with the nations to the east. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Venice was just past its peak, having lost its monopoly on the spice trade when Portugal discovered another way to go to Asia, but still it would have looked magnificent to any visitor. Somehow the explorers got the idea that huts above the water resembled Venetian apartments; never mind that the Indians did not have anything that looked like St. Mark's Cathedral, the Doge's Palace, or the Arsenal (Venice's shipyard). Either jungle fever made the explorers delusional, or they had simply been away from Europe for too long.

Venezuelan native hut.

When the explorers saw this . . .


An old Venetian painting.

It reminded them of this.


But we have digressed ahead of the narrative. Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, in 1506, so he never saw Waldseemüller’s book or map; if he had, he would have disapproved of both.(10) It's also a safe bet that he did not hear about Venezuela's name, either. To the end he remained a cranky man with crazy ideas. His main achievement was that he had changed the world for everybody but himself.(11)

Top of the page


Population At First Contact


With no census available for the Americas before the late eighteenth century, we have to guess at how many people lived there in earlier times. Currently, using evidence from the ruins and artifacts left behind, plus a few reports from the first Europeans in the New World, a conservative estimate gives a grand total of 15 million Americans, evenly divided between North and South America, in 1492. Recently, some scholars have suggested the western hemisphere could have been home to twice as many people, and others have argued for even greater numbers, so read what I wrote about demographics in Chapter 1 of my North American history, to see why a population of more than 30 million is not realistic. In South America, 60 percent of the inhabitants lived in the northern and central Andes, from Colombia to Bolivia. These were the Incas and their subject tribes, and because this region had both agriculture and an advanced society, it could support more people than the rest of the continent.

In the Old World, agriculture fed more people than the herding of animals, and herding fed more people than hunting/gathering. The same was true for agriculture in the New World, but as we noted in the previous chapter, the pre-Columbian Americans had a shortage of animals worth domesticating. Besides dogs, all they had were ducks, turkeys, guinea pigs, llamas (an inefficient beast of burden), and wool-bearing alpacas. The llama and alpaca lived in an area that already had agriculture, so unlike the Old World, there wasn't a gradual shift from farming to herding to hunting; in South America, you either tilled the land or you hunted.(12)

It was a similar story in North America. Four fifths of North America's population, or roughly six million, lived in a zone from Mexico to Nicaragua. Except for northern Mexico, this whole area is in the tropics; you can grow a greater variety of plants in tropical/subtropical climates than in temperate zones, and the growing season is long enough to raise more than one crop every year. As you go away from Mesoamerica, the communities fade from agriculturalist to semi-agriculturalist; in the areas farthest away (e.g., Alaska and Canada), you have pure hunting societies again. North America's unequal distribution of people meant that only central Mexico had a population comparable to the typical European country. If any Indians had a chance of beating the invaders from the Old World, it would be these ones. And because central Mexico was now under the rule of the Aztec Empire, the Indians also had the organization to mobilize their numbers.

Top of the page


The Conquests of Ahuitzotl and Moctezuma II


While Columbus was exploring the Caribbean, the Aztec Empire continued to expand on the mainland. The Tarascans, neighbors to the west, were too tough for the Aztecs to subjugate, and the lands to the east had already been conquered, from Tuxpan to Mixtlan on the Gulf Coast. The mountain fastness of the Tlaxcalans had been completely surrounded, but as we saw in Chapter 1, that land needed to be left independent so that the Aztecs would have a steady supply of victims for human sacrifices. That left the north and the south as areas for expansion, and Ahuitzotl (1486-1502), the Aztec ruler at the end of the fifteenth century, saw the most opportunities to the south. Here were the venerable Zapotecs and Mixtecs; he might even conquer some Maya cities if his armies advanced far enough. In the end he conquered an area on the Pacific coast that was the same size as the conquered area on the Gulf Coast.

At this point, the Zapotec civilization was more than 2,000 years old. The Zapotecs also had an outstanding chief, Cocijoeza (1487-1529), who promised aid to Dzahuindanda, the king of the Mixtecs, in the event of an Aztec invasion. Sure enough, that invasion happened in 1494, and because the Mixtecs were closer to the Aztec homeland, Ahuizotl attacked them first, sacking Mitla, the Mixtec holy city. The Mixtecs and Zapotecs combined their forces and managed to defeat the Aztecs, when they entered the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Next, Ahuitzotl tried to capture Cocijoeza, but the Zapotec leader barricaded himself in the Cerro de Guiengola, and resisted a seven-month-long siege. In the end the Aztecs suffered so many losses that they were the ones who sued for peace; Ahuitzotl gave his daughter Coyolicatzin in marriage to Cocijoeza. However, hostilities between the Aztecs and Mixtecs continued, until a weakened Aztec army finally won in 1498. After that, Ahuitzotl led an expedition on the Pacific coast, marching east from Tehuantepec to Soconusco, on the present-day Mexican-Guatemalan frontier (1500).

Ahuitzotl's nephew, Moctezuma II (1502-20, also spelled Montezuma or Motecuhzoma), conquered land in the present-day states of Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, but these were places that Ahuitzotl had already invaded, so they were really reconquests. The Aztecs had made no effort to assimilate the people they had conquered; the Aztec language and customs were not imposed on them. Maybe it was because the kings before Moctezuma II did not have enough time to do it, but it made for a rather loosely organized empire, full of subjects who hated their rulers. This meant revolts would break out at every opportunity, so Moctezuma spent most of his time ruthlessly campaigning against people that were theoretically under his rule, especially the Zapotecs and Tlapanecs (a tribe in Guerrero). On the Gulf Coast, he pushed a bit closer to the Maya realm, reaching Coatzacoalcos before he stopped. However, Moctezuma was more of a philosopher than a warlord. He might have turned the empire into a more bureaucratic, less aggressive state, if his reign had not been abruptly cut short by the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519. As it stands, his real skill was not in conquering but in management; it shows in the beauty and efficiency of Tenochtitlan. Later you will see how the capital impressed the first Spaniards who saw it.

Top of the page


Huayna Capac


Because the South American Indians were so isolated from the rest of the world, the activities of Columbus meant nothing to them. While he was exploring the Caribbean, the eleventh Sapa Inca, Huayna Capac (“Valiant Youth,” 1493-1525?), continued the warlike policies of his predecessors. He began his reign with a grand tour of the empire he had inherited, looking for places that had not yet been subdued. Only the ocean lay to the west, and there wasn't anything left worth conquering in the south, so Huayna Capac concentrated his attention on expanding to the north and east. This meant invading the jungles of the upper Amazon basin, which proved to be quite a challenge, because this region was very different from the highlands the Incas were used to, and thus required very different tactics. Thousands of Inca warriors perished in conflicts against tribes like the Chachapoyas, before even Huayna Capac realized that conquering all of these stateless savages wasn't worth the effort. He did better in the northern Andes, which was the home to various goldsmithing cultures. Here he finished the conquest of Ecuador, and he might have also conquered Colombia, had he lived longer.

The Inca Empire reached its zenith under Huayna Capac. It now ruled all of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, as well as part of Chile and Argentina. When not busy waging wars, Huayna Capac built temples, more roads, and storehouses to keep food in. For building projects in Ecuador, he put 4,500 recently conquered subjects to work, hauling quarry stones all the way from Cuzco. But the biggest project of all was his personal country palace, for as we saw in Chapter 1, the Inca king inherited the royal title of his ancestors, but not their estates. In an uncommonly sunny valley, Huayna Capac's people diverted the course of the Urubamba River, leveled hills and drained marshes. The palace itself, Quispiguanca, was built in the center of the estate, while the rest of the land was turned into parks and gardens, or used to grow corn, sweet potatoes, coca, cotton, peanuts and hot peppers for the royal family's use. When all this was finished, Quispiguanca became the Inca version of Camp David--the place where the king and queen entertained guests, or where they went to escape the hustle and bustle of Cuzco.

However, a cloud appeared on the horizon when the Spaniards began exploring South America. Huayna Capac heard about the expedition of Pascual de Andagoya (see below), and he had a bad feeling about these strange men; he reminded his subjects of a prophecy that predicted the empire would fall after the reign of its twelfth king. However, he would not live to meet either Andagoya or the one who followed him, Francisco Pizarro. In 1525 or 1527 a disease epidemic, most likely smallpox moving ahead of the advancing Spaniards, carried off both Huayna Capac and his heir, Ninan Cuyochi. Because he died at Quito, his body was carried to Cuzco in a grand funeral procession, to take its place alongside the older royal mummies. Over the next few years, the empire would be brought down by three blows it had no defense against: first the epidemic, then civil war, and finally the horses and weapons of a few battle-hardened adventurers.

4 Inca rulers.
A sixteenth-century portrait of four Inca monarchs. From left to right: Tupac Inca (see Chapter 1), Huayna Capac, Huascar, and Atahualpa.


Moctezuma II. Huayna Capac.

And here are Moctezuma II (left) and Huayna Capac (right),
as they appear in my favorite computer game, Civilization.


Top of the page


From Hispaniola to Mexico, and the Discovery of Brazil


Before Columbus, the Iberian nations became rivals in the contest to explore and exploit as much of the non-European world as possible. In 1479, Spain and Portugal signed the first European treaty that concerned overseas possessions, the Treaty of Alcaçovas. This treaty defined spheres of influence over the islands in the Atlantic; Spain recognized Portuguese claims to the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde Islands and Africa south of Cape Bojador; in return, Portugal recognized that the Canary Islands belonged to Spain. In addition, the Atlantic islands gave both Spain and Portugal places to learn how to establish overseas colonies.

The stakes in the contest increased greatly when Columbus and the Portuguese explorers of Africa both made discoveries that were more important than just new islands. Pope Alexander VI did not want Spain and Portugal starting any wars over what they found, so he drew a line in the middle of the Atlantic: any non-Christian lands west of that line would go to Spain, while non-Christian lands east of the line were for Portugal. His original proposal, which appeared in a Papal bull issued in 1493, put the line 100 leagues, or 300 miles, west of the Azores. This works out to longitude 38º West, give or take a degree (remember, Columbus was able to sell his idea on crossing the Atlantic because nobody knew for sure how big the world was). Portugal's King John II protested, arguing that this gave too much to Spain, so the pope drew a new line that was 370 leagues west of the Azores (longitude 46º 37' West). This became the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which Spain and Portugal signed in 1494.

Treaty of Tordesillas.

The lines drawn by the pope.


The king of Portugal made a fuss because his explorers had just learned that if you sail in the open Atlantic, instead of near the African coast, you can sail around Africa without fighting winds and currents going in the opposite direction. Moving the line of demarcation west gave the Portuguese plenty of room to maneuver in the south Atlantic, as Vasco da Gama demonstrated in 1497. It also gave the Portuguese a foothold in South America, because almost half of present-day Brazil is east of the line. Supposedly the Europeans knew nothing about the New World outside of the Caribbean at this early date, so some modern historians suspect that Portuguese sailors had already sighted Brazil by 1494, but kept their discovery secret.

Brazil's official discovery date came on April 22, 1500.(13) In that year Pedro Alvares Cabral led the second Portuguese expedition to India. Sailing farther into the Atlantic than da Gama did, Cabral came upon what looked like a large island. The island was on the Portuguese side of the treaty line, so Cabral claimed it for Portugal. There was also a welcoming committee waiting for him--18 to 20 naked Indians armed with bows and arrows. They greeted one another with a friendly exchange, trading a Portuguese sombrero for some feather headdresses, before Cabral moved on. As he explored the coast, he realized that this was more than just an island, and sent one of his thirteen ships back to Portugal with the news. The other ships resupplied and continued their journey to India.

At first the Portuguese called the new land Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross) or Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross). However, the land's first export was a reddish wood (braza or brazil), that produced a useful dye for textiles. By the time Portuguese settlers arrived, they were calling the land after its brazil-wood, hence Brazil.

Hispaniola was only the first building block in Spain's American empire. To add more pieces to the empire, military men--the conquistadors--replaced the explorers as Spain's vanguard in the new World. Today we remember them as men with exceptional greed, but they only succeeded because they were men with exceptional courage as well. Most of them were the sons of merchants or minor nobles (hidalgos), who found few opportunities in the rigid society of the Old World. In the Christian kingdoms of medieval Spain, the best way to get ahead was through military service on behalf of the king and the Catholic Church. Those who pushed back the enemies of Christ were rewarded by being put in charge of the conquered land and people. In the past the enemies were Moors, now they were idolatrous pagans, but otherwise the motivation was the same. So when they boarded ships heading on dangerous voyages across the oceans, to lands they did not know much about, they figured they had nothing to lose, and everything to gain if they were successful. Once they arrived, they were vastly outnumbered, until epidemics decimated the native communities. Though they had guns, swords and horses, they still must have been scared much of the time. To prevail over the natives, they had to overcome their fears and keep their real feelings hidden, as the accounts of Cortez and Pizarro tell us.

Three armed expeditions sent out from Hispaniola were enough to conquer the rest of the Greater Antilles. The early conquistadors who led these expeditions were Juan Ponce de Leon (Puerto Rico, 1506), Juan de Esquivel (Jamaica, 1509), and Diego Velasquez (Cuba, 1511). Compared with the small Spanish community in the New World, the Indian communities were huge; Jamaica by itself was home to about 60,000 Taino. Still, that was only half the population of Hispaniola, and that island had already been conquered, so the tribes on the other islands could not resist for long.

The behavior of the Spaniards in the New World was ruthless. Natives who kept gold and jewels from them were killed or mutilated, those who resisted the Spanish invasion were massacred, and those who submitted were converted and enslaved. The Indian population of the Caribbean began to fall as soon as Spanish settlements were built in the islands. Many succumbed to European diseases, for which they had no immunity; more about that at the end of this chapter. The rest were herded together, and put to work on the new Spanish plantations or in mines, where they were mistreated and underfed. Under these conditions, the unfortunates died, and died, and died.(14)

History books will tell you that the Middle Ages ended before Columbus set sail, but Spain's economy was still feudal. This meant that in the scheme of things, land was more important than money; every Spanish don (noble) was expected to have land to go with his title. However, land without workers on it was useless, because you needed them to raise crops or to exploit any other resources the land might have. Equally important to the feudal mindset, having workers on the land gave status to the landowner. In sixteenth century Spain, feudalism was called the encomienda system; workers were assigned to a specific plot of land, and in return for a portion of what they produced, the landowner was supposed to protect them and make sure they were all faithful Catholics.

To replace the Indians, slave raids were made on the smaller islands that Spain hadn't settled yet (the Lesser Antilles and Bahamas).(15) All this did was spread the zone of desolation wider, to encompass the whole Caribbean. There was another solution available, though; Portugal had begun importing slaves from Africa in the mid-fifteenth century. Being from the Old World, Africans had as much immunity to European diseases as the white man did, and they were less likely to revolt or escape, because they did not have a home to run to if they succeeded. Ships began transporting African slaves to Hispaniola in 1505, and by 1517 the governor was asking for a thousand slaves every year. The most inhuman trade in all history was now extended across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the conquistadors began to explore the lands beyond the Caribbean. The first permanent Spanish settlement on the mainland, Darien (in Panama), was founded in 1510 by Vasco Núñez de Balboa.(16) One year later, a small ship carrying fifteen men and two women sailed from Darien, but instead of reaching Santo Domingo, it ran aground on a shoal near Jamaica. The crew and passengers tried using a lifeboat to go the rest of the way, and the local currents instead carried them to Yucatan, landing them somewhere in present-day Belize. Here they were captured by the Maya, divided between them, and either enslaved or sacrificed. In the end only two survived, Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. I am mentioning this episode because the last two castaways had interesting and very different destinies. Aguilar escaped the first Maya chief who owned him, was befriended by another, and eventually got permission to leave, when he heard Hernando Cortez was camped on the island of Cozumel; he would serve Cortez as a Mayan interpreter. Guerrero went native completely; his courage impressed the Maya to the point that they made him a warrior and a noble, and he had a Maya wife and three children; he would serve the Maya as an advisor in their war against the Spaniards. Finally, though they did not mean it, the castaways brought smallpox with them, introducing a deadly epidemic to Central America.

In 1513, Balboa reported on the lively gold trade among the Indians in Colombia. Later in the same year he heard from a friendly chief that there was another sea nearby, and across the sea was a land with enough gold to satisfy the hunger that Spaniards obviously had for it--but it would take at least a thousand men to conquer that land. The rich land was probably the Inca Empire, which no Europeans had seen yet. Acting on the rumor, Balboa marched across the Isthmus of Panama, and discovered the Pacific Ocean on the far side. Waldseemüller was right; there was another ocean between America and Asia. Because Balboa had marched south to cross the S-shaped isthmus, he named the new ocean the Mar del Sur (“Southern Sea”), and claimed it for Spain; it would be renamed the Pacific by Ferdinand Magellan a few years later.(17)

Also in 1513, Ponce de Leon discovered Florida and went to the northern coast of Yucatan for a look-see. He thought these two peninsulas were large islands, because the mainland between them had not yet been explored; more about that in my North American history. Diego Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, followed up on de Leon's report by sending three ships and 110 men, on a slave raid to Yucatan in 1517. They were led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, and what he found impressed him; not only was Yucatan larger than expected, the natives lived in cities of stone. At first the Maya were friendly, but near the city of Champoton, they ambushed the raiders twice. This was the biggest surprise of all; though the Spaniards had good swords, fifteen crossbows and ten muskets, fifty of them were killed in these two battles, an unprecedented number. More fell victim to thirst, because their supply of fresh water ran out at the time of the first battle; Cordoba died of his wounds just days after they returned to Cuba.

Yucatan was the first place in the New World where anyone had found cities like the fabulous ones Marco Polo described, and through trade, Cordoba had acquired a few gold ornaments before the natives attacked.(18) The news of gold and cities with pyramids excited Diego Velasquez; maybe there really were places where the bold could become wealthy beyond their dreams. He did not hesitate to equip another expedition for 1518. This one was stronger (four ships and 240 men), and led by his nephew, Juan de Grijalva. Grijalva followed the southern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, from Yucatan to Cempoala, verified that everything reported by the Cordoba expedition was true, and learned that the richest Indian empire of all, that of the Aztecs, was located inland from Cempoala. With this information, Velasquez prepared a third expedition, which would go to central Mexico in 1519 and conquer the Aztecs for Spain.

Top of the page


"Pioneers Take the Arrows"


While the conquistadors were getting closer to the Aztecs, explorers continued to fill in the blank areas on maps of the western hemisphere. Because they were in an untamed wilderness, thousands of miles from civilization, and the nearest humans weren't always friendly, they had a hard time finding their way. The modern-day expression “pioneers take the arrows” was probably inspired by stories about North American adventurers going west, but it is just as relevant for the stories in this section; indeed, Sebastian Cabot was the only explorer mentioned here who lived to tell about his adventures.

One of the biggest gaps was south of Brazil; what lay down there? To find out, Spain sent Juan Diaz de Solis in 1515, with three ships and seventy men. He discovered and named the Rio de la Plata, but when he sailed upstream with nine crew members, they were attacked, killed and eaten by the local Indians, either Charrua or Guarani (the record isn't clear on which tribe did it). His brother-in-law, Francisco de Torres, became the new commander and took the ships back to Spain. On the way, part of the fleet was wrecked on Santa Catarina island, off the coast of southern Brazil.

Now we have come to one of the most famous explorers of all, Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan had made a name for himself as an officer on the Portuguese expeditions that sailed from India to conquer Malacca, a key port on the Malay peninsula. Like Columbus, he thought that you could get to the Spice Islands of Indonesia more quickly by sailing west across the Atlantic, rather than around Africa. He got a similar response; the king of Portugal was only interested in expeditions going east, and after false accusations were made against Magellan, he went to Spain and offered his services there. All one had to do, Magellan reasoned, is sail down the coast of South America until one reached the “Southern Sea” that Balboa discovered, and the rest of the journey to the Indies would be easy, right?

Wrong. For the voyage he got five ships (the Trinidad, the San Antonio, the Concepcion, the Santiago, and the Victoria), and 270 men. The ships ranged in size from 75 to 120 tons, meaning they were not much larger than the three ships Columbus had for his first voyage. On September 20, 1519, the expedition left Spain. After a stop at the Canary Islands, they headed across the Atlantic. On November 29, the coast of Brazil was sighted, but because this was Portuguese territory, Magellan kept going until they reached Guanabara Bay, the harbor where Rio de Janeiro would someday be built. Here they dropped anchor on December 13, and stayed for thirteen days. The purpose for the stop was rest & resupply (they traded bells, knives, mirrors and other European-made goods to the Guarani Indians for fresh food), but the crew greatly enjoyed themselves, when they found naked native women willing to have sex with them; you could call this Rio's first fiesta! Magellan refused to allow the women on the ships, and this caused a number of tearful farewells when the time came to leave. The priests on the expedition managed to convert several of the local Indians to Christianity, because it started raining about the time that the ships arrived.

On January 10, 1520, they reached the Rio de la Plata, but only stayed long enough to see if this was the “southwest passage” they were looking for (it wasn't). At one point, Magellan said, "Montevideo," meaning, "I see a mountain"; that would become the name for the city that would one day be built on that spot. The southern hemisphere summer was now ending, so on March 30 they stopped at a spot on the Argentine coast named Puerto San Julian. Here, while waiting out the winter, Magellan put down the most serious mutiny of the voyage; he executed one of his captains and marooned another on that remote shore. He also met the local Indians, who looked like giants to the Spaniards, and were called Patagonians, meaning “big feet,” because they protected themselves from the cold with oversized fur shoes. From that we get the name now applied to southern Argentina, Patagonia.

The voyage resumed on August 24. The Santiago was sent ahead to explore, and it was wrecked in a storm. Fortunately the entire crew made it to shore, and were rescued by the other ships. Late in October, they finally found the passage between the oceans, at latitude 52° S. As they entered the passage, they saw numerous Indian campfires on the nearby cliffs, prompting Magellan to name the place on the south side Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire.(19) Unfortunately the fires spooked the pilot of the San Antonio, who turned his ship around and returned to Spain. Because the San Antonio was the largest ship, it carried most of the supplies, and its departure made the rest of the voyage much more difficult for the three ships remaining. Finally, after eight days and 373 miles of sailing, they came out on the other side; since then the passage has been called the Strait of Magellan. At this point Magellan's ships left the area covered by this narrative, so if you want to read about the rest of the voyage, it is covered here and here.

Because getting past the New World to reach Asia had become a big deal, Francisco de Garay, the governor of Jamaica, gave it a try, by sending four ships under the command of Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, to explore everything between Florida and central Mexico (1519). Pineda's journey along the Gulf coast discovered the mouths of several rivers, including the Mississippi, but found no passage, proving that the Gulf of Mexico was closed on all sides except the east. When he got to Veracruz, the port of Cortez (see the next section), he announced he was claiming all the land north of that point for himself and Garay. Cortez was in no mood to talk, and he drove Pineda off. Pineda then founded a settlement on the site of modern Tampico, and sent the ships to Jamaica with a report, while he and most of the crew stayed. In January 1520 Diego de Camargo led a follow-up expedition to Pineda's village, only to find it under attack from the local Indians, the Huastecs. He was able to rescue sixty settlers and take them back to Jamaica, but the rest were killed. The dead included Pineda; we now believe the Huastecs, in the best Mesoamerican tradition, took Pineda alive and sacrificed him. This was the worst fate to befall any conquistador, except perhaps for de Solis.

Speaking of de Solis, we mentioned earlier that some of his boats were shipwrecked on Brazil's Santa Catarina Island. One of the survivors was the Portuguese-born Aleixo (also spelled Alejo) Garcia. Garcia made his way to the mainland, and survived by living among the Guarani Indians for eight years. During that time, he learned that a “White King” ruled incredibly wealthy cities in the west, so in 1524 he marched west, into the neighborhood of modern Paraguay. There he recruited an army of 2,000 Guarani, became the first European to cross the Gran Chaco region, and entered the Inca Empire through its Bolivian back door. Garcia's raid on the Incas netted a handsome amount of silver. Huayna Capac sent an army against him, and he escaped it, but then was killed by his Indian allies in Paraguay. However, they spared his son because he was half-Indian, the first Paraguayan Mestizo.

Garcia's expedition was followed up by Sebastian Cabot. Cabot had been to the Americas before; with his father, John Cabot, he had explored the Atlantic coast of Canada for England. After that the court of the English king Henry VIII wasn't interested in further exploration, so the younger Cabot switched employers, offering his services to Spain. He did not get to lead another expedition until 1526, seventeen years after the one he did for the English. This time he had four ships and 200 men; officially the expedition was "for the discovery of Tharsis, Ophir, and Eastern Cathay." He also had orders to find the precise location of the Treaty of Tordesillas line on the South American coast, find a quicker way to reach the Spice Islands in Southeast Asia, and take some settlers to establish a Spanish colony there.

Cabot could not have been popular with his crew for long. On the way he got the fleet becalmed in the doldrums, the area around the equator where strong winds are rare, and he ran the flagship aground off Santa Catarina (they really ought to build a lighthouse on that island!). At Recife, Brazil, he picked up a Spanish castaway, who told him about Aleixo Garcia, and he abruptly changed the mission; instead of crossing the Pacific, they would explore the Rio de la Plata and try to bring back the loot that Garcia almost got away with. This led to a mutiny from his lieutenant general and two of the ship captains, which ended when Cabot abandoned the mutineers on Santa Catarina Island.

In the Rio de la Plata, Cabot explored for five months, and built the first Spanish settlements south of Brazil, San Salvador in Uruguay, and Espiritu Santo in Argentina. When he lost eighteen men to a native ambush, he returned to San Salvador and sent one ship to Spain, which carried his reports, a denunciation of the mutineers, and requests for reinforcements. He went to Espiritu Santo again in 1529, only to find it had been destroyed by the Indians since his first visit. After that a decision was made to go back to Spain, and Cabot arrived there in 1530, with one ship and twenty-four men left. Naturally the Spanish court was upset that Cabot had lost most of the ships and men given to him, and he never made it to Asia, so they declared the expedition a failure. Charging Cabot with incompetence and disobedience, they banished him to the Algerian city of Oran for four years, but it looks like King Charles V granted him a pardon, because he did not go into exile.

Top of the page


The Conquest of New Spain


It is at this point that we meet the man who went for Mesoamerica's biggest prize. This was Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, better known to English speakers as Hernando Cortez. Cortez was mayor of Santiago, Cuba, before 1519, and Governor Velasquez apparently picked him to lead the third expedition to Mexico because he was the most qualified candidate for the job. However, Velasquez and Cortez did not get along personally, and Velasquez later had second thoughts, because somebody as ambitious as Cortez could also be very dangerous. He was about to revoke the appointment, but Cortez sensed as much and left before the scheduled departure date, thereby confirming what the governor thought about him. On the way he stopped at Yucatan to claim that territory for Spain, picked up the previously mentioned Geronimo de Aguilar, and fought some unfriendly natives in the area that would later become the Mexican state of Tabasco. Among the spoils that he brought away from that battle was La Malinche (called Dona Mariňa by the Spaniards), an Indian girl that would become his Nahuatl (Aztec language) interpreter, mistress and mother of his first son.

When he got to the Indian city of Cempoala, the first thing Cortez did was to found a Spanish “city” next to it, Veracruz. Then he got the two dozen residents of Veracruz to elect him governor of Mexico. This was a sneaky but legal way to throw off Velasquez' authority; now he was only answerable to the king of Spain. Next, he ordered that their ships be burned. He did this because he knew that the enemy they were going to fight outnumbered them by a factor of more than 100 to 1, and the loyalty and morale of the men was questionable. The men would try to desert if they got the chance, and destroying the fleet told them that failure was not an option; they could not go home. If they wanted to survive, they would have to win, and to win, they would have to stay together.(20) Cortez himself had one more reason to win; because he had disobeyed the orders of Velasquez, he ran the risk of being charged with treason if he ever went back to Cuba or Spain. Therefore he had to bring the king a prize valuable enough to cover whatever sins and crimes he committed.

The Spaniards got a lucky break because of one of the most remarkable coincidences in history. The Aztecs expected the world to end in 1521, so they were looking for signs that the end times were near.(21) They had a close call in 1507, when a 52-year cycle ended on the Aztec calendar (see Chapter 1, footnote #22); this was always seen as a dangerous time. On the dreaded day, fires were put out, pregnant women were locked up in granaries to keep them from turning into wild animals, and children were kept awake because it was believed they would turn into rats if they slept. Priests watched for certain stars (possibly Aldebaran and/or the Pleiades) to go across the meridian of the sky, and when they did, they announced that the world (and the gods) were going to be all right. A sacrifice was held on a hill near the city of Culhuacán; then a fire was kindled in the victim's chest cavity where his heart had been, and embers were taken from it to relight all nearby fires. Therefore the Aztecs felt they had escaped the apocalypse -- this time.

More recently, new signs had come to Moctezuma II that trouble was on the way. One of them came from the most powerful man outside of the capital--Nezahualpilli, the prince of Texcoco. When he told Moctezuma that Texcocan wise men had predicted the Valley of Mexico would fall under the rule of foreigners, Moctezuma challenged him to a ballgame; Nezahualpilli won, and Moctezuma saw that as a bad omen. In addition, when Grijalva had visited Mexico in 1518, reports came to Moctezuma II of light-skinned strangers with beards, who traveled in towers that floated on the sea. This reminded the Aztecs of another prophecy, which said that the great god Quetzalcoatl would return in 1519--as a light-skinned human. When Moctezuma heard of more Spaniards arriving, he wondered, could this be Quetzalcoatl and his followers? Moctezuma did not want the end of the world to come on his watch, so he sent rich gifts to Veracruz, hoping this would bribe the Spaniards to leave. These gifts included costumes that the Aztecs expected the gods to wear, and because there was gold in those vestments, they had the opposite effect. Paying a conquistador gold to make him go away was like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it! Later, when Moctezuma heard that the Spaniards were marching toward him anyway, he made a tear-filled, farewell speech to the people, and told his attendants to take care of his family, because he expected to die shortly.

Cortez had only 600 men available for his campaign, after leaving 100 behind to guard Veracruz, and he was going up against an empire whose population numbered in the millions. It would help a lot if the Indians of Cempoala, the Totonacs, went with him, but this would take a lot of persuasion. The only tribes that were willing to fight the Aztecs were the Tarascans, Tlaxcalans, Huexotzincos, and two unconquered Mixtec cities; all other Mexican tribes were terrified of them. Cortez used a few tricks to get the Totonacs on his side. The first one was guilt by association; he arrested one of the Aztec embassies sent to him, and later allowed it to escape, a move that was sure to offend the Aztecs. Then he told the Totonacs that if they wanted to be his allies, they would have to be baptized as followers of the One True God, and to prove his point, he sent priests and soldiers into Cempoala to tear down the native idols. The Totonacs realized their gods were powerless when they did not strike down the men who desecrated their holy places, and were impressed at how Cortez could strike fear into the heart of the Aztec king, so they were committed to follow Cortez when he began his march inland.

Because the Aztecs thought that Cortez might be the returning Quetzalcoatl, they did not oppose his march to Tenochtitlan. Cortez faced more trouble from the Tlaxcalans, who had to be beaten in battle before they joined him. The next stop was at Cholula, the most important Aztec city outside the Valley of Mexico. Here La Malinche informed Cortez that the local nobility was planning to kill the Spaniards, so Cortez taught the natives a lesson, by massacring thousands of them when they gathered in the central plaza, and burning down part of the city. He arrived at Tenochtitlan with 400 Spanish soldiers and 6,000 Totonacs and Tlaxcalans. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the chronicler of the expedition, wrote this about their arrival: “When we beheld so many cities and towns on the water, and other large settlements built on firm ground, and that broad causeway running so straight and perfectly level to the city of Tenochtitlan, we were astonished because of the great stone towers and temples and buildings that rose up out of the water. Some of our soldiers said that all these things seemed to be a dream; and it is no wonder that I write here in this manner, for never was there seen, nor heard, nor even dreamt, anything like that which we then observed.” Thousands of nervous but curious Aztecs watched as the Spaniards proceeded on one of the three causeways stretching across Lake Texcoco, that allowed them to march from the mainland to Tenochtitlan. Moctezuma also came out to greet them, and after the formalities, provided lodging for the guests; the Spaniards went into a palace that belonged to Moctezuma's father.

Cortez & Moctezuma.

Cortez meets Moctezuma, from a 16th-century Spanish drawing.


It did not take long for Cortez to figure out that the government was an absolute monarchy, and that if he controlled its leader, he would control the empire as well. A week after his arrival, he summoned Moctezuma for a private meeting in the Spanish lodgings; Moctezuma came alone, the Spaniards seized him, and after that the king was merely a mouthpiece, through which Cortez issued his demands to the Aztecs. Then in April 1520, six months after Cortez entered Tenochtitlan, Governor Velasquez sent another expedition, led by Panfilo de Narvaez, to stop and bring back his disobedient lieutenant. Cortez hurried to meet the new force at Veracruz, bribed enough of them with Aztec gold and jewels that he had no trouble defeating the rest, took their ships, and forced the survivors, including Narvaez, to march under him.(22)

Meanwhile, back in Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards wore out their welcome. It was probably unavoidable that the Spanish ban on human sacrifice would alienate the priests, but the lieutenant Cortez left in charge while he was away, Pedro de Alvarado, succeeded in alienating the rest of the people, too. One day the Aztecs held a ceremony for the god Huitzilopochtli. This was mainly a big dance show, but Alvarado thought they were assembling an Aztec army, and sent Spanish soldiers, who quickly blocked the doorways into the temple precinct and massacred the celebrants. By the time Cortez returned from the coast, the city was in full revolt. Moctezuma had successfully defused tensions before, so he went out to calm the outraged mob. Instead, they threw stones. Most accounts tell us that Moctezuma was killed by the stones, but one historian, a Dominican friar named Diego Duran, wrote in 1581 that Moctezuma's body also had five dagger wounds, which probably came from Spaniards desperate to get away.

With Moctezuma gone, Cortez realized that they would have to leave, for they had almost no food and water. However, exiting Tenochtitlan would not be easy; the causeways across Lake Texcoco had bridges, to allow boats to get past them, and the Aztecs now removed these bridges. To deal with this obstacle, Cortez had a portable bridge built, ordered forty Tlaxcalans to carry it, and on the third night after Moctezuma's death, he quietly moved out to the western causeway. The entire force succeeded in getting across the first gap without being noticed, but at the second gap, somebody raised the alarm, and the potable bridge collapsed in the resulting chaos. This was the worst moment for the Spaniards in the entire campaign; at least 800 Spaniards and their Indian allies were killed here. Survivors would call this battle Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrow. Many drowned because they were weighed down by the gold and silver they tried to take from the city; that treasure was lost in the lake. The only reason some of them got away was because the Aztecs pulled their punches; Aztec warriors still believed it was better to capture their enemies than to kill them. Indeed, captured Spaniards were soon sacrificed, in a bloody renewal of the rites the Aztecs are best known for. If the Aztecs had tried to kill everybody on the battlefield--and if they had gotten along better with neighboring tribes who might have prevented the Spanish escape--Cortez and his army would have been completely wiped out. Even so, it was a defeated army that made it to Tlaxcala, eight months after the triumphal entry into the Mexico valley.(23)

Cortez spent the next ten months regrouping. He got a second chance because the Tlaxcalans gave his men the food and shelter that they needed, and in return the Spaniards helped the Tlaxcalans when they settled grudges against their neighbors. He also acquired reinforcements when two Spanish ships from Jamaica, meant to resupply the ill-fated Pineda expedition, landed at Veracruz. Because Pineda was dead and his campaign had ended in failure, the crews on those ships decided to join Cortez. By April 1521, the Spanish-Tlaxcalan army of Cortez was ready to march on Tenochtitlan again. At this point Cortez wrote, “When I saw how rebellious the people of this city were, and how they seemed more determined to perish than any race of man known before, I did not know by what means we might relieve ourselves of all those dangers and hardships, and yet avoid destroying them and their city, which was indeed the most beautiful thing in the world.”

This time Cortez moved more carefully than he had on his first visit to Tenochtitlan. First, to gain control over the lake, he built a fleet of boats. Next, his soldiers marched toward the capital on all three causeways, to prevent any escape. The resulting siege lasted for seventy-five days. From the causeways the invaders advanced through one house or building at a time, sacking and pulling each structure down after they killed or drove off the defenders. The last stand was made in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco, where 40,000 Aztec men, women and children were reportedly slaughtered in one day. When they were done, Tenochtitlan lay in ruins, but not for long.

The Storming of the Teocalli, Emanuel Leutze, 1848.

The Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops, a battle on one of the pyramids of Tenochtitlan. Painted in 1848 by Emanuel Leutze.


On August 13, 1521, the last day of the siege, King Cuauhtemoc disguised himself and tried to flee Tenochtitlan for Tlaltelolco, the only city that was still loyal to the Aztecs. He was captured while crossing the lake, and a chivalrous exchange followed between him and Cortez. Cuauhtemoc offered his knife to Cortez and asked to be killed, and Cortez refused, declaring that “A Spaniard knows how to respect valor even in an enemy.” However, he subsequently had Cuauhtemoc and two other high-ranking Aztecs tortured by holding their feet to a fire, in an attempt to get them to reveal the location of their treasures. They insisted that when they realized they weren't going to win, they threw all the treasure they still had into the lake, to keep it out of Spanish hands, and no hidden treasure existed; eventually a shamed Cortez gave up. After a final desperate battle at Tlatelolco, where even women participated in the defense, the Aztec Empire became a Spanish colony, ruled by Cortez and called New Spain. Lake Texcoco was drained and a new, Spanish-style city was built where Tenochtitlan once stood—today's Mexico City.

At this point, let us digress to look at why the Europeans usually won, when the odds were so much against them. Europeans used superior training and technology to make up for their lack of numbers; their commanders emphasized fighting with quality, because they could not afford to fight with quantity. Today we are so used to winning with an elite force that we think the New World conquests are overrated; because European soldiers had guns at this date, we usually write off their success to that fact, and move on to another subject. The truth of the matter is more complicated, though. The best firearm at this date was the arquebus, a crude musket that was lit by a match, and less accurate than any bow. Moreover, arquebuses were single-shot weapons, which took so long to reload that most battles must have turned into hand-to-hand engagements before a musketeer could fire a second shot. Cortez only had sixteen musketeers, while Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, had a dozen musketeers and two cannon; in both cases the number of hits actually scored would not have mattered when the opposing army numbered in the thousands. Finally, only foot soldiers would have used guns at this date; sixteenth-century horsemen were just one step removed from the knights of old, so they scorned guns as ungentlemanly weapons. Most of the value of firearms would have been psychological, from the effect of their noise on a crowd.

A better case can be made for some other things the conquistadors had:

  1. Crossbows--Cortez had thirty-two crossbowmen. Compared with guns, crossbows were dirt cheap. A blacksmith found it easier to make a crossbow than an arquebus, and crossbowmen did not need the great strength and lengthy training that it took to use a longbow.
  2. Horses--to Native Americans of the early sixteenth century, horses were strange, oversized deer. Indeed, the Spaniards often said, “After God, we owed victory to the horses.” They were more useful than guns, anyway; in times of peace a horse can pull a wagon or a plow.
  3. Steel weapons and armor--give a Spanish soldier these, and even without a gun he would have been deadly against a semi-naked Indian armed with a stone-tipped war club.
  4. The Spaniards didn't fight alone. Tens of thousands of Indians disliked the Aztecs and Incas, and they joined the Spaniards. Meanwhile, European diseases worked in the background, also in the Spaniards' favor. Both of these factors are covered elsewhere in this chapter.
But the most important Western advantage tends to get overlooked--the Western concept of management. In wartime, the European played for keeps. To non-Western warriors, war is a matter of honor; how you act in battle is more important than winning. The ancient American thought it was better to capture an enemy (for torture and sacrifice) than to kill him; he became a great warrior by running up to the enemy line and coming back with a prisoner. Sometimes less than that was done; tribes like the Sioux found it honorable enough just to touch an armed enemy in the heat of battle. There is even a report, which the author has not been able to validate, that the Toltecs restricted themselves to using wooden weapons, so they would not kill their enemies. By contrast, Europeans fought to destroy their enemies, and to break them as a cohesive force as soon as possible. Maybe superior weapons won the battles, but it was a superior skill at exploiting all advantages that made an overseas empire possible.

Top of the page


The Conquest of Central America and Western Mexico


Once Cortez was done with central Mexico, the question was, “What next?” The looting of Tenochtitlan had yielded only a fraction of the gold they expected (a lot of the Aztec “gold” turned out to be gold-plated wood), and Cortez needed to pay his followers. Without gold, the next best form of payment was to give each soldier a tract of land and some serfs to go with it (the encomienda system, remember). Because the lands south of Mexico City had more people than the lands to the north, Cortez picked southern Mexico and Central America as the next targets for Spanish arms.

In Oaxaca, the Mixtecs and Zapotecs had recently been fighting among themselves, and the Mixtecs got the better of it, forcing the Zapotec king Cocijoeza to take refuge at Tehuantepec, a city governed by his son, Cocijopii. When Cocijoeza heard that the Spaniards had destroyed the Aztec Empire, he immediately submitted to Spanish rule, which offended the Mixtecs even more. A Spanish invasion of Oaxaca soon followed, and only the Mixtecs opposed them. However, once the Spaniards were done with the Mixtecs, they turned against the Zapotecs, launching several campaigns against them between 1522 and 1527. Even so, by playing the Mixtecs, Aztecs and Spaniards against each other, the wily Cocijoeza made sure his people would survive. Today in Mexico there are approximately 400,000 speakers of Zapotec languages, and 400,000 speakers of Mixtec languages.

Cortez was not the only conquistador to take an interest in Central America. The colony in Panama was already invading from the other direction. In 1519 Pedrarias, the treacherous successor of Balboa (see (17)footnote #17), founded Panama City, and later moved his capital there from Darien. Then in 1522 he sent Gil González Davila to explore the Pacific coast. González built four ships in the Gulf of Panama for the expedition, but they were so leaky that they returned to the Panamanian shore only four days after leaving, and González chose to continue the journey by land. He marched through Costa Rica and reached the narrow land between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific, where the ships managed to join him after they were repaired. González was impressed by the quality of the Indians in this area, baptized some of them and gathered quite a bit of gold. But eventually the Indians got tired of the Spaniards, as they did of Europeans in general, and tried to wipe out the newcomers. González escaped to the coast, and returned to Panama on the ships. The chief of the Indians he met was named Nic-atl-nauac, which the Spaniards spelled Nicarao, so the land González explored was named Nicaragua.

Unfortunately for González, Governor Pedrarias did not want to share either the wealth discovered or the glory that came from finding it. He attempted to arrest González and confiscate his treasure, but González escaped to Santo Domingo, and used his fortune to outfit another expedition to Nicaragua. When he left Santo Domingo in 1524, a storm sent him to Honduras instead, and there he founded a town named San Gil de Buenavista, before continuing down the coast to Nicaragua. After he left, the settlers at San Gil de Buenavista realized they were in a dangerous location, so they moved to Amatique Bay, in Guatemala. As for González, he found that Nicaragua had been taken from him by the governor of Panama. Between his first and second expedition, an army led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba had marched from Panama and founded two settlements, named Granada and Leon. González defeated a small force led by Hernando de Soto, the future explorer of the southeastern US, but decided he could not take on the whole army of Córdoba, and withdrew to eastern Honduras.

The Caribbean governors were interested in Central America, too, because their other attempts to conquer part of the mainland (e.g., de Leon and Narvaez in Florida, Pineda in northeast Mexico) had failed. Cortez sent his lieutenant Alvarado into Central America in 1523, and he conquered the Pacific coast of Guatemala, but upon entering present-day El Salvador, the Pipil Indians halted his advance. Cortez also sent a small seaborne force to Honduras, but when it stopped in Cuba for supplies, Governor Velasquez, the old enemy of Cortez, persuaded the leader of this group, Cristobal de Olid, to declare independence and conquer Honduras for himself. Upon arrival in Honduras (May 1524), Olid founded his own town, which he named Triunfo de la Cruz.

When Cortez heard that his lieutenant had gone rogue, he sent another lieutenant, Francisco de Las Casas, to Honduras with two ships. The two ships were lost in a storm and several of the men defected to Olid, but the rest prevailed. Olid was killed, but the accounts disagree on whether he was captured and beheaded by Las Casas, or killed by his own soldiers. Las Casas also captured González, the explorer of Nicaragua, but González swore loyalty to Cortez, and went with Las Casas when he returned to Mexico. Behind them the men of Las Casas secured eastern Honduras and founded the port of Trujillo. Then Cortez himself went to Honduras, to make sure the whole region was now under his authority. He brought Cuauhtemoc with him, to prevent any native insurrections while he was away, but before the Honduras expedition was over, he had the Aztec king hanged, after hearing of an alleged plot by Cuauhtemoc against him and the other Spaniards. On the west coast, Alvarado returned in 1525 to conquer the Indians who had defeated him last time; by 1528, El Salvador was also part of the Spanish Empire. In Nicaragua, the resulting conflict between the Indians and the Spaniards was called the War of the Captains, and it lasted until 1529. Here the winner was old Pedrarias, who had lost his job as governor of Panama in 1526, and retired to Leon; now in his eighties, he spent his last years as Nicaragua's first governor.

Though the expedition was a success, Cortez would have done better if he had stayed home. Not only had his men conquered Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador without his leadership, but while he was away, he lost New Spain; his rivals petitioned the crown to revoke his governorship. A few days after he returned to Mexico in 1526, Cortez learned he was no longer governor, and that a series of charges had been leveled against him, like mistreatment of both his Spanish and Indian subjects, and the accusation that he had not paid the crown twenty percent of the treasure he seized, the “Royal Fifth,” as was required by law. He was not under arrest, but Cortez would have to defend himself before King Charles V to clear his name, so in 1528 he departed for Spain.

In place of the military governorship of Cortez, the crown appointed a royal court, called an audiencia, with an enemy of Cortez, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, as its president. This was standard operating procedure for Spanish kings; during the Middle Ages they learned not to let their nobles get too strong, especially those nobles who won battles and gained much land. Setting up a civilian administration should have been an improvement, but instead Guzmán was a sixteenth-century version of Heinrich Himmler or Lavrenti Beria. Right away he launched a reign of terror, selling Indians into slavery, seizing the estates of the supporters of Cortez, and even confiscating the saddle mule of Pedro de Alvarado. His chief opponent was Juan de Zumárraga, a kindly bishop who was mainly interested in protecting the Indians. Zumárraga first tried to limit the abuses of Guzmán by appointing inspectors and judges to hear the complaints of Indians mistreated by Guzmán; when Guzmán rejected their testimonies on a technicality, Zumárraga began denouncing Guzmán in his sermons. Because he usually sat in the front pew of the cathedral, Guzmán did not appreciate the attention he was getting, ordered the bishop to talk only about otherworldly matters when preaching, and once had Zumárraga forcibly dragged from his pulpit. Finally, in another totalitarian move, Guzmán banned direct communication with the crown, but Zumárraga got around this by sealing a long letter of complaint in wax, hiding it in a barrel of fat, and persuading a sailor to take it to Madrid. The king and his court admired Zumárraga, so when they heard the letter, they appointed another audiencia to replace the one led by Guzmán.

As you might expect, a person as cruel as Guzmán had no trouble changing jobs, from administrator to conquistador. Instead of waiting for the official announcement that he had been replaced, he declared he would go looking for some native cities as rich as Tenochtitlan, which according to rumor were in the parts of Mexico not yet explored. Then he looted the treasury, gathered together 300 like-minded Spaniards and 6,000 Indians, and headed west on December 21, 1529. Thus, the main result of the change in government in New Spain was that it inflicted Guzmán on a different part of Mexico.

Guzmán chose to go west because one of the unconquered Indian nations, the Tarascans, ruled the land west of the Aztec Empire. Tangáxuan II, the king of the Tarascans, showed he was friendly by giving the Spaniards gold, silver, soldiers and provisions. Well, we saw what happened when the Aztecs sent gifts to Cortez, and Guzmán responded by seizing Tangáxuan and having him tortured. When the king did not reveal where the rest of his treasure was (probably because he did not have any more), Guzmán had him dragged behind a horse and burned alive. Afterwards, he explained that he ordered Tangaxuan's execution because the king had abandoned Christianity and gone back to paganism.

The story was the same wherever Guzmán went; Indian communities were looted of their corn and treasures, and the inhabitants were massacred or sold into slavery. The only positive result of his campaign was that he founded some new cities that are important in Mexico today: Guadalajara, Culiacan, and Compostela. The latter became the capital of the province he established, New Galicia, in the modern Mexican states of Sinaloa, Aguascalientes, Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas. Finally, at Bishop Zumárraga's request, a warrant was issued for Guzmán's arrest. He was captured in 1536, held in a Mexico City prison for two years, and sent to Spain, where he remained locked up until his death. Despite the efforts of clergymen like Bartolomé de las Casas (see footnote #33) and Vasco de Quiroga, who performed charity work on behalf of the Indians in the area Guzmán had terrorized, there were two native rebellions which kept western Mexico on the boil for the rest of the century: the Mixton War (1540-41) and the Chichimeca War (1550-90). The trouble finally ended when the Spaniards offered the Indians food, clothing, land, and farm tools in exchange for peace.

Cortez came back to Mexico in 1530. Spain was constantly at war with the other countries of Europe, so King Charles V did not really care who ran the colonies, as long as his share of the wealth kept coming. Therefore he dropped the charges against Cortez, and allowed him to keep his estates and be reinstated as military commander of New Spain, but never again would Cortez be a governor. Because of the rumors that had sent Guzmán west, Cortez decided to try his luck at exploring the Pacific coast. In 1533 he began to explore the Gulf of California, and one of his ships discovered Baja California.(24) Cortez himself went on the next journey, in 1535, and landed at the same spot as the first ship, modern La Paz. but failed to conquer the place because of shortages of food and water and hostile natives. He also did not explore the entire Gulf, causing cartographers to incorrectly show California as an island until the eighteenth century, but because of him, modern-day Mexicans still call the Gulf the Sea of Cortez.

Meanwhile, the crown reorganized the provinces, to make them more efficient and reduce the threat successful conquistadors might pose to Madrid. The provinces came to be known as audiencias, because the governor in each one worked closely with an appellate court. In 1526, all the islands of the Caribbean were merged into one province, the Audiencia of Santo Domingo. By 1538 Mesoamerica was organized into five more audiencias: Panama (which included Colombia), Yucatan(25), New Spain, Guatemala (all of Central America except Panama), and New Galicia. Another level of organization was added in 1535, with the establishment of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, not to be confused with the province of New Spain; the viceroy was a super-governor, directly answerable to the crown, ruling over the provincial governors. The first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, also lasted the longest, holding the office from 1535 to 1550.

Top of the page


The Conquest of Peru, Act 1


So far in this chapter we have talked mostly about the Caribbean and Mesoamerica. The exploration and conquest of South America took longer, mainly because it was farther away from Europe, and less was known about it. Initially, the Spanish base for South American adventures was in Panama, and the first explorer to see anything besides the coast was a Basque named Pascual de Andagoya. One of the original settlers of Panama City, he entered the unknown continent in 1522, exploring the western part of present-day Colombia. Unlike other explorers, his motivation was not wealth or abstract knowledge--he was looking for witches. By “witches” he meant native medicine men; typically every tribe and community had at least one, but as far as the pious Andagoya was concerned, these were evil sorcerers who got all their powers from the Devil. In the course of his witch hunt, he learned from several Indians about a very rich land to the south, which they called Virú, Birú, or Pirú (hence Peru). Consequently he headed south to find this land, and collected enough gold and pearls from the natives to confirm it existed. On the way he claimed all the lands he passed through for Spain and himself; later, when Pizarro marched through Colombia on his way to Peru, he had to pay Andagoya for the right to passage, as if he was traveling on a toll road. Andagoya got as far as the San Juan River, on today's Colombian-Ecuadorean border, but then fell ill and had to turn back. Panama's Governor Pedrarias immediately sent another explorer, Juan Basuto, to find Peru, but he died without discovering anything, and that was the situation when Pizarro got involved.

At first, Francisco Pizarro y González may have looked like an unlikely candidate to become an explorer and conqueror. He was an illegitimate child of an infantry colonel, and he never learned to read or write; no doubt the Spanish court would have picked someone from a more noble background, or someone with more education, to lead an expedition as important as the one Pizarro is known for. He had been in the New World since 1502, took part in Balboa's march to the Pacific, and when Pedrarias turned against his predecessor, Pizarro was the one he sent to arrest Balboa. As a reward for his loyalty to Pedrarias, Pizarro was appointed mayor of Panama City. By the 1520s, he was at least fifty years old, had an estate staffed with serfs, and could expect to live comfortably for the rest of his days--but because of the rumors of treasure to the south, that was not enough. In terms of greed, cruelty, determination and endurance, he would soon prove he had what it took to be a conquistador.

For his first expedition, Pizarro formed a three-man team with Diego de Almagro, an illiterate soldier of fortune much like him, and a priest named Hernando de Luque. They agreed to share the treasure they found in equal parts, and that Pizarro and Almagro would be joint military commanders. Then they put together a group of eighty men and forty horses, and set out in 1524. As they sailed down the Colombian coast, they suffered from bad weather, a shortage of food, and hostile natives. These hardships inspired the names given to the harbors they discovered: Puerto Deseado (desired port), Puerto del Hambre (port of hunger), and Puerto Quemado (burned port). After a battle in which five Spaniards were killed and sixteen were wounded (e.g., Almagro lost an eye to an Indian arrow), they turned around and returned to Panama.

Pizarro, Almagro and Luque tried again in 1526. This time they brought two ships loaded with 160 men and their horses. As on the first expedition, they found it tough going. In one skirmish they only survived because Pizarro was thrown from his horse; the men on horseback looked like centaurs to the natives, and they thought they had just seen a monstrous beast break in half. That incident frightened the natives long enough for the Spaniards to escape to their ships. When they reached the San Juan River, Almagro was sent back to get more supplies, while the others continued. After crossing the equator, they captured a balsa raft full of Indians from Tumbes, Peru's northernmost city. This turned out to be the best event on the expedition, because the raft carried textiles, pottery, and various objects made of gold, silver and emeralds. He kept three of the Indians and taught them Spanish, so they could serve as interpreters, and headed back to the San Juan River. Here he met Almagro with eighty men as reinforcements. However, when they tried to head down the Ecuadorean coast again, they were in an area recently conquered by the Incas, so the local Indians were too tough for them to handle. Pizarro sent Almagro to Panama again, with the news that there was a rich empire ahead, and a request for more reinforcements.

Instead, the governor looked at the losses suffered to disease and Indian attacks on the expedition, and ordered Pizarro to return. Most of the men agreed, which led to a fateful event. Pizarro drew a line in the sand with his sword and told the men, “Comrades and friends, there lies the part which represents death, hardship, hunger, nakedness, rains, and abandonment; this side represents comfort. Here, you return to Panama to be poor; there, you may go on to Peru to be rich. Choose which becomes you as brave Spaniards.” Only thirteen of the men chose to stay with Pizarro, and they would be remembered as the “Famous Thirteen” or the “Thirteen of Glory.”

While the others went home, Pizarro and his thirteen built a crude boat and waited seven months on an offshore island for the governor's response. In the end the governor agreed to give them one more ship, but they would have to return within six months. With this they made it to Tumbes, where they confirmed that everything they had heard about the Inca Empire was true. The natives gave them a warm welcome; Pizarro saw this was a well-organized state, and that the city was full of craftsmen who produced fine clothing from vicuna wool. They also saw their first llamas, which they called “little camels,” and were really impressed by the temples sheathed with precious metals. After that, they continued south as far as latitude 9º S. before deciding it was time to return to Panama.

Pizarro realized he would need royal backing; the governor of Panama could not supply enough men, horses and ships to conquer an empire as splendid as this. In 1528 he went to Spain and presented his case before King Charles V. Charles had just heard from Cortez about the conquest of the Aztecs, so he was enthusiastic at the idea that there was another empire to loot. He immediately gave his authorization for Pizarro to conquer the new realm, declaring that Pizarro would become its governor and captain-general. On the way back to the New World, Pizarro picked up his four brothers and a cousin, men who were as proud as they were poor. Still, it wasn't until the end of 1530 that Pizarro was ready to march on Peru, and by that time he had only recruited 180 men, twenty-seven horses, and a few cannon, a force not much stronger than the one he had last time. Almagro wasn't with him, because he was resentful that the only title promised to him was military commander of Tumbes; to keep Almagro from dissolving the partnership, Pizarro promised that he could also be governor of all lands that lay beyond his own.

Top of the page


The Conquest of Peru, Act 2


The long delay between Pizarro's second and third expeditions worked to his advantage. Huayna Capac would have been strong enough to beat the Spaniards, but as we saw earlier, he died before they arrived. Although he had at least fifty children, the coya, the empress, had not produced an heir, so the Incas would have to break tradition and make the son of a concubine the next emperor. The court in Cuzco gave the crown to a son named Huascar (“Gentle Hummingbird”), while a younger brother, Atahualpa (“Wild Turkey Cock”), became governor of Ecuador. Huayna Capac had spent so much time in Ecuador that Quito became in effect a second capital, a military headquarters to match the government headquarters in Cuzco. In addition, Atahualpa's mother was a princess of Quito, and he had gone on military campaigns with his father, so three generals (Chalicuchima, Rumiñahui, and Quizquiz) and the army of the north felt he would make a better emperor.

Atahualpa was expected to come to Cuzco, to pay homage to his half-brother and the mummy of his father. Instead he stayed put, thinking that he would be assassinated if he left the safety of his troops. When Huascar got tired of waiting for Atahualpa, he sent a general named Atoc with an army to fetch him (1529). Atahualpa came with an army of his own, and they met on the plains of Chillopampa. In the resulting battle, Atahualpa was captured, but a woman sent to him smuggled in a tool that he used to escape. Once free, Atahualpa raised a new army, and the two sides clashed again at Chimborazo. This time Atahualpa's army won; according to one account, Atoc was killed, and Chalicuchima made a gold-plated beer cup out of his skull, and used the skin on the bottom of his feet to make a drum. By this time the empire was engulfed in an all-out civil war, with more than 100,000 troops fighting on each side. The war was as cruel as it was big and destructive; one report states that when Atahualpa captured Tumebamba, a city loyal to Huascar, he had the hearts cut out of the local chiefs and ordered their followers to eat them. Huascar raised more troops to replace the ones he lost, but these green recruits were no match for Atahualpa's veterans. Gradually the army of Atahualpa pushed south, and the war ended with the battle of Quipaipan, just outside of Cuzco (January 1532); there Huascar's army was surrounded and annihilated and Huascar was captured.(26)

Meanwhile, Pizarro was trying to go to Tumbes, the city which had amazed the Spaniards on his last expedition, but the winds blew him to the Ecuadorean coast instead, and in a skirmish with the coastal tribes, three Spaniards and four hundred Indians were killed. When the Spaniards did get to Tumbes, they found the city in ruins. According to their own account, the sight of the destruction and the corpses caused them to wet their pants with fear. While they were learning what happened to the Incas, they were joined by two groups of reinforcements from Central America, one led by Almagro, the other by Hernando de Soto. Atahualpa was currently camped at Cajamarca, a city in the mountains that was popular for its hot springs, located twelve days march from Tumbes. When he heard about the Spaniards at Tumbes, he invited them to come and meet him. Cortez had once told Pizarro that he conquered the Aztecs by first capturing their king, so now Pizarro decided this was his opportunity to try the same thing.

It did not look like Pizarro could pull it off. For a start, because he had a smaller army than Cortez, the odds were even more stacked against him. And then there was the daunting terrain they would have to march through; nine men turned back, thinking the venture was impossible. The rest found themselves marching into the Andes, as high as two miles above sea level. Not only did the thin air make it hard to breathe, but the roads were so steep that the men had to lead their horses instead of riding them, and one misplaced step could send a man or horse plunging to his death. They also had to admit that the Inca roads and rope bridges were marvels of engineering (Europeans had stopped building paved roads after the fall of Rome). Along the way they passed stone fortresses; thanks to the civil war, these were unmanned.

Atahualpa did not fear the newcomers. Because Pizarro had given Atahualpa's emissary a shirt and two goblets of Venetian glass, and talked peace, the emissary told Atahualpa that these were not fighting men. But even if they were, the Inca army was big enough to handle them--the city and surrounding hills were covered with warriors. When the Spaniards reached Cajamarca (November 15, 1532), one eyewitness wrote, “We never thought the Indians could occupy such a proud position, nor so many tents, all set up. It filled all us Spaniards with confusion and fear. But we dared not show it, much less turn back, for if they sensed the least weakness in us, the very Indians we brought with us would have killed us.”

The Spaniards could play the game of psychological warfare, too. After settling the men in the buildings around the main square, Pizarro sent de Soto with a group of horsemen to greet Atahualpa and arrange for a meeting. They found Atahualpa in his palace, and knowing that the Indians were afraid of horses, de Soto charged Atahualpa, pulling to a halt so close that the horse's breath stirred the king's tasseled crown, and bits of foam from the horse's mouth touched his clothing. The Sapa Inca showed no fear and did not move; however, some of his followers flinched, and he later had them executed.

Once the two sides started talking, Atahualpa scolded the Spaniards for looting storehouses containing “some of my father's cloth” and for mistreating some of his chiefs. In return, the Spaniards boasted of their fighting ability; they accused the coastal Indians they had fought of behaving “like women,” and claimed they could conquer the Inca Empire with just one horse. However, Atahualpa did agree to a summit meeting with Pizarro, on the next day in the city square. Pizarro prepared for the meeting by urging his men to keep on showing their desperate courage, while a lot of them prayed and confessed their sins to priests. Meanwhile, Atahualpa sent his general Rumiñahui with 5,000 soldiers to block the road the Spaniards had used to enter the city. His plan was to capture the Spaniards and sacrifice them to the Inca sun god, and breed their horses for his own use. He also set the time of the meeting for sundown, thinking (incorrectly) that the horses would refuse to move when it got dark.

For the meeting, Atahualpa came with 5,000 warriors, riding in a litter decorated with gold, silver and parrot feathers, carried by 80 retainers and accompanied by musicians praising the king. The warriors were unarmed and wore ceremonial rather than military costume, so the sight was dazzling, to say the least. By contrast, most of Pizarro's drably dressed men were hiding in the nearby buildings; Atahualpa was told they were cowering out of fear. The only Spaniard in the square was a Dominican friar, Vicente de Valverde. He was there because King Charles was a devout Catholic, and one of the rules he put on Pizarro was that all non-Christians must be given a chance to convert, before Pizarro attacked them. Valverde read aloud from a prayer book, and then, with the help of an interpreter, he told Atahualpa the Christian message of salvation. Atahualpa was amused, pointed to the setting sun, and replied, “You say your god was put to death, but my god still lives.” Then Valverde handed the prayer book to the king. Unfortunately the Incas did not have any experience with books, and when the book did not talk to him, Atahualpa threw it to the ground. Valverde went into the building where Pizarro was hiding, and reportedly said, “Throw yourselves upon them forthwith. I give you absolution.”(27)

Pizarro gave the signal; two cannon fired shots into the mass of Indians, the horsemen charged, and the foot soldiers brought up the rear. Spanish swords cut through the crowd like a knife through butter, and Atahualpa only survived because Pizarro shouted, “Let no one wound the Indian upon pain of death!” For the second time in one year, an Inca king was tumbled from his golden litter. The battle lasted for two hours, and when it was done, 6,000 Indians were dead, but the Spaniards suffered only a few injuries; not one of them was killed. Atahualpa was taken prisoner, and General Rumiñahui fled to Quito. As one Spaniard put it afterwards, “It was not accomplished by our own forces, for there were so few of us. It was by the grace of God, which is great.”

For the next eight months, the Spaniards held Atahualpa in Cajamarca. It was a light confinement; though kept in a 22-by-17-foot room, Atahualpa's servants continued to wait on him hand and foot, and messengers carried his orders to the rest of the empire. However, he did not dare summon Rumiñahui, or his generals in Cuzco; the Spaniards would have killed him if he tried that. In one twenty-day period, he learned to speak Spanish and read a few words, showing that intellectually, he was a better man than Pizarro.

In the Inca Empire, all precious metals belonged to the state, but it was not because they were rare; it was because objects fit for the gods could be made from them. The Inca economy measured wealth in people, not objects; the higher your rank, the more people you could control, and the richer you were. Things were only valuable according to how much work it took to make them (e.g., finely woven cloth was considered very valuable). Atahualpa could not fail to notice that his captors thought differently, and that they wanted gold more than anything else. One day he startled them by offering to buy his freedom; if they would let him go, he would fill the room he was in, as high as his hand could reach, once with gold and twice with silver.(28) The way he saw it, if the Spaniards got enough precious metal to satisfy themselves, they would not bother the Incas anymore.

Of course this was an offer the Spaniards couldn't refuse. Pizarro accepted, though he was skeptical that the Incas could supply all the gold and silver promised. Nevertheless, over the next two months they brought it; Pizarro observed that they gathered it as easily as anyone else gathered firewood. Much of it had to be stripped from temples, and it came in all kinds of crafted shapes – cups, vases, idols, plaques, statues of plants and animals, and so on. Today we would consider them priceless art objects, but Pizarro had most of them melted down into bullion, to make transporting the loot easier. A few items that he considered too pretty to destroy were sent to Spain, as part of the “Royal Fifth,” but the king turned them into coins, so he could spend them right away. For those on the expedition, each horseman got 90 pounds of gold and 180 pounds of silver, while each foot soldier got half that amount. The total amount of the ransom was weighed at just under twenty tons.

Even this wouldn't exhaust the empire's gold supply, and as it was collected, Atahualpa grew apprehensive. He feared that Huascar, his imprisoned brother, could pay an even greater ransom to free himself. When the Spaniards said they wanted to meet Huascar, Atahualpa ordered him put to death; Huascar's wife and mother were killed, too.(29)

After the ransom was paid, the Spaniards did not keep their part of the bargain. More Spanish soldiers arrived in Peru, and the newcomers demanded as big a share of the ransom as was allotted to Pizarro's original followers, but Pizarro refused to give it. Then rumors spread that General Rumiñahui was mobilizing an army to rescue Atahualpa, which terrified the outnumbered Spaniards. Eventually even Pizarro decided that the Atahualpa was no longer useful. Actually the rumors were false – Rumiñahui never left Quito – but by the time Pizarro discovered the truth, Atahualpa was dead.

Instead of staging a proper trial, Pizarro's council accused Atahualpa of twelve crimes, including idolatry, treason, and fratricide. They voted to have him burned at the stake, and Atahualpa wept--not because he feared death, but because burning would keep him from having the honors bestowed on dead Inca kings. At this point, the friar Valverde intervened; he told Atahualpa that if he became a Christian, the sentence would be changed to death by strangulation. Atahualpa agreed and was baptized, taking the Christian name of Francisco, because that was Pizarro's first name; then the Spaniards garroted him. But his last request was not granted; instead of giving Atahualpa's body to the Incas for mummification, the body was given a Christian burial.

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.

FOOTNOTES


1. Actually, that wasn't his birth name. “Christopher Columbus” is what you get when you translate his Latin name, Christophorus Columbus, into English. In fifteenth century Genoa, his name was Christoffa Corombo; in modern Italian, his name is Cristoforo Colombo; in Portuguese, he was Cristóvão Colombo; in Spanish, he became Cristóbal Colón.

2. Contrary to what we were taught in school, by the fifteenth century a lot of people believed the earth was round. Evidence of the earth's shape was there for anyone who cared to look. Ancient Greek astronomers had pointed out that the earth's shadow is always round when it passes across the moon during a lunar eclipse, and anyone observing ships leaving a seaport would have noticed that as a ship moves away, the curvature of the earth hides the hull before it hides the mast and sails, giving the illusion that the ship is sinking below the horizon. Finally, nearly two centuries before Columbus, when Dante wrote Purgatorio, he put the mountain of Purgatory on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem. This means Dante believed the earth was round, just a few centuries after the time when cartographers drew maps showing the earth as a disk, with Jerusalem in the center, joining the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.

3. Here's what Will Cuppy said about Toscanelli: “His opinions were greatly respected because he slept on a board.” From The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1950, pg. 195.

4. King John II of Portugal tried to steal Columbus’ idea by sending forth an expedition without Columbus, in 1483. It deserved to fail, and it did; the crew mutinied, and the captain, lacking the persistence of Columbus, returned without crossing the Atlantic. Jean Cousin, a French navigator, claimed that he reached the mouth of the Amazon River in 1488, four years before Columbus' journey. However, he had no documentation to back up his claim, and we only know about it because one of his captains, Alonzo Pinzon, served as Columbus' navigator.

5. Because Europe had not received any news from the Far East in nearly two hundred years, Columbus would have been poorly prepared even if he found what he was looking for. For all they knew, Kublai Khan's descendants were still masters of the Far East. One member of the crew was a multilingual fellow named Luis de Torrez, who knew Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Coptic and Armenian. His job was to be the interpreter when Columbus met the Great Khan, who spoke Chinese.

6. The native name for that island was Guanahani, but Columbus called it San Salvador. Historians have traditionally identified this with Watling Island, to the point that it was officially renamed San Salvador in 1926. However, in 1986 a computer analysis was done on the surviving data from Columbus’ records, and the resulting simulation showed that Samana Cay is a better site for the first landfall.

7. Over the next four centuries, the Indians would lose the western hemisphere to the white man, but it was in the time of Columbus that they got their revenge--they taught the palefaces to smoke! In the Bahamas the Indians gave fruit, parrots, wooden spears and dried tobacco leaves as gifts; the explorers ate the fruit, but did not know what the leaves were good for, and threw them away. Then on Cuba they saw natives roll tobacco leaves, wrap palm or cornstalk leaves around them, light one end, and inhale the smoke. Most of the time the Indians did not do it for fun, but saved it for important occasions, like religious ceremonies or the sealing of an agreement. However, the Europeans would treat the stuff differently. Rodrigo de Jerez, a crewman on the Santa Maria, gets the credit for becoming the first European smoker. When Jerez got back to Spain, the smoke from his new habit so frightened the neighbors that the Spanish Inquisition actually locked him up for seven years. Despite this, smoking quickly caught on, especially after doctors reported it could cure dozens of ailments, like bad breath and the pain of a toothache; when Jerez got out of jail, his neighbors were puffing away, too. By 1600, all of Europe had a nicotine addiction.

A 16th century smoker.

8. The return leg of the voyage followed a more northerly course, going by way of the Azores. Going both ways, Columbus managed to follow the clockwise pattern of the north Atlantic winds and currents almost perfectly. The reader must decide if he knew exactly what he was doing, or if he was just lucky.

9. However, Isabela was in an unhealthy location. After it was destroyed by a hurricane, Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher’s brother, moved the colony to Santo Domingo, on the island’s south coast (1496).

10. Columbus was too ill to travel much after his fourth voyage, but he did not let even death stop his travels completely. First he was buried at Valladolid, but in 1509 his son Diego had his remains dug up and reburied at a monastery in Seville. Diego in turn died in 1526, and was buried alongside his father, but Diego's widow thought that a burial in the lands Columbus discovered would be more appropriate, so a petition from her caused the remains of both father and son to be exhumed in 1542. This time they were buried across the ocean, in a cathedral at Santo Domingo, the future capital of the Dominican Republic. There they lay for two and a half centuries, until the French captured Santo Domingo in 1795. Spain now considered the body of Columbus a national treasure, and would not let him fall into the hands of the French, so he was dug up a third time, taken to Cuba, and reburied in Havana.
Or so it was thought. In 1877 an excavation under the Santo Domingo cathedral discovered a lead box containing bone fragments and a bullet, with Columbus' name on the box. Over in Havana, the Spanish-American War led to the independence of Cuba, and again the government of Spain did not want to part with what was left of Columbus, so in 1899 they removed the remains once more, and shipped them from Havana back to the tomb in Seville.
Afterwards, individuals in both Valladolid and Havana claimed that Columbus had never really been removed from those cities. Because of that, and the lead box in Santo Domingo, nobody could say for sure where Columbus was buried. In 2003 DNA testing was used to settle the matter; DNA samples from the tomb in Seville were compared with known DNA samples from a brother and a son of Columbus (not Diego). Only mitochondrial DNA could be obtained from the Seville samples, and they suggested a closer match with Diego than with Christopher himself. The conclusion was that only Diego had been reburied in Seville. Since then, authorities in the Dominican Republic have not allowed the Santo Domingo remains to be dug up for examination, so until we hear otherwise, we have to assume that Christopher Columbus is still in Santo Domingo.

11. One of his theories tried to explain why the Caribbean had a hotter climate than Europe. Columbus came to believe that the world was really shaped like a pear, and he had traveled uphill, toward the sun, every time he sailed west.
Columbus also wrote The Book of Prophecies, in an attempt to prove that his exploits were predicted in the Bible. Well, the Old Testament prophet Daniel predicted that in the end times knowledge would increase (Daniel 12:2), and Columbus certainly made a big contribution to that. But then he calculated that the world was created in 5343 B.C., and that it would exist for exactly 7,000 years, meaning the end of the world would come in 1657 A.D. Whoops!

12. Today Argentina is a major producer of beef, thanks to South America's cowboys, the gauchos of the Pampas and surrounding regions. Cattle ranching is a form of herding, so remember the gaucho culture appeared after Europeans came to the New World.

13. Three months before Cabral arrived, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, a veteran of Columbus' first expedition, was blown by a storm to Brazil's Pernambuco region. Pinzón was exploring the northern coast of South America, but he knew this place was on the Portuguese side of the line, so all he could do was follow the coast to the Spanish side on the line, stopping for a look at the Amazon delta on the way.

14. In Cuba, a captured cacique (chief) named Hatuey was burned at the stake, a punishment reserved for non-Christians and heretics. Before the Spaniards lit the fire, a priest told the chief that if he accepted the teachings of Christ, he would go to Heaven rather than to Hell. Hatuey responded by asking if there were Spaniards in Heaven, and when the priest said yes, he refused to become a Christian.

15. A ship returning to Spain from the Caribbean in 1505 discovered an island near the middle of the Atlantic, at the same latitude as South Carolina. It was named Bermuda after the ship captain, Juan Bermudez. However, like the Bahamas, Spain never got around to settling Bermuda. Though the island is conveniently located for ships to rest and resupply, would-be settlers were scared off by the stormy weather (Bermuda gets hit by at least one hurricane in a typical year), and by large, noisy birds, which sounded like evil spirits to them. Consequently the Spaniards gave Bermuda a second name, the Isle of Devils. Both Bermuda and the Bahamas would be settled by England in the next century.

16. Another conquistador, Alonso de Ojeda, claimed the northern coast of present-day Colombia for himself, and staked his claim by founding a settlement there named San Sebastian de Uraba, in 1509. Though a year older than Darien, it was abandoned after a few months, due to a lack of supplies and hostile Indians in the neighborhood, so only Colombians remember the settlement today.

17. Balboa went on to explore the islands in the Gulf of Panama, and brought back a fortune in gold and pearls, but he never got a chance to check out the kingdom on the other side of his sea. He had been a brutal governor, and reports of his heavy-handed behavior persuaded the crown to not only send the reinforcements he requested in 1514, but also his replacement, Pedro Arias Davila (Pedrarias for short). When Balboa tried to go exploring without the new governor's permission, Pedrarias had him arrested, but the crown, recognizing Balboa's prior service, pressured Pedrarias to let him go; later Pedrarias even gave his daughter in marriage to Balboa. Then in 1519 Balboa explored some more of Panama, and when he returned Pedrarias arrested him again, charged him with attempting to create a separate government in the South Sea, put him on trial, and had him beheaded, along with four of his friends.

18. Yucatan's name comes from the Nahuatl/Aztec word Yokatlan, meaning “Place of Richness.”

19. Although Tierra del Fuego's name has lasted over the centuries, it is not at all accurate. The island has a subarctic climate, meaning it is always cold, and its notoriously bad weather made the crews of ships dread sailing near it. The community of Ushuaia has been called the southernmost city in the world.

20. Cortez spared one boat from the burning, and he offered it to any cowards who still did not want to go on, after hearing his speech. The men were so shamed that they sank it themselves!

21. For the Aztec view of history, our best source is an enormous wheel-shaped stone, four feet thick and twelve feet in diameter. Carved in 1479, and rediscovered in 1790, it has been called the Aztec Calendar Stone and the Stone of the Sun. In the center is a face with a knife blade for a tongue, thought to represent the sun-god Tonatiuh. Along the rim are symbols representing the days of the year, hence the term “Calendar Stone.” Between the face and the rim are four larger symbols. According to Aztec mythology, the world had seen five ages or “suns” since 986 A.D., and the four large symbols represent the disasters that came at the end of previous ages: jaguars, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. The Aztec priests did not say how the fifth age would end, but they correctly predicted it would be violent.

22. Among the conquistadors Narvaez was the biggest loser. Read Chapter 1 of my North American history to find out what happened when he tried to colonize Florida in 1527.

23. Moctezuma II was succeeded by a younger brother, Cuitlahuac. After driving the Spaniards out of Tenochtitlan, he succumbed to smallpox, ruling for only eighty days. The next--and last--Aztec king was Cuauhtemoc (1520-25), an eighteen-year-old cousin of Moctezuma and Cuitlahuac.

24. The name came from a romance novel written in 1510, Las sergas de Esplandián, by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. In it Rodriguez claimed there was an island near the Indies named California, a paradise inhabited by black warrior women. When Cortez arrived he found no Amazons, and no luxuries except pearls, but enough people believed in the story that they called the place California anyway.

25. Yucatan had been claimed a decade earlier, but no attempt to pacify and settle it was made until 1527, when Francisco de Montejo landed with an assignment from the Spanish crown to do just that. This was a more complicated conquest than that of New Spain, because some Maya chiefs pledged allegiance to Spain, while others resisted. Montejo was driven out twice, and his son, also named Francisco de Montejo, led a third invasion in 1540. On the third try it took until 1546 to conquer enough natives for the Spaniards to consider their task completed. Still, the last native state held out until 1697, and large areas in the interior of Yucatan and Guatemala remained beyond the reach of Spanish authority for the entire colonial period.

26. Even the dead were not safe in the Inca civil war. When Atahualpa's generals captured Cuzco, they found the mummy of Tupac Inca, Huascar and Atahualpa's grandfather, in the possession of some diehard Huascar supporters. They executed the faction leaders and burned the mummy, but some members of the faction managed to save the mummy's ashes in a jar, which the Spaniards found in 1559.

27. Valverde went on to become bishop of Cuzco and Peru, after Pizarro conquered the Inca capital (Hernando de Luque was the original choice for that job, but he died in 1531). However, he wasn't the best candidate, because one of the bishop's titles was “Protector of the Natives,” and Valverde was more interested in mistreating and robbing the natives. At one point, when he was in Spain giving a report on the conquest to the king, he even questioned whether the Incas were really human, because he believed they didn't have souls. His career came to a sudden end when Pizarro died; while trying to flee to Panama, he stopped on an island off Ecuador's coast, and the Indians captured, killed and ate him. No doubt readers rooting for the Indians will see justice in what happened to Valverde!

28. The building where Atahualpa was held still stands; now it is called the Ransom Room. For the purposes of measuring the ransom, a line was drawn on the wall at the highest point Atahualpa could touch. Assuming that Atahualpa's arms and legs were of normal length, anthropologists tell us that he stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.

29. Today there is still bad feeling between Ecuador and Peru, because of the Inca civil war. Peruvians consider Huascar to be the last legitimate king, and call Atahualpa a usurper, while in Ecuador, Atahualpa is called the rightful ruler.



Support this site!

© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



PAGE  NAVIGATOR


 

A History of Latin America and the Caribbean

 

Other History Papers

Beyond History

 








Visitors: