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In the late 15th century, Cristóbal Colón, known in the English-speaking world as Christopher Columbus, a man well-read in geography, astronomy, history, and theology who had extensive maritime experience, believed he could sail west across the Atlantic to reach Asia. After failing to gain support for his project in Portugal, he decided to move to Spain, where, he won the support of the Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon. They gave him part of their fortune to finance his venture across the vast ocean.
Columbus set sail from Palos de la Frontera with three small ships: the Santa María (the largest ship, also known as La Gallega), the Santa Clara (nicknamed the Niña), and the Pinta (which was actually the ship’s nickname; its original name is lost to history). Following a long journey, Columbus landed on the coast of a Caribbean island in what is known today as the Bahamas. Interestingly, we don’t actually know where Columbus landed first. Regardless, the moment he stepped onto dry land marked the beginning of the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the Golden Age. During his first voyage, Columbus traveled to Cuba as well as Hispaniola, the home of present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Reports of Columbus’s 1492 voyage made him famous across Europe and earned him the title Admiral of the Ocean Sea. His fame helped him gain further royal patronage, allowing him to lead three more expeditions to the Caribbean before his death in 1506. On his second voyage, which left from Cadiz in 1493, Columbus sailed with 17 ships carrying soldiers, farmers, craftsman, and priests who would go on to establish the first permanent colonies in the Americas.
Over the decades that followed, the Spanish killed, conquered, and enslaved people from hundreds of different indigenous groups in the New World, but they were perhaps most interested in the vast riches of the Aztec and Inca empires.
When the Spanish came to a place for the first time, they were often friendly with the locals, who would give them gifts of gold and women. Instead of placating the Spanish, this evidence of great wealth fueled their dreams of conquering the indigenous people, raiding their treasures, taking control of their land with its gold and silver mines, and becoming rich beyond their wildest dreams. Of course, 20% of the wealth had to be sent back to the Spanish King, but that still left plenty for the Spanish conquistadores.
First came the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in present-day Mexico, led by Hernán Cortés. Soon after Cortés first arrived in Mexico in 1519, a native woman named Malintzin (later baptized Marina) was one of 20 women given to Cortés and his men after they defeated the natives in Tobasco. Malintzin became Cortés’s mistress, learned Spanish, and served as Cortés’s interpreter and advisor. She played a key role in Cortés’s victory over the Aztecs and also bore him a son, Martín, the first famous Mexican mestizo (although he couldn’t have actually been the first mestizo born in the Americas). Today, Malintzin, commonly known as La Malinche, is a very important figure in Mexican history, though interpretations of her actions are a great source of controversy in Mexico.
Cortés and his army, accompanied by Malintzin, started their journey to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. Along the way, the Spaniards came across different indigenous groups willing to help them defeat the Aztecs, especially the Tlaxcala. These groups had previously been conquered by the Aztecs and forced to serve the Empire, and they resented having to make tributes and provide victims for religious sacrifices.
Shortly after reaching Tenochtitlán in late 1519, Cortés’s forces and their allies occupied the city and took Aztec ruler Moctezuma II hostage. A few months later, in 1520, Cortés left Tenochtitlán to deal with a Spanish envoy that had been sent from Cuba to unseat him. When Cortés returned, Tenochtitlán was in the midst of a full-fledged rebellion. During this time, Moctezuma II was killed, though it is unclear if it was by the hand of the Aztecs or the Spanish, and was succeeded as emperor by his brother, Cuitláhuac. Under constant attack, the Spanish were forced to flee the city. But before too long, in 1521 the Spanish and their allies returned, and after three months of fighting, Cortés was able to regain control of Tenochtitlán. Cuahtámoc, Cuitláhuac’s successor, was executed and Cortés became the ruler of the vast empire.
Next came the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the largest empire in pre-Columbian America that encompassed parts of present-day Peru (site of the Incas’ capital city, Cuzco), Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Luckily for Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Incas, his timing couldn’t have been better.
When Pizarro arrived in Peru in 1532, the Inca Empire was on the tail end of a years-long, bloody civil war fought between two of the former emperor’s many sons, Atahualpa and Huáscar. Atahualpa was in Cajamarca celebrating his army’s victory in a decisive battle (and Huáscar’s capture) when he met Pizarro, who invited him to a meeting. Atahualpa accepted — backed by thousands of loyal warriors, he was not afraid of Pizarro and his men, who numbered less than 200. However, Pizarro launched an attack, killing thousands of Incas and capturing Atahualpa.
The Inca leader knew what the gold-hungry Spanish were after and offered to pay a ransom by filling the room where he was being held with gold. Pizarro accepted, and during the following months Incas brought gold, silver, jewelry, and other riches from all over the Empire. In the meantime, Atahualpa ruled from captivity and ordered his brother Huáscar to be killed. Eventually, Atahualpa was able to pay the ransom, but the Spanish executed him anyway in 1533, marking the end of the mighty Inca Empire.
How were the relatively small Spanish armies able to conquer much larger indigenous forces? In addition to their strategic alliances with different indigenous groups, the Spanish had several advantages. First, their weaponry and armor were much more advanced. They also had horses, imposing animals the natives had never seen before. In addition to terrifying the natives, horses gave the Spanish an additional military advantage. Lastly, the diseases brought from the Old World killed millions of native people, drastically weakening every indigenous population.