Spanish colonization of the Americas

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Spanish colonization of the Americas began with Christopher Columbus's landing on San Salvador in 1492 and continued until the independence wars of the early 19th century. During this period the indigenous population was decimated by a combination of war, exploitation and disease.

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  • Presently we discovered two or three villages, and the people all came down to the shore, calling out to us, and giving thanks to God.… An old man came on board my boat; the others, both men and women cried with loud voices: "Come and see the men who have come from the sky. Bring them victuals and drink."
  • I wished to give a complete relation to your Highnesses, and also where a fort might be built…. However, I do not see it to be necessary, because these people are simple in armaments…. With fifty men I could subjugate them all and make them do everything that is required of them.
    • Christopher Columbus, Journal (14 October 1492)
  • I promise this, that if I am supported by our most invincible sovereigns with a little of their help, as much gold can be supplied as they will need, indeed as much of spices, of cotton, of mastic gum (which is only found in Chios), also as much of aloes wood, and as many slaves for the navy, as their Majesties will wish to demand.
    • Christopher Columbus, "Concerning the Islands Recently Discovered in the Indian Sea" (14 March 1493)
  • The Indians were totally deprived of their freedom and were put into the harshest, fiercest, most horrible servitude and captivity which no one who has not seen it can understand. Even beasts enjoy more freedom when they are allowed to graze in the field.
    • Bartolomé de las Casas, History of the Indies (1510)
  • The city of Temixtitan [Tenochtitlán] is itself is as big as Seville or Córdoba.… This city has many squares where trading is done and markets are held continuously.… There are, in all districts of this great city, many temples or houses for their idols.… Among these temples there is one, the principal one, whose great size and magnificence no human tongue could describe, for it is so large that within the precincts … a town of some five hundred inhabitants could easily be built.
    • Hernán Cortés "Second Letter from Mexico" (1520)
  • Broken spears lie in the roads;
    We have torn our hair in our grief.
    The houses are roofless now, and their walls
    Are red with blood.
    • Nahuatl poem from Miguel Leon-Portilla, Precolombian Literatures of Mexico (1969)
  • Who could conquer Tenochitlán?
    Who could shake the foundation of heaven?
    • Nahuatl poem from Miguel Leon-Portilla, Precolombian Literatures of Mexico (1969)
  • Who can doubt that gunpowder against the infidels is incense for the Lord?
    • Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, General and Natural History of the Indies (1526)
  • We traveled over a great part of the country and found it all deserted, since the people had fled to the mountains, leaving their houses and fields out of fear of the Christians. This filled our hearts with sorrow, seeing the land so fertile and beautiful, so full of water and streams, but abandoned and the places burned down, and the people, so thin and wan, fleeing and hiding.
    • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Account of the Narváez Expedition (1542). Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions were shipwrecked and had lived among Indians for several years.
  • They [Indians] brought us blankets, which they had been concealing from the Christians, and gave them to us, and told us how the Christians had come into the country before and destroyed and burned the villages, taking with them half the men and all the women and children, and how those who could escaped by running off.
    • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Account of the Narváez Expedition (1542)
  • In order to bring those people to Christianity and obedience unto your Imperial Majesty, they should be well treated, and not otherwise.
    • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Account of the Narváez Expedition (1542)
  • Not only have [the Indians] shown themselves to be very wise peoples and possessed of lively and marked understanding, prudently governing and providing for their nations … and making them prosper in justice; but they have equalled many diverse nations of the world, past and present, that have been praised for their governance, politics and customs; and exceed by no small measure the wisest of all these, such as the Greeks and Romans, in adherence to the rules of natural reason.
    • Bartolomé de las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies (1566)
  • Those who died so cruel a death, who rendered such important services to God and to their emperor, and who gave light to those who lived in darkness, ought to have had their names perpetuated in letters of gold; but they were never remunerated! They did not even obtain wealth, although this is the goal of all men!
  • Often quoted: to serve God and His Majesty, to bring light to those who were in darkness, and to grow rich, as all men desire to do
    • Bernal Díaz de Castillo, True History of the Conquest of New Spain (ca. 1570), on Spanish soldiers killed in Mexico
  • Great was the stench of death after our fathers and grandfathers succumbed, half of the people fled to the fields. The dogs and the vultures devoured the corpses. The mortality was terrible. Your grandfathers died, and with them died the son of the king and his brothers and kinsmen. So it was that we became orphans, oh, my sons! So we became when we were young. All of us were thus.
    • Francisco Hernández Arana, Annals of the Cakchiquels (1571), describing the Yucatán plague of 1518 that preceded direct Spanish contact
  • The Inca asked Fray Vicente who had told him so. Fray Vicente responded that the Gospel had told him, the book. Atahualpa said, "Give me the book, so that it will tell me." So he gave it to him and he took it in his hands and began to look through the pages of the book. The Inca said, "Well, why doesn't it tell me? The book doesn't even talk to me!" Speaking with great majesty, seated in his throne, the Inca Atahualpa threw the book down from his hands.… Don Francisco Pizarro and Don Diego de Almagro shouted and said, "Out, knights, against these infidels who are against our Christianity, and for our Emperor and King let us have at them!"
    • Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, The First New Chronicle and Good Government (1615), describing the start of the battle of Cajamarca in 1532. Guaman Poma's account was disputed in a manuscript by Father Blas Valera, since destroyed.
  • The magistrates of the realm … draw 30,000 Ps. from the magistracy and become rich, doing harm to the poor Indians and the chiefs, despising and taking away their jobs and positions in this realm.… From this there is no defense by the principal chiefs, because they act with him and are partners. They are praised by the priest, the magistrate: "Oh, what a good principal chief, don Pedro!"… The said magistrates … and other Spaniards who walk among the Indians are as absolute rulers with little fear of God and justice.
    • Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, The First New Chronicle and Good Government (1615)
  • Popé … ordered in all the pueblos through which he passed that they instantly break up and burn the images of the holy Christ… and that they burn the temples, break up the bells, and separate from the wives whom God had given them in marriage and take those whom they desired. They were ordered likewise not to teach the Castilian language in any pueblo….
    • "Declaration of Pedro Naranjo of the Queres Nation" (1681) describing the Pueblo Revolt

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