Spanish colonization of the Americas

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Spanish Conquest of Mexico, meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma II
Mexico City - Palacio Nacional. Mural by Diego Rivera showing the History of Mexico: Detail showing the burning of Maya literature by the catholic church.

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.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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
  • 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.
  • The Spanish did not find the American colonization easy. The first island-town Columbus founded, which he called Isabella, failed completely. He then ran out of money and the crown took over. The first successful settlement took place in 1502, when Nicolas de Ovando landed in Santo Domingo with thirty ships and no fewer than 2,500 men. This was a deliberate colonizing enterprise, using the experiences Spain had acquired in its reconquista, and based on a network of towns copied from the model of New Castile in Spain itself. That in turn had been based on the bastides of medieval France, themselves derived from Roman colony-towns, an improved version of Greek models going back to the beginning of the first millennium BC. So the system was very ancient. The first move, once a beachhead or harbour had been secured, was for an official called the adelantano to pace out the street-grid. Apart from forts, the first substantial building was the church. Clerics, especially from the orders of friars, the Dominicans and Franciscans, played a major part the colonizing process, and as early as 1512 the first bishopric in the New World was founded. Nine years before, the crown had established a Casa de la Contracion in Seville, as headquarters of the entire transatlantic effort, and considerable state funds were poured into the venture. By 1520 at least 10,000 Spanish-speaking Europeans were living on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, food was being grown regularly and a definite pattern of trade with Europeans had been established.
    • Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (1999), pp. 6-7
  • The Aztecs were Polytheists, practising human sacrifice and, in some areas, ritual cannibalism; but there were also points of comparison with Christianity - their chief god was born of a virgin, they ate pastry images of him twice a year, they had forms of baptism and confession, and a compass-point cross. Yet there was no attempt to build on these foundations, contrary to early Christian practice and, indeed, to the instructions of Gregory the Great. From the time of Juan de Zumarraga, first Bishop of Mexico, a great destroyer of religious antiquities, a systematic attempt was made to erase all trace of pre-Christian cults. Writing in 1531, he claimed that he personally had smashed over 500 temples and 20,000 idols.
    • Paul Johnson (2014). History of Christianity. New York: Touchstone. page 402. (also quoted in Goel, S. R. (1986). Papacy: Its doctrine and history.)
  • The evidence of profit was even greater, of course, in the vast land empire which the conquistadores swiftly established in the western hemisphere. From the early settlements in Hispaniola and Cuba, Spanish expeditions pushed towards the mainland, conquering Mexico in the 1520s and Peru in the 1530s. Within a few decades this dominion extended from the River Plate in the south to the Rio Grande in the north. Spanish galleons, plying along the western coast, linked up with vessels coming from the Philippines, bearing Chinese silks in exchange for Peruvian silver. In their "New World" the Spaniards made it clear they were here to stay, setting up an imperial administration, building churches, and engaging in ranching and mining. Exploiting the natural resources—and, still more, the native labor—of these territories, the conquerors sent home a steady flow of sugar, cochineal, hides, and other wares. Above all, they sent home silver from the Potosí mine, which for over a century was the biggest single deposit for the metal in the world.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), p. 27
  • The West’s use of what was its temporary edge in technology, including guns, armour and steel, enabled it to take over much of the rest of the world before the subjugated peoples learned how to fight back. It also helped, in the case of the Americas, that the Europeans brought new diseases with them. The Spanish adventurers Cortés and Pizarro overthrew great empires in Mexico and Peru, which had millions of subjects and huge armies, with mere handfuls of men. The odds were fantastic but the Spanish had the advantage of the germs they carried, which were already spreading inland, going ahead of them to lay waste the local populations, which had no immunity to such things as smallpox or measles. In addition, the Spanish rode horses against foot soldiers, wore steel armour and carried steel and guns against men armed with bronze and wood and armoured with quilted cotton.
  • Some scholars consider the initial period of the Spanish conquest—from Columbus’s irst landing in the Bahamas until the middle of the sixteenth century— as marking the most egregious case of genocide in the history of mankind. The death toll may have reached some 70 million indigenous people (out of 80 million) in this period. Millions of natives died of disease— smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus, in particular— brought to the Americas by the conquest. Alien microbes traveled more quickly than did the European conquerors themselves, by the highest estimates killing an estimated 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population, by the lowest estimates about a half. There is no evidence that the Spanish purposely infected the indigenous peoples. Yet the Spanish imposed conditions upon the Indians that made them more susceptible to the imported diseases. They were exploited as forced laborers and were concentrated in work camps, especially as the search for gold and silver brought a frenetic Spanish interest in mining for precious ores. The Indians were forcibly deported from their homes to alien locations for the purpose of replacing local labor of natives who had died out. The newcomers were deprived of food and water and housed, if at all, in unsanitary, makeshift dwellings. They were separated from their families and normal support systems. They were beaten, brutalized, and deprived of freedom.

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