The Great Spanish Conquistadors

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

As the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles of Habsburg controlled more territory than any European ruler since Charlemagne, yet he had fewer tools to enforce his control than any previous ruler. In the 16th century, Charles harnessed his passion for imposing order and applied it to the administration of Spain’s new domains in America, where the great Spanish conquistadors and conquerors were running amok looting Indian empires.

Coronation of Charlemagne in Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy. The Renaissance painting in one of the Raphael's rooms. Charlemagne in the fresco of the 16th century.

Charles was largely fine with the looting, but when “low-lifers” such as Cortés and Pizarro began setting themselves up as self-appointed aristocrats, the Spanish crown shouldered its way into American affairs and set about instituting formal governments that would be subservient to the Spanish crown. The age of the great Spanish conquistadors would soon come to an end.

The Viceroyalty System

The top level of Spanish government in America divided the conquests of the conquistadors into two enormous viceroyalties: the viceroyalty of New Spain, which included all of Mexico, Central America, and the West Indian islands—and the viceroyalty of Peru, which governed the Spanish conquests in South America. Each of these vice royalties was presided over by a viceroy appointed directly by the king.

The viceroyalties were expected to be governed in America in precisely the same way as the king governed in Spain, from the top downward. They had exactly one mandate, and that was to impose order, which they did with remarkable success, considering that only 250,000 Spaniards could be persuaded to emigrate to New Spain and Peru in the 1500s to back up the viceroys. From only a dozen outposts in 1530, the viceroys chartered 121 towns by 1574, and another 210 over the next 250 years.

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Even more important, between 1500 and 1650, the viceroys ensured that as much as 200 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver were extracted from mines in America, worth a total, probably, of about one and a quarter billion dollars. To put it another way, the American mines that the Spaniards were emptying out of gold and silver provided three to five times the entire stock of gold and silver in European hands in that age.

Confronting the American Natives

Now, to accomplish these goals required turning away from the conquistadors’ penchant for killing the Indian populations, instead reducing the natives to being compliant and willing slaves who would keep the flow of gold and silver to Spain uninterrupted. Great estates, haciendas, were carved out of the former Indian empires. The owners of these estates were granted an encomendero. This was a right to levy forced service on neighboring Indian villages and Indian families.

Working from the other end, the church labored to Christianize the Indians, which meant, in the process, destroying traditional books, ending traditional religious practices among the Indians, and basically squeezing the Indians into the mold of Spanish culture. It was a process that had more or less three stages.

  • The first process was enslavement, either literal enslavement, as the conquistadors did, or indirect enslavement by the encomendero.
  • The second phase would be dislocation, as traditional Indian culture was suppressed or dispossessed and Spanish culture substituted, more or less, in its place.
  • This would be followed by a third stage of confrontation as the Indians struggled to fight back, to resist their Spanish overlords, not only literally in resisting the levy of slave labor—of forced service, by the encomendero—but also the imposition of European culture and religion.

The Europeans, however, had one great ally that the Indians could not resist. That great unseen ally was disease.

Diseases from Europe

One reason that disease turned out to be such a lethal ally of the Europeans was that nothing in the experience, let’s say at least the medical experience, of the North American Indian tribes, had prepared them for European diseases like smallpox, measles, typhoid, scarlet fever, whooping cough, dysentery, cholera, even the self-inflicted disease of alcoholism.

American Indian tribes had composed their civilizations and constructed their societies without being exposed to these European pathogens. This meant that even when the Europeans—like members of the church, friars, missionaries, priests, and the like—tried to treat Indians fairly, as they did, they could not control the communication of those diseases. European systems had spent centuries building up immunities against them, but Indian systems had no defenses against them.

Along the eastern shore of North America alone, there were probably as many as 17 major European epidemics among the Indian tribes, some of which traveled north from Mexico, others of which were passed on by incidental contact along the shorelines with passing European vessels. These epidemics included such devastating scourges as smallpox in 1519, typhus in 1531, and typhus again in 1585. That’s only pointing to the largest and most disastrous of them.

The casualty list from these epidemics among Indians was horrendous. Estimates of deaths from these epidemics range anywhere from 70 percent to 9 percent of the eastern North American Indian population. That’s only speaking about eastern North America. The same percentage had probably prevailed at other points in America as well.

The Last of the Conquistadors

By the end of the 1600s, the Spanish New World settlements—ruled from a distance in Europe by King Charles V—had matured from being an extraction society, where people, like Cortés, came only in the hope of seizing wealth that they could take back and live upon in Spain. It had changed to a permanent settler society, where Spaniards became permanent colonists without any expectation of returning to Spain, wealthy or otherwise. Now, only a few were still trying to do the work, or, in this case, the profitable havoc of the conquistadors.

In 1516, Juan Ponce de Leon explored and mapped the coast of Florida. In 1521, he tried to do what his comrades had done, and that was to establish   a profitable Spanish settlement there; the Indians killed him and drove the Spaniards off, though.

In 1539, one of Pizarro’s lieutenants from the conquest of Peru, Hernando de Soto, set off in pursuit of a Peru of his own to pillage. Using the wealth he had won at Pizarro’s side in Peru, de Soto financed another expedition to Florida, this time landing near modern-day Tampa, striking northwards into Georgia, and finally, turning westwards toward the Mississippi River. De Soto was probably the first European to encounter the Cherokee Indians of the Georgia uplands. What he found among the Cherokee ought to have surprised him: roads, towns, farms, temples.

De Soto was not interested in any of those things. What he wanted was gold. He and his men plunged blindly onward, crossing the Mississippi River, blundering through the Ozarks, until de Soto died of a fever and was buried in the waters of the Mississippi in May of 1542. De Soto found no gold. His only accomplishment, apart from being the first European to cross the Mississippi River, was to scatter European diseases among the Cherokee and the other tribes they passed through.

The last of the great conquistador expeditions was mounted by Francisco  de Coronado in 1540. He was pursuing rumors of gold among Indian cities on the Great Plains. He returned to Mexico empty-handed and financially ruined in 1542, having wandered with his 300 Spanish mercenaries, with no purpose, as far north as modern-day Kansas.

The End of the Line

Surely, though, the strangest of this last round of conquistador expeditions was that of Panfilo de Narvaez, a former rival of Cortés who launched his own clumsy expedition into central Florida in 1528. Indians, disease, shipwreck, and starvation annihilated all but four of Narvaez’s expedition, including the expedition’s treasurer, Cabeza de Vaca. De Vaca was captured and enslaved by the Indians, along with a black mercenary named Esteban. In slavery, they palmed themselves off as medicine men and amazed the Indian tribes in Florida with an unexpectedly high success rate as healers. De Vaca and Esteban went almost overnight from being slaves to being celebrities. They were passed from tribe to tribe to tribe to perform healings, which somehow they managed to do.

Eventually, they were joined by two other survivors of the Narvaez expedition. Over the course of eight years, they wandered from place to place, westward, until in 1536, in Western Mexico, they stumbled into a patrol of Spanish soldiers who looked at them in stark amazement. They had traveled over 1,300 miles through the American Southwest, thus making them, unwillingly, the most well-traveled Spaniards in the Western Hemisphere.

This was a long way to fall from the heady days of Cortés and Pizarro, though. Being a conquistador was no longer turning the profits that it once had; the truth was that, as economic conditions in Europe shifted in the 16th century, Spain could no longer afford the freebooters, the adventurers, and the conquistadors.

From the lecture series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition, taught by multiple professors