Conquistadors

The Instruments of Exploration, Discovery and Conquest

by Jay W. Sharp

In the half century before Francisco Vazquez de Coronado led his expedition into the Southwest and the southern Great Plains in a search for mythical kingdoms and treasure, Spain – spearheaded by her conquistadors, or conquerors – had flung her net of conquest across the most far-reaching empire in history. In the Western Hemisphere alone, it encompassed many islands of the Caribbean, much of the South American continent, all of Central America, all of Mexico and much of the southern United States.


The Instruments of Exploration, Discovery and Conquest

"It was a miracle that these wonderful lands had remained unknown to the rest of the world through all of history, and were saved by God to be discovered in our time…," said conquistador Cieza de Leon, quoted by Michael Wood in his book Conquistadors.

In 1492, having at last completed the Reconquista – or, the Reconquest, the eight-century-long crusade to crush Arab Moslem control of the Iberian Peninsula – Spain turned her warring class into instruments of unprecedented exploration, discovery and conquest. Within a few decades, her restless conquistadors would not only find "these wonderful lands," they would profoundly alter the course of human history.

On October 12, 1492, the conquistador Christopher Columbus made landfall at a small island in the Great Bahama Bank about 400 miles east southeast of the Florida Keys. He and his captains went ashore, and "…all having rendered thanks to Our Lord kneeling on the ground, embracing it with tears of joy for the immeasurable mercy of having reached it, the Admiral arose and gave this island the name San Salvador," according to Samuel Eliot Morison in his classic Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. The discovery would electrify Spain and the rest of Europe, sparking an insatiable appetite for new empire and treasure.

Within a few years, Columbus and other sea-going conquistadors would explore, discover and conquer other islands of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and they would begin the exploration of the mainland coastal regions. Other conquistadors mounted expeditions into the mainland interiors. In 1512, Juan Ponce de Leon began the exploration of the Florida peninsula, lured by the seductive fragrance of magnolia blossoms and a purported fountain of youth. In 1513, Vasco de Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and found and named the Pacific Ocean. In 1521, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec kingdom, which became a springboard for the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In 1528, Panifilo de Narvaez began the exploration of the southeastern United States, an enterprise which began with disaster in the Florida swamplands and ended with Cabeza de Vaca’s long and epic journey across the deserts of western Texas and northern Mexico. In 1531, Francisco Pizzaro conquered the Peruvian kingdom of the Incas, setting the stage for the Spanish conquest of much of South America. In 1539, Hernando de Soto began a four-year exploratory expedition which began on the west coast of Florida, wound through the southeastern United States, and finally ended on Mexico’s Gulf coast. In the following year, 1540, Coronado began his expedition across the Southwest and the southern Great Plains.

As they carved out stupendous empire – an enterprise they called the "Conquista," or the Conquest – Spain’s conquistadors redefined Europe’s notion of the world. According to Wood, they hauled Indians across the Atlantic to display them like animated puppets, dazzling Spanish royalty and even the Pope. They brought back riches in gold and silver to help replenish Spain’s royal treasury, pay down her burdensome international debts, and finance their king’s continental wars. They carried home exotic flowering plants, strange new birds and evocative Indian artifacts to tantalize wealthy patrons. They returned with New World food plants, which would eventually alter the European diet in fundamental ways. They fired the imaginations of Europe’s architects, artists and writers, who, for generations, would speak to the American vision. "Oh wonder," Shakespeare would have his Miranda say in The Tempest, first performed in the early 1600’s, "How many goodly creatures are there, how beauteous mankind is! Oh, brave new world, that has such people in it."

While they conquered American kingdoms and changed Europe’s world view, the conquistadors, unintentionally, also came as dark messengers of death in the Western Hemisphere. They introduced European diseases such as smallpox, measles and cholera to immunologically defenseless Indian populations. Tens of millions died—human disaster on an unprecedented scale. It decimated the very Indian labor force which Spain had intended to conscript for constructing and solidifying her American empire. "The Spaniards could only survive in the New World by exploiting native labor, in the fields and the mines," said J. H. Elliott in Imperial Spain 1469-1716. Spain tried to fill the void by importing black people from Africa to enslavement in the Americas. She founded a commerce in slave trade that would lead to the transportation of some 11 million people from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. "It was," said Wood, the largest movement of population in history."

The conquistadors also triggered a mass migration of the willing. Within a half century after Columbus’ discovery, some 300,000 Spaniards migrated to the New World, searching for new opportunity and establishing more than 200 new towns and communities, according to the internet site Hispanic America USA.

Products of Eight Centuries of Warfare

The conquistador – the product of eight centuries of crusading warfare – thought of himself as a part of a noble military religious force.

Typically, according to Elliott, a conquistador belonged to the hidalgo, or caballero, class, the lowest level in the hierarchy of Spanish aristocracy. He likely came from Extremadura, in the arid western reaches of Spain, or from Andalucia, in the impoverished southern reaches of the country. He may have descended from a wealthy or a poor family, but he enjoyed social and legal privileges which accrued to his coveted title of Don. He felt superior to a tradesman, craftsman, farmer or herdsman. He would have been embarrassed by financial concerns of petty commerce or by calluses on his hands. Acutely conscious of heraldry and status, he displayed his coat of arms at his home, church and family cemetery. He knew that he could ascend the aristocratic ladder only by the acquisition of wealth, property and personal glory.

As a warrior, the conquistador saw himself, not as just a fighter, but as a knight, one of Spain’s "soldiers of God," according to Donald J. Mabry in his internet paper "Colonial Latin America." He may have armed himself with a harquebus—a smoothbore matchlock gun which the Spanish had invented about the middle of the 15th century. Or he may have carried a sword, a javelin or long pike. He protected himself with armor. He shielded his mount with armor. Since conquistadors had not lost a pitched battle in 150 years, he fought with supreme confidence and reckless courage. A force of conquistadors "could cut its way through armies larger in size," said Mabry.

Fired by the zeal of Catholicism, the conquistador went to battle, at least theoretically, only in "Just Wars" under the banner of the cross. This meant, said Paul Crawford in his paper "The Crusades," published on the internet site, the Catholic Educator’s Resource Center, that he must hold the authorization of the crown to make war. He must fight only to remedy past wrongs or to defend his country and himself. He sought to inflict no more than the injury necessary to achieve victory. (In practice, the conquistador often stretched the meaning of "Just War," and he fought his adversaries aggressively, relentlessly and brutally.) He revered Santiago, Spain’s patron saint and holy warrior, and El Cid, the unconquerable Christian warrior, who together gave spiritual inspiration to Spanish forces in battle.

As a noble military religious icon, a conquistador campaigned – usually at his own or at a sponsor’s expense – not only to expand the reach of the Church and the empire of Spain, but also to share in the plunder. At least in part, he served as a mercenary, a resourceful soldier of fortune. He felt entitled to spoils, a right he would claim with fierce determination. That often represented his only escape from poverty since he probably had had the bad luck to not be born a first son—the only sibling entitled to the family inheritance under a Spanish law called "primogeniture." Since he could not be an heir, he had to make his fortune on his own. After a successful campaign in the Americas, a conquistador might be granted, effectively, a "lordship" over a community of Indians, according to Elliott. He would agree to protect and Christianize his Indian community in return for labor and tribute, a system called "encomienda," which sometimes degenerated into actual slavery heavily laced with raw force. Some conquistadors parlayed the encomienda system into wealth and high social status.

A conquistador regarded the conquest of the Americas as an extension of the reconquest of his native Spain. He thought of the Americas as a land "teeming with heathen souls awaiting ‘salvation,’" according to Mark Williams in his The Story of Spain. The conquistadors "brought with them from Castile [the heart of Spain] the ambitions, the prejudices, the habits and the values that they had acquired at home," said Elliott. "First and foremost they were professional soldiers, schooled to hardship and war… They had, too, the capacity for infinite wonder at the strange world unfolding before their eyes, interpreting its mysteries as much from their store of imagination as from their past experience.

"These men were dedicated fighters—tough, determined, contemptuous of danger, arrogant and touchy, extravagant and impossible; examples, perhaps a little larger than life size…" They also gave substance to the infamous "Black Legend," which other European countries invoked maliciously to characterize "anything Hispanic as evil, inferior, and uniquely cruel," according to Williams.

Coronado’s Conquistadors

"This was a militant society," said Elliott in Spain and Its World, 1500-1700, "imbued with the crusading ideal, accustomed by the reconquista and the conquest of America to the quest for glory and booty…"

They "saw themselves as a chosen, and therefore a superior, people, entrusted with a divine mission which looked towards universal empire as its goal."

When Coronado began his "divine mission" up the trail from Compostela to the Southwest and the southern Great Plains on February 22, 1540, he led a cadre of seasoned and competent officers and a "motley, undisciplined band" of green caballeros, according to H. E. Bolton in Coronado: Knight of Pueblos and Plains.

Recruited by Viceroy Antonio Mendoza, principal sponsor of Coronado’s expedition, the officers included experienced men such as Lope de Samaniego, campmaster, and "a responsible person and a very good Christian," according to the viceroy; Pedro de Tovar, chief standard bearer, who would lead an exploratory party to the villages of the Hopis; Garcia Lope de Cardenas, cavalry captain, who would lead a party to the European discovery of Grand Canyon; and Hernando de Alvarado, artillery captain, who would lead an advance party to the Pecos Pueblo in northern New Mexico and the southern Great Plains in the Texas Panhandle.

The ordinary soldiers, many of them also recruited by Mendoza, came from the ranks of "many noble [Spanish] people who were in Mexico, and who, like a cork floating on the water, went about with nothing to do nor with which to occupy themselves, all importuning the viceroy to grant them favors and the citizens of Mexico to feed them at their tables," according to Matias Angel de la Mota Padilla in a history he wrote in 1742. Mendoza wanted to get them off the streets! Although most of them had reached their 20’s, some, said Bolton, were "mere boys," no more than 17 or 18 years of age. Youth characterized the "great marches of the conquistadors into the interior of the mainland."

Mendoza promised his young conquistadors not only the adventure of a lifetime, but also estates in a land reputed to have kingdoms of gold and silver. He paid them at a rate of 30 pesos per year. He even gave some of them money for provisions, weapons and armor for battle, horses for their mounts.

When Coronado, with his officers and his young charges, reinforced by hundreds of Indian allies, servants and slaves, rode out of Compostela with banners flying, a young mounted conquistador likely wore, according to authority Jose Cisneros in his monograph Riders of the Border, an open-faced and possibly plumed helmet, a metal breastplate and a mail coat and gloves. He wore a pair leather boots which were made identical for the left and right feet. He probably carried an oval leather shield, a lance, a sword and a dagger. If he was extremely lucky, he owned a harquebus. He may have attached bells to the tack of his horse, hoping that would impress the Indians he might encounter.

During the two years of Coronado’s expedition, a young conquistador would endure exhaustion, hunger and exposure. He would prove himself on the field of battle. Although he would fail to discover the estates and treasure which had been promised, he would long tell the stories of his adventures on the trails across the western deserts and southern plains of the North American continent. He would earn the title of "conquistador" and a place in the history of the Americas.


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