Who are the European men that decimated the empire to the New World and established land claims for Spain and Portugal across South and Central America? These bold adventurers are known as the conquistadors, and that’s what we’re gonna be talking about today.
Who were the conquistadors? To answer that question, we have to take a look at 16th century inheritance laws in Europe. Strange, I know. In the 15th, 16th centuries, most European nations had laws that only the first-born son could inherit the family’s fortune. This left many sons of noblemen with lots of means, because their dad can help them out with connections and money, but with absolutely no certainty of a financial future. So what did the ambitious sons of these noblemen do? They went out to conquer new worlds. These men left their home in search of glory, and riches, and lands unexplored. Many of these adventurers found nothing, they only found poverty and death. But some, some were successful, and they toppled empires, and plundered riches, and fortunes greater than their families could ever dream of. Let’s take a look at three notable conquistadors.
The first one we’ll talk about is Cortez. Cortez is best known for laying waste to the Aztec Empire, one of the two most powerful empires in the Americas in the 16th century. What’s even more impressive is Cortez had a relatively small band of warriors, only about 600. So how did Cortez and a band of 600 warriors conquer an empire whose capital had anywhere from 250 to a million people? That question requires a little knowledge of the Aztec Empire.
You see, the Aztec Empire was forged by powerful city states going out conquering their neighbors and then requiring a tribute from their neighbors for peace and political stability. The Aztec Empire was essentially the capital city, Tenochtitlán, ruling over its neighbors. All the capital wanted was tribute. They wanted the nearby neighbors to pay their taxes, but if they didn’t pay their taxes, they paid with their life. An example would be like “The Hunger Games”, where the capital city imposes restrictions and rule over the districts, and the districts have to pay tribute to the capital. The districts don’t want to, but the districts by themselves, are not powerful enough to wage war against the capital because the capital has all the money and all the power. So just like in the Aztec Empire, the capital had all the money and all the power, and where the nearby neighbors, they didn’t like the capital city, they didn’t have the power to rebel against it, that is until Cortez appeared on the scene.
Cortez and the men are able to ally themselves with each of the groups that are very disgruntled and dissatisfied with Aztec rule. Now these neighbors, they didn’t like paying taxes, but again, they didn’t have the power amongst themselves to rebel, but Cortez comes, alliances them together, and gives them the power to topple the Aztec Empire. Eventually, Cortez is able to raise a huge army and lay siege to Tenochtitlán and lays waste to the city. See, once the capital falls, the empire disintegrates and Cortez steps in and lays claim to all that land for the King of Spain.
The second conquistador we will talk about is Francisco Pizarro. Inspired by the success of Cortez, Pizarro sets out to conquer the other empire in the Americas, the Incan Empire. Now the Incan Empire is in South America and is along the western coast. Although his first two expeditions failed, Pizarro’s third time was a charm. It was his third expedition that proved the fateful one for the Incan Empire. In 1532, during the decisive battle of Cajamarca, Pizarro captures the Incan Emperor.
Once Pizarro’s captured the Emperor, he demands a king’s ransom, or an emperor’s ransom. He tells the emperor to fill a large room completely with gold, and then fill that same room twice over with silver. The Emperor does this, but Pizarro executes him anyway for trying to conspire against Pizarro. In just one year after that decisive battle, Pizarro marches on Cuzco, the capital city of the Incan Empire, and takes it over. And just like with the Aztecs, once the capital city falls, the empire disintegrates and Pizarro claims all that land for Spain.
The third notable conquistador we’ll talk about is Francisco Coronado. Now, unfortunately for Coronado, he was one of the more unsuccessful conquistadors. If he was unsuccessful, why are we talking about him? Because Coronado was the first European to explore the lands of what we know today to be the Southwest United States. Coronado had heard that somewhere, in what we know to be the Southwest United States, there were seven cities made completely of gold. So he convinced a thousand men to go with him on an expedition, and that expedition went through Texas, Oklahoma, into Colorado, through the Grand Canyon, and then back, exploring large amounts of land. He was the first European to see the Colorado River, the first European to see the Grand Canyon, and who knows what else? And while Coronado didn’t find the seven cities of gold, spoiler, they didn’t exist, he did chart and claim all that land for Spain.
Do you have any questions about the conquistadors? Let us know in the comments below.