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The Conquistadors

Left Magellan, top right Da Gama, lower right F Pizarro

Left Magellan, top right Da Gama, lower right F Pizarro

Conquistadors is the term used to refer to the soldiers and explorers of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in a general sense. During the Age of Discovery conquistadors sailed beyond Europe to the Americas, Oceania, Africa and Asia, conquering territory and opening trade routes, colonising much of the world for Spain and Portugal in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Portugal established a route to China in the early 16th century, sending ships via the southern coast of Africa, founding numerous coastal enclaves along the route. Following the discovery of the New World in 1492 by Christopher Columbus and the first circumnavigation of the world by Juan Sebastian Elcano and Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 (both voyages promoted by the Spanish Crown of Castile), expeditions led by conquistadors in the 16th century established trading routes linking Europe. By the late 16th century silver imports from America provided one-fifth of Spain's total budget. 

For the first time the true scale and shape of the earth was discovered. The conquest of much of the New World by Spanish conquistadors during those few years in the 1500’s was surely one of history's pivotal turning points. Indeed, as Karl Marx and Adam Smith claimed, perhaps it was the greatest event in history.

'When has it ever happened, either in ancient or modern times, that such amazing exploits have been achieved? Over so many climes, across so many seas, over such distances by land, to subdue the unseen and unknown? Whose deeds can be compared with those of Spain? Not even the ancient Greeks and Romans.' - Francisco Xerez, Pizarro's secretary, in his Report on the Discovery of Peru.

The long-term effects of the conquests are no less fascinating. The 'Columbian Exchange' as modern historians call it, brought the potato, the pineapple, the turkey, dahlias, sunflowers, magnolias, maize, chillies and chocolate across the Atlantic. On the other hand, tens of millions died in the pandemics of the 16th century, victims of smallpox, measles and the other diseases brought by Europeans (the African slave trade was begun by the Europeans to replace the work force they had decimated).

After the defeat and extermination of native societies, came the arrival of the European settler class and the appropriation of the native lands and natural resources. From this process emerged the modern US empire. The effects on the economies of the world were no less marked as it shifted the centre of gravity of civilisation to the countries of the Atlantic seaboard and their offshoots in the New World. However, the story is also one of history's greatest adventures. The opening up of the continent involved unparalleled journeys of exploration with almost unbelievable bravery, endurance, cruelty and greed e.g, Almagro's 6,000km expedition to explore the wastes of Chile. There were extraordinary explorations across the Andes, deep into Venezuela and Colombia in the 1530s, journeys which gave birth to the alluring legend of El Dorado. It was the dream of El Dorado that fired Gonzalo Pizarro's 18-month expedition across the Ecuadorian Andes: 'the worst journey ever in the Indies', it was said. However, it led by accident to the discovery and descent of the Amazon. It is no exaggeration to say that these are some of the greatest land explorations in history.

Another outcome of the conquest of the new world was the first attempt in history to globalise justice and human rights. In the summer of 1550, in Valladolid, Spain, these great themes were aired before the King's council. The Aristotelian scholar and humanist Juan Gines de Sepulveda argued for the civilising mission of Spain, so long as it was done humanely. The Indians were 'natural slaves' as Aristotle had defined the phrase, 'inhumane barbarians who thought the greatest gift they could offer to God was human hearts'. People whose brilliant art and sculpture was no proof of their civilisation, 'for do not even bees and spiders make works which no human can imitate'.

Today some modern scholars see the arguments outlined in the Valladolid debate as the forerunner of our own conception of human rights and Las Casas as the first inspiration for the UN Declaration of 1948. A declaration in part prompted by the lessons of the past, and in part by the tragedies of contemporary history. Many of the Spaniards were profoundly moved by what they had seen. The destruction of the last civilisations to have risen independently on the face of the earth, without contact with the world outside them. Among these Spaniards were not only churchmen, like Sahagun, who fell in love with Nahuatl (Aztec) culture, but even the conquistadors themselves. Bernal Diaz, who marched with Cortes, was moved to compare the tragedy of Mexico with the Fall of Troy. On his deathbed, Mansio Serra de Leguizamon, one of the conquerors of Peru, expressed profound regret for the unjust destruction of Inca society: 'I have to say this now for my conscience: for I am the last to die of the conquistadors.'

For once, then, all the hyperbole is justified. These are without doubt some of history's greatest stories and some of history's most remarkable deeds. Many were dreadful and appalling - as were their consequences. The Conquista was at once one of the most significant events in history, and one of the most cruel and devastating.  'The few have conquered the many before. They say Alexander the Great, with 33,000 Macedonians, undertook to conquer the world. So with the Romans too. But no nation has with such resolution passed through such labours, or such long periods of starvation, or covered such immense distances as the Spanish have done. In a period of 70 years they have overcome and opened up a new world, greater than the one of which we had knowledge, exploring what was unknown and never before seen...' - Pedro de Cieza de Leon

So who were the most formidable and famous conquistadors?

Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) A Portuguese explorer, organised the Castilian expedition to the East Indies resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth. He did not complete the entire voyage himself as he was killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines.

Francisco Pizarro Gonzalez, (birthdate & death uncertain) a Spanish conquistador credited with conquering the Incan Empire. Pizarro was born in Trujillo, Spain, the illegitimate son of Gonzal Pizarro, an infantry colonel and Francisc Gonzalez, a woman of means.

Hernan Cortes de Monroy y Pizarro, (1485-1547) 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaco, a Spanish Conquistador who led the expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th c. His most successful strategy was to pit the indigenous peoples against each other, effectively conquering themselves.

Francisco de Orellana (1511-1546) a Spanish explorer and conquistador, completed the first known navigation of the entire length of the Amazon River, he also founded the city of Guayaquil in what is now Ecuador.

Vasco da Gama, (D 1542) a Portuguese explorer was the first European to reach India by sea, linking Europe and Asia for the first time by ocean route. 

Gonzalo Pizarro y Alonso (1510-1548) a Spanish conquistador and younger paternal half-brother of Francisco Pizarro and bastard son of Gonzal Pizarro. Gonzalo was one of the most corrupt, brutal and ruthless conquistadors of the New World, being far less restrained towards the natives and the Inca than his older brothers. Dominated by greed and corruption, torturing and executing those who refused to accept Spanish rule.

Diego de Almagro (1475-1538) also know as El Adelantado and El Viejo, a Spanish conquistador, companion and later rival of Francisco Pizarro. He participated in the Spanish conquest of Peru and is credited as being the first European to discover Chile. Almagro lost his left eye battling with coastal natives. He was later captured, condemned for treason and executed.

Juan de la Cosa (1460-1510) or sometimes Juan the Biscayan was a Spanish navigator and cartographer, known for designing the earliest European world map that incorporated the territories of the Americas. De la Cosa played an important role in the first and second voyage of Christopher Columbus to the West Indies, he was the owner and captain of the Santa Maria. In 1499 he served as the chief pilot in the expedition of Alonso de Ojeda to the coasts of South America. Upon his return to Andalusia, he drew his famous mappa mundi (world map). In the following years he alternated trips to America and assignments as a spy in Lisbon. In 1509 he began what would be his last expedition to take the coasts of modern Colombia. He died in an armed confrontation with natives. 

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado y Lujan (1510-1554) a Spanish conquistador and explorer led a large expedition from Mexico to present-day Kansas. Coronado had hoped to reach the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. His expedition marked the discovery by Europeans of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.