Who Were the Conquistadors?

Sarah Roller

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The story of the conquistadors and the fall of the Aztec Empire have spanned many myths and stories which have become ingrained in Western consciousness and culture, regardless of how true they are.

Narratives surrounding the Spanish conquest of the Americas and conquistadors are heavily Eurocentric, and the sources are somewhat limited. But who exactly were the conquistadors, and why are they so contentious in the modern world?  

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Spanish expansion  

In 1492, Columbus left Spain on the order of the Spanish rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella as he attempted to sail round the world to the Far East. Instead, he ‘discovered’ the continent of America.

Several years later, in 1508, Pope Julius II made the Spanish Crown responsible for the evangelization of the New World, and the economic opportunity for expansion and trade was also a further attraction. The very name conquistador literally means ‘conqueror’. 

Knights, soldiers, missionaries and explorers sailed across the world, opening up new trade routes, establishing Spanish colonies and exploring lands which previously had been unknown to Europe. These men might have wished to make their fortune, seek adventure, or simply did not think there was anything for them in Spain.  

Accounts of exploits

Unsurprisingly, the only accounts that survive from the Spanish conquest of the Americas are those of the Spanish – several notable ones include Cortes’ letters to Charles V, Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s ‘The Conquest of New Spain’ and Bernardino de Sahagun’s ‘The Florentine Codex’.

The three accounts describe in great detail key moments and pivotal battles, but are all extremely different. The complete absence of indigenous versions of events means their perspective has been silenced for much of history.

The version of conquistadors as heroic explorers, going where no man (or more accurately, European man) had gone before took root in the imagination of those back in Spain and Europe in general, and the ongoing repression of indigenous cultures and religions ensured the story remained skewed for centuries.

The legacy of the conquistadors is being increasingly reassessed in the modern world, but there remains limited source material with which to do this.

Modern day perceptions

Today, the conquistadors are often associated with a kind of glamour – swashbuckling adventurers exploring an almost untouched tropical world, bringing home gold and glory. Few really understand the violence, disease, cultural genocide and change they brought to the native populations of the Americas.

Even large sophisticated civilizations, such as the Aztecs and Incas, crumbled in the face of the arrival of the conquistadors. For better or for worse, the world was changed dramatically by the conquistadors and the European ‘discovery’ of the Americas.  

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Famous Figures  

Hernan Cortes – perhaps the most famous of all the conquistadors, Cortes led the expedition which toppled the Aztec empire, and saw the conquest of Mexico in the name of the King of Castile. Part of Cortes’ success can be attributed to his tactic of allying himself with indigenous people to defeat common enemies. 

Cortes also wrote to Charles V repeatedly asking for Franciscan and Dominican Friars to help with the conversion of the native population: his wish was granted in 1524. He earned the title Marqués del Valle de Oaxacaand continued on a variety of trips to the Americas, exploring swathes of modern day Nicaragua and Baja California.  

Portrait of Hernán Cortés

Francisco Pizarro – Cortes’ second cousin, Pizarro served as Mayor of Panama City, and undertook two failed expeditions to Peru before, third time lucky, he was granted permission from the Spanish Crown to undertake an expedition to conquer Peru in 1529.

He arrived in Peru in early 1531, and in less than 2 years, completed his conquest of Peru – he captured the Incan emperor Atahualpa, ransomed him and later executed him. In 1533, he entered the then capital Cusco. Not long after this, he was murdered on the orders of Diego de Almagro II as revenge for Almagro’s father’s death.  

Statue of Pizarro in Lima

Diego de Almagro (El Viejo) – originally an ally of Pizarro, Almagro is credited with the ‘discovery’ of Chile, and he was one of (if not ) the first Europeans to take the Inca trail across the Andes. Almagro also laid the foundations of the cities of Quito and Trujillo.

On his return to Peru, Almagro clashed with Pizarro and civil war erupted. He was later executed by garrotte in a dungeon.  

Portrait of Diego de Almagro. Image credit: Colección del Museo Histórico Nacional de Chile / CC

Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras – a conquistador from the start, Alvarado participated in the conquests of Cuba and Mexico, and was subsequently dispatched by Cortes to conquer modern-day Guatemala. Working with (and sometimes against) Mayan kingdoms enabled him to conquer large swathes of the Pacific Coast, and he eventually headed down into El Salvador.

Alvarado was later made governor of Guatemala and Honduras. He was also known for his cruelty towards the native populations he governed and the brutality of his conquest. Unusually, his wife Beatriz succeeded him as Governor of Guatemala.   

These men have found fame (and often glory) in European history books for centuries. Their exploits were, in many respects, remarkable, but that should not detract from their brutal treatment of indigenous peoples, and the cultural genocide they undertook of native customs, beliefs and practices.

Assessing their legacy impartially is nigh impossible: the conquistadors were products of their time, and judging them on the moral standings and beliefs of today is unhelpful. It is, however, safe to say that their legacy is both difficult and emotive, and that their actions shaped the modern world.

Sarah Roller