10 Fascinating Facts About the Spanish Conquistadors

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Although the Conquistadors’ arrival in the New World has been celebrated by many, it was far from a noble quest. Their arrival in the Americas did lead to further exploration and discovery, but at significant cost. The Spanish Conquistadors were a brutal group of colonizers that managed to make the King of Spain very wealthy by robbing the natives of their fortune and lives.

10. Spanish Conquistadors Weren’t Just Spanish

A little known fact about the Spanish Conquistadors is that they weren’t all Spanish. Some men, seeking gold, joined Cortes and Pizarro from other countries. Two of the most notorious men who joined the Conquistadors were Pedro de Candia, a Greek arquebusier and artilleryman who accompanied the Pizarro expedition, and Ambrosius Ehinger, a German.

Ehinger was known for his brutality and wickedness, as he tortured the natives for any information about hidden gold and treasure. Fortune would have it that Ehinger would eventually meet his death by a native’s poisoned arrow. The German would not even be brought back to his home country for burial; instead he was left behind, buried under an unmarked tree. A fitting end to a cruel life.

9. The Countless Atrocities

A startling fact to digest is that a century after the conquistadors arrived, 80% of the native population had died. And while the majority died of disease brought to the New World, that should not discount the many that met their end by the sword. The Conquistadors were responsible for countless atrocities that would make even the Aztec gods squeamish. In Mexico, Hernan Cortes ordered the Cholula Massacre while Pedro de Alvarado ordered the Temple Massacre. The Cholula Massacre was a brutal statement by the Conquistadors as to who was now in power. Cortes assembled the nobles of the city and accused them of treachery before massacring the unarmed men, women and children. Outside of the city, rival native factions attacked, leaving the city in a state of panic.

In 1520, Alvarado would carry out a similar attack, claiming the Aztec nobles were conspiring to murder the Spanish because of their imprisonment of Emperor Montezuma. Thousands of Aztec nobles were killed during the festival of Toxcatl, a religious festival. The massacre did rally the Aztecs to finally fight back, and they were able to temporarily push the Spanish out of their city.

8. Help From Natives

Although it may appear that the Conquistadors were able to topple the great empires of the Americas by themselves, they wouldn’t have been successful without the help from rival factions. Both the Aztec and Inca empires were naturally expansive and brutal to their rival factions. With the arrival of the Spaniards, aggrieved natives took up arms against their former oppressors, not fully understanding who they were aligning themselves with.

Malinali, a native woman, was arguably more important to Cortes than his muskets and steel. She served as his interpreter, helping Cortes understand Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Sold into slavery and eventually given as a gift/slave in an offering for peace by the Potanchan people, Malinali proved to be immeasurably important, helping the Spanish understand the customs and religion of the Aztecs. She even saved their lives on more than one occasion. In one instance, a wife of a military general warned Malinali not to accompany the Spanish as they would be attacked. The woman told Malinali to stay behind and marry her son instead. Malinali told Cortes of the potential treachery, leading to the Cholula Massacre.

7. The Found Riches

If only the New World wasn’t so rich with gold, maybe then the people wouldn’t have met such a fate. The Conquistadors were searching for treasure, riches that would make them as wealthy as the King of Spain. In Peru, Francisco Pizarro made the captured Inca Emperor Atahualpa fill a room full of gold in exchange for his freedom.

Not only did he meet their demands, producing 13,000 pounds of gold, they also gave twice that amount in silver. The Conquistadors wouldn’t keep their end of the bargain. They wouldn’t grant him his freedom, and instead they would take his life.

6. The Search for Historical Myths

Not only did the Conquistadors hope to find treasure, but they also hoped to have their wildest fantasies proven to be true. Christopher Columbusthe foremost Conquistador, believed that he had discovered the Garden of Eden in Venezuela. Other prominent Conquistadors like Juan Ponce De Leon were said to have searched for the Fountain of Youth in Florida.

Perhaps the most famous pursuit of historical myths were the countless expeditions in search of El Dorado. After word had spread of the success of Cortes and Pizarro, and the gold and silver they had found, more Europeans ventured to the New World believing that El Dorado must be real. They searched tirelessly for this last great goldmine. Dozens of expeditions came up empty, unable to find this mythical city. Finally, in 1800, nearly two centuries after the first Conquistadors, the European expeditions stopped. El Dorado would never be found.

5. Most of the Gold Went to the King of Spain

Many Conquistadors believed that their journey to the New World would end with them being as rich as a king. The truth is that most of the gold they would find would end up in the King’s pocket, not their own. In the case of Hernan Cortes, that meant King Charles V (who ruled both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire).

His men were the ones who really got the short end of the stick, of course. After Charles took his cut, and Cortes and the other nobles had taken theirs, the crew wound up with just 160 pesos-worth of gold. Cortes’s men were certain that he had hidden a large sum of gold from them, but without any means of proving it they were left with their small sum. Pizarro’s army did far better, receiving 45 pounds of gold and twice that amount in silver.

4. The Spread of Religion

Many of the Conquistadors were very religious, particularly Columbus, who was so superstitious that when the ships’ crew turned the half-hour glass, they sang out: “Blessed be the hour of our Savior’s birth / blessed be the Virgin Mary who bore him / and blessed be John who baptized him.”

It’s not surprising, then, that the Conquistadors would make religious conversion part of their conquering of the New World. Disgusted by the natives’ worshiping of idols and the practice of human sacrifice, they executed Native American priests and burned any texts of their religion. Not only did they burn their religious texts but the Conquistadors destroyed as many temples as they could. As a result of their efforts, the Aztec and Inca cultures are today widely lost.

3. The Frequent Battles Between Conquistadors

As a result of the early success of the Conquistadors, more expeditions were commissioned by rich investors to find gold or slaves. Soon enough, the expeditions grouped into warring factions as the competition for the dwindling resources became fierce. Most Conquistadors on these expeditions staked everything on the mission being successful. With everything on the line, should we be surprised that they armed disputes broke out? 

In 1520, a battle took place between Hernan Cortes’s outfit and Panfilo de Narvaez. After Cortes disobeyed several orders by Diego Velazquez, Governor of Cuba, Velasquez sent Narvaez with about a thousand soldiers to capture or kill Cortes. Despite having a smaller army, Cortes would win the battle and gain a substantial amount of men and weapons.

Another major battle that broke out between Conquistadors was the Civil War in Peru (1537). Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro would get into a bitter dispute over the riches in Peru, with Almagro enraged at his former partner’s greed and refusal to share the loot of the New World. On the advice of his men, Almagro returned to Peru to find the former occupied territory in open revolt. After fighting back the Natives, Almagro enlisted the support of Pizarro’s men. Initially, it seemed to work, but Pizarro would learn of their deceit and send a loyal army of Spaniards that would defeat Almagro and his army.

2. The Slavery

Besides gold and silver, the Conquistadors were looking for slaves. After conquering Tenochtitlan, Cortes replaced the cruelty of Aztec customs with the cruelty of European ones. A framework called encomienda was initiated where the local population was enslaved and exploited by the ruling Spaniards. Basically, it was slavery with a prettier name.

The system was so brutal that even one Spanish friar protested the system, calling it cruel. As a result of the brutal system and the death caused by disease, the Spanish as well as other colonizers would begin to journey to Africa for slaves.

1. The Spanish Language

While the brutality, enslavement, and murder of the Natives by the Conquistadors was certainly horrific, their lasting impact also includes the extinction of the natives’ language: Nahuatl. Once the common language of an empire, Nahuatl has now been discarded for Spanish and is at risk of being completely lost.

As the descendants of the Conquistadors took power, they implemented Spanish as the language of power and influence. Despite the domination in government by people of Spanish descent, Nahuatl lasted for two centuries in rural parts of Mexico, but studies show the use of the language is in steep decline. It would be another stain on the Conquistadors and their descendants if the great language was lost to the dustbins of history.

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