Why the Conquistadors Were in a (New) World of Their Own

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When Christopher Columbus arrived at Hispaniola (the island now split down the middle between Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he could hardly believe his eyes. With its extraordinary lushness and biodiversity, mighty rivers flowing with gold, and abundance of honey and spices, it was the embodiment of Heaven on Earth, Paradise, the Garden of Eden—especially compared to back home.

Even the human inhabitants went about in the nude, with only leaves to cover their genitals. They were also unusually innocent, being entirely without greed. Appearing to lack any concept of property, they shared freely with their alien arrivals—and were overjoyed to receive old broken pottery fragments in return.

Columbus was astounded. If this wasn’t the biblical Garden, he wrote to the King and Queen of Spain, then it must be somewhere nearby. This wasn’t hyperbole either; he was absolutely certain of his claim: Some 5,000 years after God kicked us out, Man had found his way back to Eden.

His plan? To ruin it.

True to form, Columbus immediately set about plundering Hispaniola for its wealth. He built mines, military forts, cities, and farms—no doubt devastating forests in the process. Worse, he enslaved the friendly natives to do it for him, threatening to send many back to Europe in chains.

Although he was eventually arrested by the Spanish for his appalling governance of the island, Columbus was far too powerful to lock up. In any case, it did nothing to change human nature. His treatment of the Taíno people proved a horrifying portent of the conquest yet to come. Before long, thousands of Europeans followed him across the Atlantic, every one of them hungry for adventure, wealth, and prestige—whatever the human cost.

What’s interesting is that while the conquistadors called this strange new continent the “New World,” they saw everything in terms of the old—filtering their understanding and perceptions through Bible stories, classical myths, and outmoded maps and ideas.

Before he stuck a flag in the “Garden of Eden,” for example, Columbus thought that Cuba was Japan. He even made his crew take an oath “on pain of a hundred lashes and having the tongue slit” never to contradict his assertion, so insistent was he on imposing the old world on the new.

Likewise, when he came across Antillean manatees, he saw not an exciting new species to classify but a shoal of legendary mermaids (although he did concede they weren’t “half as beautiful” as in pictures).

Ferdinand Magellan also appealed to mythology when he called the Tehuelche (Aónikenk) of Patagonia “giants.” Sure, they may have been taller than average, but his encounter reads like a fairy tale: Seeing the first of them singing and dancing on the shore, he and his crew went up to greet them with gifts, cleverly tricking two of the “giants” into handcuffs and charting a course back to Europeonly for the “specimens” to die in terror en route.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, a scholar along for the ride, the “giants” had deep, booming voices and a fear of their own reflection; and they were so tall that even the tallest among the crew only came up to their waists. These “giants” were later depicted on maps of the New World, alongside mermaids, sea monsters, dragons, and UFOs—even though Sir Francis Drake made it clear that they didn’t exist. Having gone looking for the giants himself, Drake concluded they must be a myth and suggested the Spaniards, who probably “did not think that ever any English man would come hither [to Patagonia]to reprove them,” had simply made the whole thing up.

But virtually all the conquistadors—Spanish or not—were guilty of fanciful projections, imposing time-worn ideas on every square inch of new land, scrutinizing the wide open Western hemisphere through the old narrow lens of the past. Hence they didn’t see the natives as people, they saw them as savages and monsters; and they didn’t see the Aztecs as civilized but as a blasphemous affront to their God.

Basically, the conquistadors were in a world of their own—and an often absurd one at that. For hundreds of years they interacted not so much with reality as with a mythological nowhere realm in which nothing was too extraordinary to believe.

El Dorado

In particular, the idea of rivers flowing with gold and other precious metals and gems became a tantalizing trope for the conquistadors—culminating most famously in their obsession with El Dorado.

Spanish for “the golden” or “gilded one,” El Dorado originally referred to a man, a fantastically wealthy ruler covered from head to toe in pure gold. The myth most likely originated with the Muisca tradition of crowning a new leader by covering his body in gold dust and rowing him to the middle of a sacred lake surrounded by fires and priests. For the Muisca, the alluringly shimmering metal was a symbol of spiritual power and their connection to the divine. But the conquistadors weren’t interested in ethnology; they were dazzled by the prospect of gold. Hence the legend of the “gilded one” quickly turned into a city, and the city became an obsession, inspiring boatloads of Europeans to find it.

Among the first to go looking, in 1529 and then again in 1531, was Ambrosius Ehinger, the ambitious German governor of Venezuela. He was aided in his search by hundreds of men—including captured Indians—and trailed by pigs and dogs. Together, they crossed marshes, rivers, and mountains deep into unknown territory. But in the end, having no qualms about killing or torturing the natives that he came across, Ehinger was slaughtered in return.

Later, in 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana mounted their own quest from Quito, enslaving natives along the way to help them carry their gear—only to meet with disaster in the end. The same happened to Pedro de Ursúa, who was mutinied by his men in 1561.

Even Sir Walter Raleigh was taken in by the myth and twice went in search of the city. Scouring the highlands of Guiana, he ended up battling with the Spanish and losing his son in the process. When he finally returned to England in disgrace, by now an old man, he was beheaded by King James I.

Expeditions for El Dorado were hopelessly open-ended, called off only when they ran out of food (or men) to keep going. After all, they were chasing a mirage across a vast, uncharted continent so there was really no other end in sight. Of course, it didn’t help that any natives they interrogated barely understood what they were looking for, let alone where on Earth it might be, and usually just pointed to the next tribe with a shrug.

Ironically the conquistadors did actually find El Dorado, in one of the first places they looked. In 1536, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada conquered the Colombian Cundinamarca plateau, home of the Muisca, and drained their sacred lake. Naturally he found plenty of gold—religious offerings from generations of priests and new leaders—but not nearly as much as he wanted. So the conquistadors took their search elsewhere, far from the origin of the myth, and continued to pursue El Dorado until at least 1800, when Alexander von Humboldt finally declared it a sham.

The Seven Cities of Gold

But El Dorado wasn’t the only golden city; there were said to be seven more.

Shipwrecked on an expedition to Florida in the late-1530s, two men (of only four survivors) found themselves wandering the wastes of New Mexico. One was the Franciscan friar and missionary Marcos de Niza and the other a North African slave by the name of Estevanico. Having already been captured by natives and escaped (perhaps explaining the distance they covered), they were keen to avoid any further contact until they reached the nearest safe haven.

But something caught their eye.

“Situated on the brow of a roundish hill,” de Niza claimed, once he’d made it back to Mexico, was “a very beautiful city, the best that I have seen in these parts.” In fact, it looked to be made out of gold. But when Estevanico got too close, he was killed by the native inhabitants and de Niza was forced to run.

It was an irresistible tale. For some, it meant only one thing: The long lost Cities of Gold had been found. Unlike El Dorado, however, these were from the folklore of Spain. When King Roderic lost Hispania to the Muslims in 711-712 AD, he is said to have sent seven of his bishops to found a new one. Sailing across the Atlantic to “Antillia”—one of a number of early “phantom islands” that was probably the American mainland—they each built a city to govern. And then they burned their ships and navigational equipment to ensure they could never go home.

Needless to say, if the legend was true and any of these cities remained, the gold would belong to the Spanish. In 1541, the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado boldly retraced de Niza’s steps back to the site of the “city,” accompanied by hundreds of other men and backed by some hefty investments.

Unfortunately, it was only a pueblo, an adobe Zuni settlement that, to a distant observer at sunset, might look a little like it had a kind of glow. It definitely wasn’t made out of gold, though. Plus it had only five neighboring settlements—one short of the fabled seven in total.

The expedition had failed and its financial investors were ruined. It did, however, open up a route to the north, since de Coronado and his men pressed on all the way to Kansas before finally giving up on the search.

The Fountain of Youth

De Niza could hardly be blamed. He was primed to see fantastical things. After all, the shipwrecked expedition that stranded him in the desert in the first place had been in search of the Fountain of Youth—a wild and ultimately ruinous goose chase led by Pánfilo de Narváez. Evidently, they’d all been taken in by a rumor about Juan Ponce de León, who never really looked for the Fountain. Instead, the myth is thought to have been spread as a smear against Ponce de León’s manhood—his “quest for eternal youth” being a search for an impotence cure.

The Fountain was also mentioned by Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, a contemporary Spanish historian who seems to have believed it was real. In his Decades of the New World, he even gave rough directions:

“Beyond Veragua the coast bends in a northerly direction, to a point opposite the Pillars of Hercules … Amongst these countries is an island … celebrated for a spring whose waters restore youth to old men.”

This placed it somewhere in the Bay of Honduras, on the island of “Boinca” or “Aganeo.” Meanwhile, the Ponce de León smear pointed more toward his own land of Florida. In truth, though, anyone looking for it, wherever they were, was always on the verge of its discovery. Because whenever the natives were asked for the whereabouts of this “miraculous restorative spring,” they would have just pointed to water.

The Amazons

Place names were another way for the conquistadors to impose their own version of reality onto the “New World.” Venezuela (“Little Venice”), for example, got its name because the stilt houses on Lake Maracaibo reminded Amerigo Vespucci of Venice (Venezia). And it was grouped with other proto-countries (like Colombia, from Columbus) under the “Viceroyalty of New Granada,” after the city in southern Spain. Indeed, all conquered territories in the “New World” were collectively branded “New Spain.”

The Amazon, meanwhile was named for the legendary Amazons, the ancient female warriors from Themiscyra in modern-day Turkey.

Why? Because the conquistadors imagined they lived there.

In 1542, having blustered through the rainforest for almost a year looking for El Dorado, Pizarro and de Orellana’s expedition was in shambles. They’d eaten all their pigs and many of their horses and dogs, and were now facing sickness, starvation, and death. They couldn’t ask the natives for help (on account of all the torture they’d put them through), but they could probably steal something to eat. Desperate not to die in the jungle, Pizarro sent de Orellana and 50 of his men along a wide open river they’d discovered, urging them to come back with food.

But they never did. Evidently the men were a little disgruntled with Pizarro and refused to return upriver to save him, especially from a fate that he probably deserved. (It’s unclear whether de Orellana was in agreement, but he made them all sign a declaration to say that he wasn’t and continued downriver regardless.)

On their meandering way to the sea, they continued to seek El Dorado and the natives kept shrugging their shoulders—or more often bracing for attack, having had just about enough of the Spaniards and their conquest. In fact, as they pressed on, de Orellana and his men were shocked to find even women firing arrows from the river bank.

Surely these were no ordinary women, they thought; these women could fight! They were also nude, fair-skinned, and exceptionally skilled with a bow and arrow. They were nothing like the women they knew.

So they had to be the legendary Amazons.

De Orellana assumed their capital must be a few days inland and the riverside villages they passed were outlying vassal states. Of course, when he tortured natives for intel, they only confirmed his suspicions—saying just about anything to make him go away.

In any case, de Orellana and his men were in no mood to go trekking through the jungle in search of this mighty queendom, particularly if it meant certain death. So they sailed on to the Atlantic, returned to “New Spain,” and got royal backing to settle the region by force. Obviously they never found “Amazonia,” but they gave it the name all the same. Otherwise, it might have been called “New Andalusia,” after the region in southern Spain.

The Devil and Prester John

The conquistadors were obviously nuts; that much can be said for sure. But they were really just children at heart—vicious, out-of-control, lunatic children, but children nevertheless.

Interestingly, many of their fruitless pursuits—be it for mythical warriors, immortality, untold wealth, or even Paradise itself—can be traced to just one earlier myth: the legend of Prester John’s kingdom.

Sometime in the 1160s, long before anyone heard of the “New World,” a mysterious letter arrived at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus. Purporting to be from one Prester John, a descendant of the Three Magi, it described a vast and otherworldly empire with 72 tributary kingdoms and a strange assortment of inhabitants, including vampires and dog-headed men. It also had a Fountain of Youth, which Prester John claimed could revert anyone to the age of 32, no matter how old they were at the time. He himself had supposedly lived for more than half a millennia by drinking from its waters. There was also a tremendous river, filled with gold and precious gems, that flowed directly from the Garden of Eden. Furthermore, this being a Christian empire, it was entirely free of sin and its people had plenty to eat.

Pope Alexander III, seeing in Prester John a formidable ally for the Crusades, dispatched an envoy to seek out this land. At first, it was thought to be in India, then in Central Asia or possibly Africa. For a while, everyone assumed it was Abyssinia (Ethiopia), which was already a Christian country. Europeans even started addressing the Abyssinian ruler by the name of Prester John, despite his attempts to correct them. They also altered maps of the African kingdom to depict various elements from the letter, including “Mount Amara,” where Prester John’s sons were allegedly held in captivity.

The real location of his kingdom (if it had one) was never found, but there’s every reason to suspect the “New World” revived these old hopes.

Obviously, the natives weren’t Christians but neither were they thought to be evil—not entirely. Although Hernán Cortés described one indigenous leader as a “Satanic monster: huge, fat, with hands drenched in blood and blackened with smoke, and a striped black-red face with red mouth and teeth, spilling blood,” this wasn’t the general consensus. The Spanish preferred to see the natives as playthings of the Devil as opposed to the Devil himself, or in other words as souls crying out for salvation.

The existence of the Devil in the New World justified its conquest by the Spanish. So it came to be seen as the Devil’s playground, a New World in mockery of the old. It was the world “turned upside down,” a world inverted by the Devil.

Hence the Aztecs were the “inverse” of the Israelites, as Satan’s “chosen people” against God’s. It wasn’t a “New World” so much as a black mirror for the old one, a “bizarro” realm where nothing was “new,” just darkly topsy-turvy.

This doesn’t excuse their behaviour, of course, but it explains the conquistador mindset.

As for whose world really “belonged to the Devil,” we’ll leave that up to you.

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