Chapter 16 The World in the Age of European Expansion 1492-1763

Section 2 The Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas

Although Columbus had been heading for Asia, instead he reached the Americas, which were soon linked through trade and settlement to the rest of the world. In the Americas, unlike Asia, the Spanish and Portuguese who followed Columbus established huge land empires, based on plantation economies, mining, and the use of Native American workers and slave labor brought from Africa. As Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans interacted, a new multicultural civilization began to emerge.  

The Spanish in the Caribbean

As it became clear that the Americas were not the islands of Japan or the mainland of either India or China, Spanish explorers looked for other ways to make their fortunes in these new lands. In place of trade, they turned to colonization. Columbus had established the first colony to look for gold. When none was found, he soothed the discouraged colonists by introducing the encomienda system. Under this system, the colonists, or encomenderos, were granted land and the labor of a certain number of Native Americans. The Native Americans had to farm the Spaniards' land or work as servants. In return, the encomenderos had to teach the Native Americans Christianity. This basic pattern became the model for all subsequent Spanish settlements in the Caribbean and on the mainland.

            The encomienda proved to be a disaster for Native Americans. Apart from the efforts to forcefully eradicate or utterly transform indigenous cultures, the encomenderos frequently overworked and mistreated Native American populations and prevented them from growing their own food. Yet while Native Americans frequently revolted against the Spanish in an effort to defend themselves and their cultures, they proved no match for the unseen invaders that the Europeans had unwittingly brought with them. Diseases like smallpox, to which the peoples of Eurasia and Africa had developed immunities over the centuries, ravaged the Americans who had never been exposed to them. Spreading much faster than the Europeans themselves, these diseases soon wiped out entire settlements and led to a massive decline in the American populations. 

The Conquest of the Aztec

The search for gold and other riches drew the Spanish from the Caribbean to the mainland. In 1519 the ambitious conquistador, or conqueror, Hernán Cortés, with a force of some 600 men and 16 horses, landed on the Mexican coast.[xxiv] From the local inhabitants, they soon heard of a great and wealthy civilization farther inland. As they advanced to find it, word of their coming quickly reached the great city of Tenochtitlán, capital of the Aztec Empire.


Cortés and Moctezuma. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma II received news of the Spaniards' arrival with some anxiety. He believed that Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl coming to reclaim his throne. The strangers were covered with metal and rode strange beasts, which the Native Americans had never seen. Anxiously, Moctezuma sent rich gifts to Cortés. The sight of such wealth only caused the Spaniards to march on Tenochtitlán even faster. On the way, Cortés gained allies among the many enemies of the Aztec. An Aztec chronicler found the Spanish force a fearsome sight:

“They came in battle array, as conquerors, and the dust rose in whirlwinds on the roads. Their spears glinted in the sun, and their pennons [flags] fluttered like bats. They made a loud clamor as they marched, for their coats of mail and their weapons clashed and rattled. Some of them were dressed in glistening iron from head to foot; they terrified everyone who saw them.”[xxv]

Moctezuma welcomed Cortés and gave him a palace to use inside the city. The conquistador soon took the emperor prisoner, however, and demanded gold.

The battle for Mexico. With Moctezuma imprisoned, the Spanish had seemingly taken the city without a fight, but trouble soon broke out. In May 1520 Cortés briefly left the city.[xxvi] While he was gone, his men, horrified by the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, attacked a religious festival, killing many of the worshipers, including women and children.[xxvii] Cortés returned in late June to find the outraged Aztec besieging his men in Moctezuma’s palace. Hoping to calm them, Cortés allowed the captive Moctezuma to speak to his people from the palace rooftop. This only further enraged the Aztec, however. Moctezuma was killed in the fight that ensued, though by whose hand is uncertain.

            Deciding to retreat, Cortés and his men tried to sneak out of the city on a dark, rainy night in late June.[xxviii] A woman drawing water spied them, however, and gave the alarm, "Our enemies are escaping."[xxix] The Aztec attacked the fleeing soldiers, and both sides suffered many casualties in what the Spanish later called La Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows.

            The Aztec celebration of driving the Spaniards away was short-lived. A smallpox epidemic swept through the battle-weary population, killing thousands. In April 1521 the Spaniards returned, supported by an army of Indian reinforcements, and laid siege to the city.[xxx] "Nothing can compare with the horrors of that siege and the agonies of the starving," one Aztec later lamented.[xxxi] After three months of resistance, the city fell on August 13, 1521.[xxxii]

Consequences of the conquest. Once in control, the conquistadors methodically looted the fallen empire of its gold and silver. They also tried to suppress the Aztec religion, as the use of human sacrifice revolted them. Even before the fall of Tenochtitlán, Cortés himself had torn down the images of the Aztec gods and replaced them with Christian statues, as he described in a report home:

“The most important of these idols, and the ones in whom they have most faith, I had taken from their places and thrown down the steps; and I had those chapels where they were cleaned, for they were full of the blood of sacrifices; and I had images of Our Lady and of other saints put there, which caused . . .  [the] natives some sorrow.”[xxxiii]

After the conquest, the Spanish destroyed much of Tenochtitlán and built their own capital—Mexico City—on its ruins. In the central square, they tore down the great pyramid, and used its stones to build a Christian cathedral.[xxxiv]    

            Thus, the Spanish gained most of present-day Mexico. From their new base, they explored north, claiming much of what is now the United States. To the south, they pushed into Central America. Hearing rumors of yet another fabulously wealthy civilization somewhere in the towering Andes Mountains, they also sent expeditions into South America. There the Spanish soon discovered the Inca Empire.  

The Conquest of the Inca

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, the huge Inca Empire extended from present-day Ecuador to Chile. Though the empire looked strong, its stability was crumbling. Smallpox spread to the Andes in the late 1520s, killing one third to one half of the population in some areas. Among the dead was the Inca emperor Huayna Capac.[xxxv] A brutal civil war broke out between his sons—Atahualpa and Huáscar. In 1531, Atahualpa emerged victorious.

            Not long after his victory Atahualpa heard reports of a group of foreigners in the empire. Francisco Pizarro and some 168 men[xxxvi] had established a Spanish settlement on the empire's northern coast. Despite their strange new weapons and horses, the new emperor did not fear the Spaniards. Eventually, Atahualpa agreed to meet the Spaniards in November 1532.[xxxvii] At the meeting, a priest urged the emperor to convert to Catholicism and handed him a Bible. When Atahualpa threw the book down in disgust, on Pizarro’s order, Spanish soldiers seized the emperor and killed most of his attendants.

            Imprisoned by the Spanish, Atahualpa agreed to fill a room with gold and another twice over with silver artifacts as a ransom. He was as good as his word. Pizarro's share alone totaled 630 pounds of gold and more than 1,000 pounds of silver.[xxxviii] Despite Atahualpa’s show of good faith, in 1533 the Spanish executed him. "With Atahualpa killed . . . and the clan of the Inca already wiped out," an Inca official explained, "the land was left without an overlord and with the tyrants in complete possession."[xxxix]

            Pizarro and his men headed south to Cuzco, the Inca capital. There they defeated the remnants of Atahualpa's army and plundered the wealthy city. Pizarro installed Manco Inca Yupanqui, the 16-year-old son of Huayna Capac, as puppet emperor. The Spaniards' increasing demands for silver and gold turned the emperor against them, however. Manco Inca’s son later recorded his father’s reply to Spanish demands:  

“Ever since you entered my country, there has been nothing . . . that has been denied you, but instead any wealth I had you now possess, whether in the form of children or adults, both male and female, to serve you, or of lands, the best of which are now in your power. What in the world do you need that I have not given you?”[xl]  

            Manco Inca soon raised a major rebellion against the Spaniards that spread through much of the empire. At the head of a large army, Manco Inca besieged Cuzco for 10 months. Unable to take the city, in the end he retreated with many of his people into the Andes Mountains where he established an independent state beyond Spanish control. In 1572, however, the Spanish marched into the mountains, defeated Tupac Amarú, the last Inca, and executed him.

            The Spanish gradually extended their territory from their new capital of Lima. They conquered Chile in the 1540s. In 1536 and 1538, an expedition from Spain founded the colonies of Buenos Aires and Asunción.

The Portuguese in Brazil

Like the Spanish, the Portuguese established a land empire in the Americas. In 1500 a Portuguese navigator, Pedro Cabral, had been blown off course while on his way to India. Sighting the coast of Brazil, he claimed the territory for Portugal under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Brazil's vast jungles and mighty rivers did not easily yield the spices, gold, or silver that the Europeans desired, however, and at first little was done about the new territory. Not until 1534, after French raids threatened Brazilian ships and settlements, did Portugal formalize its colonization of Brazil.

            King John III of Portugal granted huge tracts of land, called captaincies, which stretched westward from the coast. These captaincies were granted to donataries, individuals who agreed to finance colonization in exchange for political and economic control of their new territory. Because of mismanagement and vigorous resistance from Native Americans, only two of the original captaincies prospered. Duarte Coelho Pereira, one of the successful donataries, complained, "we are forced to conquer by inches what Your Majesty granted by leagues."[xli]

            In 1548 King John responded to such complaints by appointing Tomé de Sousa as governor-general of Brazil. With him, the new administrator brought colonists, bureaucrats, and Jesuit missionaries. In 1549 Sousa founded Salvador, Brazil's first capital.


Map of the Portuguese settlements in Africa and America around 1600. Taken from

Colonial Economy and Society

The conquistadors had won a vast empire for Spain that stretched from the plains of North America to the Andes of South America. To govern these geographically diverse and remote lands, the Spanish Crown sent an army of bureaucrats to transform the conquistadors and the conquered peoples into a settled society. Portugal controlled only part of the eastern coast of South America but it faced a number of challenges in governing its territory.

Colonial government. In Brazil, a governor-general appointed by the king was responsible for both civil and military administration. The power of the donataries limited his authority, however, as did the lack of effective communications among the 14 different captaincies and Portugal.

            A more elaborate system emerged in Spanish America. The king appointed a viceroy, or governor, to oversee each viceroyalty, or large province. At first there were only two viceroyalties: New Spain, in Mexico and Central America; and New Castile, in Peru. In the mid-1700s two more were added: New Granada, stretching from Panama to Ecuador and Venezuela; and La Plata in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia.


Taken from

            Since all land in the new world theoretically belonged to the king, the viceroys ruled as his personal representatives. However, they ruled with the advice of a council, known as the audiencia, whose members reported directly and privately to the king in Spain. In addition, all senior officials were appointed from Spain, where the king's Council of the Indies oversaw the entire American empire. Thus, the Crown tried to maintain tight control over its colonial administration.

            Despite such safeguards, the system did not always work. In Spanish America the encomenderos wielded so much local power that they often ignored the viceroy's orders. In the 1540s, for example, Pizarro’s brother Gonzalo murdered Peru's first viceroy. Later viceroys learned the practice of "I obey but I do not execute," and simply ignored unpopular royal orders.

The colonial economy.  Mines and agricultural estates provided most of the colonial wealth. Gold mining, for example, fanned the growth of Rio de Janeiro, which became the colonial capital of Brazil in 1763. Large, self-sufficient farming estates, called haciendas in Spanish America and fazendas in Brazil, introduced European crops and animals to the Americas. The Europeans largely re-created the life they had known in Europe. In areas suitable for cattle they became ranchers, producing meat and hides. Elsewhere they raised a variety of crops. Sugar plantations prospered in Brazil, southern Mexico, and the Caribbean. In addition to supplying local needs, the colonists exported goods to Europe.

            The biggest challenge the colonists faced was supplying labor for the mines and the estates. As a result of disease and forced labor, by the mid-1500s the Native American population had declined in some areas by more than 90 percent.[xlii] For example, in the viceroyalty of New Spain, covering present-day Mexico, the southwestern United States, and much of Central America, the Native American population declined from an estimated 11 to 25 million in 1492 to 1.25 million by 1625.[xliii] As the Native Americans died, some conquistadors and clergymen called for the Crown to protect these potential Christian converts.

            One of the most outspoken of these early advocates was Bartolomé de Las Casas. Las Casas had come to the Americas on Columbus’s third voyage, and had been granted an encomienda. After witnessing the plight of the Native Americans, however, he renounced his encomienda and in 1512 became a priest. Thereafter he was tireless in his efforts to protect the Native Americans. The Spanish monarchs shared Las Casas’s concerns. Anxious for Catholic converts, they decreed laws regulating the treatment of Native Americans. To replace Native American labor, however, Las Casas and others suggested the use of African slaves. Soon, thousands of Africans were being imported to the Americas as slave labor.

The development of colonial society. The sometimes-tense coexistence of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans shaped the social order of the Americas. Society in Spain and Portugal reflected the basic class divisions of Europe: nobles, clergy, and commoners. In the Americas, wealth rather than noble rank became the basis for high status.

            As the Europeans moved into the Americas, they imposed their own social order over the local peoples, one based not only on wealth but also on race and even place of birth. A small group of peninsulares, Spanish or Portuguese born in Europe, and creoles, Europeans born in the colonies, ruled colonial society. The peninsulares looked down on the creoles. Both the peninsulares and the creoles looked down on the people of mixed race—the mestizos, those of Native American and European background, and mulattoes, those of African and European ancestry. All of these people looked down on Native Americans, Africans, and those of mixed Indian and African parentage, the zambos.

            The multicultural nature of colonial society was reflected in its religious life. Catholic Christianity, the religion of the conquerors, spread rapidly. Catholic missionaries established schools, convents, and universities for the colonists. They also organized Native American settlements. Within several generations, most of Spanish and Portuguese America was Catholic.

            Both Native Americans and African religious traditions remained important, however. In the late 1500s, for example, Father Bernandino de Sahagún wrote about his suspicion that Native American adoration of the Virgin Mary disguised continuing worship of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin:

      At [a small mountain they call Tepeyacac] they had a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods whom they called Tonantzin, which means Our Mother. There they performed many sacrifices in honor of this goddess. . . .

            And now that a church of Our Lady of Guadalupe [the Virgin Mary] is built there, they also call her Tonantzin. . . . It appears to be a Satanic invention to cloak idolatry under the confusion of this name, Tonantzin.[xliv]

African religious practices survived in many parts of the Americas in dances, rituals, and religions such as Santeria, which mixed African and Christian beliefs.

Mercantilism and Its Consequences

Both the Spanish and the Portuguese tried to regulate the economies of their colonies for their own national interests by practicing an economic policy later called mercantilism. Mercantilism became the dominant economic policy of Europe between 1500 and 1800. It was rooted in the belief that a country’s power depended on its wealth in gold and silver. Since there was only a limited supply of such precious metals, Europeans thought that a country could only grow wealthy and powerful at the expense of other countries. Consequently, European countries used their colonies to provide raw materials and act as markets for their own goods, but closed them off to other nations.

            In keeping with this theory, Spain, for example, prohibited its colonies from trading with other European countries. Every year Spanish fleets carried wine, olive oil, furniture, and textiles to the Americas, where they were exchanged for silver, gold, sugar, dyes, and other products. The Spanish Crown also allowed Mexican merchants to exchange silver for valuable Chinese silks and porcelains and Asian spices from the Spanish Philippines.

            Great silver strikes in Peru and Mexico enriched the Spanish treasury for centuries. Although these riches at first made Spain the wealthiest country in Europe, they also undermined the Spanish economy. Instead of improving and expanding manufacturing and agriculture in Spain, for example, the Spanish simply purchased what they wanted or needed from other countries. The consequences of this policy of neglect became evident when the steady flow of American silver, combined with a rise in population that stimulated demand, caused inflation throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire.


Section 2 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:



Hernán Cortés


La Noche Triste

Francisco Pizarro

Manco Inca Yupanqui

Tupac Amarú

Pedro Cabral





LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:



Buenos Aires


Rio de Janeiro.

1. Main Idea  How did the European conquest of the Caribbean affect Native Americans?

2. Main Idea  What groups composed Spanish American society? What was the status of each?

3. Geography: Place  In the 1600s a chronicler noted that, in contrast to the Spanish, the Portuguese in Brazil were "content to scrape along the seaside like crabs."[xlv] What geographic factors do you think contributed to the captaincies stretching inland from the coast?

4. Writing to Inform  Imagine that you are a Spanish viceroy in the 1500s. Write a letter to the king explaining why you cannot enforce laws reforming the abuses of the encomienda system.

5. Analyzing  Using information from the section, write a short essay analyzing (a) how the internal political problems of the Aztec and Inca contributed to their defeat; and (b) how their defeat allowed the Spanish, in two blows, to win a huge landed empire.