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
The Spanish in the Caribbean
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
The Conquest of the Aztec
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
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]
welcomed Cortés and gave him a palace to use inside the city. The
conquistador soon took the emperor prisoner, however, and demanded
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
"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:
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]
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.
Conquest of the Inca
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
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:
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
The Portuguese in Brazil
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
King John III of Portugal granted huge tracts of land, called
stretched westward from the coast. These captaincies were granted to
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
of the Portuguese settlements in Africa and America around 1600.
Taken from http://www.colonialvoyage.com/pafrica.jpg
Colonial Economy and Society
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.
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
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 http://www.bartleby.com/67/images/latina01.gif
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
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
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]
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
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
explain the significance of the following:
La Noche Triste
LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:
Main Idea How did the European
conquest of the Caribbean affect Native Americans?
Main Idea What
groups composed Spanish American society? What was the status of
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
What geographic factors do you think contributed to the captaincies
stretching inland from the coast?
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.
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.