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Bloody conquest for god, gold and glory

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Issue 1727

Conquistadors TV series

Bloody conquest for god, gold and glory

By Mike Gonzalez

THE recent TV series Conquistadors told the story of the Spanish conquest of America at the beginning of the 16th century. The story is extraordinary and spawned myths that persist into the 21st century-Eldorado, the noble savage, the lost city of the Incas and the conquistadors. But behind the myths is the story of the birth of colonialism, and slaughter on a scale it is difficult to imagine.

The Spanish conquistadors first landed on the mainland of what we today call America in 1519. Within 50 years they had driven the people of the new continent to the verge of extinction.

By then more than 30 million people were dead. They were slaughtered in battle, infected by diseases that killed only indigenous people, or destroyed by exhaustion after weeks of uninterrupted labour in the mines or on the land, feeding the bottomless appetite of the Spanish imperial state.

WHAT DROVE the conquistadors to move into this new world? They had no maps and little understanding of what they found. The conquistadors were driven by greed and an overwhelming confidence that they had every right to take over the world. Then they justified the enterprise by describing their victims as barbarians, primitives, and people in need of civilisation.

It was not curiosity that drove the conquistadors but the smell and taste of gold. In the 15th century Europe’s feudal monarchs, and the increasingly powerful merchants and bankers of the towns, were looking for ways to increase their wealth. Spain had been unified in 1492 by the marriage of Ferdinand, king of Aragon, and Isabella, queen of Castille.

The monarchs’ armies had finally driven the Moors out of Spain, recapturing Granada, the last Moorish city. They constructed a reactionary feudal state which had growing power in Europe. They needed the profits from trade, above all gold, to maintain and extend their power. So the newly unified state turned its attention to the wider world. The Portuguese already dominated the trade routes along the coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean. Spain urgently needed access to the spices that were the currency of international trade in 15th century Europe.

The Spanish Crown seized eagerly on the alternative route to the Indies that the Genoese pilot Columbus claimed to have found. Columbus had landed on the island of Hispaniola, today the Dominican Republic and Haiti, in August 1492. The following year his first account of the New World-the Santangel Letter-reached Spain.

In it (with an eye to future wealth and titles) he reassured his masters that there was gold there in abundance (he was guessing). He said, “Gold is most glorious- gold can give you entry into heaven.” And in passing he noted that the island people lived a simple, collective life, sharing all that they had, treating strangers with hospitality and producing only to fill their own needs.

The letter spurred the greed, the dreams of riches, that underpinned the whole imperial enterprise. The modern world was born out of this carnage. American gold and silver oiled the wheels of European manufacture. It also preserved for another 300 years an autocratic, semi-feudal Spain.

WHEN THE conquistadors landed on the mainland of what is today America they found the gold and silver they were looking for. But they also found developed civilisations which fought back against the invaders.

The two main civilisations were the Aztec Empire, in what is today Mexico, and the Inca Empire, based in what is now Peru. The Aztec capital, Tenocht’tlan, was at the heart of an empire that stretched north and south for thousands of kilometres. The city left Spanish soldiers breathless at its size and beauty. When the conquistador Corts, a ruthless young lawyer, landed in 1519 he came face to face with the Aztec emperor in a city “as grand as Venice”. Within two years his troops had reduced the city to rubble. After an eight-month siege those who resisted starved slowly to death. The Aztec leader was saved from execution and paraded around the country by Corts- who first burned the soles of his feet to prevent escape.

The Inca Empire had been in existence for less than a century, yet it stretched 3,000 miles along the Andes and the Pacific Coast. It was linked by paved roads and fed by a system of terraced mountain agriculture that is still in use today. Hernn Pizarro-who was an illiterate, wily old mercenary pushing 50-landed in America with a small force in 1532.

Travelling south, he stopped in the town of Cajamarca. He invited an Inca leader to meet him in the town square. The Inca came with 10,000 soldiers, borne aloft on a golden litter. Perhaps he was curious, or perhaps he wanted to impress the new arrival. But when the Inca leader threw down the Bible, saying that it did not speak to him, Pizarro had the pretext he needed. His horse and swordsmen leapt from their hiding places, trampling on and killing thousands in the square.

They captured and killed the Inca leader, ransacked the holy Inca city of Cusco, and melted down its gold into ingots that the conquerors gambled with, fought over and killed each other for. There is no doubt that the conquest and destruction of the Americas produced some extraordinary moments. There was the trek over the Andes in full armour, with Indians hauling cannon over 21,000-foot peaks and down into the Amazon, led by the undoubtedly crazy Lope de Aguirre.

Or the eight-year walk by Cabeza de Vaca, an accountant wrecked with his ship on the Florida coast in 1521. By the time he returned to Mexico City he had become a recognised healer and spiritual leader. But the missionary zeal of the conquistadors was always subordinated to the quest for gold to feed the Spanish imperial state, finance its military expansions, and pay for the goods it had ordered from the manufacturing workshops of northern Europe.

They seized the precious metals torn out of mines by Indian hands in Bolivia. They ate the food grown by the Indians and produced the first American generations by the collective rape of the indigenous women. This story would be repeated with every new colonising enterprise-from Britain in Africa to the occupation of the American West.

There has been a silent element in the way the story of the conquest of America has been told until now-the resistance of the Indian peoples. The indigenous peoples were overwhelmed, brutalised and exploited. But they nevertheless fought back. The last Incas led a magnificent resistance which became a flight into the Amazon jungle.

In southern Chile indigenous peoples learned to ride the Spanish horses and fought a ferocious war against the invaders. The Mayas of southern Mexico and Guatemala held off the conquistadors until the middle of the 17th century.

Those who survived this most extraordinary genocide fought on-and fight on today. At the end of the century of conquest, in 1599, the French writer Michel de Montaigne made a comment that echoes through the centuries: “The natives in their language call all men ‘halves’ of one another. They noticed that there were among us men fully bloated with all sorts of comforts while their halves were begging at their doors, emaciated with poverty and hunger. They found it odd that those destitute halves should put up with such injustice and did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”

  • There is a book based on the series, Conquistadors, by Michael Wood (BBC Publications, 18.99).

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