Who were the Conquistadors? – History, Infamous Figures, Brutalities, & Major Facts

Buoyed on by Pope Julius II’s elevation of the Spanish monarch as the principal agent for the evangelization of the New World, many Spanish missionaries, soldiers and explorers began sailing beyond Europe to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

The soldiers and explorers who sailed to those parts of the world were primarily influenced by the goal to amass wealth through the opening of trade routes. But even more contrived was the fact that they desired to bring those areas under their dominion so that they could further loot gold and riches of the indigenous populations. Those sailors and explorers were referred to as the conquistadors.

Below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the origin story, ambitions, and major facts surrounding the conquistadors.


Spanish Conquistadors

A group of 16th century conquistadors that participated in the Spanish conquest of Peru (second expedition) along with their leader, Francisco Pizarro. Painting: The Famous Thirteen by Peruvian painter Juan Lepiani

The Conquistadors were Spanish and Portuguese explorers, adventurers, and conquerors who played a significant role in the colonization of the Americas and the discovery of trade routes during the 15th and 16th centuries. The term “Conquistador” derives from the Spanish word “conquistar,” which means “to conquer.”

Motivated by a variety of factors, most importantly wealth, glory, religious zeal, and the desire to expand their respective empires, the Conquistadors embarked on expeditions to explore and subjugate new territories.

Armed with the an adelantado, a title bestowed upon the conquistador by the Spanish monarch, conquistadors were instrumental in the conquest and colonization of vast regions in Central and South America, including present-day Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and other parts of the continent.

The most infamous Conquistadors include figures such as Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), who conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro (c. 1478-1541), who defeated the Inca Empire in Peru.

These conquerors, along with many others, utilized advanced weaponry, superior tactics, and alliances with indigenous peoples to defeat and subjugate the native civilizations they encountered.

The first use of the title adelantado in the Americas was by Bartolomeo Columbus, the Italian explorer and younger brother of Christopher Columbus. Explorers and conquistadors like Vasco Núñez de Balboa (in 1514 for the South Sea), Ferdinand Magellan (in 1518 for the Spice Islands), and Francisco Pizarro (in 1529 for Peru) also received adelantados.

The Conquistadors established colonies, imposed Spanish or Portuguese rule, and exploited the resources of the newly conquered territories, often with a focus on gold, silver, and other valuable commodities. They significantly influenced the course of history in the Americas and left a lasting impact on the culture, language, and society of the indigenous peoples they encountered.

However, it is important to note that the actions of the Conquistadors also resulted in significant loss of life, the destruction of native cultures, and the introduction of many diseases, including smallpox, typhus and influenza, that had devastating effects on indigenous populations.

Basically, the Conquistadors’ conquests and colonization have complex and controversial legacies, representing both feats of exploration and exploitation in the history of the Americas and beyond.

Who were some of the most infamous conquistadors?

The following are some the most infamous conquistadors that played a significant part in shaping the course of Spanish and Portuguese colonial history in the New World:

Hernán Cortés (1485-1547)

Hernán Cortés

The Spanish explorer-soldier who commanded the conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico from 1519. He is probably the most famous conquistador because of the manner in which he caused such a powerful civilization as the Aztec to crumble. What is not often mentioned is the fact that Cortes relied very much on the rival Native American tribes that wanted to see the demise of the Aztecs.

Francisco Pizarro (c. 1478-1541)

Francisco Pizzarro

He was involved in the horrific conquest and decimation of the Inca Civilization in Peru beginning around 1532. A second cousin of Cortes, Pizarro used almost similar tactics as the one used by Cortes to bring an end to the Aztec civilization. His life was cut short after he was murdered by his second-in-command Diego de Almgaro II (aka El Mozo), the son of Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro (c. 1475-1538).

Afonso de Albuquerque (c. 1453-1515)

Portuguese conquistador Afonso de Albuquerque

Afonso de Albuquerque

He was a Portuguese nobleman and military strategist who played a significant role in the Portuguese Empire’s expansion and establishment of trade routes in the Indian Ocean during the Age of Discovery. He captured the city of Goa in 1510, transforming it into the capital of Portuguese India. Albuquerque’s forces also seized control of Malacca, a crucial trading port in Southeast Asia, in 1511. These conquests secured Portugal’s dominance in the region and facilitated the establishment of a vast trading network spanning from East Africa to East Asia.

Diego de Almagro (c. 1475-1538)

Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro

The conquistador Diego de Almagro was instrumental in the conquest of Peru

He was a Spanish conquistador and explorer who played a significant role in the early conquest and exploration of South America. He was a companion and close associate of Francisco Pizarro, another prominent conquistador. Together with Pizarro and Hernando de Luque, Almagro formed a partnership known as the “Capitulación de Toledo” in 1529, which granted them the authority to conquer and govern the newly discovered territories. However, tensions and disputes arose between Almagro and Pizarro over territorial claims and political power, leading to a series of conflicts known as the Almagro-Pizarro War. The war concluded with Almagro’s defeat and his subsequent execution in 1538.

Alonso de Ojeda (1466- c. 1515)

Conquistador Alonso de Ojeda

Conquistador Alonso de Ojeda

Born in Spain, Ojeda participated in several expeditions to the New World, including voyages led by Christopher Columbus. One notable episode of Ojeda’s career was his involvement in the founding of the settlement of Santa Cruz (later renamed Cumaná) in present-day Venezuela.

He established the settlement in 1502, which became one of the first European settlements on the mainland of South America. Ojeda’s explorations and activities were marked by conflicts with indigenous populations, often resulting in violence and forced labor. His expeditions were characterized by a quest for riches and the acquisition of wealth through exploitation.

Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (1465-1524)

Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar

Velázquez de Cuéllar died in 1524 in Cuba. His contributions to the early Spanish colonization of the Americas, particularly his role in sponsoring the expedition of Hernán Cortés, which ultimately led to the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

This Spanish conquistador was a native of Cuéllar in Segovia and held various positions of authority and leadership during the Age of Discovery. In his capacity as the governor of Cuba, Velázquez de Cuéllar faced challenges and conflicts, both with indigenous populations and with other Spanish conquistadors vying for power and influence in the region. He sought to consolidate Spanish control and promote economic development in the colonies under his authority.

The ban on women, foreigners and non-Catholics

In addition to Spanish laws forbidding unmarried women from sailing to the New World, the laws also prohibited foreigners and non-Catholics from settling in those newfound worlds. What this meant was that foreigners had to either Hispanicised their names or convert to Catholicism. This enabled them to serve in the service of the Castilian Crown.

For example, German-born Nikolaus Federmann and Venetian explorer Sebastiano Caboto Hispanicised their names as Nicolás de Federmán and Sebastián Caboto, respectively. Even Amerigo Vespucci, the famed Italian explorer and navigator whose name “America” is derived, called himself Américo Vespucio.

The Virgin Soil Epidemics

In the field of epidemiology, a virgin soil epidemic refers to an outbreak where populations that were previously isolated from a particular pathogen lack immunological preparedness when encountering the newly introduced pathogen. Instances of virgin soil epidemics have occurred during European colonization, notably when explorers and colonists from Europe introduced diseases to the lands they conquered in the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.

Smallpox, yellow fever, measles, malaria, as well as novel strains of typhus and influenza, were among the diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans and their enslaved Africans.

Read More: 10 Most Influential Explorers of the Age of Discovery

Did you know…?

  • Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro – who are perhaps the two most famous conquistadors – were second cousins. They were both born in Extremadura, a region located in the central-western part of the Iberian Peninsula. It is also worth mentioning that many of the early Spanish conquistadors hailed from Extremadura.
  • After Columbus’s first voyage in the late 15th century, interest in the New World skyrocketed.

Frequently asked questions about the Conquistadors

The following provides a few more detail about the conquistadors and the impact they had on the early modern world:

What does the term ‘conquistador’ actually mean?

The term is derived from the Spanish word ‘conquistar’, which means ‘to conquer’. Therefore, the conquistadors were warriors whose primary goal was to bring native peoples in the New World to heel.

It must be noted conquistadors were not just Spanish explorer-soldiers, but they also included Portuguese explorers and soldiers. The Spanish conquerors dominated the Americas, while the Portuguese dominated territories in Africa and in the Pacific region. Some notable Portuguese conquistadors were Filipe de Brito e Nicote and Afonso de Albuquerque (c. 1453-1515). The latter, who was the viceroy of Portuguese India from 1509 to 1515, led Portuguese forces during the conquest of Goa.

Conquistadors basically sailed to new lands and seized the territory using violence. They did all of that in the name of their European kings and queens. Image: Engraving depicting the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro exposing before King Carlos I of Spain the evidence of the discovery of the fabulous Empire of the Incas.

Did the Church support expeditions to the New World?

Financial, administrative and material support came not just from the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns but also from many Catholic religious orders, including the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans.

These religious orders were primarily interested in the conversion of the indigenous populations to Christianity. They were also interested in ensuring that order prevailed in those conquered territories.

This explains why many Christian missionary workers and priests worked very hard to pacify the natives. However, there were some Christian missions that gave the tacit approval to the Spanish Crown’s long-term resource exploitation such as mining operations, slavery, and forced labor for plantation work. To be fair, there were quite a number of friars and priests that later came to regard all forms of slavery as evil.

Some of the most notable missionary workers that sailed to the New World include Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), Eusebio Kino (1645-1711), and Wenceslaus Linck (1736-1797).

Perhaps the most famous Spanish Catholic missionary of the time was Francis Xavier (1506-1552), the co-founder of the religious order Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits). Committed to alleviating the plight of the poor, Xavier conducted many missions into Asia, especially in Portuguese India. It is said that Xavier was the first Christian missionary to head to Borneo and the Maluku Islands in Southeast Asia.

For his numerous missionary works, Francis Xavier – who was the co-founder of the Jesuits – was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. He is popularly referred to as the “Apostles of the Indies” or the “Apostle of the Far East”.

What really motivated the conquistadors to make such perilous journeys to the New World?

The primary goal of the explorer-soldiers from Spain and Portugal during the 15th and 16th century was to the acquisition of wealth; to be more specific, gold. The New World offered many of those explorers and soldiers opportunities that they could not even dream about in their home countries.

Bear in mind, because some of those conquistadors were veterans of bloody conflicts that took place in Europe decades before the Age of Discovery. And once these soldiers made it back to their villages, they found themselves idle and with no avenue for social mobility or even amassing wealth.

Basically, they were part of minor nobility in Spain and Portugal. As quite a number of them were illegitimate sons, these soldiers quickly realized that remaining in their countries meant that they would be condemned to a life of mediocrity and very little social status.

Therefore, the New World was a means for them to inject life into their very penniless and boring lifestyles in Europe. In the Americas, they could begin life anew and amass riches that would remain in their generations for many centuries.

Besides, the New World presented the conquistadors an opportunity to be free from the constraints imposed on them by the monarchs and society in general.

The above points explain why despite the tremendous risk posed to their lives – in terms of unsafe sea journeys, tropical diseases and native attacks – the conquistadors remained determined to conquer the New World.

Were all the conquistadores trained soldiers and warriors?

Unbeknownst to many people the vast majority of the conquistadors that trooped into the New World were actually far from trained warriors. Many of them were average citizens – say artisans – that simply saw the New World as an avenue to enhance their financial and social statuses

That’s not to say that were not some decent military men that didn’t become conquistadors. As a matter of fact, some members of the Spanish and Portuguese nobility (i.e. hidalgo) signed up to sail to the New World. These highborn men were mostly not the firstborn heirs in their families. As such they knew nothing significant was in store for them in terms of inheritance. This explains why they sought to cast their lot as conquistadors in the New World.

How devastating were the conquistadors to the native populations in the New World?

Some scholars today refer to the conquistadors as Europe’s early imperialists. And there is a reason why they get to be called that. First of all, to many European monarchs at the time, especially Spanish and Portuguese monarchs, the New World was there for the taking.

Aside the fact that those voyages opened up new trade routes, the Age of Discovery enabled European monarchs to stretch their sphere of influence and colonize vast lands like never seen before. In doing so, the conquistadors, who basically served as the agents of those monarchs, inflicted untold amount of suffering on the indigenous populations.

Everywhere they went, they left in their path diseases, slavery, murder, and a plethora of human rights violations that would make the severest of human rights violations in our modern era look like child’s play.

Surprisingly, for many centuries, the conquistadors were seen in very positive light in Europe. They were praised as brave men who tamed the wild seas and braced it all to reach so-called alien lands. They were conferred upon the highest of honors by European monarchs simply because of the vast wealth that they brought to Europe.

This narrative largely remained unchallenged until around the 20th century, when scholars and social activists alike began to take a critical look at the sheer level of devastation inflicted by conquistadors upon the native populations of an almost untouched tropical world.

Basically, the conquistadors sailed to relatively thriving civilizations and quickened the demise of those societies in the most gruesome of ways.

The sharp drop in the population of Mexico from around 24 million in 1520 to slightly above 3 million in 1556 puts into perspective the ills brought upon by the conquistadors. It is not unthinkable that far worse decline in populations happened in several other places the conquistadors visited.

What were some of the threats faced by the conquistadors?

It is often said that a typical conquistador was more likely to lose his life from diseases than warfare with the native populations. Despite those threats the conquistadors kept pouring into the Americas simply because of the tremendous riches the land offered.

Were the expeditions to the New World lucrative for European monarchs?

As perilous as the journeys to the New World were, European monarchs always welcomed the opportunity to commission a well-organized expedition to Americas. This was simply because the returns that they accrued far outweighed the dangers and costs of those journeys.

Of course, there were cases where European monarchs lost entire fleet on the high seas to either diseases, shipwrecks or even mutinies. But the fact of the matter is, from the perspective of European monarchs and trade merchants, the New World held riches that were worth making those sacrifices.

This explains why an almost fully fledge industry developed – a consortium of trade and business experts that helped organize those expeditions – to make sure the conquistadors’ ships were in the best of conditions. Administrators of those expeditions were in charge of a host of things: from gathering provisions to arming the sailors with the best weapons at the time to making sure that the captains of those expeditions were handsomely rewarded.

Besides, the explorer-soldiers were equally enthused and motivated about the whole conquistador business thing because upon their return not only were they set for life but they also received very lofty honors from their kings and queens.

What sorts of new infectious diseases did the Europeans bring to the Native Americans?

Europeans unknowingly brought a plethora of infectious diseases, including smallpox, chickenpox, scarlet fever, cholera, bubonic plague, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), malaria, measles, typhus, sexually transmitted diseases (with the possible exception of syphilis). They also brought tuberculosis, although a form of this infection existed in South America prior to contact.

As a result, sweeping epidemics among Native American populations became a frequent occurrence. And there was hardly anything the natives could do at the time to halt the devastation caused by those infectious diseases.

Furthermore, the introduction of African slaves by the Europeans into the Americas and the use of commercial trade routes fanned the spread of disease among Native Americans. Those disease outbreaks have come to be referred to as the virgin soil epidemic.

An illustrative instance of this is observed following Cortés’ invasion of Mexico. Prior to his arrival, it is estimated that the Mexican population numbered between 25 to 30 million individuals. About fifty years later, the population had drastically declined to 3 million, primarily due to infectious diseases.

What was the death toll from those infectious diseases brought by the Europeans?

During the 16th century, New Spain experienced the devastating Cocoliztli epidemics. The death toll from these outbreaks is estimated to have ranged from 5 to 14.5 million people, making it one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recorded history. The epidemics inflicted widespread misery and death upon the Mexican highlands, leading to the demographic collapse of certain Indigenous populations. Due to the staggering number of fatalities, this epidemic is often regarded as the most severe in Mexico’s history.

Just how devastating was the smallpox epidemic in the Americas?

Historians and researchers today often have difficulty tracking the infections that were brought by the Europeans to the Americas. This is because of the insufficient records that were taken when those numerous disease outbreaks occurred. The fact that some of the accounts were contradictory makes the whole endeavor of determining the actual casualty of those diseases, especially smallpox, very difficult.

When it comes to smallpox, it is said that disease which was brought by the Europeans was so devastating to the Native Americans that it almost wiped some tribes off the face of the planet.

It’s generally said that the first well-documented smallpox epidemic in the Americas began in Hispaniola in late 1518. The disease then spread to Mexico and other areas. It’s been estimated that the death toll from the smallpox epidemic of the early 16th century ranged from one-quarter to one-half of the population of central Mexico.

Devastation of smallpox on the Aztecs

Smallpox was most destructive to the Native Americans, both in terms of morbidity and mortality. Native Americans initially believed that their tribes were devastated by diseases because they did not have adequate magical protection. Image: Aztecs dying of smallpox – from The Florentine Codex (1540–85)

How did Native Americans perceive the diseases that plagued them during Europe’s colonization of the region?

At first, the Native Americans believed that the diseases that blighted them were because their society was out of balance. They believed that they had strayed away from the path of their ancestors and the gods.

Believing that the diseases were caused by some dark spirits and sorcery, they generally tried to beef up their usage of magical protection. The generally held belief was that those diseases made their way into the human body because the person was not protected by spirits.

Spiritual powers were called on to cure diseases through the practice of shamanism. Most Native American tribes also used a wide variety of medicinal plants and other substances in the treatment of disease.

There were some tribes, say for example the Cherokee, who attributed their predicament to revenge visited upon them by animals for killing them in the wrong way. There were also some that believed that the diseases were punishments from the gods because they had disregarded tribal traditions and rituals.

Many Native American tribes suffered high mortality and depopulation, averaging 25–50% of the tribes’ members dead from disease. Additionally, some smaller tribes neared extinction after facing a severely destructive spread of disease.

Why did Europeans align themselves with certain Native American tribes?

Europeans capitalized on the rivalries and divisions among Native American tribes to their advantage. They exploited the existing conflicts and animosities between different indigenous groups to further their own interests and establish dominance. They provided weapons, resources, and support to these allied tribes, thus leveraging the internal divisions among Native Americans to gain control and expand their influence.

By exploiting the rivalries and cracks that existed among Native Americans, Europeans were able to weaken indigenous resistance, facilitate their own territorial conquests, and assert dominance over the region.

Unbeknownst to those Native American allies of the conquistadors, by collaborating with the invaders, they inadvertently enslaved themselves to European powers, who in some cases were more ruthless than their tribal rivals.

How skewed are some of the accounts of the Spanish conquest of the Americas?

The three main accounts of the Spanish conquest of the Americas are: Bernardino de Sahgun’s ‘the Florentine Codex’, Cortes’ letters to Charles V of Spain, and Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s ‘The Conquest of New Spain’.

A look at those accounts and one quickly notices just how biased they were. The authors portrayed the conquistadors as heroes and brave explorers who ventured into very dangerous foreign lands and then waging war against an unwelcoming bunch of savage peoples.

The accounts hardly mention the extent of carnage and misery inflicted – knowingly and unknowingly – upon the indigenous population. The truth of the matter is that those explorers and conquistadors perpetrated some of the worst forms of cultural genocide and human rights abuses in world history.

What impact did European colonization have on the population of Native Americans?

Inca Empire

Smallpox, yellow fever, measles, malaria, as well as novel strains of typhus and influenza, were among the diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans and Africans. Image: The Inca City of Machu Picchu

By the early 18th century, the southeastern coastal region of the United States saw a significant decline in the Native American population, with fewer than 5,000 individuals remaining.

In Florida specifically, it is estimated that around 700,000 Native Americans resided there in 1520, but by 1700, the number had dwindled to approximately 2,000.

Even before substantial European colonization efforts began, native populations had already experienced a staggering reduction of 90%.

Consequently, settlements vanished, cultivated fields were abandoned, and forests began to reclaim the land. This created an impression among colonists of an untamed wilderness.

What kinds of weapons did the conquistadors used to bring the indigenous peoples to heel?

Right from the very beginning, the weapons possessed by the conquistadors were far superior to the ones wielded by the natives in the New World.

This why as hard as the locals fought, the conquistadors ultimately emerged victorious. Analyzing why the locals’ defense against European invasion is a no brainer.

In the nutshell, the conquistadors, even with inferior numbers to the locals, could only bring down those mighty South American and pre-Columbian civilizations because they had in their arsenal far more powerful weapons – weapons like cannon fire, crossbow, attack dogs, and swords.

Also, the armored cavalry of the conquistadors proved to be very efficient, especially in mounting counteroffensives. Those weapons allowed the invaders to slice through the indigenous peoples like a hot knife through butter.

As a matter of fact, it was those very superior weapons that enabled the European powers to keep the places that they had conquered subservient for centuries.

Weapons of the conquistadors

So, while the Europeans used weapons like lances, crossbow and swords, the indigenous people only had slashing weapons which were usually made from copper or bronze. Other weapons in the arsenal of the indigenous populations were javelin, spiked mace, battle-axe, bow, and spear.

Whereas the conquistadors’ shattered the armor of the indigenous warriors, the same could not be said about the weapons carried by the locals. From far, their weapons proved ineffective in causing any real damage to the conquistadors’ metal-plated armor. It was only in close contact situations that those weapons proved devastating to an unprotected body part of conquistador. This was why the Europeans preferred open battles.

As the thirst for gold and resources grew among the rank and file of the conquistadors, more ruthless weapons were shipped to the New World. This was done to hasten the conquest and subjugation of indigenous populations that proved to be tough nut to crack.

It even got to a point, some of European monarchs were taken aback by the level of brutality inflicted on the indigenous populations by greedy conquistadors. Not wanting to lose their grips on power in the New World, those monarchs dispatched representatives and colonial administrators in order to bring some bit of order to conquered territories.

Spanish conquest of the Inca civilization

The Inca–Spanish confrontation in the Battle of Cajamarca left thousands of natives dead.

Were there any women that became conquistadors?

The vast majority of conquistadors were male. It’s not as if there wasn’t any woman enthused about becoming a conquistador. It was because the laws at the time banned women from travelling to the Americas unless they were wives of the explorers-soldiers.

Simply put, the few women that accompanied the explorer-soldiers to the New World served in domestic capacities. They were primarily used by the conquistadors to establish European settlements after those native areas had been conquered. There were some few brave women who could hold their own as conquistadors.

For example, there was Isabel de Barreto, the first woman to rise to the rank of admiral in the Spanish Imperial Fleet. Isabel sailed with her husband Alvaro de Mendaña to the South Pacific archipelago, and she even helped her husband put down a mutiny. Tragically, her husband succumbed to injuries sustained during the rebellion, and Isabella was elected leader of the expedition. She captained her husband’s fleet, sailing it, under very perilous conditions, from the Solomon Islands to the Philippines.

There was also Inés Suárez, the woman who sailed with her lover, the explorer and soldier Pedro de Valdivia who led the conquest of Chile. It’s even said that Inés Suárez fought in a number of battles against natives.

Known as the ‘lieutenant-nun’, Catalina de Erauso was a fierce woman conquistador whose exploits in the New World earned her immense praise from King Felipe III.

Perhaps the most famous female conquistador was María de Estrada, a warrior woman who fought alongside Cortés in the battle against Tenochtitlan. Many accounts described the Sevilla-born woman as having the same tenacity and bravery as any conquistador that fought in the battle. She believed that it was not okay for Spanish women to sit at home while their husbands marched into battle. She basically wanted people to know that women could be as a brave and determined as men and hold their own in very difficult situations.

How much gold did conquistadors loot from the native peoples?

It was not just gold that conquistadors took from the New World. Precious minerals like silver, pearls and emeralds were taken from the lands of the indigenous peoples.

As to the amount of resource looted, there is not a specific figure that could be mentioned. What we know for a fact that is the conquistadors shipped several hundreds of tons of gold back to Europe.

So lucrative was the venture that European powers like England made it a habit of seizing those ill-gotten valuable cargo from their foes on their high seas. It’s estimated that by the end of the 16th century, Spain alone received more than 24,000 tons of silver from the Americas. The value of those imports were the equivalent of one-fifth of Spain’s annual budget.

Why did missionaries tag along with explorer-soldiers that sailed to the New World?

Aside from the vast wealth and lands that the New World promised, European explorer during the Age of Discovery were pleased to have Christian missionaries sail with them for the purpose of converting the indigenous populations to Christianity. European monarchs and religious authorities at the time saw this arrangement as a win-win.

From the monarchs’ viewpoint, the conversion (i.e. evangelism) of the natives to Christianity made those people more susceptible to colonization efforts, which in turn allowed them to begin the systematic and century-long exploitation of the people and the land.

However, there is no doubt whatsoever that there were indeed some well-meaning evangelists that believed that they were called by a higher power to not just convert the indigenous people but to also ensure that they became ‘civilized’ – and by civilization, we mean adopting the ways and culture of Europe.

How were the conquistadors replaced by colonial administrators in the New World?

In the early years of Europe’s conquest of the New World, European monarchs were content with all the riches that conquistadors brought to Europe. They were unperturbed by the heinous crimes perpetrated by the conquistadors. However, with the passage of time, and as more and more grave news about the atrocities inflicted upon the indigenous people began to trickle to Europe, European monarchs decided to act fast.

To make matters worse was the fact conflicts between conquistadors over their ill-gotten riches had reached very dire levels – to the extent that the conquistadors like Francisco Pizarro would lose his life due to such conflicts.

Aside from restoring some level of sanctity to whole conquering business, European monarchs had come to the realization that if care was not taken, they could lose their grip on power in the New World. Long-term plans were drafted in the various European courts to tighten their hold on power in the Americas and beyond. And so, the next phase of European colonization of the New World began. This meant sending colonial administrators to replace conquistadors, who had proved to be incompetent at ruling the indigenous peoples.

By replacing conquistadors with colonial governors and administrators, European monarchs were able to stabilize the flow of riches from the New World. For example, the mining operations in those areas became more organized, as significant sections of the indigenous populations were enslaved.

Weapons of the conquistadors

Obviously, the conquistadors felt betrayed and bitter considering the fact they were the ones who put their lives in harms way by subduing the indigenous population. Some conquistadors gathered the courage and fought tooth and nail against those measures taken by their queens and kings. However, it was a losing battle as the monarchs held all the cards.

It was not just European monarchs that were interested in supplanting the conquistadors in the New World. The Church also wanted nothing more than to get rid of those explorer-soldiers, whose un-Christian approach of dealing with the population in so many ways hampered the Church’s goal of converting the natives to Christianity.

Having been significantly stripped off their power, some conquistadors decided to venture into uncharted territories in hopes of further acquiring more wealth. For example, the Spanish explorer Diego de Algagro (c. 1475-1538) ventured deeper into the continent, and in so doing, explored areas that are now today’s Chile.


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