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3.2: The Iberian Countries in the New World

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    The countries of the Iberian Peninsula in Western Europe, Spain, and Portugal were the first to arrive and establish settlements in the New World. Being established almost a century before the permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, the Iberian colonies were not originally intended to be permanent; rather, the explorers and conquistadors came to the Americas as the conquistador Hernán Cortés said, “for gold and glory” and not to “work the fields like a peasant.” Portugal, long an insignificant player in world affairs, was the first European country to sponsor voyages of exploration along the coast of Africa. In 1488, four years before the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, the Portuguese sailor Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the African continent. The Portuguese, like the Spanish, sought an all-water route to the Indian Ocean in order to trade directly with India, China, the East Indies, and Japan. The purpose of Columbus’s voyages, the first of which came in 1492, was similar to that of the Portuguese; he sought a route that would allow Spain to trade directly with the countries bordering the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans. The Spanish in 1492, and the Portuguese eight years later, were the first European countries to encounter the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The Spanish dominated the exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Americas in the sixteenth century as Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire, 1519-1521, and Francisco Pizarro the Inca Empire a decade later.

    Early Relations in the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and Peru

    When Christopher Columbus sailed west in 1492, he had no idea that he would encounter a world and a people never before seen by Europeans. He had no expectations about the people who actually swam out to meet his ships; he thought, after all, that he had reached the shores of the East Indies. Columbus kept a journal of his travels in which he recorded his first impressions of the peoples of the Caribbean Islands. According to this journal, the natives who greeted the three caravels,

    were very friendly to us, and [we] perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force. I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us. Afterwards they came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things which they exchanged for articles…which trade was carried on with the utmost good will. But they seemed on the whole to me, to be a very poor people.

    Columbus went on to remark that the people were “mostly naked” even the women, though he admitted that he had seen only one woman. The natives appeared to have few weapons and, in fact, lived a very simple life. Not only had they no weapons, they apparently had not seen any, as Columbus remarked that when he “showed them swords…they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends.” The experience of the Spaniards on the other islands in the Caribbean was similar. In his entry of October 13, 1492, Columbus recalled that “The natives are an inoffensive people, and so desirous to possess anything they saw with us, that they kept swimming off to the ships with whatever they could find.”

    The experience of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his men in North America mirrored the experiences of his countrymen in Meso- and South America. Writing in 1542, he praised the hospitality of the Indians of Florida:

    AS THE SUN ROSE next morning, the Indians appeared as they promised, bringing an abundance of fish and of certain roots which taste like nuts, some bigger than walnuts, some smaller, mostly grubbed from the water with great labor.

    That evening they came again with more fish and roots and brought their women and children to look at us. They thought themselves rich with the little bells and beads we gave them, and they repeated their visits on other days.

    Not surprisingly, Bartholomew de las Casas, an outspoken proponent of fair treatment of the Indians, echoed the comments of Columbus and Cabeza de Vaca in describing his early encounters on the Caribbean islands: “On one occasion they came out ten leagues from a great settlement to meet us, bringing provisions and gifts, and when we met them they gave us a great quantity of fish and bread and other victuals.”

    Hernán Cortés, who would ultimately kidnap Moctezuma II, the emperor of the Aztec Empire, and raze the capital city of Tenochtitlan, was warmly greeted by the Mexica ruler. According to Cortés, Moctezuma remarked: “We believe that the King of Spain is our natural lord…” In his second letter to Charles V, Cortés remarked that the people of the Aztec Empire appeared willing to accept Christianity as the true religion, saying, “if I would instruct them in these matters, and make them understand the true faith, they would follow my directions, as being for the best.” Furthermore, the natives were evidently passive when Cortés “purified” the temples by “removing the old idols and replacing them with symbols of Christianity.” He forbade the natives to continue the practice of human sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli, a primary god, and was somewhat surprised when they complied. He wrote: “[D]uring the whole period of my abode in that city, they were never seen to kill or sacrifice a human being.”

    An Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico describes the first encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma this way:

    Then he [Moctezuma] stood up to welcome Cortés; he came forward, bowed his head low and addressed him in these words: “Our lord, you are weary. The journey has tired you, but now you have arrived on the earth. You have come to your city, Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit under its canopy.”

    According to this same account, on another occasion Moctezuma remarked: “The kings who have gone before, your representatives, guarded [the Empire] and preserved it for your coming.”

    Cortés Conquers the Aztec Empire

    Hernán Cortés landed on the coast at Veracruz on Good Friday, April 22, 1519; just over two years later, on August 13, 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan surrendered to him. The events that took place during these two short years were documented in a number of chronicles, of which the best known are the letters Cortés wrote to King Charles I of Spain, who was also Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the True History of the Conquest of Mexico by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Until recently these two works, along with a few others also written by Spaniards, were almost the only basis on which historians have judged the conquest of one of the greatest civilizations in pre-Columbian America. These documents tell the story only from the point of view of the Spanish, but now another source has been added to the mix. Broken Spears: An Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, draws from indigenous accounts to present a different picture of the Spanish and their relations with the Indians.

    It was not surprising that the Aztec Empire would fall to the Spanish, despite the fact that the Spanish soldiers under Cortés numbered 600 and were faced by an Aztec army of thousands. One reason for the Spanish success was due to their military tactics and weaponry. The Mexica people, of whom Moctezuma was the head, and their allies fought with bows and arrows and spears, while the Spanish were protected by steel armor, wielded steel swords, and had the advantage of attacking on horseback. In addition, the Spanish found unexpected allies in the tribes that were previously forced to pay tribute to the Aztec Empire. At least one group, the Totonacs, greeted the Spanish as liberators. No small part of Spanish success came from the inadvertent introduction of smallpox into Tenochtitlan resulting in the deaths of thousands in the city in 1521.

    Screenshot (200).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Moctezuma II and Hernán Cortés | Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, is famous for his conquest of the Aztecs of Mexico and the execution of the emperor Moctezuma II. Author: Unknown Source: Library of Congress

    For many decades, historians argued that another factor could be found in Aztec religious beliefs that Quetzalcoatl, a white-skinned god, would, at an undisclosed time, arrive in the Empire. Indeed, according to Cortés, when Moctezuma first encountered the conquistador, he remarked, “We have always held that those who are descended from [Quetzalcoatl] would come and conquer this land and take us as his vassals.” Many observers at the time remarked that Mesoamerican natives, like those of the Caribbean Islands, believed the white men to be gods. Bernal Díaz offered an explanation about the origin of this belief when he commented in his True History of the Conquest of Spain, “The Indians thought the rider and the horse were the same body, as they had never seen a horse.

    However, over the last twenty years, Latin American historians have largely discredited this “white god” theory. The myth appears to have originated about forty years after the conquest in documents such as the Florentine Codex, an Aztec history produced by young Aztec men in Spanish schools. In these documents, the Spanish are referred to as teotls, a word that can mean either god or demon in Nahuatl, the spoken language of the Mexica.

    In 1519, Hernán Cortés entered the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, awed by its splendor. It was, he remarked, “so big and so remarkable [as to be]…almost unbelievable, for the city is much larger than Granada and very much stronger…with many more people than Granada had when it was taken…[It] is as large as Seville or Cordova.” Cortés was aided in his communication with Moctezuma and his nobility by a slave presented to him by the natives of Tabasco in 1519, La Malinche, who was fluent in the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs.

    Despite their advantages, the Spanish did not defeat the Aztec coalition outright; rather they experienced a resounding defeat at the hands of the Indians in 1520 and were forced to flee the capital city. Those who were captured by the Aztecs were sacrificed at the pyramid of Huitzilopochtli; this occurred on the night of June 30-July 1, 1520, called La Noche Triste (The Sad Night) by the Spaniards.

    But this defeat was only a temporary setback for the Spanish, who received aid from an unexpected source: in 1521, smallpox struck Tenochtitlan. Miguel León-Portilla includes an Aztec account in which a native bemoaned the condition of the city’s inhabitants: “We were covered with agonizing sores from head to foot. The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move.” The disease had been introduced into the city by a Spanish slave, left behind when the Europeans retreated. Those struck by the disease were too weak to move, and even if they survived, were in no condition to cultivate food. The inhabitants of the city were literally starving to death.

    On August 21, 1521, the Spanish re-entered the city, overwhelmed its last defenses, declared victory, and accepted the surrender of the remaining native warriors. The conditions they encountered were horrifying. Bernal Díaz wrote some years later that the Spaniards “…found the houses full of corpses, and some poor Mexicans still in [the houses] who could not move away…The city looked as though it had been ploughed up. The roots of any edible greenery had been dug out, boiled and eaten, and they had even cooked the bark of some of the trees.”

    After the defeat of the Aztecs, Cortés proceeded to execute Moctezuma, level Tenochtitlan, and begin to build what is now Mexico City. So thorough was the destruction of the city that few Aztec ruins remain today.

    Screenshot (201).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ritual Sacrifice | Ritual sacrifice was widely practiced by the Indians of Mesoamerica. According to Spanish accounts, the Aztecs ripped out the hearts of war captives in an effort to appease such gods as Huitzilopochtli. Such sacrifice took place on La Noche Triste, according to Spanish sources. Author: Codex Magliabechiano, artist unknown Source: Library of Congress

    The wanton destruction of Tenochtitlan symbolized the Spanish attitude toward the Americas, which were for conquest, ownership, and exploitation. The contemporary accounts of Cortés, Bernal Díaz, and the Spanish historian Francisco López de Gómara reflected the attitude of the Crown: the Americas were a new Spanish Empire and the natives, Spanish vassals.

    Spanish and the Incas of Peru

    The first Spanish to meet the Incas of Peru were impressed by their social and economic system, which some historians describe as an early form of socialism. Pedro de Cieza de León, Spanish conquistador and chronicler of Peru, commented on the Inca practice of tribute and crop sharing: “As this kingdom was so vast, in each of the many provinces there were storehouses that were filled during years of plenty and opened in time of need.” He went on to explain:

    No one [was tolerated] who was lazy or tried to live by the work of others; everyone had to work. Thus on certain days each lord went to his lands and took the plow in hand and cultivated the earth, and did other things. Even the Incas [the rulers] themselves did this to set an example. And under their system there was none [who did not work] in all the kingdom, for, if he had his health, he worked and lacked for nothing; and if he was ill, he received what he needed from the storehouses.

    The economic system was both well organized and egalitarian; each village was required to contribute grain to support the whole and “no rich man could deck himself out in more finery than the poor, or wear different clothing, except the rulers and the headmen, who, to maintain their dignity, were allowed great freedom and privilege.” Unlike the case in Mexico and the Caribbean, there was no honeymoon period in the relations between Francisco Pizarro, who eventually conquered the Inca Empire, and the natives of Peru; the relationship between the Spanish and Incas was antagonistic from the outset.

    Francisco Pizarro Conquers the Inca Empire

    Long before the Inca enterprise was undertaken by Francisco Pizarro and his men, word had come to the Spanish in Mesoamerica about the wealth and riches of cultures in the South. In 1529, Francisco Pizarro, who had already undertaken two unsuccessful expeditions to South America in 1524 and 1526, was appointed governor of Peru by Charles V in an agreement known as the Capitulación de Toledo. Pizarro arrived in Peru in 1532 with 168 men, sixty-two of whom were horse soldiers. Hernán do de Soto was sent as an envoy from Pizarro to Atahualpa, the Inca emperor, to assure him that the Spanish meant no harm and came in friendship and with the best of intentions. Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizarro and his forces the following day at Cajamarca in the highlands of Peru.

    Screenshot (202).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Fransisco Pizarro | Francisco Pizarro, using trickery and deceit, conquered the Incas of Peru in 1532 and executed the Inca emperor, Atahualpa. Author: D.M. Kelsey Source: Columbus and the New World Heroes of Discovery and Conquest

    On November 16, 1532, when Atahualpa and his 7,000-man, unarmed escort arrived, the Spanish, who were positioned around the town square, opened fire and 2,000 Inca were killed outright. Pizarro then rounded up and killed the Inca nobles. The Spaniards on horses rode through the carnage, swinging steel swords, and decapitating the bodies. Atahualpa was taken prisoner, and though the Incas came to Pizarro with mounds of gold for his ransom (which Pizarro gleefully accepted), Pizarro had Atahualpa executed, which was similar to the approach Cortés practiced in Mexico.

    Once the conquest was complete, Pizarro appointed a nominal ruler of the Inca Empire, and in 1535, with his control of Peru consolidated, he established a new capital city now known as Lima. He was assassinated in 1541 by the son of a long-time associate Diego de Almagro. He was laid to rest in the Lima Cathedral.

    Portuguese in Brazil

    The first Portuguese to reach the Americas were the men accompanying Pedro Cabral, who, when he sailed from Portugal in 1500, was headed to India. He and his ships were blown off course and ended up on the shores of Brazil, which he claimed for the King of Portugal, Manuel I. Cabral named the new land “The Island of the True Cross”, but remained in Brazil only ten days before heading on to India. Cabral’s claim of Brazil on behalf of the Portuguese Crown was facilitated by the Treaty of Tordesillas created by Pope Alexander VI in 1494 to settle competing claims to Atlantic discoveries. An imaginary line was drawn through the Americas; land west of the line went to Spain and east of the line to Portugal.

    Although there were some commonalities between the Spanish experience in Mexico and Peru, and the Portuguese experience in Brazil, in the latter there were no wealthy, urbanized cultures like Tenochtitlan and the Inca cities of Cuzco and Quito. Rather, many of the 2.4 million Brazilian natives were either nomadic or semi-sedentary. According to some historians, the initial contacts were “generally peaceful.” However, others point out that when the Portuguese came in contact with the forest peoples of the interior, like the Tupi, the Portuguese “attacked and enslaved each tribal group of several hundreds, one by one, in bloody skirmishes” because the only way to subdue the natives was to kill them all.

    After the Brazilian natives were subdued, sugar plantations sprang up along the coast of Brazil, but their numbers were not significant. However, while the Portuguese presence in Brazil remained small, the Spanish settled in large numbers in Mexico and Peru, which remained the wealthiest and most-populous areas in the New World for 300 years.


    Spain and Portugal were the first countries in the new wave of exploration of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to arrive and establish settlements in the New World. Coming almost a century before the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, the colonies of the Iberian countries were not originally intended to be permanent. Eventually, these settlements did in fact become permanent and, with the success in mining gold and silver, their European populations increased in size. But in the course of establishing control, the Spanish had to contend with two well-established New World empires: the Aztec Empire in Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire in Peru. The conquest of the Aztecs established patterns of conquest that were later utilized in the defeat of the Incas. Recruiting native allies and kidnapping local leaders allowed the Spanish to control power from within as they focused their efforts on the strongest group in the area, rather than fighting multiple wars against many groups. In addition, the Spanish inadvertently introduced European diseases like smallpox, which greatly weakened local groups.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    1. Which of the follow was well known for his criticism of the Europeans’ treatment of the Indians of Meso- and South America?

    1. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
    2. Hernán Cortés
    3. Bartholomew de las Casas
    4. Pedro Cabral


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    2. The Treaty of Tordesillas

    1. Divided the New World between the Spanish and the Portuguese.
    2. Specified that the encomienda system should be disbanded.
    3. Allowed the use of Incas in the mines of Peru.
    4. Formally recognized the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Cortés and his soldiers.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The majority of the natives killed in the exploration period were slaughtered by the Europeans who possessed superior weapons.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    4. The first explorer to reach Brazil and claim it for the throne of Portugal was:

    1. Christopher Columbus
    2. Pedro Cabral
    3. Ferdinand Magellan
    4. Jacques Cartier


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    Recruiting native allies played an important role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    The myth of Quetzalcoatl relies on sources that are contemporaneous with the conquest of the Aztec.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 3.2: The Iberian Countries in the New World is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.