The combination of prolonged warfare, exploitation, disease and the spread of Catholicism gradually asserted Spanish dominion over the indigenous population in America, who nonetheless survived and endured both the conquest and 300 years of colonial rule. Due to Spanish pestilence and wholesale slaughter the Native American population was decimated. Committed by Royal decree, Spanish conquistadors converted their New World indigenous subjects to Catholicism. Once Native Americans were scattered Spanish conquistadors subdued and exploited them. Beginning with the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus and continuing for over three centuries, the Spanish Empire would expand its borders across half of South America, most of Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and much of North America (including present day Mexico, Florida and the Southwestern and Pacific Coastal regions of the United States). Two milestones of the conquest were the invasion and control of Aztec and Incan Empires. The Spanish conquest of Mexico or generally understood to be the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire (1519–21) began in February 1519.
It was completed on August 13, 1521 when a coalition army of Spanish forces and native Tlaxcala warriors, led by Hernán Cortés and Xicotencatl the Younger, captured the emperor Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire (Today Mexico City). In South America, after years of preliminary exploration and military skirmishes, 168 Spanish soldiers under Francisco Pizarro and their native allies captured the Sapa Inca Atahualpa in the 1532 Battle of Cajamarca. It was the first step in a long campaign that took decades of fighting but ended in Spanish victory in 1572 and colonization of the region as the Viceroyalty of Peru. Spanish conquistadors imposed their technological superiority and benefited from pestilences when engaging native populations in warfare. They imposed the catholic faith overrunning their culture and exploited them to acquire natural resources. Thus, they successfully asserted their dominion over America.
Due to Spanish pestilence and wholesale slaughter the Native American population was decimated. Estimates of the pre-Columbian population place the figure for North, Central and South America at a combined 50 million to 100 million, with scholarly estimates of 2 million to 18 million for North America alone. Approximately 80% to 90% of the entire population died after the arrival of Spaniards, overwhelmingly from epidemics. Prior to Cortes’ arrival Mexico’s population is estimated to have reached 25 to 30 million natives. Fifty years later, the Mexican population was decreased to 3 million, mainly by infectious diseases. The eminent Yale historian David Brion Davis describes this as “the greatest genocide in the history of man. Yet it’s increasingly clear that most of the carnage had nothing to do with European barbarism. The worst of the suffering was caused not by swords or guns but by germs”.With no natural immunity against these pathogens, native Americans died in huge numbers.
Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar who was instrumental in preserving information about Aztec culture in General History of the Things of New Spain, 1519-1521 states “At the beginning of the year 1520 a pestilence began in the province of Chalco and last for sixty days. Among the Mexicans who fell victim to the pestilence was the lord Cuitlahuactzin, whom they had elected a little earlier. Many leaders, many veteran soldiers, and valiant men who were their defense in time of war, also died.” In other words Bernardin de Sahagun asserts pestilences were instrumental in the downfall of the Aztec empire, depleting its armies and aiding Spanish conquest. While pestilences were by far, the leading cause of depopulation in America after 1492, there were other contributing factors, warfare being one of them. There is general disagreement among scholars of how widespread warfare was in pre-Columbian America, yet there is general understanding that war became deadlier after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and firearms.
Hernando Cortes, Letters from Mexico, in August 12, 1521 state “On leaving my camp, I commanded Gonzalo de Sandoval to sail the brigantines (ships) in between the houses in the other quarter in which the Indians were resisting, so that we should have them surrounded, but not to attack until he saw that we were engaged. They no longer could find any arrow, javelins or stones with which to attack us; and our allies fighting with us were armed with swords and bucklers, and slaughtered so many of them on land and in the water that more than forty thousand were killed or taken that day.” As shown by Cortez the Spanish did not solely rely on their technological superiority when fighting natives, but implemented military strategy. Above all else, an invisible warrior marched alongside the Conquistadors — disease. It proved a far superior asset to Spanish dominion in America than guns and steel.
Native American populations and armies outnumbering the Spaniards were devastated by plague. Native tribes then defenseless were subdued swiftly without much effective resistance. Committed by Royal decree, Spanish conquistadors converted their New World indigenous subjects to Catholicism. The invading Spaniards labeled the indigenous people as heathens, set out with a vengeance to cleanse the land of other faiths. The dictates of the Spanish conquerors were, “convert or die.” An excerpt of a letter from Hernando Cortes to Emperor Charles V in 1520 states “In these chapels are the images of idols, although as I have said before many of them are also found in the outside; the principal ones in which the people have the greatest faith and confidence. I precipitated from their pedestals, and cast them down the steps of the temple, purifying the chapels in which they had stood, as they were all polluted with human blood, shed ill the sacrifices. In the place of these I put images of our lady and the saints, which exited not a little feeling in Montezuma and its inhabitants.” Hernan Cortez’ letter manifests Spaniards never put the slightest effort in understanding native culture.
Automatically presuming their spirituality and traditions were worthless. Yet due to the actions of Cortez and other conquistadors Catholicism remains the principal colonial heritage of Spain in America. More than any set of economic relationships, more even than the language the Catholic religion continues to permeate Spanish-American culture today, creating an overriding cultural unity which transcends back to Spanish conquistadors who imposed the Catholic faith on Native Americans dating back to 1942. This was part of the “requerimiento” written by Palacios Rubios of the Council of Castile: ”Unless you yourselves, when informed of the truth, should wish to be converted to our holy catholic faith, as almost all the inhabitants of all the other islands have done. And besides this, their highness awards you with many privileges and exceptions and will grant you many benefits. But if you do not do this, and maliciously made delay on it, I certify to you, that with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can.”
The “requerimiento” confirms, Native Americans would have been fearful of defying the Spaniards and their faith. The ‘Spanish Requirement of 1513 (“El Requerimiento”) was a declaration by the Spanish monarchy of its divinely ordained right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit and, when necessary, to fight the native inhabitants. The Requirement was read in Spanish to Native Americans to inform them of Spain’s rights to conquest. Those who subsequently resisted conquest were considered to harbor evil intentions. The Spaniards thus considered those who resisted as defying God’s plan, and used Catholic theology to justify their conquest. Spanish conquistadors subdued and exploited Native Americans. They employed the pre-Columbian draft system called the mita and treated their subjects as something between slaves and serfs. Spaniards also replaced the ruling Aztecs and Incas and divided the conquered lands among themselves ruling as new feudal lords. Dominican friar Anton Montecino preached the following during a sermon in Santo Domingo many colonial leaders attended:”You are in mortal sin and you are heading for damnation.
For you are destroying an innocent people. They are god’s people these innocent whom you destroy. By what right do you make them die? Mining gold for you in your mines or working for you in the fields, by what right do you unleash enslaving wars upon them?.” Anton Montecinos source reveals the deprivation of Native American rights as a result of Spanish conquest contradicted Christian ethics. When Columbus returned with slaves, they ordered many of the survivors to be returned to their Caribbean homelands. The papal bull Sublimus Dei of 1537, to which Spain was committed, also officially banned slavery, but it was rescinded a year after its promulgation. The Spanish used other forms of coerced labor in their colonies, such as the Indian Reductions method, the encomienda system, repartimiento, and the mita. After passage of the 1542 New Laws, the Spanish greatly restricted the power of the encomienda system. The statutes of 1573, within the “Ordinances Concerning Discoveries,” forbade certain kinds of coerced labor and regulated treatment of the local population.
It required appointment of a “protector de indios”, an ecclesiastical representative who acted as the protector of the Indians and represented them in formal litigation. These laws did not significantly change the practice of encomienda and mita forced labor. Later in the 16th century, in the viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico) and Peru, thousands of indigenous people were forced to work as underground miners in the mines of Guanajuato, Zacatecas and Potosi. Antonio Vasquez de Espinosa, a Spanish friar and missionary who sought to convert the Indians to Christianity, describes the silver mines of Potosi: “These Indians are sent out every year under a captain whom they choose in each village or tribe, for him to take them and oversee them for the year each had to serve; this gives rise to great extortions and abuses on the part of the inspectors toward the poor Indians, ruining them and thus depriving the chief Indians of their property and carrying them off in chains because they do not fill out the mita assignment”.
The historic account of Antonio Vasquez the Espinosa divulges Spaniards saw Natives as inferior subjects. They were subject to exploitation in harsh conditions and treated inhumanely. Indisputably Native American exploitation was immoral and a violation of human rights. Yet to Spaniards it was highly beneficial, proving to be an effective way in which to obtain natural resources and enrich the Crown of Castile. In essence Spanish conquest had three main effects on the Americas after 1942. Firstly, military conquest associated with catastrophic impact of pestilence decimated the Native American population in a mere time frame of 10-50 years. Secondly the forced imposition of Catholicism in America by Spaniards overrode and suppressed Native American culture. Finally, Spaniards exploited Natives – through diverse forms of serfdom and near slavery to extract natural resources and cultivate lands that would enrich the Spanish Monarchy. Such Exploitation of native Americans also attributed in the depopulation of America.