Spanish Conquest and Empire


  • Why was Spain so interested in Exploration?
  • Expulsion of Muslim Rule made the royalty want to reassert itself
  • Wanted to find another route to profitable Chinese spice trade
  • Were fervent about spreading Christianity

Background: Explorers & Conquerors:


  • Christopher Columbus was an Italian navigator from Genoa who wanted to reach the East Indies, a group of islands located in Southeast Asia, by sailing west across the Atlantic.
  • Columbus greatly underestimated the size of the Earth and he didn’t know that two continents lay in his path.
  • He persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to finance his voyage after Portugal refused to sponsor him.
  • After Spain expelled Jews in the hopes of promoting Catholicism, they lost many smart people and Spain weakened. Ferdinand and Isabella hoped Columbus’s voyage would bring wealth.
  • Columbus sailed west on August 3, 1492, and he found land on October 12.
  • Columbus remained convinced he had reached the Coast of East Asia, but before long other Europeans realized Columbus had actually found new continents.
  • Line of Demarcation—divided the non-European world into two zones.

-Spain—trade and exploration rights on lands west of the line

-Portugal—same rights east of the line

  • Terms on the Line of Demarcation were agreed to in the Treaty of Tordesillas
  • Americas=both continents of the Western Hemisphere
  • Islands in the Caribbean that Columbus explored were the West Indies.
  • When Columbus first arrived in the West Indies, he met the Taino people. They were friendly, but the Spanish still treated them harshly.
  • Columbus’s men assaulted Taino people, claimed their land for Spain, and seized some Tainos to take back to the Spanish king.
  • The Spanish killed any Tainos who tried resisting.
  • Columbus later required them to give him a set amount of gold and any who failed to deliver were tortured or killed.
  • Columbus’s trip to the Americas was copied by a wave of Spanish Conquistadors.


  • Among the earliest conquistadors was Hernan Cortes. He heard of Spanish expeditions and believed he could succeed.
  • 1519—landed on the coast of Mexico with about 600 men, 16 horses, and a few cannons.
  • Began an inland trek toward Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.
  • Messengers brought word about the Spanish to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma.
  • He was terrified that the leader of the pale-skinned, bearded strangers (this leader would be Cortes) was Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god-king who had vowed to return from the east.
  • Moctezuma sent gifts of feathers and other good with religious importance and urged the strangers not to come to Tenochtitlan
  • Cortes had no intention of turning back, and he did not care about the religious goods.
  • Moctezuma started sending him gold and silver, which Cortes was interested in.
  • At this point, Cortes was extremely determined to reach Tenochtitlan.
  • The Spanish eventually made it.
  • They decided to imprison Moctezuma so they could gain control of the Aztecs and their riches.
  • Cortes forced Moctezuma to sign over his land and treasure to the Spanish.
  • A new force of Spanish conquistadors arrived to challenge Cortes.
  • Moctezuma and half of the Spanish were killed.
  • Cortes and his Indian allies captured and demolished Tenochtitlan in 1521.
  • The Spanish later built Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.


  • Spaniard Francisco Pizarro was interested in Peru’s Inca Empire.
  • He arrived in Peru in 1532.
  • The Incan ruler Atahualpa refused to become a Spanish vassal or convert to Christianity, so Pizarro captured him and slaughtered thousands of Inca.
  • The Spanish demanded a huge ransom for the Incan ruler. The Inca paid it, but the Spanish killed Atahualpa anyway.
  • Pizarro and his followers overran the Incan heartland because they had superior weapons and the Inca were weakened by European diseases.
  • From Peru, Spanish forces surged across Ecuador and Chile and Spain added much of South America to its empire.
  • Pizarro was eventually killed by a rival Spanish faction.

Map of 1492 Journey

Christopher Columbus – Another Route to Riches:

“FERDINAND and ELIZABETH, by the Grace of God, King and Queen of Castile, of Leon, of Aragon, of Sicily, of Granada, of Toledo, of Valencia, of Galicia, of Majorca, of Minorca, of Sevil, of Sardinia, of Jaen, of Algarve, of Algezira, of Gibraltar, of the Canary Islands, Count and Countess of Barcelona, Lord and Lady of Biscay and Molina, Duke and Duchess of Athens and Neopatria. Count and Countess of Rousillion and Cerdaigne, Marquess and Marchioness of Oristan and Gociano, &c.

For as much of you, Christopher Columbus, are going by our command, with some of our vessels and men, to discover and subdue some Islands and Continent in the ocean, and it is hoped that by God’s assistance, some of the said Islands and Continent in the ocean will be discovered and conquered by your means and conduct, therefore it is but just and reasonable, that since you expose yourself to such danger to serve us, you should be rewarded for it. And we being willing to honour and favour You for the reasons aforesaid: Our will is, That you, Christopher Columbus, after discovering and conquering the said Islands and Continent in the said ocean, or any of them, shall be our Admiral of the said Islands and Continent you shall so discover and conquer; and that you be our Admiral, Vice-Roy, and Governour in them, and that for the future, you may call and stile yourself, D. Christopher Columbus, and that your sons and successors in the said employment, may call themselves Dons, Admirals, Vice-Roys, and Governours of them; and that you may exercise the office of Admiral, with the charge of Vice-Roy and Governour of the said Islands and Continent, which you and your Lieutenants shall conquer, and freely decide all causes, civil and criminal, appertaining to the said employment of Admiral, Vice-Roy, and Governour, as you shall think fit in justice, and as the Admirals of our kingdoms use to do; and that you have power to punish offenders; and you and your Lieutenants exercise the employments of Admiral, Vice-Roy, and Governour, in all things belonging to the said offices, or any of them; and that you enjoy the perquisites and salaries belonging to the said employments, and to each of them, in the same manner as the High Admiral of our kingdoms does.” – From the Charter for Christopher Columbus, 1492

Christopher Columbus was an Italian navigator from Genoa who wanted to reach the East Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic. The Indies were a group of islands in Southeast Asia, part of Indonesia. Christopher Columbus knew that the Earth was a sphere, but he underestimated Earth’s actual size. He had no idea that two continents were undiscovered and blocked his way to the Indies. Portugal refused to sponsor his trip. In August of 1492, Columbus sailed west with 3 small ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. In October, the crew spotted land and they believed it was actually the West until he was told not.

The Columbian Exchange is when Columbus returned to Spain in March 1493, he brought plants and animals that he found in America. The exchange of all the animals and plants between Europe and the Americas started the entire global exchange that affected the world. Christopher Columbus went back and forth between both Europe and the Americas with 1,200 settlers and European plants and animals.

The Treaty of Tordesillas is when Pope Alexander the VI created a treaty that split the Americas called the Line of Demarcation. It divided non-European world into two zones: the west and the east; Spain got the west and got free trading and exploration rights in that area. The treaty included the specific terms of the line and was signed in 1494 by both Portugal and Spain. The line was hard to point out on actual land so both Spain and Portugal were having to build empires very quickly.

Two great conquistadors were Hernan Cortes or Cortez and Francisco Pizarro. Cortez was one of the earliest conquistadors. He was a landowner in Cuba who heard of Spanish expeditions that had been repelled by Indians. He was very confident that he could succeed in an expedition. He began the inland trek to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec empire’s capital. The Aztec’s thought he was a god. He compelled Montezuma to do as he told him to. He was allied with other Indian tribes to take down the Aztecs.

He was very interested in the gold and money that the Aztecs possessed. Because of Cortez, Moctezuma was killed by his people and in 1521, Cortez captured and destroyed the capital. Pizarro, another conquistador, was very inspired by Cortez and became very interested in Peru’s Inca Empire because they had more riches than the Aztecs. He arrived in Peru in 1532. He captured the Incan ruler, Atahualpa who had won the thrown from his brother because of a civil war and refused to become a vassal or convert to Christianity. Pizarro slaughtered thousands of Incas and demanded a huge ransom for the Incas to get their ruler back. They paid a lot to get him, yet killed him anyways. Pizarro overran the Incan heartland and won because they had superior weapons and Incans had caught European diseases. South America went to the empire of Spain and Pizarro established the city of Lima. Pizarro was killed a few years later after creating the city by a rival.

The Conqueror of Mexico

Hernan Cortes

“Montezuma, who, with one of his sons and many other chiefs who had been captured at the beginning, was still a prisoner, asked to be carried to the roof of the fort where he could speak to the captains and the people, and cause the war to cease. I had him taken thither, and when he reached the parapet on the top of the fort, intending to speak to the people who were fighting there, one of his own subjects struck him on the head with a stone, with such force that within three days he died. I then had him taken out, dead as he was, by two of the Indian prisoners, who bore him away to his people; but I do not know what they did with him, except that the war did not cease, but went on more stoutly and more fiercely every day….” – Excerpt from Cortes’ battle account from Mexico City, June 1520

The Encomiendas were granted by monarchs to conquistadors, they used this system to demand labor or tribute from Native Americans in a particular area. If the Native Americans resisted, they were hunted down and killed. There were great declines in the Native American population. Along with using this system on plantations, it was also used in mines. If Indians died they were just replaced, and thousands died.

Viceroys were in each province set up by the king to maintain strict control over the empire. They were lesser officials and advisory councils of Spanish settlers.

Peninsulares were the top of the social class. They were the settlers who were born in Spain and they filled the highest positions in both colonial governments and the Catholic Church. Creoles were the class next to the Peninsulares. They were the American-born descendants of Spanish settlers and owned most of plantations, ranches, and mines. The Mestizos and Mulattoes were a mix of populations. Mestizos were Native American and European descent and the Mulattoes were the lowest of the social classes with African and European descent.


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