Why were the Spanish able to conquer and colonize the Americas?

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Many historians’ interpretations of Spanish New World imperialism traditionally identified “conquest” and “colonization” as two distinct processes, with “conquest” having been completed first. More recent ethnohistorical and archaeological investigations have shown that both processes worked together and, in many parts of the Americas, “conquest” in terms of military defeat was...

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Many historians’ interpretations of Spanish New World imperialism traditionally identified “conquest” and “colonization” as two distinct processes, with “conquest” having been completed first. More recent ethnohistorical and archaeological investigations have shown that both processes worked together and, in many parts of the Americas, “conquest” in terms of military defeat was not a significant part of the Spanish strategy.

In terms of military engagements, conflicting cultural visions of “battle” were one significant factor that contributed to many initial Spanish victories. Because the Spaniards were newcomers, they were unfamiliar with the cultural norms of armed conflict that predominated in most parts of the Americas. Warfare had a strongly ritualized component, and the rules of engagement included such features as auspicious times to conduct battle, taking and enslaving of prisoners who would later be exchanged, and ceasing combat after a fixed period of time.

Both from ignorance of those norms and disregard for the power of the rulers they encountered, the Spanish did not adhere to those rules. For example, once they had obtained the ransom they demanded for the Inca Emperor Atahuallpa, rather than releasing him as promised, the Spanish executed him.

The phases of colonization included negotiations and diplomacy, which was largely carried out by intermediaries who managed to learn both languages. These negotiations were both time-consuming and unreliable because of language barriers. Both outright deception and miscommunication resulted in numerous agreements being broken, often to the advantage of the foreigners.

Gender relations, reproduction, and reassignment of property through inheritance was another significant set of combined tactics. The Spanish learned that in many areas, women had rights to inherit property. Spanish men both married indigenous women and had non-marital arrangements, often in addition to having a Spanish wife back home. The children of elite Native women were often entitled to inherit property, which their fathers effectively controlled under Spanish law.

Rapidly increasing the population of part-European children substantially increased the ranks of those loyal to the Crown and to the Catholic church.

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It really does seem inexplicable that the Spanish were able to conquer American civilizations when they were so incredibly outnumbered. They did, however, have several advantages that made it possible for them to succeed.

For starters, the native peoples of the Americas had never encountered an enemy like the Spanish before. The Spanish came armed with metal weapons, warhorses, and firearms. These were weapons that Native Americans had never faced before. They simply did not know how to contend with these threats using their weapons and strategy.

However, far more people were killed by European-introduced diseases than by Spanish steel. Unwittingly, the Spanish introduced diseases that the people in the Americas had no immunities to. It is thought that within the first century after European contact, as much as 80% of the native population died from European illnesses.

Additionally, several Spanish conquistadors were able to use local rulers as hostages to have their demands met. Cortes was able to capture the Aztec king Montezuma, and Pizarro took the Inca king Atahualpa hostage. They were able to manipulate this situation to their advantage, giving them a leg up on the local population.

It is also important to remember that the different American peoples were far from unified. The Spanish conquistadores were often able to take advantage of long-standing rivalries. Frequently, the Spanish made alliances with the enemies of the dominant group in the area in order to win over useful allies. If they could get the native peoples to fight each other, it would make the job of the Spanish that much easier. This was the case with Cortez and the Toltecs and Balboa and the people of Darien. Most of the time, these native allies underestimated the Spanish, who later turned on them once their common enemy was subdued.

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There are three main reasons why the Spanish were able to conquer and colonize the Americas:

  1. Disease. One of the biggest hurdles to Spanish victory in the New World was population—some conquistadors only brought a handful of men and were up against empires that were a million or more strong. For examples, Hernan Cortes brought 500 men into battle against the Aztec Empire and won. One of the major reasons why he won was became of disease transmission. The native inhabitants of the Americas had not experienced smallpox and, with the Columbian Exchange, diseases from the Old World were introduced to people without any immunity. Smallpox ravaged the populations of the New World and anywhere between 50 and 80% of the total population died. While conquistadors like Hernan Cortes in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro had great weapons and strategies, their greatest ally was disease.
  2. Better weaponry. Iron weapons and technology did not exist in the Americas. Gunpowder was a Chinese creation that, by the time of the Age of Exploration, had spread throughout Europe. The Spanish possessed better weapons and gunpowder. The indigenous Americans, although fearsome warriors, were no match for guns.
  3. Internal Struggles. In the Inca Empire, prior to Spanish arrival, a Civil War ravaged the country. Atahualpa and his older brother Huascar fought each other for control of the Inca Empire. Atahualpa eventually won, and the empire he inherited was filled with division and weakened from war. Enter Francisco Pizarro. Taking advantage of the weakened state, disease, and superior weaponry and strategy, Pizarro was able to conquer the Incans. In the Aztec Empire, Hernan Cortes used some of the Aztec's enemies in the Yucatan and took advantage of the internal strife between Mesoamerican groups.
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