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Conquistador (meaning "Conqueror" in the Spanish language) is the term used to refer to the soldiers, explorers, and adventurers who brought much of the Americas under Spanish rule between the 15th and 17th centuries. Columbus's discovery of the New World in 1492 afforded Spain a headstart in Colonization of the Americas. The Americas is the area encompassing both North and South America and the Caribbean.



The leaders of Spanish expeditions to the New World called themselves conquistadores, a name derived from reconquista, the Christian desire to (re)conquer the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim Moors (711-1492). They also evoked the name of Santiago Matamoros ("St. James the Moor-killer") before going into battle against the Native population of the Americas. Many conquistadores were poor nobles (hidalgos) seeking a fortune in the West Indies, since there were limited prospects in Europe. Many were also fleeing the religious repression caused by the Spanish Inquisition.


The first Spanish conquest in the Americas was the island of Hispaniola. From there, Juan Ponce de León conquered Puerto Rico and Diego Velázquez took Cuba. The first settlement on the mainland was Darién in Panama, settled by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1512.

The most successful Conquistador was Hernán Cortés. Between 1520 and 1521, Cortés, along with some Native American allies, conquered the mighty Aztec empire, thus bringing present day Mexico (then called New Spain) under the dominion of the Spanish empire. Of comparable importance was the conquest of the South American Inca Empire by the illiterate Francisco Pizarro. Both were helped by smallpox and other European plagues that wiped out most of the native population and the military and political leaders before the first battles began.

Rumours of golden cities (Cibola in North America and "El Dorado" in South America) caused several more expeditions to leave for the Americas, but many returned without finding any gold, finding less gold than expected, or finding Fool's Gold. The ransom that Sapa Inca Atahualpa paid for his freedom, was taken back to Spain, leading to additional Conquistador expeditions in South America.

Debate on the Human Rights of Natives

Most of the conquistadors cruelly mistreated the inhabitants of the regions they visited or conquered; killing, enslaving, raping and otherwise abusing them. Some Spaniards, notably the priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, defended Native Americans against the abuses of conquistadors. In 1542, new Spanish colonial laws known as the New Laws of 1542 were passed to protect the rights of Native inhabitants. In 1552, Bartolomé de las Casas published A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias). In 1615, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala sent the 1200 page New Chronicle and primer on good government (El primer nueva crónica y buen gobierno) to the King of Spain. This was a history of the Inca, their conquest, and their misstreatment written by a former Inca noble who had a guilty conscience in his old age about helping the Conquistadors and wanted to inform the King of the problems. It was lost to history until 1908, when it was discovered in the personal library of the Royalty of Denmark.

List of Famous Conquistadors and Explorers

Additional Info

The book, Born In Blood And Fire: Concise History of Latin America by John Charles Chasteen is a good summary of the history of Latin America.

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