After Columbus Day: perspective on the Spanish Conquests of the Aztecs and the Inca

Columbus Day has come and gone for another year and the periodic reflection on the ‘discovery’ of America and the age of European exploration and colonization has once more taken a back seat. One of the more interesting pieces of the 2015 edition was Philip T. Hoffman’s ‘How Europe Conquered the World’. Hoffman argues that the Europeans’ ‘single-minded focus on war and the extraordinary ability to tax’ were primary reasons why they were able to dominate so much of the globe from the Early Modern period to the 20th century.

Columbus lays claim to the New World, 1492
Columbus lays claim to the New World, 1492

The Spaniards were particularly effective in this respect, especially during their golden age of empire in the 16th century. With a formidable soldiery and an equally impressive bureaucratic structure, the Spaniards created a vast New World empire that was not eclipsed for two centuries. Their most famous conquests were over the Aztec and Inca Empires which, as this piece argues, were accomplished with varying degrees of difficulty, highlighting the immense challenges that confronted a relative handful of Spanish conquistadores as they took some of the greatest civilizations in history.

The Spanish conquests in Central and South America were momentous events in the history of the New World and were unarguably great achievements. Yet, whilst the Spanish extended their rule over the Aztecs in the space of a couple of years, it took them far longer to attain such domination over the Incas. Indeed, it can even be argued that at one stage the Spaniards saw their rule over the Incas decrease as they alienated their puppet Inca Manquo. Whereas it took several decades to finally quell Inca opposition, the Spaniards eroded native rule in Mesoamerica with such speed that they “destroyed the Aztec confederation.”[1]

One of the key reasons why the Spanish struggled to extend their rule over the Incas was because of the sheer size of the Inca Empire and the logistical difficulty in being able to pacify all its regions with such a small number of men. At its biggest the Empire covered a staggering 984,200 square kilometers and was over 4,000 kilometers long.[2] Even before the Spanish arrival the Incas had had difficulty ruling such a vast territory, having to rely on a network of clients and the extensive migration of the more troublesome tribes nearer to their capital at Cuzco.[3]

On the contrary, Hernan Cortes and the Spanish expedition to Mexico did not suffer the same logistical problems, as Aztec power was concentrated in a much smaller area. Although Aztec rule stretched across several provinces, their main power base was in the Valley of Mexico, which was only 75 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west[4], considerably smaller than the Inca Empire. Therefore, the Spanish could extend their rule over the Aztecs with far greater rapidity than was possible in South America. Additionally, the city of Tenochtitlan was the only major Aztec stronghold and, whilst it was well defended, the Spaniards could be assured that by taking control of the city they would be guaranteed almost complete rule over the Valley of Mexico.[5] This allowed Cortes and his men to focus their military energies solely on Tenochtitlan and would eventually lead to its surrounding and the starvation of its inhabitants.[6]

The mighty citadel of Tenochtitlan
The mighty citadel of Tenochtitlan

Whilst the Spanish significantly extended their rule over the Aztecs in one crucial conquest of Tenochtitlan, it was not as simple for them in South America. Because of the sheer size of the Inca Empire and the civil war that had ensued just before the Spanish arrival,[7] there were further strongholds other than the capital Cuzco. Therefore, whilst the Spanish took the capital with relative ease, it did not greatly extend their rule over the Incas, as in the case of Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs. Indeed, the northern city of Quito remained unconquered under Atahualpa’s general Ruminawi[8] and there were towns far south of Cuzco in Chile with wildly divergent weather conditions ranging from snowy passes to the barren landscape of the Atacama Desert.[9]

To overcome such difficulties there was only one solution for the Spaniards and that was to maintain strong native alliances and Inca support. However, their failure to do so meant that these problems could not be overcome quickly and led to further complications in extending their rule. In the initial phase of the Inca conquest, the Spanish used native support effectively by incorporating factions of the deposed Huascar into their ranks in their mission to defeat Atahualpa’s followers.[10] The benefits of this can be seen by the ease with which they took Cuzco, yet the Spanish failed to realise how important native support was to securing their rule and they began to jeopardize these relationships with characteristically brutal behavior towards their most important ally.[11] The Spanish had managed to retain the support of the Inca leader Manquo for the best part of three years.[12] This allowed them to pacify the fiercely-defended northern lands surrounding Quito, without the threat of rebellion in Cuzco. Nevertheless, the treatment of Manquo Inca became gradually more degrading and even Spanish sources acknowledge the abuses that he suffered.[13] By alienating their most valuable ally through acts of abuse, the Spanish quickly surrendered the support of the natives and this ultimately led to a vicious rebellion that challenged their nascent rule.[14]

The controversial execution of Atahualpa, the last Sapa Inca, in 1533
The controversial execution of Atahualpa, the last Sapa Inca, in 1533

The loss of key popular support and native alliances would only increase Spanish problems in extending their rule over the Incas, whereas the Cortes expedition in Mexico neatly exploited existing tensions within the Aztec Empire. Cortes secured a crucial alliance with the Tlaxcalans after they had at first resisted him, when it would have been just as easy to brutally slaughter the vanquished people. Cortes himself acknowledged the importance of securing this native support and refraining from brutality. [15] The Tlaxcalans not only provided excellent military support against the Aztecs but offered the Spaniards refuge after the Nochte Triste, when nearly half of Cortes’ forces were destroyed.[16] Without this welcome retreat, where the Spaniards were nursed back to strength,[17] it is likely the invaders would have been forced out of Mexico altogether rather than return to complete their conquest. Furthermore, Cortes exploited the divisions between the Aztecs and their subjects, explaining: “when I saw the discord and animosity between these two peoples I was not a little pleased, for it seemed to further my purpose considerably.”[18] Therefore, through careful consideration and awareness of the state of affairs in the Valley of Mexico, the Spanish were able to increase their position over the Aztecs without constant bloodshed.

It is important to examine the role of the leaders of the two conquest parties because Cortes’ leadership and strategy was certainly not matched by the men in charge of the Inca conquest. As we have seen, Cortes astutely recognized the importance of native alliances in strengthening the Spanish position against the Aztecs. However, perhaps more importantly he was able to maintain a level of unity amongst his own men that was never matched by the Spaniards in Peru. From a very early stage in the conquest Cortes managed to quash dissension within the Spanish ranks by destroying the naval fleet, preventing mutiny back to Cuba.[19] This act also gave the Spanish force extra soldiers to tackle the might of the Aztec armies and no doubt Cortes’ confidence inspired similar sentiments amongst his men. It cannot be overstated how important it was for Cortes to keep a united Spanish force when fighting against numbers far exceeding their own, particularly when his actions were putting him into political conflict with Velasquez in Cuba who had not authorized a mission of conquest.[20] It was not just Cortes’ motivational and organisational ability that helped the Spaniards extend their rule over the Aztecs, but his military command. Aside from winning a potentially ruinous battle against his future allies the Tlaxcalans[21] Cortes was influential in masterminding the siege of Tenochtitlan, which would ultimately lead to overall victory. Bernal Diaz emphasised that during the siege Cortes was “always writing to tell us all what we were to do and how we were to fight.”[22] He proved a consummate marshal under trying circumstances.

Cortes scuttled his fleet to prevent mutiny
Cortes scuttled his fleet to prevent mutiny

Such strategic planning was largely absent in Peru, where the leadership was both divided and miscalculated. Although Fernando Pizarro was commissioned to lead the expedition, his position became gradually weakened after the seizure of Cuzco. As already noted, there were other strongholds spread throughout the Inca Empire meaning that the expedition had to be split into different factions whilst these areas were brought under Spanish control. Whilst Francisco Pizarro was away establishing a coastal trading post at Lima, his brothers (Gonzalo and Juan) remained in Cuzco where they were largely responsible for the mistreatment of Manquo Inca. [23] Without a central commander it was very difficult to maintain Spanish discipline, which was needed so desperately to avoid the problems they incurred. The sources suggest a clear Spanish lust for riches (not unusual in early New World history), highlighted by the rush to Quito when news of Atahualpa’s treasure became apparent.[24] Not only did this create wild indiscipline on the Spanish part but it also led to the severe under-garrisoning of Cuzco on several occasions[25], which would prove very dangerous to Spanish ambitions.

Spanish greed would ultimately lead to the biggest problem they would face in extending their rule over the Incas; the eruption of infighting and civil war. The arrival of Diego de Almagro had been a benefit in the early part of the Inca conquest, as his forces reinvigorated the Spanish mission.[26] Nevertheless, as the other problems of the conquest began to surface in the mid-1530s a dispute arose between the partners Pizarro and Almagro over who was to govern Cuzco after Charles V had split the Inca Empire between the two.[27] How could the Spaniards extend their rule over the Incas when their focus was dominated by the tensions within their own forces? To alleviate the tension, Almagro commenced an expedition south to Chile – over which the Spaniards had yet to exercise control – to look for “land fruitful and to his content.”[28] Almagro’s unsuccessful expedition to Chile intensified his desire for Cuzco, which he seized on his return from the Pizarros and consequently sparked over a decade of bloody Spanish civil war in Peru,[29] which would see both faction heads killed.[30]

Pizarro's march through Peru was a long, arduous and bloody one
Pizarro’s march through Peru was a long, arduous and bloody one

The Spanish division not only led to a loss of focus on the conquest but gave Inca rebellion a greater possibility of success. Manquo Inca took advantage of the removal of forces from Cuzco and launched a huge siege against his former capital that severely threatened Spanish rule in South America.[31] However, rather than finish Manquo off after the failed siege in 1537, “he was saved by the Spaniards’ own dissensions.”[32] The Spaniards were too concerned with the ensuing Almagro-Pizarro civil war and therefore they missed a golden opportunity to gain complete rule over the Incas, allowing Manquo to escape to the notoriously inaccessible retreat of Vilcabamba from which he would launch raids against the Spaniards for years to come.[33]

Unlike in the Inca campaign, Cortes and his forces prevented a similar event of Spanish infighting from occurring with their swift repression of Paniflo Narvaez, who was sent from Cuba to apprehend him.[34] Again Cortes was aware of the damage infighting would do to his goal of dominating the Aztecs, emphasising that if Narvaez had succeeded it “would have been the greatest harm that Spaniards had done to each other for a long time past.”[35] Nevertheless, Cortes did not allow such an event to occur as his superior military command and oratory prowess allowed him both to quickly defeat and capture Narvaez, as well convincing his troops to “accept his command.”[36] Cortes turned this potential crisis into an advantage, increasing his troop size and his authority amongst his men.

The Spanish confronted severe challenges in first trying to conquer and then trying to extend their authority over the remnants of both the Aztec and Inca Empires. Yet, under the leadership of Hernan Cortes the Spaniards managed to overcome the problems they faced with impressive speed. On the other hand, the Spaniards in Peru failed to maintain a united force and the internal conflict that arose between the Pizarro and Almagro clans ultimately threatened the early European presence in South America. Although the size of the Inca Empire made it very difficult for the Spaniards to exert their authority, they created further troubles for themselves by not planning their moves in advance. Indeed the Spanish conquest of the Incas was characterised by spontaneous action such as the mistreatment of Manquo, which was a  self-destructive move motivated by ignorance and greed and would contribute to the longevity of the conquest.  This is not to suggest that the men on Cortes’ mission were not motivated by the prospects of fantastic wealth but they refrained from acting on their desires until the fall of Tenochtitlan when they could loot and pillage[37] without their actions compromising their mission. This enabled the formation of one of the most prosperous Spanish colonies in the New World in a matter of a few years, whereas the imperial standard would take decades to settle over the citadels of Peru.

Bibliography

Bodmer, B.P., The armature of conquest: Spanish accounts of the discovery of America, 1492-1589 (Stanford, 1992) translated by Lydia Longstreth Hunt

Cieza de Leon, P., The discovery and conquest of Peru: chronicles of the New World encounter (Durham, 1998) edited and translated by Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble      David Cook

Cortes, H., Letters from Mexico (London, 1972) translated (from the Spanish) and edited by A.R. Pagden

D’Altroy, T.N., The Incas (Oxford, 2002)

Diaz del Castillo, B., The conquest of new Spain: translated (from the Spanish) by J.M. Cohen (Harmondsworth, 1963)

Dobyns, H. & Doughty, P., Peru: a cultural history (New York, 1976)

Elliott, J.H., ‘The Spanish conquest and settlement of America’, in L. Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge history of Latin America: colonial Latin America (Volume 1, Cambridge, 1984)

Elliott, J.H., Spain and its world, 1500-1700: selected essays (New Haven; London, 1989)

Hassig, R., Mexico and the Spanish conquest (Harlow, 1994)

Hemming, J., The conquest of the Incas (London, 1970)

Prescott, W.H., History of the conquest of Mexico (New York; London, 2002)

Spalding, K., Huarochiri: an Andean society under Inca and Spanish rule (Stanford, 1984)

Thomas, H., The conquest of Mexico (London, 1993)

Todorov, T., The conquest of America: the question of the other (New York; London, 1984) translated from the French by Richard Howard

Wachtel, N., The vision of the vanquished: the Spanish conquest of Peru through Indian eyes, 1530-1570 (Hassocks, 1977) translated (from the French) by Ben and Siân Reynolds

Zarate, A., A history of the discovery and conquest of Peru (London, 1933) books 1-4 translated out of the Spanish by Thomas Nicholas, anno 1581

Endnotes

[1] J. H. Elliott, ‘The Spanish conquest and settlement of America’, in L. Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge history of Latin America: colonial Latin America (Volume 1, Cambridge, 1984) p. 171

[2] H. Dobyns & P. Doughty, Peru: a cultural history (New York, 1976) p. 56

[3] K. Spalding, Huarochiri: an Andean society under Inca and Spanish rule (Stanford, 1984) p. 136

[4] H. Thomas, The conquest of Mexico (London, 1993) p. 5

[5] J. H. Elliott, ‘The Spanish conquest and settlement of America’, in L. Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge history of Latin America: colonial Latin America (Volume 1, Cambridge, 1984) p. 181

[6] B. Diaz del Castillo, The conquest of new Spain: translated (from the Spanish) by J.M. Cohen (Harmondsworth, 1963) p. 407

[7] T.N. D’Altroy, The Incas (Oxford, 2002) p. 319

[8] P. Cieza de Leon, The discovery and conquest of Peru: chronicles of the New World encounter (Durham, 1998) p. 323

[9] Ibid., p. 464

[10] T.N. D’Altroy, The Incas (Oxford, 2002) p. 316

[11] N. Wachtel, The vision of the vanquished: the Spanish conquest of Peru through Indian eyes, 1530-1570 (Hassocks, 1977) p. 170

[12] Ibid., p. 170

[13] P. Cieza de Leon, The discovery and conquest of Peru: chronicles of the New World encounter (Durham, 1998) p. 408

[14] N. Wachtel, The vision of the vanquished: the Spanish conquest of Peru through Indian eyes, 1530-1570 (Hassocks, 1977) p. 171

[15] H. Cortes, Letters from Mexico (London, 1972) pp. 66-7

[16] T. Todorov, The conquest of America: the question of the other (New York; London, 1984) p. 55

[17] W.H. Prescott, History of the conquest of Mexico (New York; London, 2002) p. 622

[18] B.P. Bodmer, The armature of conquest: Spanish accounts of the discovery of America, 1492-1589 (Stanford, 1992) p. 91

[19] W.H. Prescott, History of the conquest of Mexico (New York; London, 2002) pp. 265-6

[20] J.H. Elliott, Spain and its world, 1500-1700: selected essays (New Haven; London, 1989) p. 35

[21] R. Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish conquest (Harlow, 1994) p. 72

[22] H. Thomas, The conquest of Mexico (London, 1993) p. 515

[23] H. Dobyns & P. Doughty, Peru: a cultural history (New York, 1976) pp. 68-9

[24] J. Hemming, The conquest of the Incas (London, 1970) p. 152

[25] N. Wachtel, The vision of the vanquished: the Spanish conquest of Peru through Indian eyes, 1530-1570 (Hassocks, 1977) p. 171

[26] T.N. D’Altroy, The Incas (Oxford, 2002) p. 315

[27] J. Hemming, The conquest of the Incas (London, 1970) pp. 174-5

[28] A. Zarate, A history of the discovery and conquest of Peru (London, 1933) pp. 106-7

[29] H. Dobyns & P. Doughty, Peru: a cultural history (New York, 1976) p. 72

[30] K. Spalding, Huarochiri: an Andean society under Inca and Spanish rule (Stanford, 1984) p. 143

[31] T.N. D’Altroy, The Incas (Oxford, 2002) p. 318

[32] J. Hemming, The conquest of the Incas (London, 1970) p. 233

[33] Ibid., pp. 480-1

[34] B. Diaz del Castillo, The conquest of new Spain: translated (from the Spanish) by J.M. Cohen (Harmondsworth, 1963) pp. 280-1

[35] H. Cortes, Letters from Mexico (London, 1972) p. 127

[36] T. Todorov, The conquest of America: the question of the other (New York; London, 1984) p. 55

[37] T. Todorov, The conquest of America: the question of the other (New York; London, 1984) p. 58

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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