This essay attempts to answer the question of how the Spanish were able to successfully colonise the ‘new world’. Not only did they face the extremes of travelling vast distance by seas, but also they were faced with indigenous peoples organised into large empires that commanded vast amounts of wealth as well as vast amounts of citizens. Then came the task of setting up permanent settlements capable of sustaining themselves in a hostile environment. It is often tempting to attribute this success in the face of so many monumental difficulties to technology, however this is an over simplistic view, and it is the aim of this essay to examine the events in question in more detail and put them in their necessary context. Starting with European mentality, this essay shall move on to discuss Spanish tactics and strategies as well as the economy and function of the settlements established after the Spanish defeat of the Aztec and Incan empires. Lastly, there will be a concise conclusion summarising the main points raised and offering what the author believes to be the key reasons the Spanish were able to successfully colonise the ‘New World’.
Before any sort of discussion on the conquest itself, it is prudent first to understand the mindset of those involved. What ideas led to the Spanish to colonise the ‘New World, and, when there, what ideas fuelled them in battle, and so on? Before looking at the views and belief of the Spanish at the time, it is important to put these views in their proper context. Europeans have, historically, long been at odds with the inhabitants of Asia and Africa. However, this rivalry existed long before the concept of national identities. The difference between Europeans and non-Europeans was not that they were from a different place, but that that they were different people. As Pagden notes:
“For most Greeks the difference between what they called Europe – by which they meant frequently if not consistently Hellas, the lands around the Aegean sea – and Asia and Africa would remain, as it had been for Aeschylus, one not only of climate and disposition, but also of race (ethos).”
Pagden traces the development of European attitudes towards non-Europeans from the earlier European civilisations to conquest-era Spain. A number of key influential ideas that impacted later intellectual and political culture include the idea that Europe was the figurative middle ground between the ‘three quarters of the globe,’ an idea that continued as far as the 19th century:
“In Strabo’s Account the Greek dialectic between the world of nature (physis) and that of men (nomos, a term that which relates to law, but which we would translate ‘culture’) has been resolved in Europe, and only in Europe. Because of this harmony Europe becomes, in another image which has survived unbroken to this day, the home of liberty and of true government.”
Europeans believed themselves to be possessors of a common law, that which the peoples of other continents lacked. Another important idea that influenced later European thinking was the idea of ‘the polis’, or the city. The heart of European intellectual and political culture was the city, for, as Europeans believed, ‘the good life’ was only attainable for those who lived in cities, as man was “an animal meant for life in ‘the polis.’”
Going back to Pagden, he argues that European attitude was based on four things. First of all, imperialism, inherited from the Romans. One belief was that the success of human society depended upon conflict between the ruling class and the underclass. Order could only be achieved through one single huge monolithic structure that ruled over the common people. Secondly, as aforementioned, the idea that men were bound by a single common law, and could only achieve this by organising themselves into ‘polis’, or cities. Third, was Christianity, a religion that actually began in the Near East, which was later adopted by Greek and Roman pagans. As this religion spread across Europe, it gave Europeans from rival states a sense of religious unity. The last was the introduction of Latin as the lingua franca of the ruling class. As Christianity was adopted by the crumbling Roman Empire, copies of the Bible were translated into Latin, which then became the principal language the Bible was read in. This was important as it added to the idea that men could be united under a common tongue.
Christianity in particular would hold a significant influence in not only the conquest, but the immediate times afterwards. It should be noted that the religious mission of securing converts was of secondary concern to the conquistadors. It was the clerics and the ruling class back in Spain who wished the Amerindians to become part of the Catholic Church. There was, however, some debate about whether or not Amerindians even possessed souls, and being incapable of receiving ‘true religion’. One of the leading voices against the brutal treatment of Amerindians was Las Casas, who wrote A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Whilst it is agreed that Las Casas tended to over exaggerate, as it was also understood back then, his work proved to be very influential, and was largely responsible for Charles V’s decision to try to stop slavery of the Amerindian peoples. The religion of the conquistadors was more an element of their cultural identity than a divine call to arms. Elliott writes:
“The life of Cortes therefore spans an extraordinarily rich and varied period of Spanish history – a period in which a reorganized and re-articulated medieval society, increasingly exposed to external intellectual influences, turns outwards to acquire an overseas empire, and find itself endowed with a unique imperial and religious mission.”
Conquest-era Spain was a place of conflicting ideals, namely between Roman Catholicism, Erasmian humanism, Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In fact, in the time it took Cortes to arrive back in Spain, there was a new monarch, and a new outlook. In earlier, times, Europeans tended to view distant lands as exotic, but inherently dangerous places filled with all sorts of mythical creatures and monsters, yet there was a noted shift in thought towards the beginning of the conquest-era:
“Nothing makes clearer the consecutive, planned, deliberately scientific nature of these early modern explorations and settlements than the contrast with the sporadic, unplanned, and often mythical nature of earlier oceanic navigations… Yet even if hundreds of Europeans reached the New World before Columbus, they did not establish a permanent link between link between the two worlds; they were not explorers supported by a state or a group of merchants expecting a full report, and they were, above all, not urged on by purposes either social or scientific.”
As we can see, the Spanish explorers, who would later become conquerors, of the ‘New World’ were fuelled by a varied, and rather eclectic bag of ideas, and it was these ideas that drove them in their quest to colonise the ‘New World’:
“The strength by which Europeans overcame the world was a compound of technological and economic power plus political and social organization, which permitted superior military enterprise.”
Spanish Tactics and Strategy
Now we have seen what drove the Spanish in their desires for colonisation, it is now time to turn to their tactics and strategies, including their technology. What gave them the edge in battle over what, on paper, was a powerful enemy that vastly outnumbered them? The popular belief that technology enabled the Spanish to decimate the Amerindians is tempting, but, whilst true to at least some extent, misses the bigger picture. Spanish tactics certainly did encompass new technology unknown to the Amerindian peoples, such as cavalry, cannons and guns, but also involved was Spanish infantry formations. Furthermore, the conquest of the ‘New World’ took place at a time before formal organisation of troops were set in stone, allowing for an increased adaptive flexibility, which gave the Spanish the edge in battle with the Aztecs:
“The variability of unit and unit size was adaptive in the sense that a commander could adjust the organization of his command to the needs of the moment. This flexibility served the Spanish well in the Conquest.”
In battle, for the Spanish, the use of close formations with support from cavalry is what enabled them to do so much damage to a force vastly larger than their own. The Aztecs had never come across cavalry before and, combined with the Aztec use of open formations in an attempt to overwhelm and surround their enemies enabled the Spanish to repeatedly break through Aztec lines. Furthermore, the sea-faring ability of the Spanish gave them a massive superiority in terms of mobility. The Amerindians were capable of traversing rivers but not oceans and deep waters, and were thus at a serious disadvantage. Seeing as nearby islands were controlled by Spanish forces, this awarded the Spanish an enormous strategic advantage.
Yet, Spanish victory in the face of vastly superior numbers cannot be attributed to technology and tactics alone. Douglas Daniel notes:
“In addition, many pertinent issues, such as logistics, the effects of disease on the Aztecs, and political control and strategy, must be included in an explanation.”
The main two factors alongside technology and tactical variability were disease and the Spanish ability to unite the Aztecs (and later Incans) enemies against them. European diseases were completely unknown in America at that time, and often struck Amerindian populations before the Spanish made contact due to winds and climate. By the time Cortes and his men had reached Tenochtitlan for the first time, disease was rapidly spreading:
“By now, successive epidemics of smallpox and typhus – diseases unknown in Mexico prior to the arrival of the Europeans – were raging. Neither the Europeans nor the Indians appreciated that disease could be caused by contagious viruses. In fact successive epidemics would take away first 25, 50, and eventually 75 per cent of the population of an entire city-state within a year.”
Furthermore, Cortes and his men participated in a very successful campaign against the Aztecs’ allies with help from enemies of the Aztecs, most notably the Tlaxcalans and Totonacs:
“During the progress to Tenochtitlan the Spaniards made many friends. At their first stop on the coast, at Cempoala, they won the alliance of the Totonacs by defying the messengers sent by Montezuma. In August 1519 they were at Tlaxcala, a Nahua city that was traditionally hostile to Tenochtitlan and where the leaders resisted the Spaniards by force until they realized that the newcomers were by no means friends of the hated Montezuma.”
After their initial seizure of the Aztec capital and their subsequent retreat, the Spanish and their Amerindian allies successfully either incorporated the Aztecs’ allies into their ranks or eliminated them until Tenochtitlan stood alone, surrounded on all sides.
Slavery and Economy in the ‘New World’
Finally, we shall look at how Spain was able to maintain its presence in central and southern America. Even after conquest, there was the business of settling and colonisation. Initially, large numbers of Amerindians were put to work, most as slaves, yet the work proved too brutal for them to handle, especially considering European diseases were still rampant among the Amerindian peoples. However, due to dwindling Amerindian populations, and a growing concern for the rights and salvation of the Amerindian peoples expressed by priests such as Las Casas, the Spanish began importing African slaves to perform the hard manual labour that the Amerindians were simply incapable of doing:
“African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade eventually made a significant contribution to the Spanish imperial formula. The introduction of African slaves to the New World had two aspects from the standpoint of the metropolitan authorities. First – and always a lively concern – the sale of licences to introduce Africans raised money for the royal treasury. Secondly, it helped the colonizing power to supply the urban centres and new enterprises with a labour force at a time when the indigenous population had been decimated.”
The Spanish only settled and colonised small areas of the central and southern American landmasses. They would clear an area, set up a settlement and then move on, very rapidly, but they were careful to never spread themselves too thin. In the settlements themselves, a system known as the encomienda, was put into place. This was a labour system that granted Spanish colonisers a specific number of native Amerindians. The Spanish were then able to exact tributes from the Amerindians granted to them under the encomienda and in return was expected to instruct them in the Spanish language and Catholic faith, as well as protect them from hostile native forces, and so on. So, whilst slave labour of Amerindians came to be largely, if not entirely, replaced by slave labour of imported Africans, the Spanish were still able to extract tribute from the native Amerindians, thus making even more profit.
As we have seen, the successful colonisation of the ‘new world’ by the Spanish can be attributed to a variety of factors. There was a unique blend of ideas prior to and during the conquest era that combined to form a rather unique mindset. Long standing ideals such as Imperialism, European-superiority, and uniting mankind under a common law. Christian ideals of the universal salvation of mankind and bringing everybody into the one true holy Roman Catholic Church. Lastly, there were the secular and humanist ideals of progress and sometimes just plain lust for riches. Once in the ‘new world’, the Spanish, with a combination of good tactics, better technology, clever political alliances and carefully executed strategies won the day for the invading forces. The rapid colonisation of areas under the encomienda system, coupled with the importation of slaves from Africa enabled Spanish economy to float and sustain itself in the ‘new world’.
 Anthony Pagden, Europe and the World Around, from Euan Cameron, Early Modern Europe, Oxford (2002), p4
 Anthony Pagden, Europe and the World Around, from Euan Cameron, Early Modern Europe, Oxford (2002), p5
 J.H. Elliott, The Mental World of Hernan Cortes, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 17 (1967), pp. 41-58 (p43)
 R.W. Winks and L.P. Wandel, Europe in a Wider World 1350-1650, Oxford (2003), pp. 101-104
 R.W. Winks and L.P. Wandel, Europe in a Wider World 1350-1650, Oxford (2003), p101
 Douglas A. Daniel, Tactical Factors in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 187-194 (pp. 188-189)
 Douglas A. Daniel, Tactical Factors in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 187-194 (p193)
 John M.D. Pohl, Aztecs: A New Perspective, History Today, Vol. 52, No. 12, (Dec., 2002), pp. 10-17 (p14)
 Henry Kaman, Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power, 1492-1763, Penguin Books (2002), p100
 Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: from Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800, Verso (1997), p132
Urs Bitterli, Cultures in Conflict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492-1800, Stanford (1989)
Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: from Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800, Verso (1997)
Inga Clendinnen, “’Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty’: Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico’, Representations, Winter (1991), 33, pp. 65-100
Douglas A. Daniel, Tactical Factors in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. 187-194
J.H. Elliott, The Mental World of Hernan Cortes, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 17 (1967), pp. 41-58
Henry Kaman, Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power, 1492-1763, Penguin Books (2002)
Anthony Pagden, Europe and the World Around, from Euan Cameron, ed., Early Modern Europe, Oxford (1999)
Andrew Pettegree, Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Oxford (2002)
John M.D. Pohl, Aztecs: A New Perspective, History Today, Vol. 52, No. 12, (Dec., 2002), pp. 10-17
R.W. Winks and L.P. Wandel, Europe in a Wider World 1350-1650, Oxford (2003)