Millennium Special
The conquest
There were great empires before the Europeans arrived

LED by four horsemen in full armour, the small column of Spanish infantry, arquebusiers and crossbowmen, with their leader, Hernan Cortes, and further horsemen in the rear, marched along the narrow causeway across the shallows of Lake Texcoco. They were heading for the walled towers of the entrance to Tenochtitlan, the mighty capital of the Mexica; as we now call them, the Aztecs.

There Cortes and his 250 men met their target: Moctezuma, the Aztec ruler, bedecked with a splendid feather head-dress, richly-decorated mantle and gold-soled sandals encrusted with jewels. A generation after Colombus had landed in Hispaniola, the Spaniards in 1519 had penetrated to the heart of the most populous and wealthiest civilisation in the Americas.

For three months, as the Spaniards came inland, Moctezuma had been paralysed by indecision: how should he handle them? He was constrained by custom, religion and superstition. In Aztec Mexico, ambassadors (as Cortes falsely claimed to be) were entitled to hospitality; war was ritualised, and normally began only after elaborate diplomacy.

The conquistadors played by different rules. After being lodged in one of Tenochtitlan’s whitewashed palaces, they imprisoned their host, and killed hundreds of unarmed nobles. Led by Cuauhtemoc, Moctezuma’s nephew, the Aztecs rallied. Though reinforced, the Spaniards were besieged, then routed as they fled. They were soon back, and laid siege in turn. By August 1521, they were masters of a ruined city, its population cut to a third of its pre-war 200,000.

A decade later, an even smaller Spanish force similarly struck the second great American empire of this millennium, that of the Incas. Francisco Pizarro too followed a code different from that of his opponents. He invited Atahualpa, the Inca ruler, to the Spanish camp in Cajamarca, in today’s northern Peru, and then ordered an attack against the mostly unarmed Inca escorts. The Incas stripped temples of their gold wall-plates and ornaments to pay the ransom for Atahualpa’s release. The Spaniards melted down 11 tonnes of gold objects, and then, after a hasty “trial”, killed him.

Here too they faced resistance for almost a year. Indeed, the fierce topography of the Andes allowed the rump Inca mini-state of Vilcabamba to survive until 1572. But by the 1540s, Spain had conquered the main population centres of Central America and western South America. The Portuguese would penetrate Brazil far more slowly.

The Spaniards won because they had better tactics—Aztecs in battle tried to capture, not kill, their opponents—and technology. Horses, mastiffs and guns terrified Aztecs and Incas armed with slings, stonetipped clubs and spears (though Inca archers did better). The Spaniards had two other crucial advantages. One was the diseases they had brought: the Aztec forces in the battle for Tenochtitlan were ravaged by smallpox. The second arose from the internal weaknesses of the two native-American empires.

These looked strong. Both were relatively recent. Tenochtitlan, founded in 1325, had achieved first place among the city states of Mexico’s central valley a century later, before swiftly extending its sway to both coasts and south to Guatemala. The Incas, starting near Lake Titicaca, had moved to Cuzco, and then embarked on imperial expansion only a century or so before Pizarro’s arrival.

Both empires drew on previous cultures. From the Mayas and Toltecs, the Aztecs had inherited hieroglyphic writing, calendars and some mathematics, and religious beliefs. Andean society had developed fine textiles, and other crafts. The Incas added meticulous organisation, in road-building, management of food stocks and accounting alike. Neither society knew the wheel, but both included skilled herdsmen and farmers. The Aztecs cultivated chinampas, “floating” islands of mud and reeds. The Incas used canals to irrigate their coastal deserts, and terraced their Andean mountainsides.

Yet both empires had a weak point: their resentful subject peoples. The Aztecs extracted tribute from these, and worse: over time, mass human sacrifice came to occupy a central place in Aztec religion, an instrument of control in what had become a reign of terror. The Incas were less given to human sacrifice, but exacted labour service. Cortes found ready allies: the Totonacs of Mexico’s gulf coast and others supplied him with several thousand troops and bearers, as well as food. And Pizarro found the Inca empire riven by civil war after the death (probably from smallpox) of Atahualpa’s father.

Greed, faith and killing
Why were the Spaniards there? In part, for profit and precious metals. (“I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold,” Cortes told envoys of Moctezuma.) But they were also driven by the militant Catholicism forged in the centuries-long campaign to drive Islam from Spain. In 1493 a Spanish pope had granted Castile exclusive right of conquest in the Americas, west of the Portuguese possessions, and with it the obligation to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.

The conquistadors did both, appallingly. To cow their subjects, Cortes and others, sometimes abetted by priests, on occasion massacred civilians, or burned them alive. The indigenes died from war, disease, overwork and hunger caused by the disruption of their traditional farming. Estimates of Mexico’s population on the eve of the conquest range from 12m to 25m; by 1568, it was under 3m. Peru had 9m people in 1532, under 1.5m in 1570. Only later did the figures grow again, as rape, concubinage and intermarriage created a mixed-race population.

The Spaniards often left local rulers in place, while extracting tribute and labour service from the shrunken native peoples. They found their own freedom of action limited by royal officials and judges, and at times by conscience-stricken churchmen such as Bartolome de las Casas, a landholder turned Dominican friar. The first law to protect the “Indians” was brought in in 1542.

The conquistadors were mainly hidalgos—minor or aspirant gentry—and artisans from Spain’s rougher edges. They saw no glory in the family farming on which Britain’s north American colonies would be built; nor did the land or climate favour it. Spanish America became a place of large landholdings, their owners living in its Spanish-style grid-patterned towns. Periodic mining booms stimulated further immigration. The surviving Amerindians continued to practise communal, near-subsistence farming and hung on to what of their culture they could. They took to Christian ritual without abandoning their own gods. Slowly a Spanish American society emerged.