The Capture of Atahualpa. Juan B. Lepiani,  (1864-1932)(Public Domain)

God’s Devils: The Men Who Conquered South America


From the moment Christopher Columbus found land previously unknown to Europe in 1492, thousands of men came to the New World seeking their fortunes and for two centuries they explored and conquered native peoples. In the name of the King of Spain, and with an unquenchable thirst for gold, they came to be known as the  conquistadors. But who were these men and by what means did they achieve such power and wealth?

Suspected Christopher Colombus map. Lisbon, workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Colombus (c.1490)  (Gallica Digital Library/Public Domain)

Suspected Christopher Colombus map. Lisbon, workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Colombus (c.1490)  ( Gallica Digital Library /Public Domain )

In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed Central America at the Isthmus of Panama reaching the Pacific Ocean, and for the first time Europeans became aware of the powerful economic potential of what became known as the ‘New World.’ Spain first concentrated its colonization on the islands of the Caribbean and had little contact with the indigenous civilizations on the mainland, but before long the gold-hungry adventurers, clad in steel plates, penetrated the Americas for the benefit and glory of the Spanish crown and launched a brutal regimen of social transformation, beginning with Hernán Cortés and the Aztec Empire. 

Conquistadors Discover the Pacific by Anton Refregier. (Public Domain)

Conquistadors Discover the Pacific by Anton Refregier. ( Public Domain )

Hernan Cortéz: Slaughtering Aztecs

Born in 1485 in the Spanish city of Medellín, Cortés was an intelligent child with a keen spirit of adventure, which had greatly been inspired by tales of the recent voyages and adventures of Christopher Columbus. In 1504, Cortés left Spain for the island of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) where in 1511 he joined an expedition to conquer Cuba. According to Matthew Restall’s 2003 book, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, in 1514, Cortés married a young Spanish woman named Catalina Suárez, a relative of Governor Diego Velázquez, who promoted the newly wed Cortés to become his personal secretary.

Hernán Cortés by José Salomé Pina (circa 1879) Museo del Prado. (Public Domain)

Hernán Corte ́s by José Salomé Pina (circa 1879) Museo del Prado. ( Public Domain )

According to a 2018 National Geographic article, Cortés worked at organizing the islands’ indigenous peoples and arbitrated colonial squabbles among the Spaniards who fought bitterly to increase their estates. In 1518 Velázquez appointed Cortés to lead an expedition to Mexico. Early in February 1519 Cortés arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula with 11 ships, 600 soldiers and sailors and 16 horses, but his exploratory mission would quickly change into a blood thirsty military conquest for power, land and gold.


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Ashley Cowie  is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history .

Top Image: The Capture of Atahualpa. Juan B. Lepiani,  (1864-1932)( Public Domain )

By Ashley Cowie

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