Spain in the 15th century
1492 was a landmark year that set the process of Spanish nation building in motion. The Reconquista ended - this long series of wars to drive out the Moors had lasted for over seven hundred years and concluded with the Moors’ surrender in Granada. Spain had been a multicultural society during the Middle Ages but in March 1492 laws were passed requiring Jews and Muslims to convert to Christianity (and become conversos) if they wished to stay in Spain. This meant that Spanish identity was now linked to being Christian - Jews and Muslims who didn’t convert were forced to leave the country. 1492 was also the year Christopher Columbus set out on his famous voyage. New worlds were being discovered, presenting new opportunities for Spain, which had growing a sense of patriotism.
The Renaissance brought new ideas into Spain from Italy, mainly through texts from classical times that were being rediscovered. These texts placed importance on the use of logic in thought and argument. The use of the printing press, and the Spanish publication of the first Grammar of the Castilian Language, meant more people could find out about these ideas and ways of thinking.
Motives for expeditions and conquests
The Spanish Monarchs sanctioned and directed the colonisation of Mesoamerica. They were motivated by opportunities to build their wealth following the economic crisis of 1502-8, the effects of emigration stimulated by sheep grazing, and the availability of spices and gold. The Spanish Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella were Catholic, and the church had an evangelical purpose to convert others to Christianity. Influenced by the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, The School of Salamanca had initiated debate about the rights of Indigenous populations in other lands and the correct way to behave towards them. In response this, the Laws of Burgos were passed in 1512 indicating how the Spaniards were to behave in the Americas. These laws stated that Indians were to be converted to Christianity and to be treated fairly, working for wages rather than as slaves. A written Requerimiento was to be read aloud to them, requiring or demanding that they accept Spanish rule and Christianity (or bear the consequences).
Gains for explorers
Expeditions aimed at conquering new territory were funded privately by people who wanted to make money and build a reputation for themselves. Most conquistadors who went to Mesoamerica were hidalgos - members of the lower levels of nobility - low in funds and looking for ways to move up in society. Many conquistadors were Andalusian, hardened through experience in battles against the Moors. Some may have been motivated by the romantic lure of adventure sold to them in novels and ballads, others by the new patriotism. Some religious individuals had made sincere pledges to bring Christianity to new lands, in other instances the pledge was also used to justify exploiting other lands and their people.
In many ways Hernán Cortés was a typical conquistador. A hidalgo from the town of Medellin, he had spent a few years in Salamanca as a teenager where he learned some Latin, and about law. However, he was determined to have a life of action – either in the wars in Italy or in the Indies, where he headed in 1506. He then joined the conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, in his conquest of Cuba. The story of Cortés shows the mix of motives typically behind Spanish colonialism. Cortés was very interested in treasure and commercial interests yet also concerned about the morality of the conquest.
Velázquez had a mixed reputation. He had found gold, made money and been sued for breach of promise. He had been arrested but escaped and became the Chief Magistrate of Santiago. Velázquez was calm and moderate yet argumentative, a regular at church yet known for his associations with various women. He wanted to make his mark and attract the attention of the King of Castille.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Volume 2, Translated by Alfred Percival Maudslay, London, The Hakluyt Society, 1910
Jamieson, G., A Short History of Spain and Portugal, Stanford University
Prescott, W. H., History of the Conquest of Mexico, General Books, 2012, reproduction of original 1843 text
Thomas, H., Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and The Fall of Old Mexico, Simon & Schuster, 2005
Wood, S. G., Transcending Conquest: Nahua Views of Spanish Colonial Mexico, University of Oklahoma Press, USA, 2003