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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context of the Conquest of the Americas

Isabella I of Castile by Luis de Madrazo, mid-19th Century (Wikimedia Commons)Isabella I of Castile by Luis de Madrazo, mid-19th Century (Wikimedia Commons) The texts in this collection are by Spanish and native-American authors who lived through the period of Spain's 16th century imperial expansion.    In a sense, Spain's conquest of the Americas was a continuation of the bellicosity of "the Reconquista," the centuries-long effort of Christian monarchs on the Iberian Peninsula to reclaim territories conquered by Muslim armies in the 8th Century.  By 1492, Isabella of Castile and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragón, successfully defeated the Nasrid Dynasty, effectively ending 800 years of continuous Arab rule in Europe.   In the process, they unified several Iberian territories into a single Spanish kingdom.  In October 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed, at Isabella and Ferdinand's personal behest, for what would later be known as "the New World." And a year later, Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull granting the Spanish crown sovereignty over all lands inhabited by non-Christians across the Atlantic.  As a result, by 1519, Charles I – grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand and heir as well to the Habsburg Dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire – ruled over vast territories in central, western and southern Europe as well as a host of new colonies in the Caribbean, the Americas and Asia.  

Spanish rulers during the early years of empire frequently consulted theologians and jurists on matters of foreign policy.  Historian Anthony Pagden observes that the Habsburg court had appointed itself as the guardian of universal Christendom, as "defenders of the faith." Thus, it was very important that the crown should act – or be seen to act – according to Christian principles established by papally sanctioned experts.  As soon as Spanish explorers “discovered” America and found it inhabited by non-Christian peoples, questions arose about the permissibility of using military force to control the new lands and speed conversion of indigenous populations.  In the ensuing debates among such figures as Bartolomé de las Casas, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Francisco de Vitoria, the very legitimacy of Spain's conquest of the Americas was at stake.

Whether permissible or not, force was indeed the principle by which Spain forged the first great empire of the Early modern era.  In 1503, the Spanish established the encomienda (from the Spanish encomendar, "to entrust"), a system intended to organize the Indian population to meet the needs of the new colonial economy.  To pay rising military expenses, the Spanish crown granted individual conquistadorsa piece of land and rule over the Indians on it. The latter henceforth acted as serfs and paid an encomendero, a tribute in gold, in kind or in labor, in exchange for protection and evangelization.  

Many Spanish missionaries sent to the New World, including Bartolomé de las Casas, were horrified by and denounced the brutal exploitation of Indians by encomenderos, as well as the latter’s lack of commitment to evangelization. In fact, the indigenous population of Hispaniola, the island where Columbus first landed, fell from 250,000 to 15,000 in a mere two decades due to war, disease and forced labor.  It was the news of this genocide that shocked conscientious theologians such as Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria and led them to question the legality of Spain's activities in the Americas.  Nonetheless, as Brian Tierney states: “In the end, all the writings on behalf of the Indians did little or nothing to ameliorate their plight.  The battles that were sometimes won in the debating halls of Salamanca and Madrid were nearly always lost among the hard realities of life in Mexico and Peru.”

Bernardino de Sahagún, the main researcher and compiler behind the chronicle of the conquest of Mexico found in Book 12 of the Florentine Codex, was a privileged observer of those realities.  Born in 1499, he travelled to the Americas as a missionary in the first decades of the 1500’s and spent most of his life in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which comprised huge swaths of today’s western United States and northern Mexico.  Sahagún became fluent in Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the former Aztec Empire and the language of preference of its elite, and with the help of natives composed the most detailed and famous of a precious few histories of the conquest written from the perspective of the indigenous population.

Don Felipe Guamán PomaA self portrait of indigenous author Guamán Poma surrounded by representatives of the peoples of Peru. (Wikimedia Commons)A self portrait of indigenous author Guamán Poma surrounded by representatives of the peoples of Peru. (Wikimedia Commons)  de Ayala was himself a member of that population.  A native Andean of noble, indigenous ancestry, Guamán Poma was fluent in Quechua, Aru and Spanish. The date of his birth is uncertain, but he is known to have lived at the turn of the 17th Century in the Viceroyalty of Peru, in a city then known as Huamanga (today’s Ayacucho). Disquieted by Spanish officials' abuses of the indigenous population, Guamán Poma embraced a suggestively syncretic form of Christianity and wrote, in Spanish, a 1,200-page chronicle of the Conquest of Peru.  Nueva corónica y buen gobierno, as it was titled, addressed the Emperor Philip III directly, with the purpose of informing him about the natural and cultural riches of his Peruvian province and disclosing to him the atrocities suffered by the natives. Although the Nueva corónica might have in fact have made it to the King’s hands, or at least to his royal library, its criticism of Spanish abuses never had the effect its author hoped for.  However, the manuscript – rediscovered by the German librarian and scholar Richard Pietschmann in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen in 1908 – has become one of our most precious sources for the point of view of native Americans living under Spanish rule during the colonial period. 


Written by Simón Calle, Department of Music, Columbia University. Revised by Humberto Ballesteros, Department of Italian, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Anthony Pagden, “Dispossessing the Barbarism: The Language of Spanish Thomism and the Debate over the Property Rights of the Americas” in David Armitage (ed) Theories of Empire, 1450-1800: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800, Vol. 20.  Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate/Variorum, 1998, 159-178

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625.  Grand Rapids, Mi:  William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997

Margaret Kohn  "Colonialism," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

James Lockhart,We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico. California: University of California Press, 1993

Victoria Ríos Castaño, Translation as Conquest: Sahagún and Universal History of the Things of New Spain. Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2014