Conquest or Encounter? Term Paper Example

            When Spain began the process of settling in the New World it was one of the most powerful nations on the continent of Europe. Spain began its exploration of the New World many years prior to other European nations and had established a strong foothold here before England, France, Portugal, or The Netherlands even began their attempts.

Spain’s efforts, however, at exploring the New World and establishing settlements were thwarted considerably by the presence of powerful empires that were already present. In areas that now comprise Central and South America the Spanish encountered the forces of the Incan, and Nahuan empires. Over the course of time the Spanish managed to conquer and subdue the these once powerful entities and subjugate these cultures.

The factors that led to the Spanish success were numerous. First, there was the fact that the arrival of the Spanish soldiers marked the introduction of several new diseases. The Native Indians that the Spanish found in areas that they were exploring had never been exposed to most of the diseases that had been present on the European continent for years. These diseases such as measles and small pox spread like wildfire throughout the Indian cultures and resulted in near epidemic conditions to develop[1]. So drastic were the effects of the diseases brought by the Spanish that entire villages were depopulated. The Indians certainly had no cure for such diseases and the Spanish had no vested interest in providing medical assistance to those afflicted.

The second factor, and the most significant one, was the technological advantage enjoyed by the Spanish. The Spanish possessed weaponry that was far superior to anything that the Native Indians had. The Spanish swords, knives, and armor were all made of heavily casted metal while the Incans and Nahuans had to rely upon wooden bows, arrows and spikes. The Spanish also had cannon and muskets that made long range fighting possible. This was something that the Native Americans had never encountered. The Spanish could cause considerable damage to the Indian forces without ever themselves being placed in a position of danger. Another item in the Spanish arsenal that worked to their advantage was the availability of horses. Oddly, until the Spanish arrived in the New World, the Native Indians of the Incan and Nahuan empires had never witnessed such animals. The horses not only provided the Spanish with a transportation advantage but a psychological one as well. Because the Indians had never seen horses they were fearful of them and the presence of horses at battle sites often created panic among the Indians and caused them to flee in fear[2]. These technological advantages were so significant that they allowed the Spanish to conquer the Indians with a manpower that was much more limited than that available to the Indians. Even though the empires of the Incans and Nahuans were well established and populous, they were unable to overcome the technological advantages enjoyed by the Spanish. The Indian empires fought valiantly for a number of years but, in the end, they had no answer for the power of the Spaniards.

A third factor, and one that is often overlooked, is the fact that at the time of the Spaniards arrival in South America the Incan people were engaged in a bitter civil war[3]. The civil war divided the Incan people and caused them to be less well organized then they would have ordinarily been. The civil war was actually precipitated by the death of their emperor (from small pox) and made the Incans vulnerable to attack by the heavily outnumbered Spanish. There is a school of thought that argues that but for the Incan civil war Spain may never have been successful in conquering the Incan empire. The Incan empire has been compared by some historians as being on a level with the Roman Empire in terms of sophistication and even without possessing the technological advantages enjoyed by the Spanish could have withstood the onslaught of the Spanish. Unfortunately, this is pure speculation and the Incan empire, like the Nahuans before them, was absorbed by their Spanish conquerors.

The most unfortunate result of the fall of the Nahuan and Incan empires is the loss of the cultures that grew out of such empires. At the time of the Spanish invasion both empires were highly developed nations with heavily developed cultures. Although the Incan and Nahuan empires themselves were relatively new the cultures of the people living in said empires had existed for centuries and were both complex and unique[4]. Although the accounts of the invading Spaniards were initially critical of the cultures, in time the Spanish began to develop a respect for the cultures and were actually quite impressed by what they found. The fact that both cultures were based on a peaceful existence probably contributed to their becoming easy foil for the Spaniards. Neither empire had extensive experience if prolonged warfare and certainly not of the style demonstrated by the invading Spanish.

The Spanish viewed their conquest of the Americas in general and the Native Indians specifically much differently than the Indians did. The Spanish were primarily interested in the gold and other treasures that the Incans and Nahuans had in their possession but the Spanish also argued that they were concerned about converting the pagan Native Americans to Christianity[5]. Much more so than any of the other European nations that would eventually become involved in exploring and settling the New World the Spanish took an active role in spreading the Christian religion, that is, Catholicism through all the areas that they entered. Missionaries were always a part of the invading Spanish forces and they quickly and diligently established missions[6]. The source of much of the information that is available regarding the Spanish conquest of the Incas and Nahua nations is from the writings of the Spanish missionaries that accompanied the forces that invaded Central and South America and the work of Bernal Diaz[7]. These writings provide insight into the point of view of the Spaniards as they entered and conquered the Native populations. Such writings are slanted toward the Spanish point of view but are still valuable to the extent that they are first-hand accounts[8].

The loss of the Nahuan and Incan cultures are most unfortunate for several reasons and their loss makes it nearly impossible to gain any credible insight into how the Incans and Nahuans viewed the fact that their culture was being destroyed by the Spanish. As sophisticated as both cultures were neither had developed a written language that was discernible by European standards[9]. Both had a writing style that was based largely on imagery and when their cultures were destroyed by the Spaniards so was the ability to cipher the imagery. The result is that little has been transferred down through the years relating the Spanish conquest from the point of the view of the Incas and Nahuans. Undoubtedly their point of view would differ significantly from that of the Spaniards but most of what is known about the process has been passed down from the Spanish. It is often said that history is written by the victors and, in the case of the Incans and Nahuans, this is certainly true.




John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2000).

Stuart Schwartz, Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico  (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000).

[1] Stuart Schwartz, Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2000), 13

[2] Schwartz, 62.

[3] Chasteen, J. C, Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2000), 52

[4] Chasteen, 32.

[5] Chasteen, 52.

[6] Schwartz, 214.

[7] Schwartz, 16.

[8] Chasteen, 59.

[9] Schwartz, 20.