As news that the Spanish conquest spread, wealth-hungry Spaniards poured into the new World seek land and also gold and titles. A new World realm spread native Spain’s Caribbean foothold. Motives were plain: said one soldier, “we came right here to serve God and the king, and also to obtain rich.” Mercenaries join the conquest and raced to record the human and material wide range of the brand-new World.

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The Spanish managed labor connections through a legit system known as the encomienda, an exploitive feudal plan in i beg your pardon Spain tied Indian labor to large estates. In the encomienda, the Spanish crown granted a human not just land yet a specified variety of natives together well. Encomenderos brutalized your laborers v punishing labor. After ~ Bartolome de las Casas published his incendiary account the Spanish abuses (The devastation of the Indies), Spanish authorities abolished the encomienda in 1542 and also replaced it through the repartimiento. Intended together a milder system, the repartimiento however replicated numerous of the abuses of the enlarge system and the rapacious exploitation that the native population continued together Spain spread its realm over the Americas.

El Castillo (pyramidd of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá, photograph by Daniel Schwen, via Wikimedia Commons

As Spain’s new World realm expanded, Spanish conquerors met the massive empires of main and southern America, people that dwarfed anything discovered in north America. In central America the Maya built massive temples, sustained big populations, and constructed a complicated and long-lasting people with a composed language, advanced mathematics, and stunningly accurate calendars. However Maya civilization, return it had not disappeared, however collapsed prior to European arrival, likely as result of droughts and unsustainable farming practices. But the eclipse of the Maya just heralded the later on rise the the most powerful native civilization ever checked out in the western Hemisphere: the Aztecs.

Militaristic migrants from northern Mexico, the Aztecs relocated south right into the valley of Mexico, overcame their method to dominance, and also built the largest realm in the brand-new World. When the Spaniards come in Mexico they uncovered a sprawling human being centered about Tenochtitlan, one awe-inspiring city developed on a collection of natural and also man-made islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco, located today within modern Mexico City. Tenochtitlan, established in 1325, rivaled the world’s largest cities in size and grandeur. Much of the city was constructed on large artificial archipelago called chinampas which the Aztecs created by dredging mud and also rich sediment indigenous the bottom the the lake and also depositing it in time to kind new landscapes. A huge pyramid temple, the Templo Mayor, was situated at the city center (its ruins deserve to still be found in the facility of Mexico City). When the Spaniards come they could scarcely think what lock saw: 70,000 buildings, housing perhaps 200,000-250,000 people, all built on a lake and connected by causeways and canals. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, among Cortez’s soldiers, later recalled, “When we experienced so plenty of cities and also villages constructed in the water and also other great towns on dry land, us were amazed and also said the it was prefer the enchantments … few of our soldiers even asked whether the points that we witnessed were no a dream? … I perform not know just how to define it, seeing things as us did that had never been heard that or seen before, not also dreamed about.”

From their island city the Aztecs dominated an enormous swath of central and southerly Mesoamerica. They rule their empire not with a decentralized network that subject peoples that paid continual tribute–including everything from the most simple items, such as corn, beans, and also other foodstuffs, to luxury goods such together jade, cacao, and gold–and listed troops for the empire. However unrest festered beneath the Aztec’s royal power and also European conquerors lusted after ~ its substantial wealth.


This sixteenth-century map of Tenochtitlan shows the aesthetic beauty, beauty and progressed infrastructure that this good Aztec city. Map, c. 1524, Wikimedia.

Hernan Cortes, one ambitious, thirty-four year old Spaniard who had won riches in the conquest of Cuba, organized an invasion of Mexico in 1519. Sailing with 600 men, horses, and cannon, he arrived at the shore of Mexico. Relying top top a aboriginal translator, who he called Doña Marina, and also whom mexico folklore denounces as La Malinche, Cortes gathered information and allies in ready for conquest. V intrigue, brutality, and the exploitation the endemic politics divisions, the enlisted the assist of thousands of indigenous allies, defeated Spanish rivals, and also marched top top Tenochtitlan.

Aztec prominence rested upon delicate foundations and also many of the ar semi-independent city-states yearned to rest from Aztec ascendancy while surrounding kingdoms, consisting of Tarascans to the north, and the continues to be of Maya city-states on the Yucatán peninsula, chafed at Aztec power.

Through persuasion, and maybe because some Aztecs believed Cortes to be the god Quetzalcoatl, the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán peacefully. Cortes then recorded the emperor Montezuma and also used him come gain regulate of the Aztecs’ gold and silver reserves and its network the mines. Eventually, the Aztecs revolted. Montezuma was branded a traitor and uprising ignited the city. Montezuma to be killed along with a third of Cortes’s males in la noche triste, the “night the sorrows.” The Spanish fought through thousands of native insurgents and across canals to flee the city, whereby they regrouped, enlisted an ext native allies, caught Spanish reinforcements, and, in 1521, besieged the island city. The Spaniard’s eighty-five work siege reduced off food and also fresh water. Smallpox ravaged the city. One Spanish observer said it “spread over the world as good destruction. Some it extended on all parts—their faces, their heads, your breasts, and also so on. There was great havoc. Very many passed away of it … They can not move; they can not stir.” Cortes, the Spaniards, and also their indigenous allies then sacked the city. 15,000 died. The holy places were unmade. After two years that conflict, a million-person strong empire was toppled by disease, dissension, and a thousand European conquerors.

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, “Storming of the Teocalli through Cortez and also His Troops,” 1848. Wikimedia.

Further south, along the Andes hills in southern America, the Quechuas, or Incas, regulated a vast mountain empire. Native their capital of Cuzco in the Andean highlands, through conquest and also negotiation, the Inca built realm that stretched roughly the western fifty percent of the south American continent from present day Ecuador to central Chile and Argentina. They developed steppes come farm fertile mountain soil and by the 1400s they controlled a thousand mile of Andean roads that bound together possibly twelve million people. But like the Aztecs, unrest in between the Incas and conquered groups created tensions and left the empire vulnerable come foreigners. Smallpox spread in development of Spanish conquerors and also hit the Incan empire in 1525. Epidemics ravaged the population, cutting the empire’s populace in half, death the Incan emperor Huayna Capac and also many members that his family and sparking a bloody battle of succession. Motivated by Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, Francisco Pizzaro relocated South and also arrived amid an empire torn by chaos. With 168 men, the deceived Incan rulers and also took control of the empire and also seized the funding city, Cuzco, in 1533. Disease, conquest, and also slavery ravaged the remnants that the Incan empire.

After the conquests of Mexico and Peru, Spain resolved into empire. A vast administrative hierarchy governed its new holdings: imperial appointees managed an enormous territory of landed estates and Indian laborers and also administrators regulated the exploit of gold and also silver and also oversaw their transport across the Atlantic in Spanish galleons. Meanwhile Spanish migrants poured right into the brand-new World. 225,000 migrated during the 16 century alone, and 750,000 came throughout the whole three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Spaniards, regularly single, young, and male, emigrated for the miscellaneous promises that land, wealth, and also social advancement. Laborers, craftsmen, soldiers, clerks, and priests all crossed the Atlantic in huge numbers. Indians, however, always outnumbered the Spanish and also the Spaniards, by both necessity and design, integrated native Americans–unequally–into colonial life.

An intricate racial hierarchy marked Spanish life in the brand-new World. Regularized in the mid-1600s however rooted in middle ages practices, the Sistema de Castas organized individuals into various racial groups based top top their an alleged “purity that blood.” assorted classifications—often elaborately arrived at—became virtually prerequisites for social and political development in Spanish early american society. Peninsulares—Iberian-born Spaniards, or Españoles–occupied the highest levels of management and acquired the biggest estates. Their descendants, brand-new World-born Spaniards, or criollos, inhabited the next rung and rivaled the peninsulares because that wealth and opportunity. Mestizos–a term used to explain those of combined Spanish and Indian heritage–followed.

Like the French later in north America, the Spanish tolerated and sometimes even supported interracial marriage. Over there were merely too few Spanish females in the new World to support the natural growth of a purely Spanish population. The Catholic Church endorsed interracial marital relationship as a ethical bulwark against bastardy and rape. As early as 1533, King Carlos I declared that any type of child v Spanish blood “to the half” to be entitled to details Spanish rights. Through 1600, mestizos consisted of a huge portion that the early american population. By the beforehand 1700s, more than one-third of every marriages connected the Spanish-Indian divide. Greatly separated by wealth and also influence indigenous the peninsulares and criollos, however, mestizos commonly occupied a middling social position in Spanish brand-new World society. They were not quite Indios, or Indians, yet their lack of limpieza de sangre, or “pure blood,” gotten rid of them native the privileges of full-blooded Spaniards. Spanish fathers of adequate wealth and also influence could shield your mestizo youngsters from gyeongju prejudice, and also a number of wealthy mestizos married Españoles to “whiten” their family lines, but much more often mestizos were confined come a middle-station in the Spanish brand-new World.

Slaves and Indians lived in the lowest rungs of the social ladder. ~ Bartolome de las Casas and other reversal shamed the Spanish for their harsh Indian plans in the 1530s, the Spanish outlawed Indian slavery. In the 1550s, the encomienda system the land-based forced-labor gave method to the repartimiento, one exploitative however slightly softer form of compelled wage-labor. Servants labored particularly on Spain’s Caribbean plantation islands.

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Many manipulated the Casta mechanism to gain advantages for themselves and their children. Mestizo mothers, because that instance, could insist that their mestizo daughters were actually castizas, or quarter-Indians, who, if they married a Spaniard, could, in the eye of the law, create “pure” criollo children licensed has been granted to the complete rights and opportunities of Spanish citizens. Yet “passing” to be an alternative for the few. Instead, the massive native populaces within Spain’s new World realm ensured a level of social and gyeongju mixture–or Mestizaje–unparalleled in British phibìc America. Spanish phibìc America wrought a hybrid society that to be neither totally Spanish nor totally Indian. The Spanish no only built Mexico City atop Tenochtitlán, however food, language, and families spilled across racial barriers. In 1531, a bad Indian named Juan Diego reported the he was saw by the Virgin Mary, who came together a dark-skinned Nahuatl-speaking Indian. Reports that miracles spread across Mexico and also the Virgen de Guadalupe became a national symbol for a brand-new mestizo society.